By: Fereshteh Priou
Class distinction in French society came under major changes at the turn of the last century. In his book, “In Search of Lost Time”, Proust examines this development and illustrates the turning of the tides and the mixing of the aristocracy with the bourgeoisie. The origin of Bourgeoisie in Western Europe dates back to the Middle Ages, when cities were walled and access was limited. Those within were considered privileged city people and called bourgeois - inhabitants of the “Bourg” or borough - as compared to peasants who lived in the country side. The Bourgeoisie was comprised mainly of skilled workers and merchants. They acted as middlemen between peasants and the upper classes which included noblemen, landowners and clergy. Within the Bourgeois class, there were several levels depending on the person’s position or wealth. The lower tier of French bourgeoisie was called “Petite Bourgeoisie” and the upper level referred to as “Haute Bourgeoisie.” The term Petit Bourgeois is often used by French as a derogatory word indicating a person with lower class mentality whose main ambition is to identify with the Haute Bourgeoisie or upper classes. In many of his plays, the 17th century dramatist Moliere, ridiculed the bourgeoisie and their mores and manners, but the debasement was also influenced by the communist doctrine painting bourgeoisie as selfish and materialistic individuals concerned with pursuit of mindless endeavors and a lack of intellectual depth. Even though this description summarizes the mindset of a large section of the population, regardless of one’s station in life, such characterization was attributed specifically to the bourgeois class. This was due to the scrutiny placed on this class by authors and philosophers and by the fact that the bourgeois class comprised a great portion of the society.
Marcel Proust came from a Bourgeois family - his father was a doctor and the first person in his family with higher education, while his mother was of wealthy Jewish background. The narrator of Proust’s book, “In Search of Lost Time” is similarly depicted as belonging to the bourgeois class. The narrator’s father is a functionary in the Foreign Ministry and his mother’s family belongs to the higher middle class. In the book, the narrator’s maternal grandmother was a schoolmate of Mme. De Villeparisis who belonged to the aristocratic Guermantes family. The two women remain good friends into their old age. This indicates the upper middle class background of the family.
A social climber himself, Proust filled his book with vast discussions of different social classes within French society, which in the turn of preceding century was slowly losing its distinction. Proust depicts different classes of society filled with hypocrites who are cruel in their behavior and actively engaged in one-upmanship and constantly trying to prove their own superiority over others. Snobbism runs rampant in the book and snide remarks regarding others’ background is gratuitously uttered at every possible opportunity.
Like Proust himself, the narrator is a typical bourgeois and a social climber who uses every opportunity to gain access to the prestigious salons of the aristocrats. His preoccupation and obsession with nobility is shared by many other characters in the book. In social gatherings, the characters constantly position themselves so as to please the group they aspire to belong to. They mostly come through as frauds and fakes – as if they are wearing masks to hide their true nature. One of the characters, Mr. Legrandin claims that he hates the aristocracy while in reality, he is enamored with them and will jump at any opportunity to hobnob with them. Another character, Mr. de Charlus who is a homosexual, berates all homosexuals in social gatherings, oblivious of the fact that everyone is well aware of his true nature and his sexual preferences.
The disappearance of the aristocracy - which never fully materialized after the French Revolution - and the dissolution of the social classes, as well as merging of the moneyed Bourgeoisie into the aristocracy through marriage are all shown in the last volume of Proust’s book, where we see the reversal of fortunes. Ordinary albeit wealthy Mme. Verdurain loses her husband, marries the most blue-blooded of the aristocrats, Duc de Guermantes and becomes the new Duchess de Guermantes and Odette, a simple courtesan who married Swann by seducing him, and Gilberte, her daughter with him never gained access to the salons of the aristocrats while Swann was alive despite his efforts. They were in fact shunned, not only by the aristocrat Guermantes family who were close friends of Swann, but also with bourgeois families such as the narrators’ parents, also close friends. The reversal of fortune for Swann’s wife and daughter occurs after his death, when Odette inherits his fortune and marries the nobleman; de Fourcheville and Gilberte changes her name to the titled name of his step-father and eventually marries into the Guermantes family – hence achieving the ultimate access she and her parents craved all their life.
Another event discussed extensively in the book which contributed to blurring social class distinctions was the famous political scandal of the era, the Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus, an officer in the French Army, was accused of treason by selling military secrets to Germans. The French society of the time was totally divided between Dreyfusards, who believed in his innocence and anti-Dreyfusards, who didn’t. The latter were largely aristocrats and government functionaries, while the former were mostly liberals, artists, intellectuals and portions of the bourgeoisie. But there were exceptions - Robert de Saint-Loup, a young nobleman was a Dreyfusard, much to the annoyance of his family, while Swann’s wife, Odette declared herself an anti-Dreyfusard even though her husband was Jewish. This endeared her to the aristocrats and was one of the reasons for her to finally gain access to the gatherings where she was formerly snubbed. The Dreyfus affair had an important role in eroding the historically rigid class distinctions as the 19th century ended and the 20th began.
Reading Proust is enlightening, not just in providing glimpses into human psychology and human condition, but also informative about the French society of the time, the class distinctions and the ongoing struggle of the bourgeoisie to ascend.
Article by: Fereshteh Priou - September 2019