À la recherche made a decisive break with the 19th century realist and plot-driven novel, populated by people of action and people representing social and cultural groups or morals. Although parts of the novel could be read as an exploration of snobbery, deceit, jealousy and suffering and although it contains a multitude of realistic details, the focus is not on the development of a tight plot or of a coherent evolution but on a multiplicity of perspectives and on the formation of experience. The protagonists of the first volume (the narrator as a boy and Swann) are, by the standards of 19th century novels, remarkably introspective and passive, nor do they trigger action from other leading characters; to contemporary readers, reared on Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Leo Tolstoy, they would not function as centers of a plot. While there is an array of symbolism in the work, it is rarely defined through explicit "keys" leading to moral, romantic or philosophical ideas. The significance of what is happening is often placed within the memory or in the inner contemplation of what is described. This focus on the relationship between experience, memory and writing and the radical de-emphasizing of the outward plot, have become staples of the modern novel but were almost unheard of in 1913.
Roger Shattuck elucidates an underlying principle in understanding Proust and the various themes present in his novel:
Thus the novel embodies and manifests the principle of intermittence: to live means to perceive different and often conflicting aspects of reality. This iridescence never resolves itself completely into a unitive point of view. Accordingly, it is possible to project out of the Search itself a series of putative and intermittent authors... The portraitist of an expiring society, the artist of romantic reminiscence, the narrator of the laminated "I," the classicist of formal structure—all these figures are to be found in Proust...
The role of memory is central to the novel, introduced with the famous madeleine episode in the first section of the novel and in the last volume, Time Regained, a flashback similar to that caused by the madeleine is the beginning of the resolution of the story. Throughout the work many similar instances of involuntary memory, triggered by sensory experiences such as sights, sounds and smells conjure important memories for the narrator and sometimes return attention to an earlier episode of the novel. Although Proust wrote contemporaneously with Sigmund Freud, with there being many points of similarity between their thought on the structures and mechanisms of the human mind, neither author read the other.
The madeleine episode reads:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder 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. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
Gilles Deleuze believed that the focus of Proust was not memory and the past but the narrator's learning the use of "signs" to understand and communicate ultimate reality, thereby becoming an artist. While Proust was bitterly aware of the experience of loss and exclusion—loss of loved ones, loss of affection, friendship and innocent joy, which are dramatized in the novel through recurrent jealousy, betrayal and the death of loved ones—his response to this, formulated after he had discovered Ruskin, was that the work of art can recapture the lost and thus save it from destruction, at least in our minds. Art triumphs over the destructive power of time. This element of his artistic thought is clearly inherited from romantic platonism, but Proust crosses it with a new intensity in describing jealousy, desire and self-doubt. (Note the last quatrain of Baudelaire's poem "Une Charogne": "Then, O my beauty! say to the worms who will / Devour you with kisses, / That I have kept the form and the divine essence / Of my decomposed love!").
Proust begins his novel with the statement, "For a long time I used to go to bed early." This leads to lengthy discussion of his anxiety at leaving his mother at night and his attempts to force her to come and kiss him goodnight, even on nights when the family has company, culminating in a spectacular success, when his father suggests that his mother stay the night with him after he has waylaid her in the hall when she is going to bed.
His anxiety leads to manipulation, much like the manipulation employed by his invalid aunt Leonie and all the lovers in the entire book, who use the same methods of petty tyranny to manipulate and possess their loved ones.
Nature of art
The nature of art is a motif in the novel and is often explored at great length. Proust sets forth a theory of art in which we are all capable of producing art, if by this we mean taking the experiences of life and transforming them in a way that shows understanding and maturity. Writing, painting, and music are also discussed at great length. Morel the violinist is examined to give an example of a certain type of "artistic" character, along with other fictional artists like the novelist Bergotte, the composer Vinteuil, and the painter Elstir.
As early as the Combray section of Swann's Way, the narrator is concerned with his ability to write, since he desires to pursue a writing career. The transmutation of the experience of a scene in one of the family's usual walks into a short descriptive passage is described and the sample passage given. The narrator presents this passage as an early sample of his own writing, in which he has only had to alter a few words. The question of his own genius relates to all the passages in which genius is recognized or misunderstood because it presents itself in the guise of a humble friend, rather than a passionate artiste.
The question of taste or judgement in art is also an important theme, as exemplified by Swann's exquisite taste in art, which is often hidden from his friends who do not share it or subordinated to his love interests.
Questions pertaining to homosexuality appear throughout the novel, particularly in the later volumes. The first arrival of this theme comes in the Combray section of Swann's Way, where the daughter of the piano teacher and composer Vinteuil is seduced, and the narrator observes her having lesbian relations in front of the portrait of her recently deceased father.
The narrator invariably suspects his lovers of liaisons with other women, a repetition of the suspicions held by Charles Swann about his mistress and eventual wife, Odette, in "Swann's Way". The first chapter of "Cities of the Plain" ("Soddom and Gomorrah") includes a detailed account of a sexual encounter between M. de Charlus, the novel's most prominent male homosexual, and his tailor. Critics have often observed that while the character of the narrator is ostensibly heterosexual, Proust intimates that the narrator is a closeted homosexual. The narrator's manner towards male homosexuality is consistently aloof, yet the narrator is unaccountably knowledgeable. This strategy enables Proust to pursue themes related to male homosexuality—in particular the nature of closetedness—from both within and without a homosexual perspective. Proust does not designate Charlus' homosexuality until the middle of the novel, in "Cities"; afterwards the Baron's ostentatiousness and flamboyance, of which he is blithely unaware, completely absorb the narrator's perception. Lesbianism, on the other hand, tortures Swann and the narrator because it presents an inaccessible world. Whereas male homosexual desire is recognizable, insofar as it encompasses male sexuality, Odette's and Albertine's lesbian trysts represent Swann and the narrator's painful exclusion from characters they desire.
There is much debate as to how great a bearing Proust's sexuality has on understanding these aspects of the novel. Although many of Proust's close family and friends suspected that he was homosexual, Proust never admitted this. It was only after his death that André Gide, in his publication of correspondence with Proust, made public Proust's homosexuality. In response to Gide's criticism that he hid his actual sexuality within his novel, Proust told Gide that "one can say anything so long as one does not say 'I'." Proust's intimate relations with such individuals as Alfred Agostinelli and Reynaldo Hahn are well-documented, though Proust was not "out and proud," except perhaps in close-knit social circles.
In 1949, the critic Justin O'Brien published an article in the PMLA called "Albertine the Ambiguous: Notes on Proust's Transposition of Sexes" which proposed that some female characters are best understood as actually referring to young men. Strip off the feminine ending of the names of the Narrator's lovers—Albertine, Gilberte, Andrée—and one has their masculine counterpart. This theory has become known as the "transposition of sexes theory" in Proust criticism, which in turn has been challenged in Epistemology of the Closet (1990) by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and in "Proust's Lesbianism" (1999) by Elisabeth Ladenson. Feminized forms of masculine names were and are commonplace in French.