The novel recounts the experiences of the Narrator while growing up, participating in society, falling in love, and learning about art.
Volume One: Swann's Way
The Narrator begins by noting, "For a long time, I went to bed early." He comments on the way sleep seems to alter one's surroundings, and the way Habit makes one indifferent to them. He remembers being in his room in the family's country home in Combray, while downstairs his parents entertain their friend Charles Swann, an elegant man of Jewish origin with strong ties to society (the character is modelled on Proust's friend Charles Ephrussi). Due to Swann's visit, the Narrator is deprived of his mother's goodnight kiss, but he gets her to spend the night reading to him. This memory is the only one he has of Combray, until years later the taste of a madeleine cake dipped in tea inspires a nostalgic incident of involuntary memory. He remembers having a similar snack as a child with his invalid aunt Leonie, and it leads to more memories of Combray. He describes their servant Françoise, who is uneducated but possesses an earthy wisdom and a strong sense of both duty and tradition. He meets an elegant "lady in pink" while visiting his uncle Adolphe. He develops a love of the theater, especially the actress Berma, and his awkward Jewish friend Bloch introduces him to the works of the writer Bergotte. He learns Swann made an unsuitable marriage but has social ambitions for his beautiful daughter Gilberte. Legrandin, a snobbish friend of the family, tries to avoid introducing the boy to his well-to-do sister. The Narrator describes two walking paths: the way past Swann's home (the Méséglise way), and the Guermantes way, both containing scenes of natural beauty. Taking the Méséglise way, he sees Gilberte Swann standing in her yard with a lady in white, Mme Swann, and her supposed lover: Baron de Charlus, a friend of Swann's. Gilberte makes a gesture that the Narrator interprets as a rude dismissal. During another walk, he spies a lesbian scene involving Mlle Vinteuil, daughter of a composer, and her friend. The Guermantes way is symbolic of the Guermantes family, the nobility of the area. The Narrator is awed by the magic of their name, and is captivated when he first sees Mme de Guermantes. He discovers how appearances conceal the true nature of things, and tries writing a description of some nearby steeples. Lying in bed, he seems transported back to these places until he awakens.
Mme Verdurin is an autocratic hostess who, aided by her husband, demands total obedience from the guests in her "little clan." One guest is Odette de Crecy, a former courtesan, who has met Swann and invites him to the group. Swann is too refined for such company, but Odette gradually intrigues him with her unusual style. A sonata by Vinteuil, which features a "little phrase," becomes the motif for their deepening relationship. The Verdurins host M. de Forcheville; their guests include Cottard, a doctor; Brichot, an academic; Saniette, the object of scorn; and a painter, M. Biche. Swann grows jealous of Odette, who now keeps him at arm's length, and suspects an affair between her and Forcheville, aided by the Verdurins. Swann seeks respite by attending a society concert that includes Legrandin's sister and a young Mme de Guermantes; the "little phrase" is played and Swann realizes Odette's love for him is gone. He tortures himself wondering about her true relationships with others, but his love for her, despite renewals, gradually diminishes. He moves on and marvels that he ever loved a woman who was not his type.
At home in Paris, the Narrator dreams of visiting Venice or the church in Balbec, a resort, but he is too unwell and instead takes walks in the Champs-Élysées, where he meets and befriends Gilberte. He holds her father, now married to Odette, in the highest esteem, and is awed by the beautiful sight of Mme Swann strolling in public. Years later, the old sights of the area are long gone, and he laments the fugitive nature of places.
Volume Two: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower
The Narrator's parents are inviting M. de Norpois, a diplomat colleague of the Narrator's father, to dinner. With Norpois's intervention, the narrator is finally allowed to go see Berma perform in a play, but is disappointed by her acting. Afterwards, at dinner, he watches Norpois, who is extremely diplomatic and correct at all times, expound on society and art. The Narrator gives him a draft of his writing, but Norpois gently indicates it is not good. The Narrator continues to go to the Champs-Élysées and play with Gilberte. Her parents distrust him, so he writes to them in protest. He and Gilberte wrestle and he has an orgasm. Gilberte invites him to tea, and he becomes a regular at her house. He observes Mme Swann's inferior social status, Swann's lowered standards and indifference towards his wife, and Gilberte's affection for her father. The Narrator contemplates how he has attained his wish to know the Swanns, and savors their unique style. At one of their parties he meets and befriends Bergotte, who gives his impressions of society figures and artists. But the Narrator is still unable to start writing seriously. His friend Bloch takes him to a brothel, where there is a Jewish prostitute named Rachel. He showers Mme Swann with flowers, being almost on better terms with her than with Gilberte. One day, he and Gilberte quarrel and he decides never to see her again. However, he continues to visit Mme Swann, who has become a popular hostess, with her guests including Mme Bontemps, who has a niece named Albertine. The Narrator hopes for a letter from Gilberte repairing their friendship, but gradually feels himself losing interest. He breaks down and plans to reconcile with her, but spies from afar someone resembling her walking with a boy and gives her up for good. He stops visiting her mother also, who is now a celebrated beauty admired by passersby, and years later he can recall the glamour she displayed then.
