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Swann's Way

Marcel Proust

Section 4

Section 3

Analysis

Summary

Hopelessly in love with Odette, Swann encourages his best friend Charlus to visit her and sing Swann's praises whenever possible. One day he asks Charlus to trick Odette into inviting Swann over but the ruse fails. He even asks Marcel's uncle Adolphe to ask Odette about him but later finds out that Adolphe tried to seduce her. Left to his own imagination, Swann can not help but forget Odette's shortcomings and cast the rest in "molten gold," seeing her as the perfect image of tranquility and kindness. Nevertheless, it becomes common for him to hear of Odette walking through Paris with another man, these words dropping into his heart like a stone and tearing at him from the inside out. Swann soon begins to worry that he has become neurotic.

Despite Odette's harsh treatment of him, Swann does not realize how much he has suffered, since Odette's change of heart had been a gradual, day by day phenomenon. Only by comparing her to the Odette he had first known would Swann feel the deep wound of his love. But even then he would soothe it with the vague assertion that "there was a time when Odette loved me more." For Swann soon grows to love his pain to such an extent that Vinteuil's sonata begins to speak to his vain sense of suffering. Whenever he hears the sonata's violin crescendo, Swann enjoys the sweet solace of utter self-pity. Some days, however, he grows so frustrated that he wishes Odette would die, but then becomes ashamed of himself for holding her life so cheap.

One day he gets an anonymous letter telling him that Odette has been the mistress of countless men, including Forcheville and a number of the other guests of the Verdurins. He concludes that Charlus sent the letter out of sympathy for Swann's suffering, but then tricks himself into believing that it could have been any of a number of people who held a grudge against Odette. Swann finally musters up the courage to confront Odette about her various lies and infidelities. He learns that her mother "sold" her to a wealthy Englishman in Nice, that she has had relations with other women, and that she had been Forcheville's lover. Swann's love for Odette expires when she reveals that the first night they made love, she had actually been with Forcheville earlier in the evening.

Swann feels as though he has been struck by an axe. Whenever Swann thinks himself cured of Odette, he hears of her love for him and changes his mind about her. One day one of the Verdurins' old guests tells Swann how often Odette spoke of him and how much she still adores him. The infrequency of such remarks, to which Swann formerly gave so much weight, coupled with the fact that he hardly ever sees Odette anymore, makes Swann's love fade for good. When he no longer suffers the pangs of unrequited love, Swann declares, as if waking from a dream: "To think that I've wasted years of my life, that I've longed to die, that I've experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn't appeal to me, who wasn't even my type."

Commentary

Swann gradually awakens from his nightmarish love affair with Odette, but not before he must endure a number of humiliations. Held back from confronting Odette out of politeness, Swann still cannot resist the temptation of asking his friends to speak well of him in front of Odette. He inevitably turns to Charlus for help, primarily motivated by the fact that Charlus' homosexuality will keep him from touching Odette. Their friendship (as well as Charlus' subtle but unstated romantic affection for Swann) circles the narrative back to Charlus' earlier appearance in the "Combray" section. Marcel's family, unaware that Charlus is actually Swann's watchdog for Odette, is appalled by what they assume to be an open affair between Odette and Charlus.

Proust uses another moment embarrassing to Swann in order to highlight a distinctive cultural practice of the belle époque: dueling. After Swann asks Marcel's uncle Adolphe for advice about Odette, he is enraged to learn that Adolphe attempted to force himself on Odette in Swann's absence. His first instinct is to challenge Adolphe to a duel. Duels were common during this period in French history; following the army's humiliating defeat to Prussia in 1871, French men desperately tried to reassert their masculinity in any way they could. Dueling was thus a very popular social practice used to restore or uphold one's honor in a militaristic fashion, with the general goal of renewing the French Army's reputation. It is important to note that Odette dissuades Swann from challenging Adolphe to a duel, demonstrating the extent to which she has stripped Swann of his masculinity; having long ago ceased to hold any sexual power over Odette, Swann now loses, in foregoing an attempt to save face, any semblance of having social power over her. Swann becomes so used to public humiliation at the hands of Odette that he even considers asking Forcheville, Odette's other lover, for help and advice.

The anonymous letter finally pushes Swann away from Odette. After confronting her and learning the bitter truth of her sexual adventures and appetites, he finds solace in the society and company of the aristocrats that he has ignored since first meeting Odette. They keep him from thinking about her and gradually remind him of the culture and refined tastes that he neglected while wasting his time with Odette and the Verdurins. It is only after reintegrating himself into the sophisticated life he had previously led that Swann discovers, to his horror, how far he had led himself astray in loving Odette. Thinking back on Odette's admission that she had slept with Forcheville just before their first night together, Swann begins to notice that her cheeks are too thin, her complexion too pallid, and her eyes "tired." As the reader has known all along, Swann figures out that his memory has been consistently erasing her defects in order to hide his first impressions of her. Now that they have resurfaced in his vision of her, he feels nothing toward her except utter amazement and despair at having had the most consuming love of his life for a woman who wasn't his "type."

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