I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

Analysis Of The “Combray” Section Of Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way”

Swann’s Way’s “Combray”, a section by Marcel Proust, is a meditation on recollections of an idyllic time. The book’s opening is not a recollection of Combray. It begins with the narrator describing his half-asleep condition, in which he has no idea where he or who he even is. In other words, his expanded memories seem to be an effort to establish a steady sense of himself, a feeling that continues elude him. This exploration is the entire “Combray’ section. The narrator struggles to capture the contradictions of the characters from his childhood.

When the narrator is addressing the issues faced by an artist, he remarks that “the genius of the novelist” was in realizing that a simplification in characters that corresponds with the “suppression of’real’ persons” makes novels stronger. They are more effective at conjuring up a sympathetic reaction from a sensitive audience. He says that “a’real person'” can only be perceived by the senses. We may sympathize deeply with him but he will remain opaque. If he encounters some unfortunate event, our feelings are limited to a tiny part of what we think of him. (83)

The narrator of Proust’s novel suggests that a novel is a result of an illusion, or a sleight-of-hand, to elicit sympathy. By substituting “immaterial…things…which the spirit can assimilate to itself” for the “opaque sections” of “real” human existence, the trick of sympathy is enacted; we now can substantiate and corroborate the veils which the novelist has created for us, and feel corresponding emotion for the illusory “feelings,” in the “guise of truth,” of literary creations (83). The art of the novelist is to reduce “the dead weight” of reality and present us with abstracts that are responsive. The whole of an entity is unassimilable and contradictory (hence “opaque”) so the reader has to be shown the parts that are effective.

This theory of the book extends to our own experience and how we read it, as well as the way we feel about the people we encounter. As we cannot “see” what someone else feels, we are only able to observe it. This is why our empathy for others is limited to our observations. In fact, it may even reduce sympathy when more information is provided, creating opacity. This can be seen in Francoise’s emotional response to tragedies far away, but her indifference towards local tragedy (122). We are able to assume the interior life is what we think it is. This can lead to a lack of sympathy for local misfortunes.

Combray is a world where people are reduced to their social surroundings, and the class distinctions are observed with a keen eye. The narrator says, “Even the smallest details in our everyday life are not enough to make us a whole…our social personalities are created by other people’s thoughts.” “We fill the physical outline of the creature that we see with the ideas that we already have about him and these ideas take the lead in the picture we create in our mind of him” (17). This includes the “ideas that we have formed” about the individual in question, such as their social position, their background, or their profession. These are assumptions, which can be uncorroborated and may not even be relevant (as was the case with Swann), but which still remain. These preconceived notions of status, which are omnipresent in a small community like Combray and hard to change, are blatant, obvious, and inescapable. It may be helpful to analyze the Aunt Leonie of the narrator to understand the way these perceptions are formed. It is true that, from her position of surveyor in Combray she can be called a guarantor of stability for the social order.

The narrator Leonie’s great-aunt is also his grandfather’s relative (48). Although she is of the generation that his parents are, she appears to be older. Maybe she’s older because, as a wife, she was addressed in formal correspondence after the death of her husband. Octave. Although she is bedridden now, it was not the case when the narrator visited her in Paris with her mom. After her husband died, she was forced to become an invalid. She refused to leave Combray at first, then moved into her Combray home, her bedroom, until finally her bed. “She never left her bed, but instead remained permanently in an unending state of grief and physical exhaustion. She had obsessions with illness and observed religious practices.” She has been confined to a small number of rooms. In her bedroom she sits on her bed and watches the world from a distance. The episodes in her life are not based on the torpid state of her body but rather the small-town life. Her mental existence is entirely dependent on watching others. This speculation is different: she does not look into the windows, but out at the street (to contrast with her “voyeurism”, which she practices constantly) and instead looks through her sitting room window. The window of Mlle. Leonie is only able to speculate about Combray society from their actions in the street. It is possible that the people she observes are unaware of her presence, but it cannot be said that Mme knows their private lives. Octave.

Leonie is constantly preoccupied with her own body and mind. She has a constant vigilance towards the world. She gradually isolated herself from the outside world and confined her circle of friends to those who shared her paradoxical perspective on her health. Eulalie was the company she kept when we met her. She is a retired nurse whose only friends are the sick and her church. The Cure also ensures that her soul’s health. She is confined to bed by both her illness and her perception of it. She is so ill she can’t sleep but she insists that this is true. This is her way of reiterating her illness. The malady of the woman is not a long-term illness with relapses and phases, but a constant state of near death, without expecting to die. She replied jokingly and yet truthfully, “I would not like to live beyond a century” when Eulalie told her she could live another 100 years. This was not out of any gloomy foreboding, but simply because she wanted to leave no limit on the number of days she lived. In reality, her constant monitoring of the disease is equivalent to keeping it fixed in an unchanging state. The narrator noted later that “the changes in the heart are only visible through readings or imagination…in reality, it is so gradual we don’t feel any change” (84).

