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 is therefore difficult to ascertain Manon’s response to her situation.
Prévost combines realism—his use of the social types, names of places, and the importance of money—with pre-Romantic sentimentality. This combination allows the novel to operate on several levels. Even though Manon is at times promiscuous and des Grieux is an impetuous social deviant, they live without shame in naïve defiance of aristocratic conventions. The spirit of the novel is defined by sensuality, emphasis on living in the present, and restless frivolity. Manon and des Grieux play the following psychological roles: jilted lover, faithful husband, provider, brother and sister, mistress-mother, and abandoned child.
Perhaps this explains the magnetism of Manon Lescaut to each new generation of readers. Manon was the adopted heroine of the nineteenth century; she was rhapsodized as an image of enigmatic femininity. The idealistic reader might argue that Manon’s originally pure love for des Grieux was corrupted by the harmful influence of civilization. Love is dependent on economics in the capitalist marketplace. Manon is not heartless or predatory, but she is mostly interested in maintaining a certain way of life. Perhaps the need for emotional security represents her deepest impulse. She certainly takes enormous risks to attain it. The prison scenes, the deportation of prostitutes, and the gambling dens remind the reader that a heavy penalty awaited those who failed to bargain successfully...
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For this reason, Manon Lescaut has continued to receive praise from influential writers, and it has inspired a sequel, several dramatic versions, and three famous operas—Daniel-François-Esprit Auber’s Manon Lescaut (1856), Jules Massenet’s Manon (1884), and Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893). This cluster of interpretations has crystallized into a composite image of des Grieux and Manon as archetypal lovers.
It is equally instructive to regard Manon Lescaut as a product of its times. The age of uncertainty produced by the regency of Louis XV, the South Sea bankruptcy scam in England, and the breakdown of the French economy under John Law had literary repercussions. Manon Lescaut promotes love as an innocent passion in a reckless moral climate in which ethical judgment has become dependent on situation. Des Grieux, a second son, is relegated to a choice between the Knights of Malta or the seminary. Manon, not commanding a dowry, is sent to a convent. Des Grieux’s infatuation for her leads to criminality, yet his own and Manon’s delinquency seems beyond his comprehension. This psychotic indifference to his past is contrasted with Tiberge’s personality—the Christian alter ego—and by disastrous interventions through the heavy hand of parental or legal authority.
Prévost’s style depends largely on the presentation of contrasting moods and images. The peaceful and retired life is juxtaposed with the Parisian demimonde. Des Grieux’s fervor is counterbalanced by Tiberge’s spiritual calm. The courtesan and her paramour see their love extinguished in a stark, indeterminate setting, geographically different but emotionally identical to their origins. Prévost develops the timeless motifs of pleasure, luxury, amusement, loss, bereavement, and obsession with economy of language, unaffected lyricism, and classical reserve. These qualities are even more evident in the 1953 revision of the first edition, which eliminated superfluous language and softened the emotional effect.
French historian Jules Michelet claimed that Manon Lescaut evokes a nostalgia for the manners and mores of the ancien régime. In that context, Manon and des Grieux resemble figures in a painting in which the richly polished, cinematic interior scenes are set against the turbulent background of eighteenth century life in Europe and the New World. Whether Manon is viewed as siren or saint, des Grieux as hero or misfit, their literary reputation as quasi-mythical, amoral lovers continues to be affirmed.