Critical Evaluation

Most critics agree that the mercurial life of Abbé Prévost contributed to the creation of Manon Lescaut. After vacillating between the priesthood and the military and being satisfied with neither, he launched in the 1720’s one of the most prolific careers of the century as novelist, editor, translator, journalist, and chronicler of travel accounts.

After completing four volumes of Le Philosophe anglais: Ou, Les Mémoires de Cleveland (1732-1739; The Life and Entertaining Adventures of Mr. Cleveland, Natural Son of Oliver Cromwell, 1734, 1753), Prévost began to travel between England and Holland. Apparently he was in debt in each country, possibly as the result of an uncertain relationship with a reputed Madame Lenki. In 1734, he was absolved of all clerical transgressions and received a sinecure at Evreux, which he used as a point of departure for Paris and Holland. In 1740, he traveled, again under mysterious circumstances, to Belgium and Germany. In 1746, he settled at Chaillot and continued his remarkable productivity. Church authorities rewarded his efforts by adding to his endowment.

In addition to Manon Lescaut, two other works by Prévost—The Story of a Modern Greek (1740) and The Journal of an Honest Man (1745)—belong in the genre of the sentimental French novel. Two themes in these novels, which are also present in the English literature that Prévost translated by such writers as Samuel Richardson, Frances Sheridan, and John Dryden, are passionate, tragic love and redemption through suffering.

Manon Lescaut was published in 1731 as the seventh volume of Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité, qui s’est retiré du monde (1728-1731; Memoirs of a Man of Quality After His Retirement from the World, 1738), a rambling collection of quixotic tales and personal adventures narrated by the Marquis de Renoncour. The commonly used abridged title tends to give Manon an importance she was probably not meant to have. Renoncour introduces the Chevalier des Grieux, the protagonist of the story, but he himself does not participate in the events and he merely acts as an impartial observer of the various picaresque adventures—storms at sea, abductions, chance encounters and recognitions, and tranquil moments shattered by action and suspense. All of this is revealed from the marquis’ point of view, and it...

(The entire section is 994 words.)