Two years later, the Narrator, his grandmother, and Françoise set out for the seaside town of Balbec. The Narrator is almost totally indifferent to Gilberte now. During the train ride, his grandmother, who only believes in proper books, lends him her favorite: the Letters of Mme de Sevigne. At Balbec, the Narrator is disappointed with the church and uncomfortable in his unfamiliar hotel room, but his grandmother comforts him. He admires the seascape, and learns about the colorful staff and customers around the hotel: Aime, the discreet headwaiter; the lift operator; M. de Stermaria and his beautiful young daughter; and M. de Cambremer and his wife, Legrandin's sister. His grandmother encounters an old friend, the blue-blooded Mme de Villeparisis, and they renew their friendship. The three of them go for rides in the country, openly discussing art and politics. The Narrator longs for the country girls he sees alongside the roads, and has a strange feeling of unexplained memory while admiring a row of three trees. Mme de Villeparisis is joined by her glamorous great-nephew Robert de Saint-Loup, who is involved with an unsuitable woman. Despite initial awkwardness, the Narrator and his grandmother become good friends with him. Bloch, the childhood friend from Combray, turns up with his family, and acts in typically inappropriate fashion. Saint-Loup's ultra-aristocratic and extremely rude uncle the Baron de Charlus arrives. The Narrator discovers Mme de Villeparisis, her nephew M. de Charlus, and his nephew Saint-Loup are all of the Guermantes family. Charlus ignores the Narrator, but later visits him in his room and lends him a book. The next day, the Baron speaks shockingly informally to him, then demands the book back. The Narrator ponders Saint-Loup's attitude towards his aristocratic roots, and his relationship with his mistress, a mere actress whose recital bombed horribly with his family. One day, the Narrator sees a "little band" of teenage girls strolling beside the sea, and becomes infatuated with them, along with an unseen hotel guest named Mlle Simonet. He joins Saint-Loup for dinner and reflects on how drunkenness affects his perceptions. Later they meet the painter Elstir, and the Narrator visits his studio. The Narrator marvels at Elstir's method of renewing impressions of ordinary things, as well as his connections with the Verdurins (he is "M. Biche") and Mme Swann. He discovers the painter knows the teenage girls, particularly one dark-haired beauty who is Albertine Simonet. Elstir arranges an introduction, and the Narrator becomes friends with her, as well as her friends Andrée, Rosemonde, and Gisele. The group goes for picnics and tours the countryside, as well as playing games, while the Narrator reflects on the nature of love as he becomes attracted to Albertine. Despite her rejection, they become close, although he still feels attracted to the whole group. At summer's end, the town closes up, and the Narrator is left with his image of first seeing the girls walking beside the sea.
Volume Three: The Guermantes Way
The Narrator's family has moved to an apartment connected with the Guermantes residence. Françoise befriends a fellow tenant, the tailor Jupien and his niece. The Narrator is fascinated by the Guermantes and their life, and is awed by their social circle while attending another Berma performance. He begins staking out the street where Mme de Guermantes walks every day, to her evident annoyance. He decides to visit her nephew Saint-Loup at his military base, to ask to be introduced to her. After noting the landscape and his state of mind while sleeping, the Narrator meets and attends dinners with Saint-Loup's fellow officers, where they discuss the Dreyfus Affair and the art of military strategy. But the Narrator returns home after receiving a call from his aging grandmother. Mme de Guermantes declines to see him, and he also finds he is still unable to begin writing. Saint-Loup visits on leave, and they have lunch and attend a recital with his actress mistress: Rachel, the Jewish prostitute, toward whom the unsuspecting Saint-Loup is crazed with jealousy. The Narrator then goes to Mme de Villeparisis's salon, which is considered second-rate despite its public reputation. Legrandin attends and displays his social climbing. Bloch stridently interrogates M. de Norpois about the Dreyfus Affair, which has ripped all of society asunder, but Norpois diplomatically avoids answering. The Narrator observes Mme de Guermantes and her aristocratic bearing, as she makes caustic remarks about friends and family, including the mistresses of her husband, who is M. de Charlus's brother. Mme Swann arrives, and the Narrator remembers a visit from Morel, the son of his uncle Adolphe's valet, who revealed that the "lady in pink" was Mme Swann. Charlus asks the Narrator to leave with him, and offers to make him his protégé. At home, the Narrator's grandmother has worsened, and while walking with him she suffers a stroke.
