Home > 1920, 20th Century, Classics, History of France, Novel, Proust, Marcel > The Guermantes Way and the Dreyfus Affair.

The Guermantes Way and the Dreyfus Affair.

Le côté de Guermantes, by Marcel Proust. A la Recherche du Temps perdu, volume 3. Translated as The Guermantes Way, third volume of In Search of Lost Time 

When Proust started mentioning the Dreyfus Affair in The Guermantes Way, I put aside the novel to go and search about it on Wikipedia. It turns out there are 30 pages that give a good overlook on the affair. I had a vague idea of it and I remembered how it divided families the first time I had read Proust but I wasn’t aware of how much it had moved lines in politics at the time. There is no point for me to clumsily sum up what is already written on Wikipedia. So here is how Wikipedia sums up the Dreyfus Affair:

The Dreyfus affair (French: l’affaire Dreyfus) was a political scandal that divided France in the 1890s and the early 1900s. It involved the conviction for treason in November 1894 of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent. Sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly having communicated French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, Dreyfus was sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana and placed in solitary confinement. 

Two years later, in 1896, evidence came to light identifying a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real culprit. However, high-ranking military officials suppressed this new evidence and Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted after the second day of his trial in military court. Instead of being exonerated, Alfred Dreyfus was further accused by the Army on the basis of false documents fabricated by a French counter-intelligence officer, Hubert-Joseph Henry, seeking to re-confirm Dreyfus’s conviction. These fabrications were uncritically accepted by Henry’s superiors.  

Word of the military court’s framing of Alfred Dreyfus and of an attendant cover-up began to spread largely due to J’accuse, a vehement public open letter in a Paris newspaper by writer Émile Zola, in January 1898. The case had to be re-opened and Alfred Dreyfus was brought back from Guiana in 1899 to be tried again. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (the Dreyfusards[2]), such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clémenceau, and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Edouard Drumont (the director and publisher of the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole) and Hubert-Joseph Henry.   

Eventually, all the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless. Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army in 1906. He later served during the whole of World War I, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

As I pointed out in my posts on A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur, the Narrator depicts the rampant anti-Semitism strongly rooted in the French society. Without this and the defeat of 1870 against the Germans, it is not sure this affair would have gone so far. Two things made of Alfred Dreyfus a perfect scape-goat as he was Alsatian, the part of France annexed to Germany after the 1870 war and Jewish. He was a candidate for treason.

In The Guermantes Way, The Dreyfus Affair is in all the conversations, when the Narrator visits Saint Loup at Doncières, when he has lunch with Robert and his lover Rachel, when he calls on Mme de Villeparisis, when he meets Swann at the Guermantes. At the time, Zola is on trial and Dreyfus is still held on the Devil’s Island, which means that the novel takes place in 1898. 

The general expectations would be that the aristocracy and the military were anti-Dreyfusards and the Jews and liberal people were Dreyfusard. But the lines aren’t so clear and families are torn apart. Here are the opinions of several characters we often encounter in In Search of Lost Time:



The NarratorThe Narrator’s grand-motherRobert de Saint Loup








The Narrator’s fatherPrince de GuermantesDuc de Guermantes

Mme Swann


Married to a Jew

 The Duchesse de Guermantes does not express clearly her opinion and would rather sidetrack her interlocutor by a joke.

“In any case, if this man Dreyfus is innocent,” the Duchess broke in, “he hasn’t done much to prove it. What idiotic, raving letters he writes from that island. I don’t know whether M. Esterhazy is any better, but he does shew some skill in his choice of words, a different tone altogether. That can’t be very pleasant for the supporters of M. Dreyfus. What a pity for them there’s no way of exchanging innocents.”

 Shallow as she is, she complains about the impacts of the Affair on her social life:

“I went to see Marie-Aynard a couple of days ago. It used to be so nice there. Nowadays one finds all the people one has spent one’s life trying to avoid, on the pretext that they’re against Dreyfus, and others of whom you have no idea who they can be.”

It is fascinating for us to see how it moved the lines between the people one could be acquainted with and in all the social classes. For example, Mme Sazerat, a relative of the Narrator’s family from Combray, doesn’t greet the Narrator’s father any more as he is anti-Dreyfusard. When relating the incident, the Narrator reveals the opinions in his own family. 

