The social class analysis of Marcel Proust

Proust – The Guermantes Way translated by Mark Treharne (Penguin)

The Guermantes Way is an acutely observed ethnographic analysis of class oppression enthused with literary brilliance. It is not just the aristocratic class that is taken down with a thump; the first principles of being an oppressor class in its formation and maintenance are revealed.

The Guermantes Way is the third book of Proust’s magnum opus where the literary work starts to gather momentum as it builds on the work that’s been done in the previous volumes. It’s an inspired and at times supremely eloquent auto-ethnography as much as it is a novel. His descriptions of the minutiae of upper class behaviours are exhaustive as well as entertaining.

After a few hundred pages of reportage without comment, he begins to let his authorial objectivity slip and admits that he thinks that the salon scene of the Faubourg St-Germain stinks! In spite of surviving the French revolutions the upper class has very little to justify its elite claims to superiority.

“She was a great lady. Her lineage filled her soul with the frivolity of generations of life at court, with all that implies about superficiality and punctiliousness.” [1]

“Even supposing that the partiality of an old lover, a habit of flattery, the views acceptable to a given social circle, had dictated the ex-ambassador’s remarks, they were none the less proof of the extent to which the artistic judgement of society people is based on a total absence of real taste, and so arbitrary that the nearest trifle can push it into arrant nonsense, unchecked by any genuinely felt impression.” [2]

After page 400 his rising contempt become more explicit as he realises “The crass ignorance that was to be detected behind the familiarity of the Guermantes manner.” [3].

The stupidity of The Duchess’s discourse is particularly evident when she speaks of literature – even at this young age Proust is an expert.

But it is not just ignorance but a shocking cruelty that resides behind her elegant manners. He sums her up as having all the “energy and charm of a cruel little girl” who “gouged out the eyes of rabbits” [4] “What really revolted me was the genuine malice on Mme de Guermantes part…” [5]

The Duc de Guermantes is described as:

“A man of touching kindness and unspeakable inflexibility, a slave to the most petty obligations yet not to the most sacred commitments, the same aberration that typified court life under Louis XIV, which removes scruples of conscience from the domain of the affections and morality and transforms them into questions of pure form.” [6]

Their exclusivity was based purely on maintaining their own status quo.

“The family genie intervened at the last moment; deeper under the surface, at the dark entrance to the domain where the Guermantes exercised their judgement, this vigilant genie debarred them from finding this man clever or that woman charming if they were without social merit, actual or potential.” [7]

Proust professes to feel no pleasure in their company in spite of his earlier infatuation: ‘The stories I heard at the Duchesses house… left me cold’ [8]

“Thus does the heavy structure of the aristocracy, with its rare windows, admitting a scant amount of daylight, showing the same incapacity to soar, but also the same massive, blind forces as Romanesque architecture, enclose all our history within its sullen walls.” [9]

Proust is not frightened to approach this by offering his narrator up as having been the naive aspirant who had been taken in by romantic myths of class superiority. In the same way, in the first volume of this novel, he is not afraid to admit to his touching and unmanly dependence on his mother.

The Guermantes Way is all about his disappointments writ large, yes, but it’s also a critique of the negative effect that the construction of elite superiority has on everyone. And it’s an analysis of exactly how the manners and repetitive inane behaviours, such as the obsessive talk of familial genealogy, make and then break the illusion of a socially impregnable position.

For the aristocracy their power is that of their established entitlement which is essentially hereditary, rather than being earned in any way. Titles that are earned, such as those handed out by Napoleon, are seen as trite and worthless. They are always looking for ‘cousins’ to validate their raison d’être [10]. So there are obsessional discussions of the verity of their lines of inheritance which become increasingly shallow signifiers of importance.

At first Proust’s narrator examines positive reasons for the widely held beliefs in their worth. We might associate such beliefs with the end of the C19th, but if we think about the fascination we still have with TV series like ‘The Crown’ or ‘Victoria’, we can see how widely embedded they still are. Proust reports how his servant Francoise would be struck with wonder at hearing mention of a romantic princely title and would stand there in wonder “as though in front of a stained-glass window.” [11]

At first the performance of living by the best of the aristocracy is considered as possibly “the greatest exponent of performing such actions and transforming them into something exquisite.” [12]

But at best their glamour was “an exhilaration, which because it was artificial, tailed off into melancholy” [13] and thus ended in boredom, and led to nervous conditions and even suicide.

The shocking final scene is the one that brings the profuse detail of the previous five hundred pages to a dramatic conclusion. It is this scene that expresses Proust key insight into how an upper class person is diminished as a human being by their performance of superiority.

Perhaps you could get this class analysis by just reading the last ten pages.

“The Duchesse’s own sense of manners … afforded her a confused glimpse of the fact that for Swann her dinner-party might count for less than his own death.” [14]

But the impact of it, following the ‘ethnographic’ detail that has gone before, which itself is based on the depth of character formation that has taken place in the preceding two books, would be lost.

– Stefan Szczelkun


[1] p.247
[2] p.271
[3] p.413.
[4] p.502.
[5] p.514
[6] p.434/5
[7] p.449
[8] p.551
[9] p.537
[10] p.542
[11] p.32
[12] p.141
[13] p.547
[14] p.595

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