Classic Book Review: Manon Lescaut, Abbé Prévost

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The Hypocrisy of a Lover

(Oxford University Press, 2004, RRP £7.99)

Angela Scholar’s translation of what is called one of Abbé Prévost’s most well-known works is an engaging tale which makes equal use of poetic and religious language, emphasising the characters’ society as well as the main character’s personality. Manon Lescaut is a story of an upper-class young man, Chevalier Des Grieux, who falls in love with a lower-class young woman, Manon Lescaut. They run away together without getting married, and Des Grieux discovers that Manon’s love of luxury is greater than her desire to stay faithful. Manon takes a wealthy lover, which upsets and angers Des Grieux, although this leads to him and Manon tricking him out of some money and enables them to live in luxury before they are ruined. This storyline repeats itself three times, with each fallout greater and with more lasting consequences than the one before. The novella ends tragically and without much hope, although there is a ray of light in Des Grieux’s decision to pursue the moral road again.

Although the story itself and Des Grieux’s emotions are, doubtless, powerful, the novella’s distinct lack of direct speech distils the effect somewhat as all is merely reported by Des Grieux. While this does serve to make evident the bias of his account, it also puts too much attention on his relentless lamenting and self-pity, something so constant that the reader tires quickly of reading Des Grieux’s pathetic acknowledgements that he is a fool and his constant inability to even want to try to free himself of his feelings for Manon. Within thirty pages the reader’s initial sympathies have turned into irritation at the weak-willed Des Grieux and the shameless Manon, who is more than ready to use her charms to benefit herself and Des Grieux. This is only amplified and repeated throughout the rest of the novella.

Nevertheless, Des Grieux’s conduct, particularly his fickleness regarding his devotion to religious studies and his up-keeping of piety and chastity, and his subsequent emotional turmoil bring up an interesting question – is it better to keep feelings under strict control and not experience suffering, or to abandon oneself to one’s feelings and feel great joy but also pain? Despite Des Grieux’s frequent self-remonstrations about choosing Manon over a life that would have probably been calmer and more prosperous, his inflexible devotion means that this question is left unresolved by the narrator, and thus the reader is invited to make his or her own decision.

Although the reader has some power over what they read, there is still a possibility that they will be manipulated by the narrator. Angela Scholar, in her introduction to the novella, briefly explores why the character of Des Grieux, who, when closely examined, shows himself to be conceited, irresponsible and, in some ways, heartless, remains a rather attractive character during the reading Manon Lescaut. The elevated language he uses greatly adds to this effect, as does his engaging story-telling technique. However, the complicated topic of translations and whether translators portray the original meaning accurately enough threatens to come into this review, thus spoiling, or at least questioning, most of the aforementioned. As this is a review and not an essay on the value of translations, we shall swiftly move on.

The likeability of the main character is another interesting issue in Manon Lescaut. One of the greatest ironies of the novella is Des Grieux’s high opinion of his nobility and honour, a great contrast to his reaction to certain characters’ deaths. He shows no remorse after killing a servant in a holy building when escaping in order to be able to rescue Manon from where she is kept. Although he does not mean to kill the servant, Des Grieux’s feelings about the death are dealt with in a few lines, which immediately cast into doubt his position as a good person. His immediate reaction to Manon’s brother’s death, which is merely to carry on worrying about himself and Manon, with her brother’s death merely adding to his troubles rather than evoking any personal sense of loss, solidifies the impression that all his feelings are focused on Manon, and thus paints Des Grieux as cold in all matters which do not directly involve his mistress.

Although Manon Lescaut reads like a love letter to love, it is also an adventure, an entertainingly-told story of guile, boldness and the extent that people are willing to go for love. Des Grieux’s change from a young man of innocence and virtue to a manipulator who cheats at cards, exaggerates and elaborates to get what he wants, and tricks to obtain money for himself and Manon, all the while maintaining a view of himself as ultimately virtuous, make for a complex protagonist. Although he recognises his flaws and occasionally admits to feeling guilty, he excuses this by maintaining that he does everything for love, or that it is his pitiful fate. His abuse of Tiberge’s friendship, his shameless trickery of G… M… and his thoughtless murder all serve to depict the degeneration of his previously honourable character without the need for Des Grieux himself to explicitly state this. In fact, his apparent unawareness of the severity of his actions and his flippant attitude towards his conduct when he identifies its immorality further encourage the reader to question Des Grieux’s integrity. However, this is juxtaposed with his tendency to be seized with shame, although his hyperbolic language – ‘I would rather shed all my blood’ – undermines rather than adds to these sentiments as it appears he goes through the motions, something that stems from his nobility, rather than really suffers because of what he has to do. On the other hand, it is arguably commendable that Des Grieux overcomes all his possible qualms about immoral behaviour in attempting to secure a good life for himself and Manon.

When the character of Des Grieux is explored in a deeper way, it becomes evident that his version of the story might not be a completely accurate portrayal of what really happened – after all, whenever he recounts his story to a friend, family member or authority figure, he makes sure to always present himself in the best light, which, despite confessions of his immoral behaviour, he doubtless does with readers, too. The discovery of Des Grieux as an untrustworthy narrator challenges the entire novella, but instead of feeling disappointed, this evokes more intrigue, and thus solidifies the novella as an interesting exploration of character, rather than merely the tragic love story it purports to be on the surface.

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