Antoine François Prévost: Manon Lescaut (1731)

“Abbé Prevost reading Manon Lescaut” 1856, Joseph Caraud

She struck me as being so extremely beautiful, that I, who had never before thought of the difference between the sexes, or looked on woman with the slightest attention — I, whose conduct had been hitherto the theme of universal admiration, felt myself, on the instant, deprived of my reason and self-control. I had been always excessively timid, and easily disconcerted; but now, instead of meeting with any impediment from this weakness, I advanced without the slightest reserve towards her, who had thus become, in a moment, the mistress of my heart.

And the rest, as they say, is history, or at least a short novel that to modern sensibilities seems almost comical in its implausibility. No, I take that back: no almost about it. Are the scholars sure this wasn’t a spoof?

There’s a reason I read mostly contemporary, or at least 20th century, fiction. I have trouble taking the older stuff seriously.

Nevertheless, I read the Abbé Prevost’s “Manon Lescaut” – the last of seven volumes of Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité and the only thing by Prevost anyone ever bothered to read – in preparation for a Coursera class beginning in June, The Fiction of Relationship taught by Prof. Arnold Weinstein of Brown University. That’s a great title for a course, to begin with, since it can be read a couple of different ways: is it a psychology course, indicating the notion of “relationship” a fiction? Or a fiction course about relationships in fiction? It is, in fact, a fiction course. Or at least that’s how it’s billed.

“Manon Lescaut” (which, in addition to being painfully long and overcomplicated, has a painfully long and overcomplicated title to match, “L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut”) was published in 1731; it’s been used for two major operas. And it’s quite a slog, through paragraphs like:

My only regret on quitting Amiens arose from parting with a friend, some years older than myself, to whom I had always been tenderly attached. We had been brought up together; but from the straitened circumstances of his family, he was intended to take orders, and was to remain after me at Amiens to complete the requisite studies for his sacred calling. He had a thousand good qualities. You will recognise in him the very best during the course of my history, and above all, a zeal and fervour of friendship which surpass the most illustrious examples of antiquity. If I had at that time followed his advice, I should have always continued a discreet and happy man. If I had even taken counsel from his reproaches, when on the brink of that gulf into which my passions afterwards plunged me, I should have been spared the melancholy wreck of both fortune and reputation. But he was doomed to see his friendly admonitions disregarded; nay, even at times repaid by contempt from an ungrateful wretch, who often dared to treat his fraternal conduct as offensive and officious.

(After a while, I just start screaming at the page: “Get on with it!” but that isn’t helpful.)

In other words: our narrator and protagonist, the Chevalier des Grieux (apparently the rich get titles instead of names) has a best friend Tiberge who’s going to give him sage counsel throughout the story; if he’d listened to him, instead of running off with Manon, maybe his life wouldn’t have turned into a train wreck. But sage counsel doesn’t stand much chance against love.

So instead, on his way to the seminary with Tiberge, the 17-year-old Chevalier falls in love at first sight with Manon, a lower-class girl on her way to the convent, sent there by her family to keep her from screwing everyone in her home town:

‘You may probably answer, that the proposed end, the promised reward, of virtue, is infinitely superior to that of love? No one disputes it, but that is not the question—we are only discussing the relative aid they both afford in the endurance of affliction. Judge of that by the practical effect: are there not multitudes who abandon a life of strict virtue? how few give up the pursuits of love!

He’s got a point there.

The Chevalier and Manon run off together, and he discovers she has a small weakness: she loves stuff. She’s never had any, you see, so when she’s around stuff, she wants it. And she’s pretty much willing to do what she needs to in order to obtain it. First she “visits her favors” upon an older gentleman, surprising the hell out of the Chevalier when he catches them. She later visits those same favors upon the older man’s son for the same purpose. Each time, the Chevalier is shocked, and each time, he finds ways to talk himself into forgiving her. I know all about not being able to let go, but he seems downright delusional:

Never had mortal a greater contempt for money, and yet she was haunted by perpetual dread of wanting it. Her only desire was for pleasure and amusement. She would never have wished to possess a sou, if pleasure could be procured without money.

It is true Manon doesn’t want money, per se. She wants a lovely house and a fully-appointed carriage to take her to the theatre and a toilette bursting with beautiful garments and ribbons for her hair and the finest wine with her dinner, that’s all. If those things were free, she wouldn’t care about money at all.

In commentary, she’s often called a courtesan. But they’re being polite. I happen to have some oddball nascent opinions on the legal view of prostitution, namely that it was aeons ago stigmatized mainly to restrict the financial freedom of women; they’d otherwise have an asset that would give them power over men, and that wouldn’t do at all. So when I start calling Manon a slut, I contradict myself, which bothers me. But not much, since in this context it’s too farcical to take seriously.

