Although Antoine-François Prévost was an exceedingly prolific author of multi-volume works, he is best known today for one short work, Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. The novel was published in 1731, but set several years earlier during the Regency period, a time of new freedoms and pleasures after the death of the long-reigning Louis XIV. The couple in the title are a Parisian Romeo and Juliet, a pair of young lovers separated by social prejudices, and while Des Grieux’s evocation of his passion for Manon uses the language of Racinian tragedy, the couple’s adventures in the Parisian underworld cast this novel as a forerunner to Balzacian realism.
From its first publication, readers recognized in the story of Des Grieux episodes from the scandalous life of Prévost, a priest who had abandoned the church to live in exile. Prévost had already published six volumes of his first novel, the Memoirs of a Man of Quality, and presented Manon Lescaut as the final instalment, but this seventh volume represents a change in genre from the implausible adventure story of the seventeenth century to the proto-realist novel of manners emerging in the eighteenth. While the Memoirs of a Man of Quality are narrated by the Man of Quality himself, the delegation of first-person narration to Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut draws attention to the role of the storyteller as performer and prevaricator, since Des Grieux tells his story several times within the story, manipulating its plot to win his listener’s pity and often his money. Playing on the tension between the tragic rhetoric of the narrator who represents himself as a noble hero and the events of the narrative that show him to be a sordid opportunist, Prévost characterizes Des Grieux as an ultimately unreliable narrator.
In the preface to Manon Lescaut, the Man of Quality introduces the story of Des Grieux, a young man he has encountered in his travels, placing the youth’s story at the end of his memoirs to avoid a long interruption to his own narrative. Despite the marked stylistic differences between the episodic adventures of the Man of Quality and the more tightly structured story of the Des Grieux, Prévost appends this work to his long first novel not only to exploit his established relationship with readers, but also to employ the distinguished Man of Quality as a sort of moral alibi for an otherwise libertine tale.
The first part of the novel opens with a frame narrative in which the Man of Quality meets Des Grieux and Manon on their way to the French coast where they will be deported to Louisiana for their crimes. Although Manon is filthy and chained to a group of prostitutes, her beauty and seeming modesty attract the Man of Quality’s eye and inspire his pity, the paradox of her miserable circumstances and noble mien provoking him to reflect on the “caractère incomprehensible des femmes” [incomprehensible character of women]. Her guards introduce him to the young man who accompanies her, and Des Grieux explains that, since he has failed in his attempts to free Manon, he will share her exile. The Man of Quality recognizes Des Grieux as a gentleman despite his evident poverty, sympathizes with his pain, and offers him his purse to help ease the couple’s material privations. Two years later, while traveling with his young pupil, the Man of Quality meets Des Grieux for a second time, sees him equally miserable but this time without Manon, and again offers his aid. At a roadside inn, the young man offers to tell his benefactor the story of his life.
Des Grieux begins his story just before his meeting with Manon, when he was a seventeen-year-old student in Amiens, describing himself as a model of intellect and virtue. On the eve of his school holidays, he finds himself in the courtyard of an inn when the coach arrives from Arras and sees the face of the woman who will change his life, fifteen-year-old Manon Lescaut. When she confesses to him that she is being sent against her will to a convent by her parents, he vows to rescue her despite his own parents’ intention for him to join the religious order of Malta. Together they trick her chaperon and his friend to escape together to Paris, consummating their love along the way.
