illustrated portrait of main character Manon Lescaut sitting in an elegant dress and fanning herself

Manon Lescaut

by Abbé Prévost

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 714


*Paris. Capital city and center of all activity—political, social and cultural—in eighteenth century France. The Paris of Abbé Prévost’s novel is the real Paris of the period. At the time he was writing, the novel was not accepted as a literary genre. The novels of the seventeenth century had become so fantastic that the novelists of the eighteenth century were particularly concerned with portraying contemporary times as realistically as possible to avoid criticism of their works as frivolous, absurd, and unworthy of consideration. By setting the novel in Paris and in actual places and institutions found in the Paris of the time, Prévost created a sense of authenticity. By choosing Paris, Prévost also satisfied the interests of his readers because it was the city where everyone wanted to be and about which everyone wanted to read. The provinces and provincialism were not in vogue.

Paris contained all of the elements Prévost needed to develop his plot. The population was composed of people from all social classes, and Parisian society was one strictly controlled by class distinction. Inequality of class is one of the major problems faced by Manon Lescaut and her lover the Chevalier des Grieux. He is of noble birth and belongs to a social stratum that has no place for her. Paris has a social milieu eager to accept her, but unsuitable for him. The world of the demimonde offers Manon all of the materials things that she desires: jewels, money, elegant lodgings, and entertainment. Manon is well suited to this world, as she proves early in the novel. Once des Grieux joins her, everything turns to disaster.

*New Orleans

*New Orleans. Leading city of what was then France’s North American Mississippi territory. Situated in the New World, New Orleans symbolizes a second chance for the ill-fated couple, the possibility of finding a simpler society not fettered by class distinction. These hopes soon fade for them. Although the colony, heavily populated by people deported from France, is free of the strict observance of class found in Paris, it is governed by an established system of rules. Manon and des Grieux are not free to marry. The selection of a husband for a woman newly arrived in the colony is allocated to the governor. The governor’s nephew Synnelet will marry Manon. The couple Manon/des Grieux is unacceptable to this social community. There is no place for them.


Desert. Imaginary region immediately east of New Orleans in the direction of the English colonies. Prévost’s knowledge of the geography of the American colonies was undoubtedly imperfect, but so was that of most of his readers. The desert is the ideal place for Manon and des Grieux’s final moments together and for her death. It symbolizes both the impossibility of happiness for the couple and also des Grieux’s total loss of everything. Alone in the desert, at her graveside, des Grieux is stripped of everything.


*Havre-de-Grace (ha-vahr-deh-grays). Seaport in northern France from which Manon is deported to the American colonies. Havre-de-Grace was one of the ports from which people were sent to the French colonies. Prévost repeatedly anchors his novel in the reality of his time. Havre-de-Grace is also the place in which Prévost introduces his narrator, the Man of Quality. There and later at Calais (another seaport), des Grieux, recounts his story to him. It is in turn the Man of Quality who tells the reader des Grieux’s story. Prévost uses a reliable narrator and gives more credence to his novel.


Cart. Means of transporting Manon and her unfortunate companions to the point of deportation. Open carts...

(This entire section contains 714 words.)

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served this purpose during the period. Although the cart is not an actual geographic location, it is important place in the novel. It is a place of confinement and of exhibition. The degradation of the cart is the final blow, which, coupled with des Grieux’s fidelity, transforms Manon.

Pacy Inn

Pacy Inn. Manon and des Grieux meet here. Inns are important in Prévost’s novel because they are places of anonymity for people and places where few questions are asked. It is also here that the fatal passion between Manon and des Grieux begins.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 262

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by W. R. Trask. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953. A legendary study of Prévost’s artistic technique, this essay uses Manon Lescaut as an intellectual springboard to evaluate a wide range of Enlightenment configurations. A vigorous, thought-provoking analysis of erotic sentimentality in literature.

Gilroy, James P. The Romantic Manon and Des Grieux: Images of Prévost’s Heroine and Hero in Nineteenth-Century French Literature. Sherbrooke, Québec: Éditions Naaman, 1980. A compelling and evocative study that celebrates Manon’s status as the enigmatic darling of French literature. Also traces the universality of Manon and des Grieux as archetypal lovers who transcend barriers of time and place.

Kory, Odile A. Subjectivity and Sensitivity in the Novels of the Abbé Prévost. Paris: Didier, 1972. Somewhat rambling and discursive, but points out the importance of Manon Lescaut as an arranging element in eighteenth century French fiction. Discusses the timeless dimensions of morality, psychology, and the quest for identity.

Rabine, Leslie W. Reading the Romantic Heroine: Text, History, Idelogy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985. A lively and engaging study that emphasizes the pivotal importance of Manon Lescaut in pre-Romantic fiction. Serves as a nice counterpoint to “over-reading” interpretations of the novel.

Segal, Naomi. The Unintended Reader: Feminism and “Manon Lescaut.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. A review of critical reactions to Manon Lescaut over a two-hundred-year period, with an emphasis on the phenomenon of seduction by language. The author attempts to apply Freudian Oedipal analogies to issues of female autonomy, identity, and self-esteem.


Critical Essays