Summary of In Search of Lost Time

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In Search of Lost Time book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Modernism

What It’s About

“Life is too short, and Proust is too long,” wrote Anatole France in 1913 after the publication of In Search of Lost Time’s first volume – at a time when the remaining six volumes weren’t even on the horizon. Nobody, not even the author himself, had the slightest idea what the agonizing, drawn-out search for the meaning and essence of art would spawn: a literary universe that tackled or anticipated nearly all the philosophical and psychological questions of his time. The novel deals with the subjective nature of experiencing reality; with the power of the unconscious; and with love, jealousy, sickness, war, homosexuality, pederasty, the transience of life, and death – or merely the creative potency of a childhood memory. Proust remains unmatched in the obsession and attention to detail with which he illuminated every single aspect of human existence. This makes for a lengthy voyage, and you are likely to run out of steam at times. But to dive deeply into Proust’s universe is well worth your effort – and certainly not time lost.

Take-Aways

  • In Search of Lost Time is a modern narrative experiment in seven volumes and one of the most influential novels of the 20th century.
  • Marcel Proust suffers from writer’s block and fritters away his life as a snob. He experiences anti-Semitism, homosexuality and pathological jealousy, getting tangled up in tragic love affairs. Only when unexpected sensory cues provoke distant memories does he start to write his life’s oeuvre.
  • In the novel, love and friendship are illusions. People remain strangers to one another and fail to make meaningful connections.
  • Everyone is trapped in their own world; objective thought is impossible.
  • Homosexuality is a central theme. In his novel, Proust processed his own painful existence as a closeted homosexual.
  • Fiction and autobiography merge together. The author modeled many characters after his real-life contemporaries.
  • Proust began by writing the opening and closing scenes of the cycle. The broad middle is the result of a manic creative process that went on until his death.
  • Published between 1913 and 1927, the work provoked outrage, incomprehension and admiration. 
  • The magnum opus makes up Proust’s life’s work: Otherwise, he published just a few essays and stories.
  • “An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connection between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them.”
 

Summary

Volume 1: Swann’s Way

Marcel Proust remembers his childhood in the family’s country home in Combray: the drama of bedtime when his mother failed to give him the habitual goodnight kiss, the colorful garden flowers, the water lilies on the rivulet Vivonne and the scent of the hawthorn hedges on his summer strolls. These impressions rise from his subconscious upon tasting a madeleine cake dipped in tea, filling him with a divine kind of bliss. The experience reminds him of childhood Sundays when, before High Mass, his aunt Léonie in Combray would offer him cake dipped in lime blossom tea.

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.”

It was during one of those summers that he also saw Gilberte Swann for the first time, the daughter of their family’s friend Charles Swann. Through the pink hawthorn hedge, she looked him cheekily in the face, and he immediately fell in love with her.

The love story of Gilberte’s parents takes place before Marcel’s time in Paris. Odette is a second-rate actress and courtesan, and the refined, esteemed art connoisseur Swann is initially hardly interested in her. Yet in the salon of the coarse upstart Mme. Verdurin, his feelings change when he hears a sonata by the composer Vinteuil. The music turns into the melody of Swann’s and Odette’s love. Yet their happiness doesn’t last long, because the more Swann desires Odette, the cooler and crueler she becomes. Swann works himself into mad fits of jealousy, with hints of Odette’s love affairs with men and women fueling his fury. Only her prolonged absence cures the lovesick Swann. One morning he awakes from a nightmare and can hardly believe that he was once in love with her.

Volume 2: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

Four years later, Swann marries Odette. Rumors abound that she forced him into the union by threatening to take away his beloved daughter Gilberte. The father looks at Marcel’s socializing with Gilberte suspiciously. Indeed, the lad’s initially rather childish love has changed. After visiting a public toilet on the Champs-Élysées, its musty smell arousing him, Marcel experiences an orgasm while wrestling with Gilberte. Soon after this episode, he falls gravely ill. Only after his friend invites him for tea – and he feels welcome in her family at last – does his feeling of not being good enough disappear. Gilberte, however, soon shows herself to be egotistical and moody. She seems to find Marcel increasingly annoying. In order to save the mental ideal of his love, he decides not to see her anymore.

