Albertine Has Left: A Meditation on Mourning

by Tara Roeder

July 10, 2012


There’s an excess, a wild expenditure, in the Proustian narrator’s account of mourning in The Fugitive that is both comforting and strange. Far from outlining a series of linear stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), the narrative of grief we encounter is comprised of a lush and complex series of connections, slippages, disruptions, contradictions, and repetitions. This essay, formatted in a series of 17 “groups” (from “objects” to “orality” to “writing”) explores the psychological figurations of mourning developed, dismantled, and reconfigured throughout the text.


Tara Roeder

St. John’s University


Albertine Has Left: A Meditation on Mourning


I decided to continue such exchanges until I had got over my pain by comparing it with other people’s, or had worn out my own story through sheer repetition…

                                                —Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain


Absence becomes an active practice […] there is a creation of a fiction which has many roles (doubts, reproaches, desires, melancholies).

                                                —Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse


[A]s he swam, he realized that the curiosity occupying more and more of his mind was to know the outcome […] of the story of Albertine.  Would Marcel find her again, or not?

                                                —Italo Calvino, “The Adventure of  a Reader”



            There’s an excess, a wild expenditure, in the Proustian narrator’s account of mourning in The Fugitive that is both comforting and strange.  Far from outlining a series of linear stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), the narrative of grief we encounter is comprised of a lush and complex series of connections, slippages, disruptions, contradictions, and repetitions.

In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler writes:    

Perhaps […] one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly forever.  Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation […] the full result of which one cannot know in advance.  There is losing, as we know, but there is also the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned. (Butler 21)


In many ways, The Fugitive is an account of such a transformation, the anxiety, anguish, and hope it entails.  There’s no “Story” of mourning, but there are countless stories, and the narrator tries many of them out: maudlin, poignant, tragic, brusque, promising, cruel.  While The Fugitive does function as a narrative, leading from the shock of Albertine’s death to the narrator’s realization that he no longer loves her, this narrative is also disrupted in numerous ways, through memory, contradiction, and return.  “I tell a story about the relations I choose, only to expose, somewhere along the way, the way I am gripped and undone by these very relations.  My narrative falters, as it must” (Butler 23).  The Fugitive is a litany of possibilities for mourning, and also a search for the modes capable of describing and evoking these possibilities.

As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick reminds us in her beautifully wrought essay “The Weather in Proust,” Proust’s “psychology of surprise and refreshment, desolation and dread” complicates an Oedipal logic that “invokes the either/or logical laws of noncontradiction and the excluded middle term, where inside is the opposite of outside, passive is the opposite of active, and […] desire is the opposite of identification” (5).  Likewise, The Fugitive, with its insistence on rupture and recurrence, productively unsettles received wisdom of mourning as a linear process.  My goal in this essay is not to make a tidy argument that defines the role of mourning in the novel, but rather to explore some of the multiple configurations around which the narrator structures his experiences of desire, regret, remembering, and forgetting in relation to the death of Albertine.  By approaching the novel in this fashion, I hope to unsettle our own relationship to the text as narrative, offering multiple (though obviously not exhaustive) and heteroclite angles that illuminate the rich, perverse, and poignant ways in which the Proustian narrator comes to make sense of loss. 



group one: objects


We have left traces of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries every bit as precious in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensées. (508)


            For the Proustian narrator, traces of the absent Albertine infuse objects with meaning:

I made my way around the room, but with infinite caution, I took up positions where I would not catch sight of Albertine’s chair, the pianola whose pedals had felt the pressure of her golden slippers, or any of the objects which she had used, and which all, in the private language that my memory had taught them, seemed to offer me a new translation, another draft, announcing the news of her departure a second time. (397-398)


Awakening memories of her presence in the narrator, these objects “speak” Albertine’s absence in new ways and re-awaken the pain of separation.

            For Winnicott, a transitional object (whether blanket or word) is representative of both mothering and independence/creativity, gradually allowing the infant to separate from her mother by diminishing the anxiety accompanying the separation.  Proustian objects lack the benign comfort of the Winnicottian teddy bear, but still provide a link between the subject and the absent figure (the mother or, in this case, Albertine).  An investment of emotional energy tethers the narrator to these objects:      

[H]er charm had gradually permeated objects which finally became very distant from her, but were nonetheless galvanized by the same emotions as those she inspired in me, if something made me think of Incarville, or the Verdurins, or Léa’s latest role, a wave of suffering flooded over me. (433)


What is evoked by the objects and names “permeated” by Albertine’s charm is primarily suffering/pain, although at times the “pangs” associated with these objects and the memories they induce have a poignant power of consolation:

Even when she gradually ceased to be present in my thoughts and all-powerful in my heart, I felt a sudden pang if I had to go into her room, light a lamp and sit down beside the pianola […] Divided into diverse divinities of hearth and home, she long inhabited a candle flame, a doorknob, or the back of a chair… (488)

