Posted by: Sally Ingraham | December 13, 2010

The Prisoner

The Prisonerby Marcel Proust
translated by Carol Clark

When I finished Sodom and Gomorrah in May, I proclaimed that Marcel and his love life annoyed me. I was informed that if this was the case, I was in for a long haul with the remaining books. More (so much more) from the tortured soul of Marcel was in store. I heaved a deep sigh, but forged on.

Seven months later, four of which were spent actively reading the 6th volume of In Search of Lost Time (off and on, you know), I can report that I am finally seeing the humor in the situation that my fellow readers mentioned as their reason for sticking with Marcel. In The Prisoner it becomes abundantly clear that “Proust the author understands what a tool Marcel the character is being” (to borrow a brilliant comment from Emily of Evening All Afternoon!)

In this volume, Marcel has Albertine right where he wants her – living in his house, at his constant beck and call and under his suffocating supervision. He is certain that he can keep her away from the eyes and hands of her girlfriends, real or imaginary, which at this point seems to be his very reason for living. Or at least he has a few precious moments of certainty, surrounded by hours and hours (and pages and pages) of agonized worry that this is far from the truth. His own attraction to her varies from day to day, careening from utter loathing to boredom to a devotion that compels him to buy her dresses and sweets and perhaps even a yacht if one catches her fancy. He obsessively tracks her every move, sending friends to spy on her and then suspecting those very spies of being her lovers. At the same time, he longs for other women and entertainments and even though he knows it would destroy him, he wishes Albertine would throw off her fetters and leave him. In the end, his own jealousies cause him endless suffering, and ‘the prisoner’ of the title begins to seem more and more to be Marcel himself, and not Albertine.

Do I feel sorry for this poor sap? There is a degree of sympathy in me, buried in mounds of mirth. Marcel, Marcel, Marcel…what am I going to do with you? The frustration I felt after finishing Sodom and Gomorrah has boiled over into something else – a giddy fascination in the inevitable and amusing ability of human beings to muck up their lives and the lives of those around them. We all have it to a degree, and perhaps that is why Proust’s story is so compelling. On some level almost anyone can identify with this character. Perhaps we can learn a few things from him too – I know I am.

As always, the moments of incredible insight into the workings of the mind, memory, and music, among other things, continue to make Proust’s book worth reading. At this point though, I am finally invested in the character of Marcel too. And with only a couple more volumes to see where Proust is going with all this, I’m eager to keep reading. Next up, The Fugitive.


  1. Excellent observations. Proust is sneaky.

    • Sneaky is a good word for it. 🙂

  2. Haha! I don’t remember saying that, but I am apparently funny. 🙂

    I agree that a big reason Marcel’s obsession with Albertine (and Swann’s earlier obsession with Odette) is so compelling is that it’s an impulse we’ve probably all had, but taken to an extreme and then painstakingly picked apart for examination. Even if I didn’t relate to the action of keeping someone locked up in my house, I did relate to the experience of becoming bored with some aspect of my life but not wanting to let go of it, for example.

    • Hee, yup, you called Marcel on his tool-ness when you commented on my Sodom and Gomorrah post. 🙂

      It’s that painstaking examination that has kept me coming back, even when Marcel was driving me bananas. It was fun to have him also explain WHY he was doing so. Not sure if it made him seem saner or just made me feel less crazy!

  3. where Proust is going with all this

    The amazing thing is, he is going somewhere. The ending – the last forty or fifty pages of Time Regained – is wonderful.

    • It’s kind of a relief to hear that! I was nearly certain, but not completely. 🙂

  4. I didn’t make it to this volume yet but from what you write I think most of the sentimental feeling in Proust’s work is obsessive (I have a hard time calling this love, as you may have noticed). It’s always rather an illness than joy and certainly not liberating… Jealousy is one of the great themes of Proust … Fortunately there is a lot more in his books than that.

    • Fortunately indeed!

      Love as an illness is not my favorite theme, but it certainly is a fascinating state that human beings all to readily submit to. WHY? Proust is good at asking, but it remains to be seen if he has any answers…

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