Two years later, Marcel travels with his grandmother to the seaside town of Balbec. He befriends Robert de Saint-Loup – a young aristocrat who is currently doing his military service – and makes the acquaintance of the glamorous Baron de Charlus. Both are descended from the extremely distinguished aristocratic family of the Guermantes. Marcel is delighted to have finally gotten access to this elusive class. One day he sees a group of young girls in sports attire. They appear haughty, cold and sleek to him, like proletarian Amazons from another planet. He later learns that they are the bourgeois daughters of wealthy businessmen. In the beginning, he is sometimes attracted to one, sometimes to another.

“As in a nursery plantation where the flowers mature at different seasons, I had seen them, in the form of old ladies, on this Balbec shore, those shriveled seed-pods, those flabby tubers, which my new friends would one day be. But what matter? For the moment it was their flowering time.”

But in the end, he falls in love with the dark-haired Albertine. Before her departure, she invites him to her hotel room. When he attempts to kiss her, she is terribly outraged and rejects him.

Volume 3: The Guermantes Way

A few years later, Marcel moves with his family into a new apartment next to the elegant Paris residence of the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes. He falls in love with the Duchess and stakes her out on his morning walks. In a desperate move, he visits her nephew, Saint-Loup, in the garrison town of Doncières, hoping that his friend would put in a word for him with his aunt – to no avail. Back in Paris, he goes to a reception at Mme. de Villeparisis’s salon. She, too, is related to the Guermantes family, but her salon is reputed to be second-rate. Marcel’s Jewish friend Bloch sparks several discussions about the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, who faces accusations of high treason. Most attendees come out as anti-Semites.

Marcel’s grandmother suffers a stroke. After weeks of physical and mental decline, she dies an agonizing death. Several days later, Albertine happens to come by for a visit. She has transformed into a more rounded, female shape. Now that he has lost interest in her, she apparently expects more from him. At the same time, the Duchess de Guermantes – now that he is no more in love with her either – invites him to her salon. Yet Marcel feels entirely let down by the experience. The highborn chatter idly, brimming with pride of place and a fossilized artistic taste. Even the Duchess’s famed wit appears forced and works only at the expense of others.

Volume 4: Sodom and Gomorrah

From a hiding place, Marcel observes how the Baron de Charlus hits on the tailor, Jupien. It dawns on Marcel that the two men are gay, and he finally realizes why Charlus used to treat him in an exceedingly friendly manner at some times and in an aggressive and offensive way at other times.

“‘Don’t protest that you know about styles,’ he cried in a shrill scream of rage, ‘you don’t even know what you are sitting on. You offer your hindquarters a Directory fireside chair as a Louis XIV bergère. One of these days you’ll be mistaking Mme. de Villeparisis’s lap for the lavatory, and goodness knows what you’ll do in it.’” (Charlus to Marcel)

Marcel feels both revulsion and pity. He compares the fate of homosexuals with that of Jews: No matter how hard they try to deny their nature, sooner or later, vice catches up with the former and background with the latter. Later he attends a reception at the home of the Prince de Guermantes, the Duke’s cousin. Here, too, he feels surrounded by anti-Semitism, spite and sophisticated boredom. Moreover, he now tends to perceive signs of homosexual inclinations in most people.

In spring, Marcel sets out to Balbec, a place that painfully reminds him of his grandmother. To distract himself, he meets Albertine. In the casino, he sees her dancing intimately with her girlfriend Andrée. A doctor and friend of Marcel suspects that they are lesbians. Albertine denies the claim indignantly, yet Marcel continues to distrust her. He hardly leaves her alone and is rough and rude to her, until he’s finally grown tired of her altogether. However, when she happens to mention a friendship to two women that he knows for certain to be lesbians, he changes back. He is now absolutely determined to liberate her of the presumed vice. The two of them depart immediately for Paris.

