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Remembrance of Things Past, Volume I Reader’s Guide

By Marcel Proust

Remembrance of Things Past, Volume I by Marcel Proust


The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Guermantes Way and Cities of the Plain—books III and IV of Marcel Proust’s great masterpiece of contemporary literature, Remembrance of Things Past.

We hope that they will give you a number of interesting ideas and angles from which to approach the work, which has fascinated and enthralled readers since it was first published. This guide follows the classic Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation of the definitive French Pleiade Edition but can be used with any other version or translation. The Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation consists of three volumes published by Vintage Books and The Guermantes Way and Cities of the Plain are to be found in Volume II. A separate reading group guide has been prepared for each of the three volumes. More information is available at


The Guermantes Way and Cities of the Plain are the third and fourth books of the seven that make-up Proust’s long novel, A la recherché du temps Perdu (translated into English both as Remembrance of Things Past and as In Search of Lost Time.) All seven books can be read consecutively or with a break in between.

Brief Synopsis

In their new Paris apartment, the narrator’s family find themselves next door to the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes. The narrator becomes obsessed with the duchess and is determined to enter her exalted and privileged world. He visits her nephew at his garrison and eventually manages to be introduced at a party where the banality of her greeting is matched only by the emptiness of the top hats covering the floor. The death of the narrator’s grandmother provides an interruption to the narrator’s social ascent but he is very soon invited to the Duchess’ dinner table and, later that night, to her cousin’s house where top hats again play an important role. Moving to the other end of the body, the novel ends with the Duchess’ inappropriate shoes and an inappropriate denial of mortality.

Brief Synopsis

Following his observation of a prolonged courtship dance between the Baron de Charlus and Jupien the tailor, the narrator is introduced to the world of homosexuality. At a reception given by the Prince and Princesse de Guermantes he sees signs of sexual inversion everywhere. On his second visit to Balbec the narrator also finds signs of lesbianism everywhere he looks. Renewing his relationship with Albertine, the narrator also spends time with the Verdurins and meets their friends who now include Charlus among their number. After hearing news of Vinteuil’s daughter, the narrator decides to take Albertine home to Paris with him.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

Discuss the narrator’s new home. Why did the family move? What do we know about the new home? Where is it?

2. What are François’ feelings about Paris life compared to her previous life in Combray? Why does she miss the sound of the church bell in the country?

3. Discuss what we learn about Francoise and the young footman’s views concerning the eating of thin slices of toast.

4. Discuss the family household and relations with the servants and neighbors. What can be observed from the window of the family’s apartment? Who are their neighbors?

5. What happens when the narrator’s mother rings the bell for the family mid-day meal to be served?

6. Discuss the narrator’s feelings about the Duchess. What is her appeal? Does he see her as the embodiment of a medieval romance or more as a social “celebrity” like Jacqueline Onassis?

7. Discuss the evening at the Opera and the underwater imagery and metaphors that Proust employs to describe all the guests and visitors in the Princess’ box.

8. In what ways is the Duchess de Guermantes compared with her cousin, the Princesse de Guermantes?

9. Discuss the different types and classes of people at the Opera and how they interact and respond to each other. What does this tell us about turn of the century French society? How different is our society today—what, if anything, has changed?

10. Compare the look the Duchess gives the narrator at the Opera with subsequent looks she gives him in the street and discuss how and why they might be different.

11. Compare Robert de Saint-Loup with his commanding officer, the Prince de Borodino. Discuss the two men’s different family backgrounds and role in society.

12. Discuss the importance of Robert’s views on the Dreyfus Affair. Invite a member of the group to do some quick research and give the group a quick summary of the Dreyfus Affair and its significance.

13. What are the narrator’s thoughts concerning Robert’s mistress, Rachel. Under what circumstances did he first meet her and what was her price? What is her price now, as far as Robert is concerned?

14. What is the social position of Mme. de Villeparisis? Discuss her family background and her own behavior when young and how this might affect her current social standing. How exclusive is her party and what sort of people attend?

15. Discuss the role of top hats at the party. How many references are made to top hats?

16. Why does Norpois carry the narrator’s hat? What does this tell us about the relationship between Norpois and Mme. de Villeparisis? What does this tell us about Norpois ‘ character?

17. Discuss the ways that the Dreyfus affair is referred to at the party and how the different characters feel about it. What does Bloch learn about Norpois’ views concerning the Dreyfus Affair? What does the discussion between Bloch and Norpois tell us about Norpois’character?

18. Discuss the long anticipated meeting between the narrator and the Duchesse. How does Proust handle it?

19. Discuss Charlus and his behavior towards the narrator. Why does Mme. Villeparisis suggest that the narrator leave quickly, before Charlus sees him?

20. Discuss the incident with the “Marquise”, the lavatory attendant in the Champs Elysées. Discuss prior references to the “Marquise” and to the Champs Elysées in Swann’s Way. There was a previous reference to the Grandmother and the Champs Elysées in Swann’s Way—why does it prove ironic? Discuss Proust’s attitude to the sublime and the ridiculous as demonstrated by this incident.