A source of both sadness and solace, Albertine’s presence lingers on in the objects she had contact with.  “Each object thus consecrated […] becomes like the stone of Bologna, which by night gives off the rays it has accumulated during the day” (Barthes 173).  Even in Venice, after the narrator pretends that the telegram he mistakenly believes is from Albertine has been misdelivered, the sight of a coat similar to hers is enough to cause a resurgence of “desire [and] melancholy” (611).  The power to resuscitate the emotions of former selves—emotions associated with the loss of Albertine—resides in the objects connected with her.  Indeed, one object in particular—the narrator’s bed in Balbec—becomes a central point of connection around which the events of the narrator’s life can make sense in relation to each other (507), concretizing the relationships among his grandmother, Albertine, and their respective deaths, making it a tangible center of what the narrator of Finding Time Again will come to call “a mythology of relations” (283).


group two: perversity/law


[I]t was because I desperately wanted her to return before a week had elapsed that I said ‘Farewell’ to her. (424)


            One of the perverse and complex laws that informs The Fugitive is that our actions must be in dissidence with our desires.  This impulse—“I had said to Albertine in the past ‘I do not love you’, in order to get her to love me, […] ‘I have decided to leave you’, in order to pre-empt any idea of separation” (424)—is convoluted in origin, connected to paranoid-reflexivity[1] and a complex system of Proustian laws that limit the possibilities of desire and its fulfillment.

            When the narrator does finally “abandon all pride,” sending Albertine a “desperate telegram asking her to return on any terms” (443), it is inevitable that the reply should be not a telegram from her, but one bearing news of her death.  

            (And also perhaps inevitable that a letter expressing her desire to return, should, crossing one of his own that begs her to, arrive posthumously.)

            Likewise, “gradually all the things which we have falsely alleged come true” (429).  When we think we are “faking it” (474), our words are inscribing our fate.  Albertine’s “goodbye” letter (the sentiments of which are ostensibly, for her, revoked by her letter expressing intent to return) accrues the force, retrospectively, of a premonition: “I leave you the best of myself […] That moment, with its twofold twilight […] will never be erased from my mind until utter darkness finally invades it” (474).  These words, false when uttered, have become true.              Similarly, when the narrator lies that he will forget Albertine (424), this also ensures its future truth.

            Ultimately, Albertine’s death allows the narrator to learn the Proustian paradox of desire: we inevitably attain what we desire, but only when our desire for it has passed.  The narrator, freed by Albertine’s death to pursue the objects of his desires, now realizes that what made him desire pleasures other than Albertine was Albertine herself.  Without her as an “obstacle” preventing him from attaining those things he wanted (Venice, other women), these pleasures have lost their “pleaurable-ness”; their “taste.” 


group three: jealousy


In jealousy there is neither past nor future… (457)


            For the narrator, jealousy has a remarkable resuscitative power; it, like trauma, is always ever in the present:

A woman no longer capable of experiencing pleasure with other women should no longer have excited my jealousy, if only I could have brought my affections up to date.  But this was impossible, because they could locate their object, Albertine, only in memories where she still lived on.  Since at any moment when I thought of her, I resuscitated her, her infidelities could never be those of a dead woman […] In jealousy there is neither past nor future, for what it imagines is always present. (457)


After her death, the narrator’s jealousy of Albertine becomes a cruel paradox.  Unlike women, jealousy doesn’t die, and the narrator’s jealousy remains in search of an object.  His jealousy, like his affection for Albertine (the two are bound), can only locate this object in the memories of a past in which Albertine lives.  Her actions, his jealousy, are thus forever situated in the present, in the act of remembering.  But, since Albertine is not, there is no longer a way for her to assuage his torment.

            The connection between emotion (“heart”) and memory is troped as an electrical current:

There were moments when communications between my heart and my memory were cut.  What Albertine had done with the laundry-maid was no longer signified by anything more than an almost algebraic shorthand which meant nothing to me: yet a hundred times an hour the current was restored and my heart was scorched by a hellish and pitiless fire as I saw Albertine brought truly back to life by my jealousy, stretching out beneath the caresses of the young laundry-maid, telling her, “I’m in heaven.” (494)


At times when the circuit is open, whatever vestiges of Albertine’s experience remain inscribed on the narrator’s brain become “algebraic shorthand”—meaningless.  When closed, however, the reviving power of the memory/emotion circuit is intensely powerful, resuscitating not only the jealousy of the narrator, but Albertine herself, whose imagined cries of “I’m in heaven” cause the narrator’s heart to be “scorched” by the “pitiless” fires of hell.


group four: multiple selves


No doubt it is because memories do not remain true forever, and because life is made up of the endless renewal of cells, that love is not eternal. (557)


The narrator’s notion of an endless, renewable succession of selves is a source of sadness, anxiety, marvel, and hope.

Multiple selves multiply the pain of loss:

[A]t every moment, I had to meet one of those countless, humble selves that  compose us who had not yet learnt of Albertine’s departure and inform them of it.  (398)


Each self experiences this sorrow for the first time, “cruelly borrowing” the narrator’s “sensitivity in order to suffer” (398).  The emergence of the forgotten selves themselves

(e.g. the “self that I was when I had my hair cut”) becomes both a source of sadness and consolation, analogous to “the arrival at a funeral of an old, retired servant who knew the lady who had just died” (398). 

