The narrator of the novel, he is a representation of Marcel Proust, though noticeably different from the author in some ways. He suffers from nervous ailments and longs for the nightly comfort of his mother's kiss. He is fascinated by art and becomes an avid reader and lover of architecture, theater, painting and music. He loves to walk around Combray by himself and admire the stunning hawthorn blossoms that inspire him to become a writer. After losing himself in books and his imagination, he is easily disappointed by the "real" world, especially with women he loves. He even imagines the dark eyes of Gilberte and the Duchess of Guermentes to be blue so that they will be more beautiful to him. He learns quickly about the vices of the world by spying on people.
A friend of Marcel's family in Combray, he is also a celebrity in the Parisian social scene, counting among his friends the Prince of Wales and major players in the French aristocracy. A wealthy stockbroker, he becomes an expert art critic and dealer. Swann is also a womanizer who does not see women for who they really are, but instead compares them to paintings in order to make them more attractive. This tendency leads him to fall hopelessly in love with Odette even though she is not his "type." Swann's idealization of Odette keeps him from seeing her as she really is, to the point that his love for her becomes a tragic form of vanity and self-love.
The love of Swann's life and the cause of his most wretched suffering. She is an expert seductress and lures Swann into an affair and marriage that he will never escape. Though Odette is lacking in intelligence, class, and even beauty, Swann still falls in love with her after seeing a close resemblance between her face and that of the girl in the Boticelli painting "Jethro's Daughter." Odette leads a torrid life, taking lovers behind Swann's back, including other guests at the Verdurins, Forcheville, and even other women. Despite her inability to love Swann, she nevertheless thinks very highly of him.
M. de Charlus
One of Swann's closest friends and allies. He encourages Odette to think more highly of Swann and later becomes her "watchdog," making sure that she does not cheat on Swann. The narrator hints that Charlus helps Swann not only out friendliness, but also in the name of an undeclared love for him.
Marcel's mother. She is the focal point of all of Marcel's pain and happiness. Her nightly goodnight kiss brings him immense joy, but once it is over, he suffers terribly. She worries about his nervous disposition and one night sleeps in his room to make him feel better.
Marcel's father. He intimidates Marcel to keep him from expressing his nightly desire to kiss his "mamma" goodnight. One night, however, he realizes how sad Marcel is and lets her spend the night with him.
Marcel's grandparents, who live in Combray. They worry about his health and encourage him to read. They were great friends with Swann's father and remain close to Swann, although they greatly disapprove of his marriage to Odette.
Comte de Forcheville
Odette's other lover who insults and mocks Swann one night at the Verdurins. Swann finds out that Forcheville was at Odette's house one day when she pretended to be asleep; he later discovers that Odette had first been with Forcheville the night that Swann and Odette first slept together.
Swann and Odette's daughter. Marcel falls in love with her from the moment he sees her because she has been a taboo subject in his family. He hardly speaks with her and is convinced that her dark eyes are really blue.
One of Marcel's friends at Combray. He introduces Marcel to his favorite writer, Bergotte. He is Jewish, and his presence evokes some anti-Semitic comments from Marcel's grandfather.
The insufferably hypocritical and obnoxious bourgeois couple that first introduces Odette to Swann and then to Forcheville. They enlist a salon of "faithful" members who become their slaves and whom they force to attend various functions. Compared to Swann, the Verdurins have no class, intelligence, culture, or social distinction.
Marcel's uncle, who is a connoisseur of courtesans even into old age. He and Swann nearly duel over Odette. Because Marcel accidentally visits him one day while he is with a courtesan, Adolphe never returns to Combray.
Marcel's great aunt. She is convinced that she will die at any moment and tries to get as much sympathy as possible for her various "ailments." Nevertheless, Marcel has fond memories of her and her habit of dipping madeleines in tea. Marcel later dips madeleines himself, helping him recall his lost memories of Combray.
One of Aunt Léonie's few remaining friends. Eulalie visits Aunt Léonie each Sunday to gossip about the townspeople.
The composer of Swann and Odette's favorite sonata, which becomes the theme music of Swann's love. This sonata has the power to conjure up Swann's feelings for Odette even when he tries not to think of her. The sorrow and despair that Vinteuil expresses in this sonata about the lesbian love affair of his daughter, Mademoiselle Vinteuil, come to stand for Swann's sufferings as well.
The daughter of Vinteuil. She breaks her father's heart when she begins a sordid affair with another woman. She insults her father shortly after his death.
First Aunt Léonie's maid and then a servant for Marcel's own family, she becomes a dedicated and devoted friend to everyone. Marcel greatly admires her service, displaying his own class snobbery.
A stereotype of bourgeois snobbery. He refuses to introduce Marcel's family to his sister.
Duchess of Guermentes
The local aristocrat at Combray. Marcel imagines her to be the most beautiful woman on earth and is sorely disappointed with her physical appearance when they actually meet.