_____The narrator begins with "a little incident whose cruel significance escaped me entirely and which I only came to understand much later." He arrives home unexpectedly early one day to find Andrée leaving and when, having forgotten his key, Albertine comes to let him in there is a bit of confusion about finding the light switch and about the fragrant bunch of flowers he is carrying -- Albertine "hates strong scents," as Andrée has reminded him. "I had almost surprised her with Andrée, and she had given herself a breathing-space by switching off all the lights, had gone into my bedroom so that I should not go into hers and see her unmade bed, and pretended to have been writing." The narrator promises that he will explain all this later.
There follows a lengthy analysis of his relationship with Albertine. The real person has grown over-familiar to him, and he appreciates her best when he can work her into his imaginative life, merging his idea of her with works of art and music and literature, "escaping the crushing pressure of matter and floating free in the weightless spaces of thought.... At that moment she seemed like a work of Elstir or of Bergotte, I felt a lofty enthusiasm for her, seeing her distanced by imagination and art." We have seen something similar a long time ago, when the young narrator prioritized the imagination over nature.
He has continued to keep her residence in his home a secret from his friends, for fear that one of them "might take a fancy to her." She in her turn continues to keep secrets from him. "Our engagement was turning into a trial and giving her the timid manner of a guilty prisoner." But she seems agreeable to the arrangement, telling him: "I think it's stupid to let people see who you love; with me it's the opposite, as soon as I'm attracted to somebody, I seem to take no notice of them. That way nobody knows what's going on."
He continues to lavish her with clothes, and "for the final details of several of them I had written to Mme Swann, who had replied in a letter beginning with the words, 'After your long eclipse, when I read your letter asking about my robes de chambre, I thought I was hearing from a ghost.'" Albertine is "developing into a woman of fashion," thanks to his consultations with the Duchesse and with Odette.
The narrator has concluded that "love is often only the association between the image of a girl (of whom otherwise we would very quickly have tired) and the increased heart rate inseparable from a long, futile wait when the young lady has 'stood us up.'" But he notes that Jupien's niece was undergoing a similar problem with Morel, thanks to his relationship with Charlus. The chauffeur "had praised to her the violinist's supposed infinite delicacy of feeling" while Morel was "telling her what a slave driver M. de Charlus was to him." But then she "discovered in Morel (though it did not make her stop loving him) depths of wickedness and treachery ... and in M. de Charlus an astonishing and limitless kindness." So she is as confused about "what, each in himself, the violinist and his protector were" just as the narrator is "about Andrée, whom I saw every day, and Albertine, who lived in my house."
In the end, it all comes down to the narrator's desire to possess Albertine, a possession that would in essence stop time, suspend its changes. He relishes most the times when she is sound asleep, and he can have the illusion of time in suspension: "Having her asleep at my side offered something as sensually delicious as my moonlit nights on the bay at Balbec, when the water was calm as a lake amid scarcely moving branches, and one could lie on the beach forever, listening to the sound of the sea." (A conventional symbol of eternity.) While she sleeps, "Whole races, atavisms, vices slept in her face. Every time she moved her head she created a new woman, often undreamed of by me. I felt that I possessed not one, but innumerable young girls." When he kisses her without awakening her, "It seemed to me at those moments that I had possessed her more completely, like an unconscious and unresisting part of dumb nature."
And then, as she awakens, comes a famous passage:
Now she began to speak; her first words were ''darling" or ''my darling,'' followed by my Christian name, which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book, would produce "darling Marcel" or "my darling Marcel."This audacious bit of what might be called metafiction has given many license to refer to the narrator of the entire book as Marcel. I'm of two minds about that: For one thing, "Marcel" is easier to type than "the narrator." On the other hand, to call the narrator Marcel is to fall into the trap of identifying narrator with author, which despite the often intensely autobiographical nature of the Search, is to take the easy way out. Proust has always relied on free indirect style, which as James Wood puts it, allows us to "see things through the character's eyes and language but also through the author's eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once." To fuse the narrator and author of the Search into one is to deprive us of the authorial point of view on the narrator, to suggest that he endorses the ideas and emotions of the narrator, when it's clear that he often opens his narrator to criticism.
Another thing to remember is that The Prisoner went unpublished during its author's lifetime: It's entirely possible that Proust might have had second thoughts about this casual breaking down of the fourth wall before he went to print with the book. To have the narrator point out that he's just a narrator and not the author of the work is a betrayal of the contract that the reader makes with an author: that his story should be treated as truth, not fiction. We, the readers, have forgiven the author much, including his frequent violations of point of view -- telling of events the narrator couldn't have witnessed, and even entering into the thoughts of other characters. But this is a more major breach of contract. And it comes at a point when Proust is trying to make the intricacies of a strange sexual and psychological relationship as credible as possible. Frankly, I think he made a mistake with the narrator/Marcel identification, so I'm going to ignore it.