Volume 5: The Prisoner

Marcel has been trying to write for years. To his parents’ great chagrin, he hasn’t brought anything substantial to paper. He moves into his family’s apartment with Albertine, so that he can better keep watch on her, allowing her to leave the house only accompanied by Andrée. The only time he’s truly happy with Albertine is when she lies sleeping next to him, because that’s when she truly and utterly belongs to him. Most of the time, though, he works himself up into a jealous frenzy. Albertine, for her part, gets increasingly caught up in a web of lies, denying the acquaintance of certain women only to admit to them when questioned point-blank a few days later. When she expresses the desire to attend a musical evening at the Verdurins, Marcel prevents her from attending it and ends up going himself. The Baron de Charlus tells him that he expected the composer Vinteuil’s lesbian daughter and her lover to come, but they haven’t shown up. Now Marcel believes to have found out Albertine and takes her to task. Her justifications are getting increasingly abstruse, but also her anger at the pointless cat-and-mouse game seems to be mounting. Marcel threatens to break up with her, only to reconcile shortly thereafter. When he finally resolves to separate amicably and travel to Venice on his own, Albertine has already left the house early in the morning, with her bags packed.

Volume 6: The Fugitive

Marcel is frozen. He frets about the reasons for Albertine’s flight and tries to get her back with the help of crafty stratagems – but to no avail. Finally, in a telegram, he begs her to return. Yet as soon as he’s sent it off, he receives one from Albertine’s aunt, informing him that the girl has died in a riding accident. At first, he is numb with grief. But soon the jealous suspicion comes back. He asks a friend to snoop around his late girlfriend’s past and subsequently learns that Albertine supposedly had tender orgies in public baths and at river banks with older ladies and young laundresses. But is that information reliable? He will never know with absolute certainty.

Just as Marcel starts to forget Albertine, Andrée confides more secrets to him: She, too, had a lesbian relationship with Albertine, but his girlfriend didn’t leave him for other women. On the contrary, she simply realized that Marcel wouldn’t marry her and thus redeem her from her sinful life. Later Marcel sets out to Venice with his mother. As the beauty of the city and its women intoxicates him, he becomes aware of his complete indifference toward Albertine. Upon his return to Paris, he realizes that none of his youthful convictions holds true, anymore: The once romantic Saint-Loup marries the wealthy Gilberte for want of money and turns out to be a closet homosexual. And the same Gilberte confesses to Marcel that she fell in love with him at their first encounter across the hawthorn hedge in Combray. The expression that he perceived as scornful was meant, in fact, as an invitation for a secret rendezvous.

Volume 7: Time Regained

Marcel spends several years in a sanatorium before returning to Paris at the beginning of 1916. The war has altered the city and its inhabitants beyond recognition. Mme. Verdurin, once reviled in high society, now keeps the plushest salon in Paris. Saint-Loup has gone to fight at the front, while Gilberte is holding the fort at their country house in Combray. She writes Marcel a letter full of despair, lamenting that the beloved landscapes of their childhood have been destroyed. One night, walking through Paris during a blackout, Marcel gives in to his curiosity and steps into an evidently popular hotel. From one room he hears the crack of a whip, followed by a man’s groaning and begging for mercy. Marcel peeks through a hidden window. Horror-stricken, he sees the Baron de Charlus, fettered to the bed and covered with blood. His torturer is just leaving the room, when Jupien enters. The tailor manages the male brothel for the baron, who complains to Jupien about the harmlessness of his tormentor. That same night Marcel survives a terrible air raid, and a few days later he learns that Saint-Loup has died in combat.

Once again, many years in a sanatorium pass by with no apparent effect on Marcel’s state of health. Back in Paris, he goes to a matinee at the house of the Prince de Guermantes. In the courtyard, he happens to step on an uneven paving stone, which triggers the same feeling of happiness that he experienced when tasting the madeleine many years before: The stone reminds him of the floor tiles in the Baptistry of San Marco in Venice. Marcel realizes that these involuntary, sensual memories have one thing in common: The past merges with the present, and for a brief moment, he gains a vantage point outside time, allowing him to see and relish the true nature of things. He understands that, as a writer, he has to decipher the symbols from deep within himself while searching for the truth, show the connection between things and make them accessible to others through his special style. Finally Marcel resolves to begin writing his novel.

“But instead of working I had lived a life of idleness, of pleasures and distractions, of ill health and cosseting and eccentricities, and I was embarking upon my labor of construction almost at the point of death, without knowing anything of my trade.”