“Mme. Sazerat, alone of her kind at Combray, was a Dreyfusard. My father, a friend of M. Méline, was convinced that Dreyfus was guilty. He had flatly refused to listen to some of his colleagues who had asked him to sign a petition demanding a fresh trial. He never spoke to me for a week, after learning that I had chosen to take a different line. His opinions were well known. He came near to being looked upon as a Nationalist. As for my grandmother, in whom alone of the family a generous doubt was likely to be kindled, whenever anyone spoke to her of the possible innocence of Dreyfus, she gave a shake of her head, the meaning of which we did not at the time understand, but which was like the gesture of a person who has been interrupted while thinking of more serious things. My mother, torn between her love for my father and her hope that I might turn out to have brains, preserved an impartiality which she expressed by silence. Finally my grandfather, who adored the Army (albeit his duties with the National Guard had been the bugbear of his riper years), could never, at Combray, see a regiment go by the garden railings without baring his head as the colonel and the colours passed.”

Robert de Saint Loup is Dreyfusard, which is a difficult position to hold, both as an aristocrat and a soldier. The Duc de Guermantes says about him:  “I do claim to move with the times; but damn it all, when one goes by the name of ‘Marquis de Saint-Loup’ one isn’t a Dreyfusard; what more can I say?” At Doncières, his friends disapprove of him but really like him and thus:

When the conversation became general, they avoided any reference to Dreyfus for fear of offending Saint-Loup. The following week, however, two of his friends were remarking what a curious thing it was that, living in so military an atmosphere, he was so keen a Dreyfusard, almost an anti-militarist.

 Swann, whose intelligence was abundantly described in the first volume, is a fierce Dreyfusard. It clouds his thinking:

“Dreyfusism had brought to Swann an extraordinary simplicity of mind and had imparted to his way of looking at things an impulsiveness, an inconsistency more noticeable even than had been the similar effects of his marriage to Odette; this new loss of caste would have been better described as a recasting, and was entirely to his credit, since it made him return to the ways in which his forebears had trodden and from which he had turned aside to mix with the aristocracy.”

His wife is anti-Dreyfusard, to make her acquaintances forget she married a Jew. People were judged according to the side they supported. Here is Saint Loup, trying to convince the Narrator that his cousin Poictiers is worth knowing:

“I don’t go so far as to say she’s a Dreyfusard, you must remember the sort of people she lives among; still, she did say to me: ‘If he is innocent, how ghastly for him to be shut up on the Devil’s Isle.’ You see what I mean, don’t you?

Her opinion about the Dreyfus affair is put forward to depict her temper. Isn’t that incredible? Once again, Proust doesn’t hide the anti-Semitism:

“Yes, the Prince de Guermantes,” I said, “it is true, I’ve heard that he was anti-Semitic.” “Oh, that fellow! I wasn’t even thinking about him. He carries it to such a point that when he was in the army and had a frightful toothache he preferred to grin and bear it rather than go to the only dentist in the district, who happened to be a Jew, and later on he allowed a wing of his castle which had caught fire to be burned to the ground, because he would have had to send for extinguishers to the place next door, which belongs to the Rothschilds.”

Frightening anecdotes, aren’t they?  

The Dreyfus Affair had extraordinary consequences on the French society. Zola’s intervention and the people who supported him created the concept of the “Intellectuel”. The Intellectuel is a humanist, liberal and acting as a political conscience. Their role is to rise against injustice or wake people’s consciousness. After Zola, there will be Camus, for example. It also enforced the press as the fourth power. Here is Wikipedia again on the consequences of the Dreyfus Affair: 

Political ramifications

The factions in the Dreyfus affair remained in place for decades afterward. The far right remained a potent force, as did the moderate liberals. The liberal victory played an important role in pushing the far right to the fringes of French politics. It also prompted legislation such as a 1905 law separating church and state. The coalition of partisan anti-Dreyfusards remained together, but turned to other causes. Groups such as Maurras’s Action Française, formed during the affair, endured for decades. The Vichy Regime was composed to some extent of old anti-Dreyfusards and their descendants.

 Antisemitism and birth of Zionism

The Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl had been assigned to report on the trial and its aftermath. Soon afterward, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896) and founded the World Zionist Organization, which called for the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. The anti-Semitism and injustice revealed in France by the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus had a radicalizing effect on Herzl, persuading him that Jews, despite the Enlightenment and Jewish assimilation, could never hope for fair treatment in European society. While the Dreyfus affair was not Herzl’s initial motivation, it did much to encourage his Zionism. In the Middle East, the Muslim Arab press was sympathetic to the falsely accused Captain Dreyfus, and criticized the persecution of Jews in France

Not all Jews saw the Dreyfus Affair as evidence of anti-Semitism in France, however. It was also viewed as the opposite. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas often cited the words of his father: “A country that tears itself apart to defend the honour of a small Jewish captain is somewhere worth going.”

