Marcel Proust had trouble deciding whether Swann's Way should be a fictional account or an explicit discussion about his philosophical interests. He settled the question by making the novel both. As a result, a number of themes, such as the nature of time and the power of memory, have both fictional and philosophical implications in the novel. Marcel's favorite writer, Bergotte, is a reference to Henri Bergson and his theories of time and space. Bergson believed that time was not necessarily a linear, clock-like, measure of fixed and unchangeable moments. Instead, he believed that time, or duration as he liked to call it, involved a "flowing together" of different moments and experiences so that one individual point in time was indistinguishable from any other.

An excellent illustration of this conception of time is the famous madeleine scene, in which an older Marcel is suddenly carried back to Combray by the simple remembrance of the taste of cake dipped in tea. Music, in its constant "flowing" together of notes, also represents a form of duration. Whenever Swann hears Vinteuil's sonata, he can think of nothing but the pleasant beginning of his love affair with Odette. In In Search of Lost Time, the larger work of which Swann's Way is the first volume, Proust emphasizes the ability to reconstruct the past through memory, warning, however, that escaping to the past will never completely sooth one's suffering in the present.

Another theme that Proust emphasizes is the link between reading and self-knowledge. He believed that with each reading of a book, a different meaning emerged, since readers tend to shape the characters they read about. Consequently, re-reading books enjoyed in childhood allows readers to perceive how they have changed. Marcel is an avid reader and books soon become more of a reality to him than the outside world. His interest in Oedipus Rex and François le Champi, two works that involve a quasi-sexual relationship between a mother and son, is a manifestation of his anxiety about his own relationship with his mother.

Beyond the desire to write about themes important to him such as memory and identity, Proust felt the need to write a novel that would prove his belief that an author's life had no bearing on the aesthetic and stylistic interpretation of his or her work. One of Proust's first publications, an extended essay entitled, Against Saint-Beuve, attacked the literary critic Saint-Beuve for arguing that any text could be studied in reference to the biography of its author. To emphasize his point even further, Proust took his own life as a model for the character Marcel, but incorporated many discrepancies between himself and Marcel. This "demonstration by the absurd" is a philosophical technique used to debunk theories by supposing they are true. Using his own life and family as a starting point for his work, Proust attempted to demonstrate the irrelevance of his biography to a better understanding of the character Marcel.

Proust considered painting a lens with which to observe and describe the outside world; as such, he wanted his writing 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 blonde 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.