In Paris, the couple live in an apartment on the rue Vivienne, where pretty Manon is noticed by a rich banker, M. de B. While Des Grieux begins to worry that his small savings won’t last long in the city, Manon finds new resources by accepting B.’s gifts. With Manon’s complicity, B. betrays Des Grieux to his father, who keeps him captive in the family’s provincial home to prevent him from further dishonorable conduct. Des Grieux’s fury and tears as he pleads with his father for his release demonstrate the tragic excess of his despair at being separated from Manon, while at the same time revealing a tendency toward adolescent exaggeration. After a visit from his pious friend Tiberge (whose attachment to the hero may bely a certain homoerotic attraction), Des Grieux decides to renounce worldly pleasures and join his former schoolmate at the Parisian seminary of Saint-Sulpice to prepare for the priesthood. However, when Des Grieux must preach before the Parisian public, Manon spots him and tracks him to the seminary, where she begs his forgiveness. Although he recognizes that ceding to Manon will lead to his doom, Des Grieux surrenders to the force of destiny, abandoning virtue to return to a life of vice.
To avoid discovery by Des Grieux’s family, the couple moves to Chaillot but keeps a place in Paris, and Des Grieux worries that their small savings will quickly be exhausted by Manon’s expensive tastes. He thus appeals both to the generosity of Tiberge and to the resourcefulness of Manon’s worldly wise brother, who teaches him to cheat rich dupes at the gaming table. Meanwhile, Lescaut introduces his sister to a new lover, the old but rich M. de G.M. and persuades Des Grieux to participate in this new scheme by passing as Manon’s younger sibling. Manon accepts the lecherous G.M.’s money and gifts before fleeing with Des Grieux, but the couple is promptly arrested and imprisoned. Des Grieux fakes piety in prison to gain the sympathy of his jailer, but he ultimately escapes by killing a guard with a gun provided by Lescaut. In order to visit Manon, who is held in the infamous Hôpital, Des Grieux befriends M. de T., the son of an administrator of that prison, and together they succeed in liberating her.
The second part of the novel begins with an episode inserted in a later edition to develop the character of Manon. When an Italian Prince tries to seduce her, Manon rejects him, proving that she does love Des Grieux, especially when he is able to offer her a comfortable lifestyle. The couple’s happiness ends when M. de T. introduces the son of G.M. into their circle, and this young man woos Manon with luxuries far beyond what Des Grieux can provide. One night, instead of meeting Des Grieux outside of the theater, Manon sends another girl while she stays the night with young GM, a new betrayal that provokes new declarations of despair from the hero. With T.’s help, Des Grieux arranges the kidnapping of young G.M. in order to confront Manon, who justifies her actions by explaining: “la fidélité que je souhaite est celle du coeur” [the fidelity I desire is that of the heart]. The couple prepares to sleep together in young G.M.’s bed only to be caught in the act by old G.M., arrested, and sent to the Châtelet prison. There, Des Grieux is released to his father’s custody, but Manon is sent back to the Hôpital where she is condemned to deportation. Against his father’s wishes, Des Grieux pursues Manon, paying friends of Lescaut to help him attack her guards, but these mercenaries abandon him, and Des Grieux is left to share his mistress’s fate.
When the couple arrives in the New World, they find the French settlements to be primitive and poor. The governor of Louisiana attributes the convicted prostitutes to waiting bachelor colonists, but believing Des Grieux and Manon to be married, gives them a simple cabin and offers work to Des Grieux, allowing them to start a new life of virtuous domesticity. However, when the couple confesses their wish to be legally wed, the governor declares that the unmarried Manon is property of the state and attributes her to his nephew, Synnelet. Des Grieux then wounds this new rival in a duel and flees with Manon through savage lands towards the English colonies. Manon, however, does not survive the first night in open country, and Des Grieux digs her grave, lying prostrate upon it to await his death. Days later, he is found alive by his fellow colonists and taken back to New Orleans where he is reunited with the faithful Tiberge. Accused of killing Manon but then exonerated, Des Grieux resolves to return to his family in France to live “une vie sage et réglée” [a good, orderly life].
In its portrayal of the adventures of a prostitute and her lover, Manon Lescaut may be read in the context of other eighteenth-century libertine novels, but Prévost’s libertinism goes beyond his interest in sexual freedom. Libertinism originated in the seventeenth century as a form of religious free-thinking, and in the conversations between Tiberge and Des Grieux, the opposition between divine love and earthly pleasure anticipates issues of philosophical materialism. At the same time, Des Grieux’s various escapes from the repressive structures of the old regime – school, home, monastery, prison – represent a struggle for individual freedom that casts the novel’s morally questionable protagonist as a paradigmatic pre-Revolutionary hero.