Honestly, I didn’t get any of this the first time I read The Guermantes Way. I didn’t quote everything; it would have been too long. I strongly recommend reading a bit about the Dreyfus Affair before reading The Guermantes Way, or the reader will not fully understand the conversation in the salon at Mme de Villeparisis. I think Proust’s take on the Affair and his testimony of how it affected the society is precious. In Search of Lost Time is often seen as essentially a beautiful description of feelings, an analysis of the fleetingness of life and worldly meetings. We should not forget it is also a way to understand the politics and the society of that time.

  1. March 4, 2011 at 8:21 am

    I always tied Zola’s name to the Affair Dreyfus but never Proust’s and can see how I might have overlooked it when I read Proust as I was barely 20 then. What would have stayed in people’s minds of the Affair if it hadn’t been for Zola’s J’accuse? I was wondering the other day if people knew that the first World Zionist Congress was held in Basel, Switzerland. That is the reason why many people say Israel has been founded in Basel. That is also one of the reasons why we do not have a mosque (as a building) but a synagogue in Basel.


    • March 4, 2011 at 9:33 am

      I’m not sure we would remember the Dreyfus Affair without Zola. Literature teachers never introduce Zola’s work without talking about J’accuse.
      I remembered Proust put forward the Dreyfus Affair in his work but I hadn’t understood all the consequences back then. I discovered many things on Wikipedia.

      There are more details in the Francophone article. The Dreyfus Affair created a sort of “solidarity” between the liberals, fighting for the same cause and it resulted in the creation of political parties like the SFIO, that François Mitterrand changed into the Parti Socialiste.
      The consequences of the 1905 law separating church and state – except in Alsace-Moselle, where it doesn’t exist as it was Germany when the law was voted – are huge and still raise questions now. (Can the state finance mosques? Veils and crosses at school…)


  2. March 4, 2011 at 8:22 am

    I meant to write as well that this is a very intersting post. Very well done.


  3. leroyhunter
    March 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    Just echoing Caroline, bookaround: great post. I studied the Dreyfus affair in reasonable detail in school but that was a long time ago; the outlines remain familiar but much of the detail has gone. What was actually done to him was extraordinarily malicious. It’s remarkable as you say that it became a shorthand way of judging a person’s entire character based on their “side” in the affair.

    There’s some similarity in the way Joyce uses the downfall of Charles Stewart Parnell in his writing. Parnell was a nationalist politician who dominated the Westminister parliament in the 1870s and 1880s, and nearly (with the Prime Minister, Gladstone) got “home rule” for Ireland passed, which would have made the country self-governing. He was immensely charismatic and popular, but he had an affair with a married woman and became embroiled in a divorce action (a huge scandal at the time as you can imagine) which lead to his downfall. The divisions about this were bitter and familial as you describe with Dreyfus. Joyce’s view was that the split was typical of Irish small-mindedness and moral hypocrisy (he was an ardent Parnellite) and that’s reflected in episodes in all his books where the characters take sides. Anyone deviating from the norm (he includes himself as an artist, naturally) is doomed to scorn and rejection by his countrymen.


    • March 4, 2011 at 5:41 pm

      Glad you liked it. I don’t think I studied the Dreyfus Affair in school. History classes leap from Waterloo to WWI, I don’t know why. nothing about the 30 years war to conquer Algeria for example or about all the different political regimes.

      I don’t know much about Irish history but I ‘ve heard of Parnell in Anne Perry’s novels. Well sometimes you can learn things in crime fiction. I’ve never read Joyce it frightens me.


      • leroyhunter
        March 4, 2011 at 9:03 pm

        Well I suppose a lot of people are frightened by Proust as well, so it’s really just a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

        No need to be scared of Dubliners – start there (if you’re interested) and see if you like it. Wonderful short stories, including one of the greatest ever, The Dead.


        • March 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm

          It’s silly I know. I’ll look for Dubliners thanks. I haven’t read any Irish literature, I think. something I should change.


  4. March 4, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    There’s a good film on the topic for anyone interested: Prisoner of Honour told from Picquart’s point of view.


    • March 5, 2011 at 9:28 am

      Thanks. It’s certainly interesting to follow the events through Picquart’s eyes.


  5. March 5, 2011 at 7:30 am

    The Dubliners is one of my ten favourite books. It is very readable and even Ulysses is not complicated at all, just loads of different styles, quite fascinating. Finnegans Wake might not be the best to start with.


    • March 5, 2011 at 9:35 am

      I wanted to download a sample of Dubliners on the kindle, to see if I could read it in English. But I don’t have access to the American free version available on the Kindle Store because I live in Europe. Frustrating.
      I need to visit an international bookstore, then.


  6. March 6, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Thank you very much for this post: it is fascinating.

    My first acquaintance with the Dreyfus Affair was through an old Hollywood film – The Life of Emile Zola – featuring Paul Muni as Zola. Of course, the history is very “Hollywoodized”, but it did make me aware of this matter. It was only later that the impact of this affair struck me.

