The Captive

We hear from Roger Shattuck (stated by Anne Carson prior to a reading of her poem – The Albertine Workout) that if an individual is pressed for time, out of the seven volumes of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, The Captive is the one that may be fully and utterly skipped. Personally, I’m not exactly sure what this means – Proust’s style is not necessarily an ongoing narrative and our understanding does not have to do with the events that pass by through the works – but that’s fine. We’ll take his word for it. If you’ve read far enough to reach The Captive after the first four works, you already have this awareness of Proust’s intentions. The works are the opposite of action-ridden adventure stories that move in a cycle of events, so we won’t skip it here. I’ve just finished. I was struck with an idea – an idea about captivity and how Proust is using it in this sense to express his own ideas of the phenomena of life.

Albertine is the captive – that’s fairly obvious. She is locked up in the house, unable to go out without the narrator’s permission, and when she is afforded this permission and is able to move about, she is being watched by the drivers of which Marcel (the narrator suggests this could be his name, so we will go on with this for convenience sake) employs. Marcel buys her dresses, shoes, scarves, hats, etc. – items for which she consults the advice of Oriane de Guermantes and Odette Swann. Mme. de Guermantes especially hints at some items which Marcel takes a keen interest on as not being suited to roam about the house wearing. I know I have two more volumes to complete, but the messages and lessons that I received from Proust in this particular one I’ve found to be profound.

As in all the other volumes, we receive an artistic, emotional, and wonderfully intelligent Proust. We see his emotion in the remembrance of Charles Haan (whom Charles Swann, for the most part, is based upon), giving him somewhat of a short ‘eulogy’ whilst describing a painting by Tissot. It is impossible to leave this small paragraph without feeling a flood of emotion – adding to the fact that the entire first volume is devoted to Swann’s love affairs, and yet we never hear of his death around the days when it actually occurs. Only in the distant future. It’s worth reading this ‘eulogy’ and moving back to reread the scene wherein the narrator attends the Prince de Guermantes’ party – keeping in mind that this is Marcel’s last conversation with the dying Swann. Promises unfulfilled are what causes grief many times over a loved one’s death.

And yet, my dear Charles – , whom I used to know when I was still so young and you were nearing your grave, it is because he whom you must have regarded as a little fool has made you the hero of one of his volumes that people are beginning to speak of you again and that your name will perhaps live. If in Tissot’s picture representing the balcony of the Rue Royale club, where you figure with Galliffet, Edmond Polignac and Saint-Maurice, people are always drawing attention to yourself, it is because they know that there are some traces of you in the character of Swann.


During M. de Charlus’s party, hosted by the Verdurins, we receive beautiful descriptions of aesthetic theory in music and painting, during and after Morel and the performers play their never-heard-before piece by Vinteul – the piece that contained the famous little phrase that is referred to by both Marcel and Swann.

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit the strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each other them beholds, that each of them is; and this we can contrive with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star.

Just like Kant (whom Proust is prone to reference at times), the true artist is a man or woman of genius unable to teach their art, but only able to describe it. This is how artistry differs from science in their opinions, science is built up on axioms that are left for us to discover, as long as the mind is sufficient. Art is creation. This expression ends in the revealing of an entire universe to others – Kant would probably say something along the lines of the beautiful piece of art excited our faculty of Imagination in its free play, to be constrained by the Understanding in its conformity to laws – something like that.

Captivity in Proust’s context is a slippery concept for a modern reader. I’ve felt uncomfortable numerous times when I stop and imagine a person too quick to jump to conclusions (basically, most contemporary people) reading these parts out of context and being up-in-arms against Marcel for keeping this poor girl, Albertine, in captivity – ready to adhere to almost every one of Marcel’s whims. A woman is being held captive by a man who is holding her tightly within his grip and she can’t escape in any conceivable way. She grows miserable because she doesn’t have the type of freedom that she wants; whether or not that means pleasures afforded by ‘Gomorrah.’ Marcel is indifferent to her growing misery, because he wants her for himself. Though that’s what it looks like from the outside and to shallow minds, I read this as metaphorical. Captivity, for Proust, is what love in general is – hewn out of psychological-phenomenological matter. We can say what we think love is in popular meanings and from experience, but like most other things, Proust wants to get to the root, the bracketing, of our feelings.

Love is this desire to possess – to have this person with whom you’re in love be willing to be at your every ‘beck and call,’ to have them under constraint and supervision at all times, to be god-like in your powers, omnipotent and omniscient. Marcel has completely engulfed the status of Albertine’s freedom, reducing it to his own. He does not care that she’s miserable being under lock-and-key, as long as she cannot escape. That’s why her lies regarding her past and her outings fill Marcel with much grief. In a way, he wants possession of her, he has obtained this physically with her within his home, but also needs her to succumb mentally, to be everything that he wishes her to be. He needs her to live in her universe, though she has a universe of her own. I think that this is what Proust’s message about love is – it can never be fully attainable because love begins in our own person.

As Proust says, “we love only what we do not possess.” When Albertine seemingly succumbs, Marcel is bored. This small space for breath, this oscillating, undulating sphere of freedom and bondage is necessary because it reminds us of our love. It is a desire of possession. And that’s it.

In view of this possessing, this engulfing of a woman (or man) with whom we are in love, the captive is not so difficult to understand. Someone whom we physically possess – someone whom we can have in a physical sense, and we know it, but they perpetually escape our own universe because they also have minds of their own, they are not simply objects, and one universe cannot overcome another. Reading the title of the work as a metaphor adds a good understanding of Proust’s driving point. As he says, a person is a becoming – all the women whom Marcel has loved in the past seemed like mere experiments leading up to Albertine – they contained an experience that Marcel was able to grow within and eventually catch sight of his own inner desires.

In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses the heart of a woman may be enough to make him fall in love with her.

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