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Swann's Way

Marcel Proust

Section 2

Swann's Way, Section 1

Section 3

Summary

Swann continues to associate Vinteuil's mysterious sonata with his love for Odette. Despite Odette's "vile" inability to play the sonata correctly, Swann feels the music lifting his spirits and making his love for her appear stronger than anything else in the world. When Odette's love for Swann seems to have diminished, the sonata becomes a sort of "anesthetic" that makes Swann feel better. This last quality becomes essential to their love's duration, as Swann becomes more and more jealous and suspicious of Odette as time goes on; indeed, she asks him not to mention her name to anyone in society for fear that it might revive scandalous rumors about her past. Swann nevertheless continues to accede to Odette's every demand, not realizing that, in his attempts to accommodate her, he also makes her think less of him.

Swann's love for Odette grows so strong that he soon alters his own tastes, opinions, and habits to imitate hers. Devoid of any experiential grounding, these aspects of personality that Swann adopts serve only to remind him of Odette. Further, he soon grows to adore the Verdurins by extension, since their fondness for Odette mirrors his own love for her, and because they allow them to meet at their house every night. Unfortunately for Swann, the Verdurins do not return his affections. They think of him as a "locked door" who secretly scorns their tastes and dinner guests. They also grow upset at rumors that Swann is a favorite guest at aristocratic salons. Compared to their latest "newcomer," the Comte de Forcheville, Swann appears to them a poor match for their beloved Odette. Forcheville not only embarrasses Swann one night at dinner by referring to Swann's aristocratic friends, but also begins to seduce Odette, who leaves reluctantly with Swann. The Verdurins begin to call Swann, their most devoted guest, "stupid."

Swann's expert tact and refined manners keep him from confronting Odette about her supposed liaison with Forcheville. Whenever Swann starts to lose his temper with Odette, he responds by buying her jewelry or loaning her large sums of money, hoping that these gifts, as a last resort, might make him attractive to her. Moreover, he worries that if he stops being so generous to her, she might suspect that his love for her was declining. The slightest public avowal of love from Odette always calms the storm of jealousy brewing in Swann's mind, but one night she sends him away because she doesn't feel well. Suspecting that someone else is coming to spend the night with her, he goes back to her house later, even though Odette has often warned him how much she despises jealous lovers who spy. At first Swann thinks that the light is on and that she has deceived him, but he then realizes that he has the wrong address.

Commentary

Their "honeymoon" has hardly begun before Odette begins seeing other men and Swann practically loses his mind out of jealousy. Proust intended Swann's Way to be just as philosophical as it was fictional, and thus emphasizes and explains the reasons for Swann's behavior by means of the "current philosophy of the day." Swann's philosophy of life is that intelligence is directly proportional to skepticism. He cannot help but doubt anything that Odette says, especially as her lies become more transparent. One day, for example, when Swann decides to surprise her with a rare afternoon visit, she pretends to be asleep and later laments not getting up in time to prevent his departure. Swann's first instinct is to believe her and take pleasure in her sympathy. He even begins to idealize her sweet facial expression by comparing it to that of a figure in a Botticelli painting. He suddenly realizes, though, that he has seen Odette show this face before, when she would lie to Madame Verdurin about not feeling well and being unable to come to dinner, in order to be alone with Swann.

Even though his overpowering skepticism catches her in a number of lies, Swann consistently refuses to confront Odette for fear that she will get angry at him. Sadly, when Swann's jealousy is at its strongest, his skepticism prevents him from catching glimmers of Odette's genuine affection for him. As the narrator explains: "we pass closely by those that hide a truth for which our suspicions are blindly searching, whereas we stop to examine others beneath which nothing lies concealed." This holds comically true for Swann, who is so certain that Odette is cheating on him one night that he ends up knocking on the wrong window and disturbing two men he has never met. His jealousy becomes the dark "shadow of his love," obscuring the occasional moments in which Odette displays love for him.

Swann's love for Odette becomes even blinder as he continues to ignore rumors about Odette's past and present infidelities, including her current flirtation with Forcheville and the obvious fact that she no longer loves Swann. But her power to make him extraordinarily happy is so strong that he goes out of his way to please her at every turn. Paradoxically, this encourages Swann to avoid seeing Odette in person; instead, he sends her gifts and money, believing his generosity will make her think kindly of him. As a result, Odette's affection for Swann ends up having nothing to do with his character or how much money he has, but rather with her own self-interest. While the basis for Swann's attraction to Odette has swung from vain self-interest to desperate love, Odette's attraction to Swann has traveled the reverse course. Odette is no longer lovestruck, and it is only self-interest that will prevent her from breaking up with Swann. She continues their relationship not because of who Swann is as a person, but because of "advantages extraneous to his person."

Proust was himself a charming socialite, just as popular with the aristocracy as Swann. His own snobbery comes through in this section with his bitter satire of the bourgeois Verdurins and their ridiculous behavior. They appreciate nothing of the "finer things," attend "pointless" vaudeville shows, and even cut out the middle part of Vinteuil's sonata. Swann must stoop to their level and tragically pays the price as the Verdurins recognize his superior taste, intelligence, and social milieu. Their rejection of Swann not only suggests the impossibility of class mobility during the belle époque, an impossibility brought about by both the snobbishness of those above and the vulgarity of those below, but also foreshadows the impossibility of the love between Swann and Odette.

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