            Albertine too is composed of multiple selves; mourning thus becomes a daunting (and sadly comic) prospect: a process involving hundreds of narrator-selves forgetting hundreds of Albertines:

In order to console myself, I would have had to forget not one but innumerable Albertines.  When I had succeeded in accepting the grief of having lost one of them, I would have to begin again with another, with a hundred others. (445)


            The narrator also sees in these selves, however, a source of hope for an eventually successful act of forgetting:

I was not one single man, but the march-past of a composite army manned, depending on the time of day, by passionate, indifferent, or jealous men—jealous men who were never jealous of the same woman.  And doubtless this would be the source of an eventual cure, which I did not desire. (456)


The narrator does not want to be culpable of forgetting Albertine as he has forgotten his grandmother: “The possible arrival of these new selves […] had always terrified me” (559).  Though the process is bound up with anxiety and resistance, however, a certain cycle of repetition (daily/seasonal/accidental) weakens ties to habits and allows for change/forgetting.  “It is not because others have died that our affection for them weakens, it is because we ourselves are dying” (560).

These “deaths” happen gradually:

We take no notice [of the renewal of selves] unless our old self was nursing some great wound, some painful foreign body, which we are astonished to no longer find, in our marveling at having become someone else […] for whom his predecessor’s suffering is no more that the suffering of a third party. (559)


Albertine, “a painful foreign body,” has been shed.  The self who mourned her is no longer a sufferer in the present tense, but a “third party” who no longer exists; the very notion that he once existed has become a marvel, as is the present existence of his successor.   

A sort of self-multiplication made the character that I had been until so recently, and who lived for nothing but the permanent expectation of the moment when Albertine would come to kiss him good night, appear to me now as only a small part of myself which I had already almost shed, and I felt the youthful freshness of a bud starting to open and burst through its leaves into flower. (500)


The language of spring and resurrection marks the emergence of the self who no longer mourns.

This process, however, is ultimately never complete: it is always in danger of being disrupted by memory.


group five: orality


I had […] been imprudent enough, while watching Albertine with my lips and lodging her in my heart, to make her live within me. (465)


The narrator “watches” with his lips.  (Synesthesia).


The configuration of Albertine as an internal object, lodged within the narrator’s body, recurs throughout The Fugitive.  Meira Likierman, in Melaine Klein: Her Work in Context, writes:

In the patient’s unconscious, the internal object assumes the form of a powerful anthropomorphic being that inhabits his internal domain, permeating both mind and body.  This object is also felt in unconscious phantasy to have been devoured in the first instance… (108)


The Albertine the narrator has “devoured” is a source of both pain and pleasure. 

Liekerman, exploring Karl Abraham’s influence on Klein, cites his division of the oral phase into two parts: a first, “benign,” stage that takes its character from sucking, and a second, “destructive” stage.  In the first, the “infant’s mental life is underpinned by urges to swallow the feeding object whole, and preserve it within himself.”  (The narrator’s desire to “swallow” Albertine.) The second phase is destructive: “the infant now wants to bite, cannibalize and destroy the feeding object it also desires” (Likierman 76).  (The narrator’s anxiety that he has “destroyed” his mother, his grandmother, and Albertine). 

            Also privileged in The Fugitive, however, is the way orality can be connected to nourishment and consolation through the kiss:

Instinctively I stroked my neck and lips, which had imagined themselves being kissed by her since she had left, yet which would never be kissed by her again; I stroked them as Mama had caressed me on my grandmother’s death, saying to me, ‘My poor child, your grandmother who loved you so much will never kiss you again.’ (444)


The narrator consoles himself for the loss of Albertine and her kisses by becoming, for a moment, his mother, caressing him after the (analogous) loss of his grandmother’s kisses.  The kiss is a source of consolation, an important part of the way the narrator configures the relationship among desire, nourishment, anxiety, and guilt:

I felt [Albertine’s] tongue against my lips as she tried to part them, her maternal, nourishing, holy, inedible tongue, whose hidden fire and secret dew prevented her caresses from being superficial, even when she did no more than slide her tongue along the surface of my neck or my stomach, as if they somehow issued from her inner flesh, turned inside out like a piece of material exposing its lining, endowing even the most external contact with the mysterious sweetness of a penetration. (464)


            Albertine’s tongue is maternal, nourishing, and yet inedible—an endless source. 


            Alongside the image of tongue as nourishment is a tongue linked with penetration—not solely the penetration of the mouth by a phallic tongue, but penetration even in “the most external contact.”  “Penetration” (as opposed to genital intercourse) is valued throughout In Search of Lost Time as connoting knowledge and intimacy.  A hierarchy of sexuality with genital penetration is, through the character of Albertine’s tongue (with its secret knowledge) and caresses (which somehow come from inside her, an inside turned inside-out, exposed), evoked but subverted.