Leonie may have created some of her symptoms out of sheer vanity. Her “symptoms”, such as her insomnia, are fabricated, but her family members indulge her out of kindness. Her speech is one of her many eccentricities.

She spoke in low voices because she felt that something was broken and floating in her brain, which could be displaced by her talking loudly. (49)

Her tendency is to explain her eccentric behavior with physiological symptoms (such as the “tiredness,” a symptom of illness, which explains her refusal not to leave her bed). The narrator must also interpret the behavior, since all the explanations given are, at best, dubious.

Her constant talking destroys whatever semblance she may have had of a personal life. She is a virtual recluse who reveals all, despite living in seclusion. Leonie is the same person who writes about the incidents that happen in her town. She also reports on those that occur within her body. Her nephew recollects that “in the life she lived of complete inertia she attached extraordinary importance to her least sensations and gave them an almost Protean ubiquity, making it difficult for them to be kept secret. Lacking a confidant with whom to communicate, she would promulgate these sensations to herself in a never-ending monologue, her sole activity” (51). This monologue, which is a remarkable example of how important decorum was in the polite society of the day, when subtlety was expected as currency for conversation, is also notable due to its importance. Leonie focuses on this level of propriety while she is seated in her high perch. She is trying to confirm that Mme. Sazerat arrived at church on time. While she lives a restricted life, she is still hypersensitive to everything. Every event gains such significance that they become remarkable. Her “unceasing monologue,” which is “her sole activity,” is as horribly analogous to an artist’s work as is her complete absorption in herself.

She destroys privacy in her conception of life. She lives a life that is partly based on external events, such as the (secretly observed but public) commerce in the town. Her monologue also reveals her eccentricities. She is the complete product of her surroundings, born from the soils of small-town existence, where “a stranger” or “anything unfamiliar was as incredible as any mythological being” (56). Think of Theodore as an example. He is the grocer in Camus. Octave doesn’t know a name, or a dog. The narrator quips humourously that it’s rare that Theodore has trouble identifying a face. She sends Francoise out on a sham errand.

In Leonie’s life, and that of her nephew, a satisfying resolution can only occur if it is revealed that the “stranger,” this sudden agent for change, is actually a familiar person. The conservative family of the protagonist is most likely to use this method when explaining disturbing facts. When evidence of Swann’s life in high society is revealed, his great aunt rationalizes it as an error or refuses even to consider that fact as anything other than a disgrace. In Leonie’s mind, anything unusual only adds to her anxiety. She becomes physically ill when facts remain unresolved. Eulalie must know the “most crucial” question. Is Mme. Sazerat was indeed late for church. Her worldview is not open to challenges. The essence “her little jog -trot” is to continue to try and ensure that all things are in their proper place.

The narrator uses anecdotes to describe his aunt, but there is one exception that stands out. He is unable to identify the unsettling aspect of his aunt’s speech after waking from a nightmarish dream. The sentence that ends the paragraph is “and, on tiptoe, I crept away from the room, without anyone, not even her, knowing for the rest of my life what I saw and heard.” (109). Leonie’s habit of speaking to herself is common. The narrator says that she “had formed the habit to think aloud…didn’t always take the time to ensure that no one was in the adjacent room” (50).

What is so unsettling about the overheard statement? And what does this tell us that Leonie’s meticulous list of habits did not? It’s not hard to see why she is so terrified. It’s because her nightmares involve being forced out for a stroll. This admission is almost a gratitude for her husband’s death. It is a guilty one. Her slow, hesitant, and halting movement to the rosary was to mutter some prayer in order to atone for her sins. However, she did not stutter. The nephew witnesses his aunt, “a woman who never sleeps even a wink”, confessing.

Proust’s society has a masked appearance, in which people are able to exist at different levels, or more precisely, different levels of being, regardless of their intentions. The act of voyeurism is to watch someone, while they think they are unobserved. This can be used to reveal a secret or inner life. The social and environmental conditions influence everyone, so it is only when you are alone that they can be truly honest.

Proust, however, confuses us with his confessions in solitude, which are just as fabricated and manipulated as those made in public. The only thing that makes his characters stand out is the fact that they are able to confess their guilt in solitude. They would never admit it in public. Their lives, even when they’re alone, are a form of public confession.


  • emmetthouse

    Emmett House is a 29 yo school teacher and blogger who is passionate about education. He has a vast amount of experience in the field and is always eager to share his insights with others. Emmett is a dedicated teacher who truly cares about his students' success. He is also an expert on using technology in the classroom, and is always looking for new ways to engage his students.

Back to top