Entering the party, he feels like he’s at a grotesque masquerade ball: Almost all his acquaintances have aged beyond recognition. They are afflicted with geriatric trembling, and their faces look like plaster masks. Mme. Verdurin has married the Prince de Guermantes, whom the war financially ruined, and is now commanding high society as the Princess de Guermantes. The Duke de Guermantes, meanwhile, has taken the well-preserved Odette as his lover. Whether social position or political beliefs, nothing is what it used to be. Marcel senses that he doesn’t have much time left himself. From now on, he has but one goal: to give the people who he remembers in his writing their place in time.

About the Text

Structure and Style

The seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time make up a literary symphony: The first volume starts out with is the overture, anticipating – just like its musical equivalent – the central themes. In his many sleepless nights, the first-person narrator remembers his childhood in the country, the  important locations and individuals in his life and, with the world-famous madeleine cake episode, introduces the literary motif of involuntary memory triggered by a sensory cue. He then varies and recomposes the themes and motifs again and again, mirroring them in different situations and life stories. The last volume culminates in a furious finale: At the “old people’s ball” Proust has his characters perform their last dance. All through the work, he composes vivid word paintings: The landscape descriptions and beach scenes with the young girls resemble the works of the impressionistic masters Boudin, Manet and Monet put into words, whereas portraits of Albertine and the aged society in the closing scene are reminiscent of Cubist and Futurist artists of his time. According to his contemporaries, the asthmatic Proust wrote exactly how he spoke, using excessive, nested and breathless phrases. It isn’t without reason that he is reputed to have produced some of the longest sentences in French literature.

Interpretation

  • Making art through active memory is the main focus of In Search of Lost Time. Proust distinguished between deliberate and involuntary memory. While the former often fails to deliver, the latter arrives spontaneously, triggered by unexpected sensations.
  • A central motif is the impossibility of objective thought resulting in the futile nature of human relationships. The only thing Marcel knows for sure, after separating from Albertine, is that he didn’t really know anything about her. In his imagination, she has fragmented into countless, contradictory versions of herself. 
  • Proust made homosexuality his main theme, drawing on his own biography as a closeted homosexual. Moreover, he repeatedly draws parallels between homosexuality and Jewishness. Proust’s mother was Jewish. He considered that part of his identity, just as he did his sexuality, to be some kind of hereditary disease, which he would do best to hide from society. Proust’s mother was Jewish, a heritage which – like his sexuality – he viewed as some kind of hereditary disease that he would do best to hide from society. 
  • The novel is a masterly play between autobiography and fiction. Many characters resemble Proust’s real-life contemporaries, and several of the narrated stories are based on actual events. Charlus, Bloch, Swann, and the first-person narrator combine traces of both Proust himself and his acquaintances.
  • As the author, Proust frames his aesthetic philosophy: Art, for him, is to look below the surface of things, discover what they have in common, and combine them through metaphors and beautiful style. He finds the call for realistic or even politically motivated art utterly absurd.
  • Full of both nostalgia and irony, he sings a swan song to the end of the Belle Époque. A connoisseur of the salon scene of his time – and with a mix of satire and regret – he targets the narrow-mindedness of the upper-middle classes while describing the inevitable decline of the aristocracy before World War I. with a mix of satire and regret.

Historical Background

From Belle Époque to the Modern Age

In Search of Lost Time is mainly set in Belle Époque France, a time of relative peace and prosperity between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The French Third Republic offered perfect conditions for the rising upper-middle classes to benefit from the Second Industrial Revolution, also known as the Technological Revolution: Automobiles pushed carriages off the streets; airplanes and telephones melted away distances; and for the 1889 world’s fair in Paris, the Eiffel Tower was built to the dizzying height of 324 meters. In the Paris salons, the privileged classes – endowed with plenty of wealth and leisure time – celebrated life, beauty and themselves.

Starting in 1890, the notion of the Fin de Siècle – a mood that cycled between excessive euphoria about the future and doomsday desperation – gained traction among the artistic circles. Rapid changes in science and society brought more freedoms, while existing value systems were progressively eroding. Many artists rebelled against the pressures and conventions of their time with a frivolous lifestyle, excessive drug abuse and a more open embrace of sexuality. The typical Fin de Siècle dandy devoted his life to cultivating his style and himself. Marcel Proust is considered both a great chronicler of this epoch and trailblazer of modern literature.