Although Des Grieux controls the novel’s narrative, his story is nonetheless known by the name of his mistress, Manon Lescaut, and readers have long shared Des Grieux’s fascination with this beautiful yet faithless figure. Upon first seeing Manon, the Man of Quality muses on the incomprehensible character of women, and as almost the only female figure in a world of men, Manon may be read as the incarnation of femininity. In the nineteenth century, Musset sees her as an enigmatic sphinx, and for Maupassant she is a tempting Eve, her dangerous beauty making her a true femme fatale. More recently, feminist critics have noted that the novel’s first-person narrative effectively silences Manon’s voice, blaming her for the hero’s downfall while preventing her from justifying her own actions.
Moving from the exotic backdrops of the Memoirs of a Man of Quality to the Parisian setting of Manon Lescaut, Prévost embraces a realism new to the novel of his time, with references to specific urban sites such as named streets, churches and prisons. Despite Des Grieux’s title of chevalier, his story is not an idealized knightly romance, but a constant confrontation with the demands of real life, specifically the constant need for money to pay for the pleasures that preoccupied Regency Parisians: luxurious houses and carriages, beautiful clothes and jewelry for evenings at the opera or around gaming tables. The story nonetheless reveals the seamy side of life: where men are knifed in the streets over unpaid debts and women are sent to prison or deported to the colonies for prostitution. Interestingly, Prévost’s description of the swampy Mississippi delta region as a mountainous desert shows a limit to realism in the novel’s last pages.
Upon the first publication of Manon Lescaut, the story’s confessional quality and scandalous content ensured its initial popularity. While never admitting that Des Grieux’s story was his own, Prévost had to address his contemporaries’ prejudice against novels as frivolous and immoral. To do so, he presented his fiction as both a record of real events by using the form of a memoir, but also by framing his characters’ immoral conduct as a warning against such actions. Many readers of his time nonetheless saw through these efforts, recognizing the Memoirs of a Man of Quality as a fiction and objecting in particular to the portrayal of sexuality in its last volume. While the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu recognized the characters’ moral shortcomings by calling Des Grieux a “fripon” [rascal] and Manon a “catin” [harlot], he admired Prévost’s art by admitting that the couple’s love story would please readers nonetheless. At the end of the eighteenth century, in his Idée sur les romans, the marquis de Sade singled out Manon Lescaut for its emotional power and saw it as the best French novel and a precursor to Rousseau’s sentimental bestseller, La Nouvelle Héloïse. In the nineteenth century, the story of Manon and Des Grieux enjoyed renewed popularity thanks to musical versions by Massenet and Puccini who transposed Prévost’s story into operas that exploited the novel’s lyrical evocations of love and despair.
Twentieth-century critical interpretations of the novel recognize the importance of Manon Lescaut for a new kind of realism introduced by Prévost in his presentation of the physical setting of the story and also in his portrayal of how socio-economic realities influence character and action. Several narratological studies have focused on the novel’s use of first-person narration to highlight the tension between Des Grieux as narrator and Des Grieux as character, showing the contradiction between the tragic tone of his rhetoric and the scurrilous nature of his actions. These analyses illustrate the modernity of Prévost’s understanding of narration and explore the moral ambiguity of the unreliable narrator. Finally, feminist critics have focused on the treatment of the female heroine in the text, reading the first-person narration as a means to suppress Manon’s point of view and seeing the novel’s narrative paradigm as a sort of Freudian joke where a woman’s sexual degradation allows bonding between men.
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Citation: Bloom, Rori. "Manon Lescaut". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 17 August 2015 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=3727, accessed 27 February 2024.]