The Image of Memory: Structure, Desire, and Identity in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and other selected works

Plan Author

  • Nora Dunne, 2014

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: 20th Century Novel
  • Course: Tell about the South: the South in the American Literary Imagination
  • Course: French Conversation and Writing
  • Tutorial: The Image of Desire in Proust

Project Description

Modernist Structure in Proust.

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

    • Catherine LeGouis, Mount Holyoke College


The possibility of tracing the loose weave of culture and literature comes from the simple fact that the written word can act as a record—imaginary, yes, but magnifying—of a slice of possible reality. Literature accumulates a certain amount of residue as it maintains significance over time and this sedimentation forms something more solid but still dissectible. Characters are viewpoints that need not be universal but that are built out of some context, real or imagined, and so might they reflect some aspect of cultured time. Archetypes within narratives may come about this way as they may unknowingly possess and perpetuate the ideals, conflicts, or fears of an age.

In the same manner that surges of sentiment can be noted in history, trends of a similar connection might be noted in literature. But of course, just as history is never all-inclusive, literature must not be assumed to be a blanket expression of a given society. So where to look for the reasons behind its persistence? The potency of the written word exists beyond cultural context, beyond a plot line’s applicability to the readers’ own lives; because of some wiring and because of cultural reinforcements of certain tricks within it, literature fascinates and influences. Part of this pattern is the layering of meanings as they crest and fall and sometimes fossilize. They require a platform to be built upon, of course, and from that structure certain foundational, perhaps even primordial, templates might be discerned

In In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust intentionally blurs the distinction between life and text—his novel resembles his own life in context but is not necessarily indicative of it — but what is most essential is the structure of signs throughout that give the work its integrity and cohesion so that it might present an alternative realm and truly be considered a work of art. The value of the work exists solely in the text and so can be neither diminished nor embellished by reading into the life of the author. And yet, intrigue is not always harmful, and in the particular case of Proust, parallels connecting the author to the novel are so numerous that they seem to provoke examination


“Proust relies upon the concept of the image as one of his grounding structural elements. Marcel as narrator seems to have an infinite compilation of snapshots, of horizons and landscapes as well as of seemingly more obscure material objects such as a particular vase or shade of flower. But certainly it is Marcel’s imaging of the people in his life that leads to the most consuming effects. This tendency of Marcel’s in knowing others follows the form of Proust’s ‘Overture,’ in which the young narrator recalls the magic lantern that projected images across the walls of his childhood room. Functioning as an early form of montage, the lantern, ‘substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted as on a shifting and transitory window.’ Already Proust reveals several tenets of Marcel’s habits in desire: the image provokes a mystique in its viewer due to its ‘impalpability,’ and its physical presence is ‘transitory’ as are the various women of Marcel’s snapshots of desire.”

“W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz pulsates with the sense of becoming throughout its interpolating and dichotomous chronology. Both Sebald’s narrator and his novel’s namesake are characterized by their wandering sense of reality and their insatiable (though at times subconscious) desire to come to terms with their individual histories as they are part of a larger and more complex whole. Sebald focuses on the role of travel in the two men’s lives for what it communicates in opposition to the nature of a homeland, or even of a childhood that might act as a foundation. Within this polemic Sebald accentuates the layers of such a question, as the narratives of the two men differ from each other, and are entangled with those larger narratives of nations, heritage, and interpretations of history.”