The family seeks out the best medical help, and she is often visited by Bergotte, himself unwell, but she dies, her face reverting to its youthful appearance. Several months later, Saint-Loup, now single, convinces the Narrator to ask out the Stermaria daughter, newly divorced. Albertine visits; she has matured and they share a kiss. The Narrator then goes to see Mme de Villeparisis, where Mme de Guermantes, whom he has stopped following, invites him to dinner. The Narrator daydreams of Mme de Stermaria, but she abruptly cancels, although Saint-Loup rescues him from despair by taking him to dine with his aristocratic friends, who engage in petty gossip. Saint-Loup passes on an invitation from Charlus to come visit him. The next day, at the Guermantes's dinner party, the Narrator admires their Elstir paintings, then meets the cream of society, including the Princess of Parma, who is an amiable simpleton. He learns more about the Guermantes: their hereditary features; their less-refined cousins the Courvoisiers; and Mme de Guermantes's celebrated humor, artistic tastes, and exalted diction (although she does not live up to the enchantment of her name). The discussion turns to gossip about society, including Charlus and his late wife; the affair between Norpois and Mme de Villeparisis; and aristocratic lineages. Leaving, the Narrator visits Charlus, who falsely accuses him of slandering him. The Narrator stomps on Charlus's hat and storms out, but Charlus is strangely unperturbed and gives him a ride home. Months later, the Narrator is invited to the Princesse de Guermantes's party. He tries to verify the invitation with M. and Mme de Guermantes, but first sees something he will describe later. They will be attending the party but do not help him, and while they are chatting, Swann arrives. Now a committed Dreyfusard, he is very sick and nearing death, but the Guermantes assure him he will outlive them.
Volume Four: Sodom and Gomorrah
The Narrator describes what he had seen earlier: while waiting for the Guermantes to return so he could ask about his invitation, he saw Charlus encounter Jupien in their courtyard. The two then went into Jupien's shop and had intercourse. The Narrator reflects on the nature of "inverts", and how they are like a secret society, never able to live in the open. He compares them to flowers, whose reproduction through the aid of insects depends solely on happenstance. Arriving at the Princesse's party, his invitation seems valid as he is greeted warmly by her. He sees Charlus exchanging knowing looks with the diplomat Vaugobert, a fellow invert. After several tries, the Narrator manages to be introduced to the Prince de Guermantes, who then walks off with Swann, causing speculation on the topic of their conversation. Mme de Saint-Euverte tries to recruit guests for her party the next day, but is subjected to scorn from some of the Guermantes. Charlus is captivated by the two young sons of M. de Guermantes's newest mistress. Saint-Loup arrives and mentions the names of several promiscuous women to the Narrator. Swann takes the Narrator aside and reveals the Prince wanted to admit his and his wife's pro-Dreyfus leanings. Swann is aware of his old friend Charlus's behavior, then urges the Narrator to visit Gilberte, and departs. The Narrator leaves with M. and Mme de Guermantes, and heads home for a late-night meeting with Albertine. He grows frantic when first she is late and then calls to cancel, but he convinces her to come. He writes an indifferent letter to Gilberte, and reviews the changing social scene, which now includes Mme Swann's salon centered on Bergotte.
He decides to return to Balbec, after learning the women mentioned by Saint-Loup will be there. At Balbec, grief at his grandmother's suffering, which was worse than he knew, overwhelms him. He ponders the intermittencies of the heart and the ways of dealing with sad memories. His mother, even sadder, has become more like his grandmother in homage. Albertine is nearby and they begin spending time together, but he starts to suspect her of lesbianism and of lying to him about her activities. He fakes a preference for her friend Andrée to make her become more trustworthy, and it works, but he soon suspects her of knowing several scandalous women at the hotel, including Lea, an actress. On the way to visit Saint-Loup, they meet Morel, the valet's son who is now an excellent violinist, and then the aging Charlus, who falsely claims to know Morel and goes to speak to him. The Narrator visits the Verdurins, who are renting a house from the Cambremers. On the train with him is the little clan: Brichot, who explains at length the derivation of the local place-names; Cottard, now a celebrated doctor; Saniette, still the butt of everyone's ridicule; and a new member, Ski. The Verdurins are still haughty and dictatorial toward their guests, who are as pedantic as ever. Charlus and Morel arrive together, and Charlus's true nature is barely concealed. The Cambremers arrive, and the Verdurins barely tolerate them.