    It is interesting how powerful a theme antisemitism is in the two novels often regarded as the greatest of the last century – A la Recherche du Temps perdu and Ulysses.


  7. March 9, 2011 at 12:14 am

    That was a tremendous post. Absolutely fascinating.

    Thank you. When I get to this volume I’ll reread this and read more on the Dreyfus affair. My knowledge of it was frankly scanty.

    Oh, and I also recommend The Dubliners.


    • March 9, 2011 at 8:37 am

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      To everyone : I have Dubliners now. I’ll try in English and if I stumble upon too many Irish words I don’t know, I’ll get it in translation.


  8. March 14, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Another superb analysis – you do write very interesting reviews.

    As an aside, I recently read The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal and discovered that one of the authors ancestors was the model for Charles Swann. The book provides much background on him http://acommonreader.org/edmunddewaa/


    • March 14, 2011 at 9:32 am

      Thanks for the reference, I’ll read your review.

      Charles Haas would have been the model for Charles Swann, Maurice Sachs mentioned it too in Au Temps du Boeuf sur le toit.


  9. April 24, 2011 at 9:03 am

    I have never seen a post on Proust with so many comments.

    Most English speaking bloggers only write about their determination to “tackle” Proust now or never, and there are a few who regularly report on their progress and wish to be congratulated on their stamina.

    I think the Montcrieff translation is bad. It makes Proust sound stale.


    • April 25, 2011 at 7:57 pm

      Thanks for visiting and for your nice message.
      My blog is in English but I don’t consider myself as an English-speaking blogger. I’m French and though I write English, it is not without efforts.
      As for the comments, I’m that lucky to have several regular readers who leave interesting comments. Thanks guys…


  10. April 26, 2011 at 10:03 am

    And did you read some Temps Perdu in English?!

    I tried, because I don’t have any French speaking friends, but spend all my time preaching Proust, since I have read more Proust than anything else, and since I know some of his characters better than I know almost anybody around.

    So I also read him in Spanish, not much, (but now that I mention it, that’s what I’ll start reading again now:). In Spain his pulishers employed a real poet as a translator, a name that rings a bell, Pedro Salinas.


    • April 26, 2011 at 4:23 pm

      I read Proust in French. Then I write the posts in English and select the quotes in French. Then I get the Scott Moncrief translation that’s available online for free and I look for the quotes in English. My English isn’t good enough for me to translate Proust. I write the quotes in both languages as some of my regular readers can read French. Right, my choice to blog in English doesn’t make my life easier but it’s more interesting.

      Here is a place where you’re not preaching Proust in a desert. You can find other posts on Proust on Max’s blog (Pechorin’s Journal) and on Richard’s blog (Caravana de Recuerdos) : the links are in my blog roll. You might be particularly interested in Richard’s blog as he also writes in Spanish.

      I suppose your French is more than excellent since you can read Proust in the original, he’s not an easy writer. I like when translations are done by other writers or poets; I’m convinced they’re better, if they put their talent at the service of the book they translate.


  11. April 26, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I’m presently reading Within a Budding Grove (in English) and am around 175 pages or so in (so making fairly good progress). I hope to have it finished in a week or so after which I’ll write up my thoughts.

    Prosut is daunting, but so rewarding too. It’s some of the best prose I’ve ever read, not that I need to tell you that.


    • April 26, 2011 at 5:23 pm

      I’ve just seen on your blog that you’re reading Proust again. I’m impatient to read your thoughts about it. And that’s not a figure of speech.


  12. July 18, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    When I discovered that I could download all of the Recherche (in French) to my Kindle for a mere $2.45, I couldn’t possible pass up the bargain, and am now struggling through it (almost at the end of vol. iii, Guermantes, and whether I’ll pursue it further, I don’t know). One of my favourite characters in the drearily pretentious society of the Faubourg St.-Germain is the Princesse de Parme, absolutely certain of her position in the world since a) she’s the descendant of royalty since the 7th century AD, and b) God has decreed that she hold practically all the shares in the Suez Canal and three times as many in Royal Dutch Shell as Edmond de Rothschild (and the world will always need petroleum)

    What’s a bit astounding is that (unless I missed it) the Narrator never tells us which side he’s on in the Dreyfus controversy. Perhaps that comes later.


    • July 19, 2015 at 5:38 pm

      I love comments on older posts. How did you find me? Good old google?

      Your comment about the Princesse de Parme is spot on.

      The narrator never takes side in the Dreyfus Affair. At least not openly. However, I think he was for Dreyfus. (As was Marcel Proust, btw)


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