21. Discuss the grandmother’s visit to the doctor. In what way was the doctor preoccupied and why was he upset with his maid? What is the meaning of the narrator’s observation that “Each of us is indeed alone.”?

22. List and compare the different character’s behavior and reaction to the grandmother’s illness and death. Bergotte, Norpois, the duke, St. Loup, the two aunts, for example, all respond in different ways to the grandmother’s illness.

23. Discuss the shocking brutality of the descriptions in this section and how they might reflect upon the author’s own feelings. (The group should know that the protracted kidney failure and death from uremia suffered by the grandmother was exactly the same that Proust’s mother and grandmother also suffered.)

24. After all the unsparing descriptions of the grandmother’s decline how does Proust offer us a final redemption?

25. When the narrator finally enters the world of the Guermantes, how does it differ from the world that the narrator was used to previously? How are the women dressed and how do they behave towards him? How do the moral and social standards of the Guermantes differ from those of his mother?

26. Why is the Princesse de Parma so friendly to the narrator? Discuss the values with which she was raised as a child. While she may aid the less fortunate with her money and her time, what is it that she may never share?

27. Discuss the visit to Charlus ‘ house. Why does the narrator have to wait? How does Charlus treat him? Why? Is Charlus insulted? Discuss the incident with the top hat and how Proust may have prepared us for this scene with the discussions at Mme. Villeparisis’ party.

28. Speculate on why Charlus acts the way he does. Discuss the way that Charlus’ mood changes after the incident with the hat. What does he tell the narrator about the Princess’ position in society compared to the Duchess’ position? What is the significance of this information?

29. In the Duke and Duchess’drawing room, discuss the conversation between Swann and the narrator concerning Gilberte. What does this suggest concerning the narrator’s views of love and time?

30. What are the Duke’s motives for giving his servants the night off? What does he hope to avoid and what does he hope to achieve?

31. What do we learn about the Duke and Duchess’sleeping arrangements and how does this reflect upon their relationship?

32. Discuss the Duke and Duchess’reaction to the news of Swann’s health. Discuss the ways in which a leg of mutton with béarnaise sauce allows the Duke to compare himself to his invalid cousin and also to the dying Swann.

33. In what way is the Duchess conflicted by the news of Swann’s impending death? How does she resolve the conflict?

34. Discuss the significance of the Duchess’black shoes. Why does the Duke object and what does this tell us about his character?

Discuss the way that Proust describes the encounter between Charlus and Jupien and explain the use of humor in making it palatable to his readers.

36. Discuss the imagery and metaphors used. How convincingly, and to what purpose does Proust refer to flowers, birds, and bees?

37. Discuss the narrator’s role as a voyeur. What other examples of voyeurism have we already encountered? (Note: Many more examples will be found in subsequent volumes.)

38. How does Charlus explain his sexual tastes and how do his feelings differ between men of his own class and men of the lower orders?

39. What signs have we already been given, in previous volumes, concerning Charlus’ sexual orientation? How does the narrator use his new knowledge about Charlus to explain or interpret his previous strange behavior?

40. The sentence, which begins “Their honor precarious, their liberty provisional”, contains 942 words and is possibly the longest sentence ever written. It would be interesting for a member of the group to volunteer to read it out loud—after a suitable rehearsal. It is not just its length that makes this sentence worth discussion; it is also a summation of Proust’s views concerning homosexuality.

41. Discuss his views concerning Jews and homosexuals and how he compares them. Be aware that Proust himself was an active homosexual with a Jewish background.

42. What is the significance of an invitation to the Prince’s reception? Why was the narrator so nervous that it was a hoax?

43. Compare the Prince’s party with others given by the Duchess de Guermantes, Mme. de Villeparisis, Mme. Verdurin, and Mme. de Saint-Euverte. How does the Princesse prepare for her parties and how does she receive her guests?

44. List the examples of sexual inversion alluded to at the Prince’s party. For example, why was Baron de Charlus so attentive to a social nobody like Mme. de Surgis-le-Duc? What was the physical attribute that first attracted M. de Vaugoubert to his wife?

45. How do the various characters at the Prince’s party express their views on Dreyfus, and how does this illustrate the effect of the Dreyfus Affair on French social life?

46. What is the significance of Swann being lead away for a private conversation and how does this affect other guests? What does this tell us about the other guests and, in Proust’s view, people in general?

47. Discuss the delayed expression of grief concerning the grandmother’s death. Why do you think it occurs in this part of the novel and not in the previous volume?

48. Discuss the roles played by the narrator’s mother, the grandmother and the letters of Mme. de Sévigné in the course of the novel. In what ways does the mother change after the grandmother’s death?

49. Discuss the relationship between the Verdurins and the Cambremers.

50. Discuss the importance of the “little train” as a plot device in this whole Balbec section and give examples of its use. For example: what did the author achieve by having the narrator take Albertine to Doncières for such a brief meeting with Robert Saint Loup?

51. Give examples of the various misunderstandings when Charlus arrives at the Verdurin’s house. What is the significance of the expression “one of us”?

52. List the examples of sexual inversion the narrator observes at Balbec. Discuss the incidents of lesbianism, which are openly described, and those which are merely implied.

