The narrator, who will eventually become known as Marcel, opens the novel by revealing, "For a long time I used to go to bed early." He relates how difficult it was for him to fall asleep as a young boy. The narrator himself then seems to fall asleep, imagining that he is the subject of the book he was just reading, then opening his eyes to discover that he really had fallen asleep and has just woken himself up into darkness. Marcel is not so afraid of the dark as he is of losing his sense of time. He marvels at sleep's ability to rob people of their individuality, making them forget who they are when they wake and forcing them to piece together the different components of their lives. Despite these "confused gusts of memory," the recurring nature of this confusion allows Marcel to get used to the dark surroundings and recall exactly where he fell asleep. The night, nevertheless, continues to set his memory in motion, and the narrator begins to recall the old days at Combray, Paris, Balbec, and Venice.
Marcel recounts that whenever he visited his grandparents's house in the Northern French village of Combray, his bedroom, in which his insomnia would keep him up all night long, would make him melancholic. In order to make him feel better, the young Marcel is given a "magic lantern" which projects pictures from children's stories onto his bedroom walls. This device, however, only makes Marcel unable to recognize his room underneath the shifting colors, and he soon begins to fear bedtime more than before. His only solace is the goodnight kiss his mother gives him each night, even though he knows that his father disapproves of this ritual and that his mother secretly hopes that he will grow out of it. But Marcel comes to depend on these short but sweet kisses as though they were a life-saving medicine.
The only nights his mother does not come to kiss him goodnight are those on which his family is entertaining guests, which invariably include Charles Swann. Swann's father and Marcel's grandfather had been very close, and Charles continues to visit and send gifts to Marcel's family, even though they do not approve of his marriage. No one knows that Charles has become an elite member of Parisian society and is often seen with aristocrats and even royalty. As a result, Marcel's family continues to treat him with a comic indifference and slight rudeness that they consider appropriate toward a man of the middle-class. However, everyone, except Marcel, looks forward to his visits and stories; Marcel knows that Swann's presence means that his mother will not kiss him goodnight.
One night, when Marcel's father does not let Marcel even peck his mother on the cheek as he leaves for bed, Marcel decides to revolt. He has the maid, Françoise, take his mother, who is still entertaining Swann, a note begging her to come see him. At first "Mamma" refuses, but once Swann has gone and she sees how miserable Marcel is, she decides to spend the night in his room. He is shocked when his father urges her to stay in Marcel's room. Even though Marcel feels victorious at first, he soon realizes that "winning" his mother's presence required his parents' acknowledgment that Marcel suffers from a nervous ailment. His guilt makes him cry even more, and his mother must read a book out loud to calm his nerves.
The story returns to Marcel the narrator. Breaking with his usual habit one afternoon, Marcel drinks tea with a petite madeleine, or small sponge cake, which instantly soothes his daily troubles and eventually reminds him of a similar combination of cake and tea he used to enjoy at Combray. Marveling at the random connections between present and past and at the involuntary nature of memory, he sets out to describe his reminiscences of Combray.
This opening section, appropriately titled "Overture," sets the thematic and stylistic tone not only for the rest of Swann's Way, but also for the other novels in Proust's series, translated from French as Remembrance of Things Past. [It is interesting to note that Proust himself was translating from a Shakespearean sonnet: "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past "(Sonnet XXX, 1-2).] Proust loved music, and by calling this opening section "Overture," he implies a clear association between his prose and the notes of a composer. Much like a symphony's overture, the opening section of Swann's Way establishes the various themes of the forthcoming composition before the individual movements begin.
One of these major themes is the relationship between time and memory, which served, perhaps, as Proust's primary motivation for writing Remembrance of Things Past. Proust believed that time was not necessarily a linear, clock-like, measure of fixed and unchangeable moments. Instead, he believed that time, or duration, as he liked to call it, involved a "flowing together" of different moments and experiences so that one individual point in time was indistinguishable from any other. An excellent illustration of this hypothesis is the famous madeleine scene, in which an older Marcel is suddenly pulled back in time to Combray from the simple association of the taste of cake dipped in tea. At first, Marcel tries to force his memory to travel back in time to the moment when he last had a madeleine; he succeeds, however, in evoking the memory of Combray only when he lets his guard down and thinks of the taste of the cake itself. This involuntary and seemingly random power of the memory to carry a person back in time forms the stylistic and thematic foundation of Swann's Way.
Two more important themes emerge in this section, the first of which is Marcel's complex emotional attitude toward his mother. Marcel's mother occupies an important place in the novel; Marcel looks to her for guidance, sympathy, and love, but when he receives these comforts, he feels guilty about not being more independent. Marcel experiences this guilt by envisioning the effects that his need for his mother has on her. He imagines, for example, that begging his mother to spend the night with him "traced a first wrinkle upon her soul and brought out a first white hair on her head." As a result, their relationship is tainted by Marcel's belief that he is always causing her some sort of grief. The Oedipal triangle between Marcel, his mother, and his father serves as a model for various relationships throughout Swann's Way.
The second important theme in this section is the interaction between habit or routine and memory. The "magic lantern" and the images it projects on young Marcel's bedroom walls at Combray make him unable to recognize his room; as a result, he feels lost in time, and must struggle to remember where and when he is. In this instance, breaking with habit (changing the habitual appearance of his room) causes Marcel anguish, but in the episode of the madeleine, breaking with his usual routine by having tea causes his pleasurable reminiscences of Combray to resurface.
It is important to remember that a substantial amount of the plot material in Swann's Way is autobiographical. The narrator's memories, as well as his hopes and fears, are often what Proust himself wished to recall from his own youth. Nevertheless, Proust firmly believed that the life of an author had almost nothing to do with his written work. His aim in writing Swann's Way was thus, paradoxically, to base the story on his own experiences while dissociating his own identity as much as possible from that of the character Marcel.