Abbé Prévost Essay - Critical Essays


Abbé Prévost began the composition of Memoirs of a Man of Quality shortly after he had arrived at Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Writing covertly in his chamber at night, Prévost had no real models to follow, and Memoirs of a Man of Quality is an example of a genre in development, retaining some aspects of the familiar picaresque genre while enlarging the boundaries of the new form that was the novel in its earliest conception. Because he was discovering this “form” through the process of composition, Memoirs of a Man of Quality is a string of digressions almost casually tied together by the vague and intermittent progress of theprotagonist toward some nebulous destination. While these digressions often seem distracting, if not completely pointless, they are written with considerable energy and invention, and they are a necessary prelude to Prévost’s final digression, the story of Manon Lescaut and the Chevalier des Grieux. Memoirs of a Man of Quality is essentially a preparation for Manon Lescaut, both in terms of Prévost’s mastery of his craft and in terms of what Prévost had to express before he could reach that part of his mind and heart that are revealed in his masterpiece.

Memoirs of a Man of Quality

Like other early examples of the novel, Memoirs of a Man of Quality is composed of a series of adventures related by a narrator from the perspective of his retirement into tranquillity. As in the first days of film, the new novel offered the French audience a fresh view of the world, and as motion pictures later enthralled audiences no matter what the subject, so the novel in its infancy provided descriptions of exotic locales and thrilling escapades of intrigue and suspense whose novelty alone provided sufficient reason for existence. Prévost supplied information enlivened by imagination; Memoirs of a Man of Quality was an immediate success upon the publication of its first volumes in 1728.

In addition to its value as entertainment, Memoirs of a Man of Quality has as its central theme an examination of the ways in which a man learns about himself and the world, and then how he transmits this wisdom or quality to his son. Ultimately, the novel explores the evolving relationship between a son and his father, concentrating on the son’s determination to justify himself in his father’s eyes by the correctness of his actions and on the father’s attempt to guide his son toward proper action.

Significantly, the Man of Quality is of French ancestry, but reared in Spain by a family on the run. Prévost’s own struggle between his genuine attraction toward the Church (solid, legitimate authority) and his desire for liberty (freedom to create) is reflected in his depiction of a man who is the scion of a disinherited couple condemned to a life of exile. Almost instinctively, the Man of Quality decides to cultivate those aspects of will and spirit that might make him feel at home anywhere—in other words, at ease with himself and his existence. His formal education is conducted by the Jesuits, but his true education results from his adventures. Nearly all of volume 2 is set in Turkey, and at the conclusion of the volume, the Man of Quality is prepared to transmit all that he has learned to his surrogate “son” (his daughter is consigned to a convent), as he becomes the guardian of and guide to a young marquis.

The second “book,” which consists of the remaining four volumes, has as its vital center the Man of Quality’s sojourn in England. This section has the feeling for political geography and the sense of place of an excellent travel journal. During the Jacobite uprising, the Man of Quality introduces the Marquis to the ways of the world. Actual historical figures appear throughout thenarrative to authenticate the milieu and give the reader a feeling that he or she is reading an insider’s report. As the Man of Quality attempts to instruct the Marquis by gentle admonition and proper personal example, they are both exposed to all the temptations of life in a vibrant, growing metropolis. Prévost creates a vision of English life designed to shatter the smugness and expand the insularity of a Continental audience, and his praise of English democracy and English institutions is one of the first descriptions of the modern world emerging from the Middle Ages to be found in world literature. Prévost was strongly attracted to the democratic tendencies in English society, and his depiction of the rough equality of life in the street, the free press, and the chaotic debate among citizens in the coffeehouse has a vitality that stands in strong contrast to the patterns of life in old, monarchical European cities. At the same time, Prévost is skilled enough as a storyteller to avoid didacticism, intertwining his ideas with tales of love, sex, intrigue, and scandal based on accounts he had read in The Spectator and learned from William Hogarth’s depictions of harlots, gamblers, base men, and sporting blades.

In each episode, the moral education of the young Marquis continues. The Man of Quality offers his carefully considered discourse on proper behavior in any sort of conflict or challenge, underscoring the lesson of each encounter in Prévost’s felicitous prose. The style is so graceful and the Man of Quality so appealingly modest that his maxims, aphorisms, and principles are easy to accept. Still, compared to modern prose fiction, the book is severely limited. The action is rarely subtle, and each episode is separate, without resonance for the others; there is a sense of stasis in psychological development, as the Man of Quality is essentially fixed and the young Marquis mostly a prop or vehicle to offer his mentor an opportunity to present his reflections on an incident.

Manon Lescaut

Upon the publication of Memoirs of a Man of Quality and the beginning of his own exile, Prévost returned to the world to become fully involved in several relationships, which formed the basis for the extraordinary relationship he describes in Manon Lescaut. In Manon Lescaut, Prévost wrote the only book in his oeuvre that concerns the one subject he could not regard with any sense of detachment. Generally, when he used his own experiences as the basis for a narrative, he filtered the actual events through a reflective apparatus that enabled him to cultivate the graceful style that has been described as “the taste of fresh water.” In Manon Lescaut, his subject is romantic fervor in its most consuming form, approached with no reserve, no distancing devices, and no digressions to lessen the fierce tension. The book moved Voltaire to remark that Prévost’s language is the “natural language of passion,” and the book’s effect derives in part from Prévost’s ability to maintain the tension of the relationship it portrays without losing the natural grace of his best prose.

The book has become famous as the story of the extraordinarily beautiful Manon Lescaut. In the original title, however, the Chevalier des Grieux is placed first, and while it is Manon who is the focus of attention, the reader knows her only through his eyes; it is his soul and psyche that are explored in the course of the book. Manon is hardly a character at all; she is more like a spirit of sexual intoxication, an inspiration for absolute romantic devotion, and, finally, the motive and cause of a young man’s madness. Her effect is like that of the mythical Sirens, and every man who sees her is beguiled and transformed by her incredible presence. The reader learns the power of Manon’s beauty not through description but through reaction. Prévost’s story of a man possessed by an uncontrollable passion is an expression of the primal male fear of a woman’s powers; it is a tale of terror induced by a mysterious essence that is as irresistible as it is incomprehensible. The continuing popularity of the story and the three operas based on it stems from a public perception that it is an account of doomed, idyllic young lovers. In actuality, Prévost’s novel is the story of lovesickness akin to madness, and...

(The entire section is 3356 words.)