Back at the hotel, the Narrator ruminates on sleep and time, and observes the amusing mannerisms of the staff, who are mostly aware of Charlus's proclivities. The Narrator and Albertine hire a chauffeur and take drives in the country, leading to observations about new forms of travel as well as country life. The Narrator is unaware that the chauffeur and Morel are acquainted, and he reviews Morel's amoral character and plans towards Jupien's niece. The Narrator is jealously suspicious of Albertine but grows tired of her. She and the Narrator attend evening dinners at the Verdurins, taking the train with the other guests; Charlus is now a regular, despite his obliviousness to the clan's mockery. He and Morel try to maintain the secret of their relationship, and the Narrator recounts a ploy involving a fake duel that Charlus used to control Morel. The passing station stops remind the Narrator of various people and incidents, including two failed attempts by the Prince de Guermantes to arrange liaisons with Morel; a final break between the Verdurins and Cambremers; and a misunderstanding between the Narrator, Charlus, and Bloch. The Narrator has grown weary of the area and prefers others over Albertine. But she reveals to him as they leave the train that she has plans with Mlle Vinteuil and her friend (the lesbians from Combray) which plunges him into despair. He invents a story about a broken engagement of his, to convince her to go to Paris with him, and after hesitating she suddenly agrees to go immediately. The Narrator tells his mother: he must marry Albertine.
Volume Five: The Prisoner
The Narrator is living with Albertine in his family's apartment, to Françoise's distrust and his absent mother's chagrin. He marvels that he has come to possess her, but has grown bored with her. He mostly stays home, but has enlisted Andrée to report on Albertine's whereabouts, as his jealousy remains. The Narrator gets advice on fashion from Mme de Guermantes, and encounters Charlus and Morel visiting Jupien and her niece, who is being married off to Morel despite his cruelty towards her. One day, the Narrator returns from the Guermantes and finds Andrée just leaving, claiming to dislike the smell of their flowers. Albertine, who is more guarded to avoid provoking his jealousy, is maturing into an intelligent and elegant young lady. The Narrator is entranced by her beauty as she sleeps, and is only content when she is not out with others. She mentions wanting to go to the Verdurins, but the Narrator suspects an ulterior motive and analyzes her conversation for hints. He suggests she go instead to the Trocadéro with Andrée, and she reluctantly agrees. The Narrator compares dreams to wakefulness, and listens to the street vendors with Albertine, then she departs. He remembers trips she took with the chauffeur, then learns Lea the notorious actress will be at the Trocadero too. He sends Françoise to retrieve Albertine, and while waiting, he muses on music and Morel. When she returns, they go for a drive, while he pines for Venice and realizes she feels captive. He learns of Bergotte's final illness. That evening, he sneaks off to the Verdurins to try to discover the reason for Albertine's interest in them. He encounters Brichot on the way, and they discuss Swann, who has died. Charlus arrives and the Narrator reviews the Baron's struggles with Morel, then learns Mlle Vinteuil and her friend are expected (although they do not come). Morel joins in performing a septet by Vinteuil, which evokes commonalities with his sonata that only the composer could create. Mme Verdurin is furious that Charlus has taken control of her party; in revenge the Verdurins persuade Morel to repudiate him, and Charlus falls temporarily ill from the shock. Returning home, the Narrator and Albertine fight about his solo visit to the Verdurins, and she denies having affairs with Lea or Mlle Vinteuil, but admits she lied on occasion to avoid arguments. He threatens to break it off, but they reconcile. He appreciates art and fashion with her, and ponders her mysteriousness. But his suspicion of her and Andrée is renewed, and they quarrel. After two awkward days and a restless night, he resolves to end the affair, but in the morning Françoise informs him: Albertine has asked for her boxes and left.