Development

Proust wrote In Search of Lost Time between 1909 and 1922. In January 1909, he claimed to have had the experience that evolved into the famous “Proustian moment” – the taste of a madeleine sponge cake dipped into tea. And as early as August of that same year he wrote to his friend Geneviève Straus: “You will read me – more of me than you will want – for I’ve just begun – and finished – a whole long book!” In retrospect, this was a far too optimistic assessment. While a first draft of the final scene was already in evidence at the time, it was only the beginning of an unending writing process. Originally, he had planned the novel in two volumes. Yet when the first volume went to press in 1913, its sprawling nature was quite evident. The second was already typeset when World War I broke out in 1914 and Proust’s publisher put the project on hold. At times, the author’s personal life rewrote the novel, too: In May 1914, Proust’s secretary, Alfred Agostinelli, one of several models for the character of Albertine, died in a plane crash. Proust thereupon developed an entirely new narrative, dealing with Albertine’s imprisonment, escape and death. Over the intervening years, he continued to change the drafts, cutting passages in one place and pasting them in another. Even the clean copy of all the unpublished volumes, which emerged between 1917 and 1918, was anything but final. Proust continued writing until his death in 1922. The many inconsistencies, repetitions, ruptures and incomplete sentences are a testimony to his manic-creative method.

Reviews and Legacy

The seven volumes of the novel were published in Paris between 1913 and 1927. Readers largely found Swann’s Way incomprehensible. Nevertheless, in 1919, Proust won the most important literary award in France: the Prix Goncourt, for In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. His contemporaries remained divided, however. Some members of the left-wing avant-garde criticized the author as an idle snob who produced socially irrelevant, ephemeral fiction for like-minded aesthetes. Right-wing conservatives held his candid portrayal of homosexuality against him. They saw in his novel the incarnation of degenerate literature, intending to ban it along with the works of Sigmund Freud, Fjodor Dostojewski, Fyodor Dostoevsky and André Gide.

Today, many consider In Search of Lost Time to be the most important literary work of the 20th century. In 1972, with the infamous Monty Python sketch about the “The All-England Summarize Proust Competition,” the novel finally entered pop culture: In the competition, participants must summarize the content of all seven volumes in 15 seconds, with a “Proustometer” measuring their progress. In 1984, Volker Schlöndorff filmed the first volume under the title Swann in Love. And the turn of the millennium saw a veritable Proust revival: In 1997, Alain de Botton wrote the tongue-in-cheek self-help book How Proust Can Change Your Life, and between 1988 and 2013 Stéphane Heuet published a graphic novel adaptation of the masterpiece. In 1999, Raúl Ruiz filmed Time Regained, in 2000 Chantal Akerman put The Captive on screen and in 2011 Nina Companéez made a two-part French TV movie covering all seven volumes.

About the Author

Marcel Proust was born on July 10, 1871, in Auteuil near Paris. His father was a famous physician; the mother descended from a wealthy Jewish banking family. Starting in 1878, Proust spent his holidays in the village Illiers near Chartre, the model for the fictional Combray. In 1881, Proust suffered his first asthma attack. The following year, he attended the Lycée Condorcet, where he published a number of literary journals with his schoolmates. After graduating from high school and despite his poor health, he served in the French army for a year in Orléans. After that, he began to study politics and law, yet dropped out of the program and graduated from university with a degree in philosophy and literature. In order to appease his father, he accepted a volunteer position as a librarian in 1896 but obtained sick leave before really starting to work. His seemingly idle life, excellent connections to aristocratic circles as well as to the most fashionable salons in Paris gave him a reputation for being a snob and social climber. The author struggled with his homosexuality all his life, something his father tried to drive out of him in his youth by taking him to a brothel. Proust had a number of lovers but remained closeted. In 1896, his first book Les plaisirs et les jours (Pleasures and Days), a collection of short stories, was published, and he fought a duel with a critic who made disparaging remarks about it. In 1903, Proust’s father passed away and two years later, his beloved mother. Proust inherited a fortune that allowed him to live in luxury, but his health continued to deteriorate. He retired more and more into the bedroom of his Paris apartment to toil away on his life’s work, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), publishing the first of seven volumes at his own cost and even paying the leading newspapers of the time to publish favorable reviews of it. Marcel Proust died of pneumonia on November 18, 1922. His brother published the last three volumes posthumously in 1927.


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