            And it is through his tongue that the narrator enacts remembrance: “when I thought of Albertine’s intelligence, my lips moved instinctively forwards to taste a memory” (462).  Albertine’s intelligence does not have de facto value, but leads to an “instinctive” movement of the narrator’s lips, making a direct path between mouth and memory.


group six: desire


Regret, too, amplifies desire. (471)


            The narrator reads what might (for Kubler-Ross et. al.) be considered “denial” as a kind of belief born of desire:

Desire is so strong that it engenders belief; I had believed that Albertine would not leave, because it was my desire; because this was my desire, I believed that she was not dead; I started to read books about turning tables, I started to believe in the possible immortality of the soul.  But that was not enough for me; I needed after her death to be reunited with her body. (478)


Albertine cannot be dead, because the narrator desires her to be alive.  Outright denial (“I believed she was not dead”) is replaced by more “practical” and potentially consoling means of resisting Albertine’s death: séances, a belief in the immortality of the soul. 

            Ultimately, the narrator comes to realize that “we do not manage to change things to suit our desires, but our desires gradually change” (419).  This knowledge is alternately consoling, linked with hope (449), and the cause of anxiety, tension, and panic (415).  That this pain must end is a petrifying and exhilarating realization.  The possibility of forgetting is linked to a future (a new self with new desires), but denies the authenticity of the present moment, necessitating the destruction of the me for whom this suffering is an indispensable part of self—I cannot exist without it. 


group seven: diminution of self


…a past which we had ceased to notice because, in having tired of looking at it, we literally no longer possessed it; we had been diminished by its loss…(503)


            There’s a tension between the “multiple self” model central to the novel and the idea of the self diminished (by loss, grief, the loss of grief) which enriches the narrative, preventing the story from becoming a linear progression of shedding and growth.

At certain points, the inevitable (law-decreed) “indifference” that is bound to result from love/death is met with resistance:

To be able to hear the names of the stations on the railway line to Touraine without feeling pleasure or pain would have seemed to me a diminution of self (simply because deep down this would have proved that I was becoming indifferent to Albertine). (418)


The narrator is still cathected to Albertine.  The pleasure/suffering caused by the station names functions as proof of the existence of the self that loves her. 

The disappearance of my suffering and of everything that accompanied it left me diminished, as often does the cure of an illness which took up a great place in our lives.  (557)


In this model, when the suffering has gone, the self has been depleted.  We are “diminished” by the loss of a past, “thinking that through this subtraction our own personality had changed shape, like a geometrical figure which loses a side if it loses an angle” (503).  An impoverishment occurs—a loss of not only the beloved, but of some part (or, in altering versions of the story, all) of the self that loved.

group eight: body/trauma

…the physical heartache which such a separation deals and which, through the body’s terrible ability to keep records, renders any pain contemporary with all the periods in our lives when we have suffered… (392)


Conceptions of trauma, memory, and body are linked in intricate ways throughout The Fugitive.  In Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Cathy Caruth cites Freud’s observation of the uncanny way in which trauma is repeated: “these repetitions […] seem not to be initiated by the individual’s own acts but rather appear as the possession of some people by a sort of fate” (Caruth 2).  The narrator links the act of unconscious repetition with a failure to be “consoled”:

I now understood those widowers whom one believes to be consoled and who prove on the contrary that they are inconsolable because they have married again, this time with their wife’s sister. (519)


He fears that he too is fated to repeat the past: hasn’t he, after all, murdered Albertine as he has


murdered his grandmother? (463). And his punishment is that he is condemned to forget both of


them (449).


He also links his anxiety at Albertine’s death to other, earlier events, experiencing them as indistinguishable parts of a pattern of loss:

How far my desire for Venice had now abated!  Just as the desire to meet Mme de Guermantes in Combray in days gone by had abated, at those moments when I held but one thing dear, to have Mama in my bedroom.  And it was in fact all the worries that I had felt since I was a child that had been solicited by this new source of anxiety and had rushed to reinforce it, amalgamating themselves with it into one homogenous mass which suffocated me. (392)


His fate is suffocating.  “Trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event […] but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on” (Caruth 4).  All of his later losses (grandmother, Albertine) are linked to a primal loss that haunts the text:

Our past, and the physical lesions within whose lines it lies inscribed, determines our future (471)


“What echoes in me is what I learn with my body” (Barthes 200).  The narrator’s body “remembers” its pain after his memory has forgotten Albertine as “a man who has forgotten the enchanted nights he had spent in the woods beneath the moonlight still suffers from the rheumatism which he contracted there” (492).  The suffering she caused outlives the memory of Albertine, and, significantly, becomes the narrator’s strongest link to her. 

In “The Body Image and Phantom Limbs,” Silvan Tomkins writes:


The reality and stability of the phantom limb we regard as evidence that what is normally perceived is a centrally innervated image, guided by sensory input but also by memory, which operates on an internal feedback principle of matching both sensory and relevant memory information to produce a report that is in varying degrees similar to and different from the sensory patterns and memory patterns by which it is guided. (Tomkins 243-244).


