Swann's Way

by: Marcel Proust

Study Questions

1

What role does music play in the novel? Does music influence Swann's love for Odette? What is the relationship between music, time, and memory?

Proust was passionate about music's ability to convey meaning and emotion beyond the power of words. When Swann first hears Vinteuil's sonata, it stays with him and comes to express the defining aspects of his character, and the peaks and valleys of the violin crescendos make him feel successively depressed and enthralled. The music becomes the theme for his love affair with Odette, ensuring that whenever he hears the music, he will think of her. Even as Odette's love fades, the sonata makes Swann's love persist, becoming a sort of anesthetic that dulls the pain of Odette's lies and infidelities. Hearing the sonata carries Swann back to the moments when Odette really loved him, and elevates his spirits by allowing his memory to recreate the pureness of their love from these moments. Thus, the sonata conjures up for Swann an Odette pleasing to him, making him unable to stay angry with her whenever he hears its strains.

2

Discuss Proust's references to paintings and painters. Are they more important thematically or stylistically? Give a few examples of painters described in the novel and how they affect the narrative.

Proust wanted his writing style to be a form of painting. He was an expert art critic and chose specific painters and styles to influence and form his prose. Marcel's fascination, for example, with the architecture and natural landscape in and around Combray recalls the works of impressionist painter Claude Monet, as do the references to water lilies and flowered fields. Proust also adopts Monet's fascination with the variations of sunlight on church facades. While describing the Combray church steeple, Marcel first feels the inspiration to write down what he sees when he notices the changing shape and texture of the roof tiles in the changing sunlight. This passage evokes a series of Monet paintings of the Rheims cathedral at different times of day. Swann also shares Proust's admiration for Botticelli, especially his paintings that have prominent blond women whom Odette faintly resembles. Swann compares Odette to Jethro's daughter in Botticelli's Zipporrah, even using a detail from a miniature reproduction of the painting as a picture of Odette. Later, when Swann suspects that Odette is lying to him, he compares her expression to the face of a figure in one of Botticelli's frescoes. This enables him to remember another time when she made the same face--an instance in which he knew she was telling a lie.

3

How does Marcel's world of books and poetry differ from the "real" world? Is he disappointed by the "real" world?

Marcel enjoys being "invisible" to the rest of the outside world as he hides with his books under a chestnut tree. He finds that books bring him closer to "Truth and Beauty," especially in the overwhelming power of their presence in literature as compared to their scarcity in the "real" world." Marcel finds fictional characters infinitely more sympathetic and understandable than "real" people. Proust argues that since readers shape, in part, the characters that they read about, they can learn much more about themselves from reading than from observing the people around them, whom they cannot shape. Marcel is often disappointed with the real world's failure to live up to his expectations. After reading about the Guermentes family and studying old portraits and tapestries of them, he is extremely disappointed by the Duchess of Guermentes' unattractive physical appearance. Additionally, he imagines Gilberte as having blue eyes, in order to make her more beautiful in his mind.