Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost

Here’s another text, Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost, with a dodgy narrative voice! I’m drawn to them. The Chevalier des Grieux is an unreliable narrator whose story is glossed by his intense feelings for Manon Lescaut. He is young and describes his own mistakes. Mistakes may not be the right word since what he is prepared to do involves fraud and murder while his passion makes him oblivious to the impact of his actions on his family and friends.

There is no reason why we should trust his account of a relationship with a woman with whom he is obsessed. His description of their relationship does not accord with what we see. He worships her with what can be viewed as religious veneration. She repays him by spending their money, seeking material pleasures apart from him and being unfaithful. She draws him into foolish strategies which lead to their joint downfall.

That makes Manon a more interesting character in many ways. She is flawed, visceral, and human. She is the archetype of one kind of doomed heroine – undone by her own desires – but she is also a modern heroine aspiring to control her own destiny while distracted by material pleasures, flirtatious at times and susceptible to the advances of wealthy men. There is more than a touch of ‘Indecent Proposal’ here.

In terms of the fiction, one of the impressive aspects of the novel is that we still manage to gain an impression of her character. Prevost is impressed by her beauty and bearing and she comes to life in the tension between the knight’s description of her and the justifications and explanations he provides for her behaviour.

Three helpful things happen at the end of the novel. Firstly, Manon once placed in the utopian American scenario sees the error of her ways and, secondly, she helpfully – in terms of the plot – dies. Thirdly, this allows the knight to find himself ‘cured’ and to return to the contemplative life. What a cop out!

So what is happening in terms of the fiction and the relationships? First of all, the knight is providing a truly fictional account not just in the sense of being made up but also in being deluded. Secondly, one of the partners in the relationship is entirely mute as well as being unreliably described. Thirdly, the story is being recounted by a third person.

Other things. Firstly, this is a salacious text pervaded with sensuality and desire. It is easy to believe that part of its purpose is to arouse and excite the reader. Secondly, it raises questions about the religious life and the avoidance of reality that entails. The overlap between worship and desire, between the Virgin and luscious femininity, and between celibacy and pleasure is ever present in the character of the knight.

Relationships? I think this book is mostly about sex!


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