My perception of my limbs and an amputee’s perception of a limb she has lost have at their center the same principle; their source is a central image that negotiates between and is influenced by both sensory perception and memory. 

The narrator finds the image of a phantom limb useful in talking about his experience after Albertine’s death:

I suffered from a love that no longer existed.  Thus when the weather changes do amputees feel pain in the leg they have lost. (557)


The slightest change in the weather renewed my aches and pains, as it would in the missing limb of an amputee. (457)


The function of the phantom limb is to “preserve the unity and identity of the body” (Tomkins 246).  It makes sense that for the narrator, who often figures Albertine as a part of himself, the love that has been “cut off” would function as a phantom; he needs that love to perceive himself as “whole.”  The weather, which the narrator strongly connects to his perceptions of Albertine (453-455), acts as a catalyst for this “phantom” pain.


group nine: palimpsest


…what was lost […] remained imprinted there as if etched between the lines… (524)


            In Suspiria de Profundis, Thomas De Quincey talks about the human brain as a palimpsest, a “membrane or roll cleansed of its manuscript by reiterated successions” (165).  On such a membrane, new scripts can be inscribed over the old, but what is effaced always leaves traces: “Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest, O reader, is yours.  Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings have fallen upon your brain softly as light.  Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before.  And yet, in reality, not one has been extinguished” (De Quincey 169).  The narrator writes:

As they recede, passing days gradually cover over those which went before and are themselves buried by those that come after.  But each past day remains deposited within us as in some vast library where there are copies even of the oldest books. (Proust 509)


These underlying layers can be revived: “A pall, deep as oblivion, had been thrown by life over every trace of these experiences; and yet suddenly, at a silent command, at the signal of a blazing rocket sent up from the brain, the pall draws up, and the whole depths of the theater are exposed” (De Quincey 171).  These moments of revival caused by “a blazing rocket” disrupt chronology:

Ourselves are composed of our successive states, superimposed.  But this superimposition is not immutable like the stratification of a mountain.  A tremor is liable at any moment to throw old layers back up to the surface. (Proust 509)


The “tremor” dislocates the stratified layers, making the past present.  For the Proustian narrator, these moments of disruption are crucial to the formation of a non-linear spatialization of time.


group ten: i-thou/possibilities


So that even the resemblance to Albertine of the woman whom I had chosen […] only made me feel all the more the absence of what I had been looking for without realizing it, of what was indispensable for the rebirth of my love, that is Albertine herself, the period we had lived together, the past which I was seeking without realizing it. (520)


            Albertine “herself”, notably absent from the former volumes of In Search of Lost Time, makes a remarkable appearance in the narrator’s consciousness in The Fugitive, where poignant, queer, and joyful possibilities arise, modes of relating situated outside the tightly-woven script of jealousy, captivity, and deceit that dominated The Prisoner.

            The narrator, for the first time, entertains the possibility of Albertine’s (suspected) lesbianism as a source of comfort and pleasure:

[F]rom time to time a surge of affection for Albertine welled up suddenly in my heart, and then, thinking of my loves for other women, I told myself that she would have understood and shared them, and her vice became almost a source of love. (498)


The two can relate through what had hitherto in the narrator’s mind kept them apart; after her death, Albertine becomes a potential compatriot in sexual pleasure.  Haunted by both guilt (the stain of a “double murder”) and regret (he wishes he had taken advantage of the “corrupting pleasures” Albertine had offered when alive and which he had refused), mutuality creeps into the discourse he has constructed around her sexuality:

Now that I was able to bear the thought of her desires, and since this thought was immediately aroused by the upsurge of my own desires, bringing our two boundless appetites in union, I would have liked us to be able to indulge them together... (518)


His fear of “corrupting” her has dissipated with her death.  He dreams of alternate possibilities, fantasizing about scripts departing from the ones that locked him and Albertine in patterns of jealousy and resentment. 

            He is also able to forgive her (497).  For the first time, the narrator, capable of relating to Albertine as a “Thou”—“no aim, no lust, and no anticipation intervene between I and Thou” (Buber 11)—experiences affinity, mercy, and compassion.  Although his efforts are neither consistent nor life-changing, he does attempt to understand, and to make some sort of reparation, for his own misreadings and failures:

Just as […] I had for some time considered only the different positions in the calendar of the years that she adopted in my memories […] so I ought to have tried to understand her character in the same way as that of any other person, and perhaps this might have explained to me why she hid her secret so persistently from me and might have enabled me to cut short this strangely savage conflict between us, which had led to the death of Albertine.  And with my great pity for her at that time I felt great shame in surviving her. (462)


The narrator glimpses a (now dead) possibility for intervention, a way in which he might have been able to understand Albertine as another “Thou” and thus put to rest the “savage conflict” that had ultimately led (for him) to her death.  Inextricably tied up with his own guilt and anxiety—and still couched in accusatory language: “she hid her secret so persistently from me”—the generous power of this impulse is nevertheless confirmed by his ability to feel, along with “shame” at surviving her, pity for her.  It is one of the few moments in the text where we encounter the narrator’s potential for what Buber labels an “I-Thou” mode of relationality.


