Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3356
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...
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- 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.
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 because Manon is a fixed force that never changes or dims, the progress of the fatal passion must be measured by its awesome, almost horrifying effect on the Chevalier des Grieux.
The correspondence between Prévost’s life during the early years of his exile and the adventures of the Chevalier des Grieux has been established by Prévost scholars, and while Manon Lescaut is not literally autobiographical, its matter is clearly derived from events that Prévost knew from firsthand experience. The most crucial aspect of this source is not the events themselves but Prévost’s examination of the psychology of des Grieux as the events occur. The Chevalier knows what is happening to him, but he believes that any sacrifice is worthwhile if it helps him to maintain Manon’s love. Watching des Grieux lose his honor, his reason, his wit, his health, and, finally, his love with an almost ghastly fascination, the reader is nevertheless likely to be convinced that the Chevalier has acted correctly—that his is “a world well lost.” Prévost generates an unusual sense of sympathy for des Grieux, encouraging an identification that engenders, if not a sharing of his passion, at least a shared desire to see it gratified. The suspense that builds as the Chevalier tries everything to remain with Manon and keep her happy drives the narrative along with powerful surges of energy that illuminate his character.
The Chevalier is especially interesting in this situation because he seems such an unlikely person to be so obsessed. He would never have chosen to live a tragedy of love—it is almost as if, with cosmic irony, love has chosen him. When the story begins, he is only seventeen years old, finishing a philosophy course at Amiens, the beloved son of “one of the best families,” a young man “leading such a docile and orderly life that my masters held me up as a model to the school.” He describes his temperament as “naturally gentle and tranquil,” with an inclination to study and a career of promise awaiting him in either the Church or the army. Then, as if by a stroke of destiny, he meets Manon, a woman younger than he, and is instantly, totally caught in an all-consuming love affair that completely alters his life. While professing his desire to be guided by rational principles and traditional religious precepts, the Chevalier becomes a man of instinctive, emotional responses whose only vital religion is a worship of the cult of love. What makes him so compelling as a character is his (and Prévost’s) ability to make his behavior seem logical and his commitment almost holy. Thus, his actions are entirely consistent with his nature. The lesson is that none among us is safe.
Although Manon never wavers in her profession of ardor for des Grieux, she is also always ready to respond to the offers or advances of any wealthy admirer. Whenever des Grieux chastises her, she claims that her actions are motivated by a wish to provide the means for the couple to enjoy a comfortable, carefree life. Her sincerity is never in doubt, but her instinct seems always directed toward the protection of her position and her pleasure. Her self-possession and her selfishness begin to counteract her beauty in the eyes of des Grieux, but he nevertheless remains completely in her power. He understands what is happening to him, but he cannot control his actions or feelings.
As the narrative continues, the Chevalier gradually is drawn into a narrowing cycle of action. Short episodes of satisfaction with Manon are interrupted again and again by other suitors and jealous rivals. He is always in combat against some adversary for her heart or his honor, and his life is reduced to a series of schemes and calculations to avenge himself, get more money, and find a hideout for himself and Manon. Never really a criminal (even when he gambles, steals, swindles or, finally, kills without compunction), he becomes an outlaw to the “honest” world, an outcast among his friends and family, and a figure of opprobrium in his own eyes. No longer capable of calm reflection, he has become a man of radical extremes whose rage is only partly against his fate because it is also against himself for what he knows he has become. Even then, he still believes in love, for not only Manon but as one position of certainty amid the chaos of existence.
When Manon dies in his arms in the American wilderness, to which they have been exiled, he is finally freed from his obsession, but his freedom is empty, for he has lost the energy that, as William Blake observes, is the source of eternal delight. Like Achilles, he has agreed with his fate, which was to blaze fiercely, if briefly, in the firmament of love. For most people, this life would be as destructive as it is for the Chevalier, but after reading Prévost’s account, how many would not be tempted to take the same risks?
Memoirs of a Man of Honor
Near the end of his literary career, Prévost was able to summon the creative energy that illuminated Manon Lescaut one last time. In 1745, he completed Memoirs of a Man of Honor, the story of a young man from the country who tests his principles against the temptations of a wicked, fascinating city. Memoirs of a Man of Honor is similar to Memoirs of a Man of Quality, but in the later work, Prévost has removed the distancing device of the older narrator and has permitted the young man to tell his own story with no intervening devices to soften the impact. The young man is similar to des Grieux (and to Prévost), but his sacred honor is strong enough to resist the charms of the demi-Manons he meets. The social world in which he moves is almost a character in itself—society as an endless pleasure party, with Paris a cross between Daniel Defoe’s teeming London and John Cleland’s world of sex in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749; better known as Fanny Hill, 1938).