53. Describe the relationship between Charlus and Morel. Discuss the relationship in terms of pursuer and pursued, wealthy master and social dependant, jealous lover and sexual tormentor, “master” and “victim”.

54. Describe the relationship between the narrator and Albertine. Discuss the relationship in terms of pursuer and pursued, wealthy master and social dependant, jealous lover and sexual tormentor, “master” and “victim”.

55. Compare the relationships between Charlus and Morel and the narrator and Albertine with the relationship between Swann and Odette. What other similar relationships have been described in the novel thus far?

56. Based on these various affairs, discuss Proust’s views concerning love and relationships.

57. Describe the mother’s views concerning Albertine and discuss the delicious way she expresses them to her son.

58. What is the general significance of Mlle. Vinteuil and the maid of Mme. Putbus within the scope of the novel? What is the specific significance of these two women and how do they compare with Mlle. Stermaria?

59. The death of Swann is first described in this volume. How many members of the group spotted it? Proust deliberately hid it away inside a two-page paragraph comparing the salons of Mme. Swann and Mme. Verdurin (Vintage volume II, page 899). What significance might this oblique and offhand reference have had for Proust?

60. Why does the narrator return to Paris? Once again—discuss the importance of the “little train” as a plot device in terms of the revelations concerning Albertine’s previous relations with Mlle Vinteuil.

61. For those groups who have read all four volumes, discuss how Mlle. Vinteuil’s apparently minor appearance in Swann’s Way is increasingly acquiring emotional significance and how this is becoming a “Proustian device”—to seed the story with minor incidents which acquire true meaning only with hindsight—as in real life.

About this Author

Marcel Proust was a French author, born in 1871, who spent most of his life in Paris and died in 1922. His most famous work, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) was published in seven books between 1913 and 1927. The final three books were published posthumously.

The eldest son of a wealthy Jewish family, Proust never had a job but spent much of his life as a social butterfly. Following the death of his parents in 1905 he spent the following twenty-two years of his life increasingly isolated in his cork-lined room, working on his great novel.

The first book, Swann’s Way, was published in 1914 but he had to wait for the end of the war before publishing book two. This second book met such popular acclaim that Proust was awarded both the Prix Goncourt and the Legion d’honneur. He was still editing the final three books when he died. Jean Cocteau visited Proust’s apartment to view the body after his death and noticed the unfinished manuscripts piled beside the bed.  “That pile of paper on his left was still alive,” he observed “like watches ticking on the wrists of dead soldiers.”

Suggested Reading

Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time by Patrick Alexander (Vintage Books 2009, Patrick Alexander’s new book offers reading groups the following useful support:
•    Synopsis: Detailed synopsis of all seven volumes
•    Who’s Who: Detailed description and illustrations of over 50 major characters
•    Background: A brief biography of Marcel Proust as well as a history of France as it affects the novel. A description of the Dreyfus Affair and the Belle Époque. A map of Proust’s Paris showing where both he and his fictional characters lived. Finally, some unique family trees help the reader understand some of the otherwise complex relationships.

Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time
edited and with an Introduction by Eric Karpeles (Thames & Hudson, 2008). This is an extraordinary companion to any reading of Proust’s novel. Eric Karpeles has identified, located and reproduced the many paintings to which Proust makes reference in the novel; in other cases, where only a painter’s name is mentioned to indicate a certain style or character trait, Karpeles has chosen a representative work to illustrate the impression that Proust sought to evoke.

Marcel Proust
by Edmond White (Lipper/Viking 1999). Part of the Penguin Lives series, this is an excellent short biography of Proust. White enthusiastically offers an extremely concise, detailed and very knowledgeable summary of Proust for the first time reader and Proustian alike. A new edition was released by Penguin Books in 2009.

Proust At The Majestic
by Richard Davenport-Hines (Bloomsbury Publishing 2006). Centered on the famous dinner party at the Majestic hotel where Proust sat down with Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky and others, this book offers a fascinating study of Proust’s final days and his social relationships.

Proust in Love
by William C. Carter (Yale University Press 2006) If anyone reads Proust just for the sex—this is the book! Carter takes us on a glorious romp from the little room smelling of orris-root to the caged rats of later years. Nevertheless, this is a book of serious scholarship and the author’s knowledge and passion for his subject are apparent on every page.

Remembrance  of Things Past – or In Search of Lost Time

The novel comprised of seven books is the first-person narrative of a man’s life in Paris of the Belle Époque (roughly 1870 – 1924). The seven books chronicle not only the changes in the life of its narrator and about fifty other major characters but also chronicle the changes in society as the old standards and old leaders gradually and unwillingly give way to the new.

Like James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, both of which were published in the year of Proust’s death, In Search of Lost Time was immediately recognized as a major and revolutionary work of literature. Graham Greene described Proust as the greatest novelist of the 20th century and Somerset Maugham called In Search of Lost Time the greatest fiction to date. Proust very consciously wrote his book, not for the literary elite, but for the general public. He described his novel as the sort of book a man might pick-up at a railway station when setting-off on a journey.
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