group eleven: suffering


We may be cured of suffering only on condition that we experience that suffering to the full. (501)


            The functions of suffering in The Fugitive are multiple and valuable.  Suffering acts as an analyst, a mirror, a catalyst for truth:     

‘Miss Albertine has left!’  How much more sharply suffering probes the psyche than does psychology!  A moment earlier, as I analysed my feelings, I had thought that leaving her, without ever seeing her again, was exactly what I wanted […] But these words […] had just caused such pain in my heart that I felt I could no longer hold out.  Thus something which I had thought meant nothing to me, was quite simply my whole life.  How little we know ourselves.  (387)


The intellect is incapable of knowing itself; it is suffering, which acts as a “probe,” that can plumb the depths of the psyche and, like the Freudian analyst, hold up a mirror that reflects the truth of our desires.  Pain acts as a chemical stimulus, clarifying parts of self, isolating and crystallizing them as we come to know ourselves through suffering.

Suffering also shares the transformative power of art: “It is not only art which is able to imbue the most insignificant things with charm and mystery; this same power to bring them into an intimate relationship with ourselves is also granted to suffering” (460).  Suffering permeates objects with “charm and mystery,” forming relations between these objects (invested with the energy of our exquisite pain) and ourselves.  But if suffering transforms the world as art does, it also becomes art in The Fugitive: “By my tears, I tell a story, I produce a myth of grief, and henceforth I adjust myself to it: I can live with it” (Barthes 182).  The narrator converts his suffering into form:

Suffering, as the aftermath of an unwelcome moral shock, aspires to change form: we hope to dispel it by making plans, by seeking information; we want it to pass through its countless metamorphoses, for this requires less courage than keeping suffering raw. (397)


The narrator’s “raw” suffering at Albertine’s departure becomes a series of letters and ploys to lure her back, as his later suffering at her death becomes a desperate search to acquire information about her past misdeeds.  The mythology of his suffering is at the core of The Fugitive.


group twelve: death/paradox


I felt coexist within me the certainty that she was dead, and the ceaseless hope of seeing her walk through the door (479)


We find it “impossible,” the narrator writes, “when we have to analyse death, to imagine it in terms other than those of life” (486).  The tension between and struggle to reconcile the living Albertine with the dead gives The Fugitive a powerful energy.

It seemed I had to choose between two facts and decide which was true, so blatantly did the death of Albertine—which arose for me out of a reality which I had not known, her life in Touraine—contradict all the thoughts that linked me to her, my desire, my regrets, my tenderness, my rage and my jealousy.  Such a wealth of memories borrowed from her life’s inventory, such a profusion of emotions evoking or involving her life, seemed to make it unbelievable that Albertine could be dead. (456)


Albertine’s death is a contradiction of the narrator’s own experience of her; it has not opened the circuit of their energy—the narrator’s desire, regrets, rage, and jealousy (emotions born in his relationship with the living Albertine) keep them connected in death as they had in Albertine’s absence.  The narrator’s investment of energy in Albertine keeps her alive “in him”: “For Albertine’s death to have suppressed my suffering, the mortal blow would have had to kill her not only in Touraine, but within me.  There, she had never been more alive” (445).  Albertine the internal object remains intensely alive while Albertine in the flesh has died.  The initial inability of the narrator to comprehend this paradox leads to the painful poignancy of instincts like: “I needed her presence and her kisses to help bear the pain [of her death]” (443).

While this tension never fully vanishes, the narrator comes to understand habit as ultimately connected to productively reversing its nature:

[M]y sorrow itself was on the mend.  No doubt, as I was a man, one of those amphibious creatures plunged simultaneously in the past and in present reality, there was still a contradiction inside me between the living memory of Albertine and my knowledge of her death.  But this contradiction was in a way the reverse of what it had been before.  The thought that Albertine was dead—which at first had struggled so furiously against the thought that she was still alive […] had finally, precisely because of these incessant assaults, won over the place inside me still occupied until recently by the thought that she was alive.  […] What provoked my astonishment was not, as it had been during the first few days, that the Albertine so alive within me could no longer exist on earth and could be dead, but that the Albertine who no longer existed on earth, who was dead, could have stayed so alive within me. (499)


The insoluble contradiction between life and death remains, but the narrator stages an internal battle in which forgetting is making slow progress.  The inability to accept the possibility that an Albertine who seems so alive could be dead has been replaced by “astonishment” at the fact that a dead woman could remain alive in him.  Klein writes: “‘[B]oth in adults and in children suffering from depression, I have discovered the dread of harboring dying or dead objects’” (Likierman125).  The recognition of Albertine as dead is an unsettling one.


group thirteen: guilt


…repercussions […] destined through their backlash to pose my psyche  increasingly painful problems…(466)


The narrator twice self-identifies as a “murderer” (463, 468).


