Part II, Chapter II, from "No sooner had the order to serve dinner..." to "...and make her decline further invitations."
They go in to dinner with the Duchesse on the narrator's arm, a process like "an artfully contrived puppet theater" or a "vast, ingenious, obedient, and sumptuous human clockwork." And for all the formality and grandeur of the scene, the narrator joins in "the more readily because the Guermantes attached no more importance to it than a truly learned man does to his learning, with the result that one is less intimidated in his company than in that of an ignoramus."
And so the narrator launches into an analysis of the Guermantes way of thinking and behaving. It is a portrait of an aristocracy long after its day had passed, of manners and comportment that were nearly wiped out a century earlier by the revolution. The Duc's "grandeur" consists in an "indifference to the splendor of his surroundings, his consideration for a guest, however insignificant, who he wished to honor." And the Duchesse "would not have admitted Mme. de Cambremer or M. de Forcheville to her society. But the moment anyone appeared eligible for admission to the Guermantes circle (as was the case with me), this courtesy disclosed a wealth of hospitable simplicity even more splendid, if such a thing is possible, than those historic rooms and their marvelous furniture."
There is, however, a certain duality about the Guermantes, an inconsistency between the surface grace and the inner life. The Duc is "a man of touching kindness and unspeakable inflexibility, a slave to the most petty obligations yet not to the most sacred commitments," exhibiting "the same aberration that typified court life under Louis XIV, which removes scruples of conscience from the domain of the affections and morality and transforms them into questions of pure form."
As usual, the narrator has to overcome an initial disillusionment: "But, in the same way as Balbec or Florence, the Guermantes, after initially disappointing the imagination by having more in common with the rest of humanity than with their name, were subsequently capable, though to a lesser degree, of presenting various distinctive characteristics as food for thought." To wit, such physical traits as the men's hair, "massed in soft, golden tufts, halfway between wall lichen and cat fur." And he eventually perceives a weakness underlying their superior manner:
Later on, I realized that the Guermantes did indeed think of me as belonging to a different breed, but one that aroused their envy, because I possessed merits of which I was unaware, and which they professed to regard as the only things that mattered. Later still, I came to feel that this profession of faith was only half sincere, and that in their responses to things admiration and envy went hand in hand with scorn and astonishment.
There is, he learns a rival branch of the family, the Courvoisiers.
For a Guermantes (even a stupid one), to be intelligent meant to have a scathing tongue, to be capable of making tart comments, of not taking no for an answer; it also meant the ability to hold one's own in painting, music, and architecture alike, and to speak English. The Courvoisiers had a less exalted notion of intelligence, and unless one belonged to their world, being intelligent came close to meaning "having probably murdered one's parents."
Meeting a Guermantes could be a bit of an ordeal:
when the Guermantes in question, after a lightning tour of the last hiding places of your soul and your integrity, had deemed you worthy to consort with him in future, his hand, directed toward you at the end of an arm stretched out to its full length, seemed to be presenting a rapier for single combat, and the hand was in fact placed so far in front of the Guermantes himself at that moment that when he proceeded to bow his head it was difficult to distinguish whether it was yourself or his own hand he was acknowledging.
Even their movements are idiosyncratic. "But, given the sheer size of the corps de ballet involved, it is not possible to describe here the richness of this Guermantes choreography."
We are reminded in the midst of all this deftly satirical analysis of some facts we may have forgotten. For example, that the Duchesse de Guermantes is someone we met way back in Swann's Way as the Princesse des Laumes, and that she and her husband inherited the title of Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes on the death of her father-in-law. And that although the Princess of Parma outranks her socially, the Duchesse is more exclusive in her invitations than the Princess, refusing to allow entree of some people she has met at the Princess's home: "the same rule applied to a drawing room in a social as in a physical sense: it would take only a few pieces of furniture that were not particularly pleasing but had been put there to fill the room, and as a sign of the owner's wealth, to turn it into something dreadful.... Like a book, like a house, the quality of a salon, Mme de Guermantes quite rightly thought, depended essentially on what you excluded."