Volume Six: The Fugitive
The Narrator is anguished at Albertine's departure and absence. He dispatches Saint-Loup to convince her aunt Mme Bontemps to send her back, but Albertine insists the Narrator should ask, and she will gladly return. The Narrator lies and replies he is done with her, but she just agrees with him. He writes to her that he will marry Andrée, then hears from Saint-Loup of the failure of his mission to the aunt. Desperate, he begs Albertine to return, but receives word: she has died in a riding accident. He receives two last letters from her: one wishing him and Andrée well, and one asking if she can return. The Narrator plunges into suffering amid the many different memories of Albertine, intimately linked to all of his everyday sensations. He recalls a suspicious incident she told him of at Balbec, and asks Aime, the headwaiter, to investigate. He recalls their history together and his regrets, as well as love's randomness. Aime reports back: Albertine often engaged in affairs with girls at Balbec. The Narrator sends him to learn more, and he reports other liaisons with girls. The Narrator wishes he could have known the true Albertine, whom he would have accepted. He begins to grow accustomed to the idea of her death, despite constant reminders that renew his grief. Andrée admits her own lesbianism but denies being with Albertine. The Narrator knows he will forget Albertine, just as he has forgotten Gilberte.
He happens to meet Gilberte again; her mother Mme Swann became Mme de Forcheville and Gilberte is now part of high society, received by the Guermantes. The Narrator finally publishes an article in Le Figaro. Andrée visits him and confesses relations with Albertine and also explains the truth behind her departure: her aunt wanted her to marry another man. The Narrator finally visits Venice with his mother, which enthralls him in every aspect. They happen to see Norpois and Mme de Villeparisis there. A telegram signed from Albertine arrives, but the Narrator is indifferent and it is only a misprint anyway. Returning home, the Narrator and his mother receive surprising news: Gilberte will marry Saint-Loup, and Jupien's niece will be adopted by Charlus and then married to Legrandin's nephew, an invert. There is much discussion of these marriages among society. The Narrator visits Gilberte in her new home, and is shocked to learn of Saint-Loup's affair with Morel, among others. He despairs of their friendship.
Volume Seven: Finding Time Again
The Narrator is staying with Gilberte at her home near Combray. They go for walks, on one of which he is stunned to learn the Méséglise way and the Guermantes way are actually linked. Gilberte also tells him she was attracted to him when young, and had made a suggestive gesture to him as he watched her. Also, it was Lea she was walking with the evening he had planned to reconcile with her. He considers Saint-Loup's nature and reads an account of the Verdurins' salon, deciding he has no talent for writing.
The scene shifts to a night in 1916, during World War I, when the Narrator has returned to Paris from a stay in a sanatorium and is walking the streets during a blackout. He reflects on the changed norms of art and society, with the Verdurins now highly esteemed. He recounts a 1914 visit from Saint-Loup, who was trying to enlist secretly. He recalls descriptions of the fighting he subsequently received from Saint-Loup and Gilberte, whose home was threatened. He describes a call paid on him a few days previously by Saint-Loup; they discussed military strategy. Now on the dark street, the Narrator encounters Charlus, who has completely surrendered to his impulses. Charlus reviews Morel's betrayals and his own temptation to seek vengeance; critiques Brichot's new fame as a writer, which has ostracized him from the Verdurins; and admits his general sympathy with Germany. The last part of the conversation draws a crowd of suspicious onlookers. After parting the Narrator seeks refuge in what appears to be hotel, where he sees someone who looks familiar leaving. Inside, he discovers it to be a male brothel, and spies Charlus making arrangements for services. The proprietor turns out to be Jupien, who expresses a perverse pride in his business. A few days later, news comes that Saint-Loup has been killed in combat. The Narrator pieces together that Saint-Loup had visited Jupien's brothel, and ponders what might have been had he lived.
Years later, again in Paris, the Narrator goes to a party at the house of the Prince de Guermantes. On the way he sees Charlus, now a mere shell of his former self, being helped by Jupien. The paving stones at the Guermantes house inspire another incident of involuntary memory for the Narrator, quickly followed by two more. Inside, while waiting in the library, he discerns their meaning: by putting him in contact with both the past and present, the impressions allow him to gain a vantage outside time, affording a glimpse of the true relations of things. He realizes his whole life has prepared him for the mission of describing events as fully revealed, and (finally) resolves to begin writing. Entering the party, he is shocked at the disguises old age has given to the people he knew, and at the changes in society. Legrandin is now an invert, but is no longer a snob. Bloch is a respected writer and vital figure in society. Morel has reformed and become a respected citizen. Mme de Forcheville is the mistress of M. de Guermantes. Mme Verdurin has married the Prince de Guermantes after both their spouses died. Rachel is the star of the party, abetted by Mme de Guermantes, whose social position has been eroded by her affinity for theater. Gilberte introduces her daughter to the Narrator; he is struck by the way the daughter encapsulates both the Méséglise and Guermantes ways within herself. He is spurred to writing, with help from Françoise and despite signs of approaching death. He realizes that every person carries within himself the accumulated baggage of their past, and concludes that to be accurate he must describe how everyone gradually occupies an immense range "in Time".