According to Klein:


Because of her conflicted, ambivalent state, the infant experiences […] primitive guilt, rooted in her attribution of the loved objects loss to her own destructive aggression.  The perfect breast of earlier infancy, no longer available in its original, all-giving form, is believed by the infant to have been lost through her oral aggressive attacks. (Likierman 113)


The narrator’s blame and guilt is rooted in some ways in the “real” and magnified to culpability:

It was from my prison that she had escaped in order to kill herself riding a horse which without me she would never have owned. (466)


It also has a direct link to his reading of his love (for Albertine and his grandmother) as consuming and devouring:

[I]t seemed to me that through my totally selfish affection I had let Albertine die, just as previously I had murdered my grandmother. (468)


The narrator’s “selfishness” thus becomes the cause of Albertine’s death.  His anxiety over his hostility towards both women (his captivity of Albertine; his cruel remarks to his grandmother and unawareness of her suffering at the time) also marks his profound guilt and self-accusation: “‘The anxiety and guilt which the patient experiences relates to his hatred which in his mind injured and destroyed the people he loved and caused his world to decompose’” (Likierman 125).  He is at fault for this decomposition.


group fourteen: forgetting


Only the process of forgetting leads finally to the extinction of desire. (418)


            The narrator’s first premonition that he will one day forget Albertine is a source of profound anxiety.  Forgetting is the enemy of love, the python that will “devour” it (415).  Love, linked with suffering, is engaged in battle with the “universal rule of oblivion” (609) the narrator will gratefully surrender to later.  His panic is linked to infidelity—“Sometimes I have no difficulty enduring absence […] I can feed myself, meanwhile on other things besides the maternal breast.  This endured absence is nothing more than forgetfulness.  I am, intermittently, unfaithful” (Barthes 14)—as it is to the fact that the forgetting he envisions necessitates a loss of self—the self who loves Albertine. 

            The narrator realizes forgetting as inevitable: “I knew that I would forget [Albertine] one day, I had after all forgotten Gilberte, Mme de Guermantes, and even my grandmother” (449).  It is also punished: “our most just and cruel punishment for the forgetting […] is that we should sense the same act of forgetting to be inevitable even in respect of those whom we do still love”  (449).  The fact that he no longer loves his grandmother is cruel evidence of what now seems impossible to bear: that he will one day cease to love Albertine.  Yet the fear of forgetting is inseparable from its poignant hope: “This [forgetting] is the condition of my survival; for if I did not forget, I should die” (Barthes 14).  


group fifteen: venice


I put it back in my pocket but promised myself that I would act as if I had never received it.  (608)


Venice, long a projected site of pleasure and joy, realizes itself for the narrator in Chapter three of The Fugitive

While there, he receives a “mistranscribed” telegram, which he mistakenly attributes to Albertine.  He “manages” to read the following:



This strange moment of misreading brings to pass earlier desires—his desire, for example, to receive a message from Albertine declaring her resurrection “like a character in some novel” (479).  It also recalls the story of the old man who fails to recognize his once-beloved and is now “bored” by her (506).  The narrator absurdly misrecognizes the source of the telegram in order to refuse to recognize the newly “returned” Albertine—“I put it back in my pocket but promised myself that I would act as if I had never received it” (608).  Earlier he had been haunted by the guilt of a possible failure—a failure unbeknown to himself—to recognize Albertine in the future.  Here, he creates a “fictitious” (both novelistic and “untrue”) situation in which he is decisively in control of all aspects of this mis/recognition.

It also reaffirms the Proustian law that we only receive that which we no longer desire, and is crucial to the narrator’s perception of the success his mourning process:

I felt no joy at finding her still alive […] the man that I was, that fair-haired young man, no longer exists. (606)  


His fears and hopes have been realized, and it’s not that bad—the self who loved Albertine has completely “disappeared.”  In “mourning [,] time is needed for the command of reality-testing to be carried out in detail, and when this work has been accomplished the ego will have succeeded in freeing its libido from the lost object” (Freud 589).  The narrator, recovered “as if from an illness” (608), writes:

The monster whose appearance had made my love tremble, oblivion, had indeed finally, or so I believed, devoured it (607)



I had definitively stopped loving Albertine.  In such fashion this love, after diverging so much from what I had foreseen, […] after causing me to make such a long and painful detour, finally in its turn, after claiming exemption, surrendered […] to the universal rule of oblivion. (609)


The “universal rule” of oblivion is responsible for the final “devouring” of (even this) love.

            (The “so I believed” in the first quote may be connected to the narrator’s earlier formulation that, despite the superimposition of selves, nothing is ever “lost: “A tremor is liable at any moment to throw old layers back up to the surface…”)


group sixteen: writing


[W]e have the ability to tell ourselves stories in order to alleviate our pains. (432)


            The narrator’s realization works on multiple levels.  “Telling stories” can be a function of anxiety (“to lie to ourselves”), or a way of making meaning of experience.  The acts of revision necessary for moments of mourning and pain to be re-encountered and re-configured are, in The Fugitive, enacted by a narrator progressively made more capable of such an act through the process of writing: “I started to write to everyone to tell them of my great sorrow and cease to feel it” (554).