The Man of Honor is discovered by the author in a dungeon somewhere in Germany, where he relates the events of his life, beginning with the end. “I come from a deep and horrid dungeon,” he begins, and then proceeds to explain how he got there. The narrative is essentially the development of a philosophy and a sensibility—the test of unpolished, rustic virtue by the allure of a decadent, too-knowing city. It is as if a walking embodiment of the philosophies of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were set as a challenge to the old order, the ancien régime trying to convert the force that eventually will destroy it. At the conclusion, the force is temporarily confined but still fresh and unconverted.
As the narrative commences, the young man, wellborn, wealthy, and educated by the conversation of “the most polite men of the province,” travels to Paris to take part in the delights of Parisian society and to be instructed further by the most prominent men and women of the haut monde, or high society. There is, however, an interesting complication in the young man’s life, as he is also leaving the country because he is being ardently pursued by the young woman his widowed father wishes to marry.
While attempting to extricate himself honorably from an alliance conceived in a confusion of motives, and trying to decide how to deal with his own passion for a married woman while having to keep those motives hidden, the Man of Honor escapes into the world of the soiree, where he is alternately appalled or charmed by wit, gossip, posture, and slander. In addition, he uses his fortune to extricate innocent young women from the grasp of rich, ruthless men and to rescue decent young men from ruin at the hands of the greedy.
Because his time is his own, the Man of Honor is involved in a continuing cycle of visits and parties. These visits form the structure of the book, and he seems always to be either en route to a social engagement or returning from one. Since there is little extended dialogue, the visits are occasions for reflection, and the young man concludes each sequence by evaluating what he has seen, thus providing Prévost with an opportunity to judge and evaluate everything. Throughout, the Man of Honor is informed by the idea that “wit is very enchanting, but it ought not to be exercised at the expense of truth and justice.” He is particularly critical of the cynical citizens who are skilled in the practice of turning everything into a commodity with its own relative measure of value. Finally, he is the ultimate noble “square,” but his sincerity—while sometimes a bit tiresome—never becomes the burden it is in Richardson, and while he is presented without much irony by Prévost, the humor is sometimes, gently, at his expense.
Although Prévost approves of the young man’s character and style, he places him in a world in which the Man of Honor is overcome by circumstance. While attempting to act according to his principles without the loathsome habit of expecting everyone else to measure up to his exceptional standards, the Man of Honor is overwhelmed by what seems to be a series of bizarre occurrences. Actually, he is a man of a new time, a figure from the future born too early. Like the young Prévost, he is unable to reconcile his own true nature with the demands of the world, even with all of its advantages for him. He is living in Paris in a world about to collapse under the weight of its own rot, but the famous Revolution is still four decades away. Although this society is about to die, its perverse power is still so great that, to the Man of Honor, it is almost as if the zeitgeist is poisoned. The Man of Honor does not have a sufficient antidote, and because he is so pure, he is also very vulnerable.
His downfall is ultimately caused by his own glorious weakness, his capacity for total commitment to what he believes is right. Were he merely a moralizing prig, like some character of Tobias Smollett or John Henry MacKenzie, he would endure, but his traits would suffocate the book. His undoing through his devotion to his honor is also his saving grace, the mark of his true humanity among the charlatans, poseurs, manipulators, and malefactors of the intricately detailed Parisian milieu. He must, therefore, suffer a duel with the brother of the woman pursuing him, support serious wounds leading to gangrene, accept his father’s injunction to marry the woman to preserve her reputation, and eventually wind up exiled and imprisoned in a foreign land. For Prévost, this is an analogue to the trials of his own free spirit and to the spirit of France, which he is trying to preserve amid the decay and sterility of a rigid, entrapping social order.
The complexity of Prévost’s attitude is expressed in the Man of Honor’s struggle to remain true to himself while exploring that realm of excitement that he finds simultaneously intriguing and repulsive. Prévost’s exile and return to his country and his religious commitment are paralleled by the hardship the Man of Honor must endure. The book ends with the Man of Honor’s marriage of necessity—with his imprisonment within the larger prison of an unjust world. Yet within his chains, he is truly free, because, like Prévost, he remains an honnête homme, or honest man.