Manon Lescaut Summary

Abbe Prevost

Manon Lescaut

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Manon Lescaut Summary

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Manon Lescaut (1731) is a French novel, in the sentimental tradition, by Abbé Prévost (real name: Antoine François Prévodst d’Exiles). It follows the course of a love affair between two young people. The story inspired a popular opera of the same name by Giacomo Puccini in 1893. It is one of the first examples in French literature of a novel that combines romance with realism; it was so scandalous at the time, that several authorities in France banned the novel shortly after its publication.

The full English translation is The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut. The story is told in the first person from the perspective of Manon, the female lover of Des Grieux. “Chevalier” means a nobleman, or knight. This text is the final installment in a series of seven books about the Chevalier des Grieux.

Set in Amiens, France, in 1720, the “memoirs” open to the Chevalier des Grieux recounting his days as a philosophy student at the local university. There, he befriends a man named Tiberge, who will become his best friend for life.

One day he sees a beautiful young woman leave a carriage. He conducts some introductions, and learns that her name is Manon, and she is under the protection of an Geronte. The old man doesn’t want to share her beauty with the rest of the world and intends to keep her locked away in a convent. Des Grieux is dimly aware that Manon Lescaut is a courtesan, or a lover for hire, yet he is too infatuated with her to really consider the meaning of this.

Des Grieux can’t believe that anyone would want to put Manon in a convent. He offers to save her from this plight, which she hopes to avoid, if she will later take him as a lover. Manon agrees. With great cunning, the young des Grieux gets rid of the old man. The two then flee to Paris, despite entreaties from friends such as Tiberge that they’ll regret this elopement. Manon is from the working class, and des Grieux is from the upper class; despite their different upbringings, des Grieux believes the two of them can work things out.

Their love lasts for less than a month. Shortly after they arrive in Paris, des Grieux comes to realize that Manon has another lover, whose is known only as “Monsieur de B—.” Still, he loves Manon. Only when his father sends three of his men to forcefully recapture the young man do des Grieux and Manon part ways.

Back at home, des Grieux remains in love with Manon. His father commands him to give her up, but he can’t. To prevent the continuation of their romance, the elder des Grieux locks the young man in his room for six weeks. Tiberge convinces his friend to join the seminary in Paris; if he pursues a career in the church, his father is more likely to let him leave his room, knowing that his eyes are set on god, rather than women who would exploit him for his wealth. Tiberge relays that des Grieux’s rival, Monsieur de B—, is funding Manon’s residency in Paris.

Chevalier des Grieux enters the seminary at the Sorbonne, and quickly becomes a star pupil. While he is speaking about church doctrine one day, Manon listens in the audience. She approaches him once he finishes. They embrace just once, and des Grieux suddenly remembers his intense love for Manon. All of the sudden, he is ready to give up everything—his father and friend’s approval, his promising career in the Church—to be with Manon.

The two lovers escape from the Sorbonne. They take up residence in Chaillot, a town on the outskirts of Paris. Manon has saved enough money to provide a habitable living situation for the time being.

The couple live a bohemian life. They drink a lot, stay out late, and dance in public.  They’re happy and in love. However, whenever money is low, Manon wanders into the arms of richer men.

Unfortunately, one day a fire destroys all of their prized possessions and what little money they had. The two must now find a way to earn money quickly. Manon’s unsympathetic brother, Monsieur Lescaut, tells his sister she should simply flirt with noblemen again. Des Grieux is completely against this. Instead, des Grieux decides to rebuild their income by becoming a professional gambler.

Des Grieux is not above cheating, and to make some serious money, he develops several cheating stratagems that make him almost impossible to defeat. The couple are soon richer than they’ve ever been. But then, two house servants steal almost everything they own and they are returned to poverty once more.

Monsieur Lescaut returns to tell his sister she should flirt, yet again, with the elderly yet stunningly rich Monsier de G— M—-. Monsieur Lescaut will not have a happy ending: once it’s discovered that he has cheated at cards, the man whose money he took will kill him.

Desperate for money, Manon and des Grieux decide to steal everything they can from the old, wealthy man. They succeed, but are soon arrested. The father of des Grieux pays the bail to have his son released from prison. However, he will not do the same for his son’s lover. As punishment, the French government sentences Manon to exile in the French territory of New Orleans in North America. De Grieux convinces a captain to allow him to travel to North America with her.

The couple present themselves as married in New Orleans. They’re happy enough, until one day des Grieux tells the prominent Governor of New Orleans that he and Manon aren’t really married, and he would like to make their status official. The governor knows that his son, Monsieur Synnelet, fancies Manon; he refuses to approve the marriage between Manon and des Grieux and schemes for his son to be wedded to Manon.

Des Grieux and Monsieur Synnelet duel over Manon’s hand. Des Grieux wins. The couple, fearing that the Governor will seek vengeance, flee into the harsh Louisiana landscape, hoping to join an English settlement somewhere.

During this escape, Manon dies from disease and exhaustion.

In his grief, and at the prompting of Tiberge, the Chevalier des Grieux returns to France. He becomes a priest, and lives out his life in peace.