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Swann's Way

Marcel Proust

Section 2

Combray, Section 1

Swann's Way, Section 1

Summary

This last part of the "Combray" section focuses on many of the local characters that not only influence Marcel as a child, but who will figure quite prominently in both his and Swann's adult love affairs. One of these, Vinteuil, is a local musician who has a reputation for prudishness and extreme moral rectitude. From the moment Vinteuil is introduced, Marcel spies on him. One day, as his parents pay a visit to Vinteuil's house, Marcel watches through the window as Vinteuil places a sheet of music he has written on his piano so that someone will ask him to play. Vinteuil's one and only passion, however, is his daughter. Despite the fact that the narrator assesses Mlle. Vinteuil as having a "boyish appearance," Vinteuil takes every opportunity to pamper her. The narrator introduces another character, Legrandin, as the quintessential example of French middle class snobbery. Marcel's family takes great offense when Legrandin refuses to introduce them to his sister.

As the narrator reflects on the stunning natural beauty of Combray, he begins to describe the charming walks he would take either alone or with his family, either along Guermentes Way or Swann's Way. The latter is the shorter and more common route for the family; it is also Marcel's favorite because of the gorgeous pink hawthorn blossoms that line its path during the spring and summer. The fragrance of these hawthorn blossoms overwhelms the impressionable young Marcel, who begins to worship the hawthorn trees as if they were religious icons. One day, mistakenly thinking that Odette and her daughter, Gilberte, are away, his family cuts across Swann's property and accidentally runs into them and Charlus. Marcel thinks that Gilberte looks at him with disgust and instantly falls in love with her. He is so impressed with her beautifully piercing black eyes that he mistakenly imagines her eyes to be blue from then on. The two groups part ways, but not before Marcel's grandfather scolds Odette in front of her daughter for cheating on Swann.

When Vinteuil pities Swann, later that week, for making such a "deplorable marriage," the narrator accuses Vinteuil of hypocrisy, since a woman of bad repute has moved into his house and become his daughter's lover. Vinteuil grows old within the space of a few months and eventually dies of a broken heart. Shortly after Vinteuil's death, Marcel ends up spying on Mlle. Vinteuil and her lover just outside an open window. He is shocked to see them kiss and then mock the recently-deceased Vinteuil. They close the window just as one of them proposes that they spit on his photograph. The narrator concludes that Mlle. Vinteuil had become a sadist, and saw pleasure itself as something inherently diabolical and evil.

The young Marcel endures a second disappointment following his brief encounter with Gilberte. The Duchess of Guermentes comes to the Combray church for a wedding, but Marcel, who was expecting her to be as beautiful as her ancestors depicted on the church tapestries, is surprised to find that her looks are only ordinary, and ends up disillusioned with her physical appearance. Confronted with the real Duchess of Guermentes in front of the images of her ancestors in stained glass windows and tapestries, Marcel compares her to a "betrayed actress," with her true identity suddenly revealed on stage. Just as with Gilberte, he imagines that the Duchess has blue eyes in order to remember her as more beautiful than she actually is.

Commentary

Though Vinteuil is only a minor character in this section, one of his sonatas turns out to be the "theme" to the love affair between Swann and Odette. Swann does not realize, however, that Vinteuil is the sonata's actual composer; he assumes instead that the composer is a relative with the same name. Vinteuil's tragic death prefigures Swann's own ill-fated love affair with Odette, and Vinteuil's sonata will forever make Swann think of her.

Homosexuality is a major theme throughout Remembrance of Things Past. Although Proust never attributes his own homosexuality to the narrator, a number of peripheral characters have homosexual encounters, and always with the young Marcel spying on them. The narrator never condemns homosexuality but instead associates it with voyeurism. In this sense, a third party is always required for an encounter to be complete. When Marcel spies, for instance, on Vinteuil's daughter and her friend, he is not an innocent bystander. He plays the role of an intermediary, interpreting the real meaning behind each woman's actions, and thus "participating" in their affair. A similar situation occurs later when Marcel watches Charlus meet with another man; Charlus' homosexuality is the reason Swann asks him to watch over Odette, a fact of which Marcel's family is unaware.

Marcel's own sexuality manifests itself when he meets Gilberte, and has to endure the first pangs of unrequited love and the irrational roots of passion. What he falls in love with, however, is an imagined and idealized image whose beauty the real Gilberte will never be able to equal. Marcel wants her to have blue eyes and thus mistakenly imagines that she does. Moreover, his falling in love with her without their having actually met demonstrates Proust's pessimism concerning matters of the heart. Not only does Marcel revel in loving someone who responds to him with disgust, but he will also, inevitably, be disappointed by Gilberte's failure to live up to his idealization of her. Indeed, his dissatisfaction with the Duchess of Guermentes' physical appearance foreshadows his future inability to see women as they really are; in this respect, he is like Swann.

Proust also uses this section to associate the young Marcel's love of nature with his goal of becoming a writer. The overwhelming beauty of the hawthorn blossoms drives him to express the effect they have on him with words and he begins to write. Throughout the novel, Marcel worries about his ability to write; he hopes one day to become a famous author, but finds himself unable to suitably express the beauty of the hawthorns. Nevertheless, when a "celestial garden" of "sparkling water-lilies" evokes Claude Monet's impressionist painting style for Marcel, he is suddenly able to describe the natural world around him in terms of its variations in changing sunlight. When the narrator reproduces a short paragraph that he had written during this period, it includes a reference to the "gilding light of the setting sun... playing and smiling." This phrase perfectly illustrates Impressionism's gentle, yet meaningful, influence on Proust's style.

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