            “The fulfilled lover has no need to write, to transmit, to reproduce” (Barthes 56).

In Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain, she chronicles the painful ending of a love affair in over 90 ways.  Her goal, she writes, was to “wear out her own story through sheer repetition.”  After being left by her lover, she began to exchange tales of suffering with others, comparing her pain to theirs, and repeating with variation (in emphasis, diction, etc.) her own story.  “The method proved radically effective,” she writes, “In three months I had cured myself.”



            “Writing is the movement to return to where we haven’t been ‘in person’ but only in wounded flesh” (Cixous 97).  The narrator at the end of Finding Time Again and his decision to write; the repetitious chronicling, the ever-surprise, of his discovery that Albertine is dead in The Fugitive: (to impose a fictitious unity) these two meet, on one plane, in “the act of writing.”  Through writing we “begin to save what is lost” (Cixous 97).  We can imagine an Albertine resuscitated, not by jealousy, but by an act of writing that is also an act of mourning, of remembering, and of forgetting; it is in/by writing that these modes of relation collide and co-exist.   


Select Index (for Peter Collier’s translation of The Fugitive)


anguish                        449, 471, 472

balm                            387

body of mourner         392, 396, 457, 463, 499, 502-503, 506, 608

desire                           449, 455, 471, 478, 483, 498, 518, 612

despair                         459, 464, 506

disbelief                      456, 473

evening                        448

“forever”                     392

forgetting                    415, 418, 429, 449, 469, 500, 502, 522, 524, 560, 606

forgiveness                  497

guilt                             414, 466

habit                            388, 393, 397, 400, 502, 509, 519

hole                             444

hope                            425, 449, 479

immortality                  477, 478

jealousy                       457, 458, 459, 477, 485, 489, 506, 518

kiss                              443, 444, 447, 449, 455, 461, 464, 467, 497, 500, 505, 519

letters                          388, 394, 403, 413, 415, 421, 435-437, 444, 445, 475, 477, 481, 490-491, 554

memory                       415, 445, 446-453, 455, 460, 461, 466, 476, 478, 487, 488, 497, 500, 508, 519, 523, 557

multiple selves 398, 445, 451, 455- 457, 495, 509, 557

murder                         463, 468

name of beloved         400, 455, 476

pain                             388, 392, 396, 403, 457, 484, 499, 512

panic                            398, 415

return                           396, 402, 416, 417, 420, 424, 429, 443, 454, 475, 477, 487

seasons/weather          450-454, 457, 557

self-preservation          387, 396, 464

separation                    392, 429, 444, 450, 472, 477, 486, 502, 506

suffering                      387, 392, 397, 407, 433, 443-445 (suppression of), 446, 449, 460, 463, 467, 483, 484, 491, 492, 500, 501, 511, 518, 521, 608

sweetness                    429, 445, 456, 460, 461, 462, 464, 475, 520

taste                             450, 462

telegrams                     416, 420, 443, 475, 490, 605

weeping/tears              398, 413, 447, 448, 455, 460, 488, 506, 560


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland.  A Lover’s Discourse.  Hill and Wang: New York, 1977.  Print.


Buber, Martin.  I and Thou.  Collier Books: New York, 1958.  Print.


Butler, Judith.  Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.  Verso: London,

2004.  Print.


Calle, Sophie.  Exquisite Pain.  Thames & Hudson: New York, 2003.  Print.


Caruth, Cathy.  Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History.  The Johns

Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1996.  Print.


Cixous, Hélène.  Stigmata.  Routledge: London, 1998.  Print.


De Quincey, Thomas.  Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Other Writings

Signet: New York, 1963.  Print.


Ferenczi, Sandor.  The Clinical Diary of Sandor Ferenczi.  Harvard University Press:

Cambridge, 1988.  Print.


Freud, Sigmund.  “Mourning and Melancholia.”  The Freud Reader.  Ed. Peter Gay. 

Norton: New York, 1989. 584-589.


Likierman, Meira.  Melanie Klein: Her Work in Context.  Continuum: London,

2001.  Print.


            Proust, Marcel.  The Fugitive.  Peter Collier, Trans.  Penguin: London 2002.  Print.


Proust, Marcel.  Finding Time Again.  Ian Patterson, Trans.  Penguin: London, 2002.  Print.


Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky and Adam Frank, Eds.  Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan

Tomkins Reader.  Duke University Press: Durham, 1995.  Print.


Sedgwick, Eve.  The Weather in Proust.  Duke University Press: United States, 2011.  Print.        





[1] Analyst Sandor Ferenczi writes of a friend who sees a small bird about to be attacked by a falcon fly straight into the falcon’s beak (Ferenczi 171).

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Tara Roeder "Albertine Has Left: A Meditation on Mourning". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: July 10, 2012, Published: July 10, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Tara Roeder