Manon Lescaut is a novel where the hero is a scoundrel, and the heroine is a whore. But this realization comes slowly. And it is a difficult realization for the reader, like when we begin a relationship with someone we greatly respect, only to discover their bad qualities later. The disappointment that comes from losing respect for them is much like the disappointment the reader feels for the characters of this 18th century novel by Antoine François Prévost (or Abbé Prevost); although our discovery only makes the characters more multi-dimensional and compelling. While we first meet the teenage Manon as the “innocent,” “angelic” and “most beautiful of all the world’s creatures” who is awaiting her entrance into a nunnery, we slowly find out through the account narrated to us by her boyfriend, Le Chevalier Des Grieux, that she is little more than an angel-faced harlot who cannot restrain herself from sleeping with older men for the money, gifts and affection they provide. The couple’s adventures take a picaresque ride from Paris to the provinces, to colonial New Orleans as the couple lies, cheats and steals their way to fortune, to poverty, back to fortune, back to poverty, to prison, as so forth…
Des Grieux begins the story in seminary school, and leaves the holy life to become a cheat and a gambler, in hopes of earning the fortune that his expensive girlfriend would require to be faithful. The fatal flaw of Manon that leads to tragedy is this: she loves pleasure, and if her young boyfriend doesn’t obtain it for her, she will find a sponsor who will. The fatal flaw of Des Grieux is that he loves Manon and will do anything to keep her faithful. The events in the novel resemble the scandalous adventures of their author.
Abbé Prevost lived a life of travel. He was religious novice who abandoned the church several times, for one reason or another (to become a professional soldier, to work in publishing, to get thrown in jail, etc.). He had a relationship with a courtesan in Holland, which may have been the model for this story. He wrote this book called “L’Histoire du chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut” and tried to smuggle copies into France, but it was caught at customs and refused entry. The book has since had an enormous influence on French literature, and the literature of the Western world.
Most critics put forth that Manon doesn’t want to cheat, but that her love of pleasure forces her to, when her young boyfriend cannot afford to give her what she desires. I would put forth that Manon actually wants to cheat on Des Grieux, or at least, she has opposing wills within herself. First of all, she never asked for the relationship with Des Grieux. He came to her rescue when she was waiting to be condemned to a nunnery and he literally saved her. Then he astounded her with his perfect, unconditional, Christ-like love. Women, however, often fall for the bad boy, leaving the meek nice-guy behind. What Manon is uniting with in her affairs with wealthy, lecherous older men, is the corrupt masculine figure—while she leaves her weaker caregiver at home. The relationship is doomed from the beginning as Manon’s nature doesn’t correspond to her lover’s vision of her. Des Grieux believes the face of an angel must possess the soul of an angel. We are reminded of Myshkin and Nastasia Fillipovna in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Alexander Dumas Fils works Manon Lescaut into the plot his novel La Dame aux Camelias, which tells the story of another innocent-looking courtesan.
The ending is powerful, so I won’t give it away, and reading the book, you will form your own idea of how much Manon loves Des Grieux. If you like Manon Lescaut, you will probably also be interested in Atala, by Chateaubriand; Paul et Virginie, by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and Carmen, by Prosper Mérimée.
- Julie Sevigny