The Chevalier descends to cheating, lying, stealing, and eventually, murder, in order to provide his Manon with the pleasure she loves so much and keep her at his side, when she’s not off supplementing their income. It’s quite pathetic. The Chevalier’s father kidnaps him for detox, but that doesn’t work; they’re both arrested, but he breaks out and rescues her and they get by, killing a guy along the way, until they’re arrested again. They’re exported to New Orleans, which, in the early 18th century, was “nothing more than a collection of miserable huts…. inhabited by five or six hundred persons…. surrounded by some earthen ramparts, and a deep ditch.” There, he actually tries to marry her, something they’ve just not bothered with so far, and in a twist of irony, that leads to her doom.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on her. Maybe she truly is a sweet, simple poor country girl who falls in love with the Chevalier independent of his wealth, and when his father cuts him off, she simply doesn’t understand that he won’t appreciate her helping out with finances in the ways she does. But I don’t think so.

The book is prefaced by a quick segment to introduce an outside observer, a man who sees the couple on the eve of their transport to the wilds of America. I’m not sure if this is a stylistic requirement of the time, an early attempt to start in media res (the novel was still being born in 1731), but the main effect is to require that the rest of the story, all 88 pages of it, be in quotation marks. The envelope doesn’t even close at the end. I don’t know much about the literature of the era, but it’s annoying as all get-out.

I got a strong religious message from this story. Prevost was, in fact, a priest at one point, and biographies hint at a few somewhat scandalous adventures (Dave on the Madame Pickwick Art Blog put it this way: “First Abbé Prevost, a sometime cleric, wrote his famous story, then set out to live it.”) To me, the message is clear that ever since the Garden of Eden, Woman has been leading Man astray. And, if you weren’t paying attention in church, the love of pleasure dooms everyone within a hundred yards. At least if you’re a poor woman.

But the class I’m taking is about relationships, so I tried to focus my attention there. The three primary characters of the Chevalier, Manon, and Tiberge, form a classic addictive triangle. The Chevalier loves Manon, and she claims over and over to love him and just be screwing around to earn the money to live in the manner to which she wishes to become accustomed, if only he weren’t so frugal, and later, thanks to the devastation he wreaks upon himself as he follows this downward spiral of declining morality, so penniless. His friend Tiberge seems to love him; it was pretty clear to me there was some serious bromance going on, though the Chevalier ended up using Tiberge just as Manon used the Chevalier in a cute little chain effect of charming evil.

To put it another way: the Chevalier is the addict, Manon is the drug, and Tiberge is the enabler. The Chevalier’s father and Manon’s brother are accessory characters who echo the roles of their primary attachees: the father wishes to save his son, even kidnaps him at one point to rescue him from Manon and the depravity he’s engaging in on her behalf, and the brother helps the couple in their schemes.

A relationship that interests me far more is the one between the father and son Manon services. She takes up with the father during her first period with the Chevalier; the son appears during the second, and the father assists the Chevalier in ending the son’s dalliance. I’d love to be a fly on the wall at their family dinner.

In the category of irrelevant but irrepressible: long ago, a voice teacher assigned me “Adieu, notre petite table” from the Massenet opera. I always had the impression the table was a metaphor as she left her lover, but now that I’ve read the story and am convinced she is as emotionally attached to her lovely furniture than to any person, I think she is in fact singing a tearful goodbye, at repossession, to an object she can no longer afford, a lifestyle that is again out of her reach.

‘Love! love!’ cried this grave magistrate as I went out, ‘thou art never to be reconciled with discretion!’

You said it. But damn, that was a long 99 pages to read through to come up with that. The good news: Bartleby, which isn’t half bad for the 19th century, is next. The bad news: Jane Eyre, which I’ve been able to avoid in 58 years of reading, looms ahead. I’ll try not to giggle.

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7 responses to “Antoine François Prévost: Manon Lescaut (1731)

  1. I surprised you didn’t pick up on the Godhead thread woven through this novel. It’s not surprising that They both had religion in their own way previously to there meeting up. Seems like Passion could be pulled in. I feel when seen thru this filter all kinds of religious symbolism can be viewed like murder, death, etc.

    Love your site. You haven become my guide. See you in the fiction/relation class.

    • Hi Paul – are you in that class too? Cool! I’m not sure what the Godhead is (it did feel quite religious to me, but in a more sin-and-punishment way) but I’m sure I missed a great many things. 😉 I’m looking to learning more as the class goes on.

      • Yeah, I’m excited about the class but will have to modify mr reading list to conform.

        By godhead i was referring to Manon becoming her beau’s God

        Talk to you later

  2. Brilliant review! I’m not used to thinking seriously about the books I read and I just tried to jot down a few of the main themes in Manon Lescault – I came up with 10… 😉 I have no idea of how to write an analytical paper, but it seems I won’t be short of ideas for it. Looking forward to discussing the book in the Fiction in Relationship class! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1857) | A Just Recompense

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