I believe much of the narrative power of Proust’s prose arises from his decision to tell an autobiographical tale that, even though the narrator is in effect omniscient, he lets us learn at just the same rate as Marcel, his younger self, does. Richard L. Kopp, in Marcel Proust as Social Critic, shares this view but bases it on his interpretation of the central psychological insight of the narrator, that we are fundamentally alone, cannot know the other person, can only observe and interpret. This raises Marcel’s observations as the primary vehicle for his understanding of and subsequent disillusionment with society.
Why has Proust changed from the traditional form to what was then a relatively unfamiliar novel form to tell what is basically the same story as that found in Jean Santeuil?
The answer to this question of the change of person is related Proust’s belief that in life, i.e., in society, each individual is a completely independent entity with no means of communication with others. What is Basin like when he is not playing the role of Duc de Guermantes? We can ask this question of any character in society and the answer will always be that we do not and cannot know. Each individual in society presents an enigmatic façade which is usually called “personality.” (60)
Proust’s concept of a narrator to tell all the action is the logical outcome of his conviction that we cannot know the inner workings of the mind unless the individual makes it possible. In order to observe society, Proust says it is necessary to be in the position of an outsider: “Pour la découverte esthétique des réalités, if faut se mettre en dehors d’elles..” (Proust Notebooks). His narrator says his book will be a kind of magnifying glass through which the reader will see all of life more clearly: “The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.” (Time Regained, 322). (63)
Within the social structure he has created, Proust places his narrator in a position from which all the characters and their characteristics can be observed. The narrator finds himself in the enviable situation of being welcomed into salons where members do not easily move from one social level to another. In this way he is able to observe any social level from the inside even though he himself may remain an outsider to a particular social situation. But by his emphasis on observation of people and events, it can be said that the narrator is always an outsider. And it is from the vantage point of exterior observation that he is able to gather facts and make objective judgments. (65)
Kopp gives numerous examples of learning by observation; here is one:
When, one evening, he goes to visit the Guermantes with the secret desire of learning the validity of a dinner invitation, the narrator finds himself a witness to several scenes which he will use to judge his aristocratic hosts: the duke’s machinations to avoid knowing the seriousness of his cousin’s illness, an instance of the duchesse’s dislike of making people happy, and the lack of feeling with which they receive Swann’s announcement that he is dying. He never does learn whether the invitation was really from the princess, but he learns quite a bit about life in high society by that brief visit. and after the dinner is over he is again, conveniently, in their company when the duke is informed that his cousin is indeed dead. At this moment he has the opportunity to witness the duke’s reaction to the fait accompli; Swann, after all, could have been misled by the doctors: “Ce sont des anes.” But the narrator sees that the duke’s reaction is, paradoxically, the same. (Guermantes Way, 786-819)