Abbe Prevost's tale of Manon Lescaut performs several different functions at once. It is in part a cautionary story. It is in part a push to create a fully modern sensibility in French literature. It is in part an exploration of the trope of Romanticism. And in all of these things it is partly a story about the New World, for to Prevost, as to other Europeans of his time, the New World was a place in which new rules could be written for human behavior. The New World was a metaphor for new ways of looking at what it meant to be human - and not usually complementary ways. This paper examines some of the ways that Prevost used the New World in metaphorical and symbolic ways in Manon Lescaut.
Although Prevost was in fact a very productive writer during his lifetime, he is now remembered almost entirely for the 1731 work Manon Lescaut - the full title of which is the "Story of the Chevalier of Grieux and of Manon Lescaut" ("Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut").
The work was first published as the final chapter of a seven-volume serial novel titled "Memories and Adventures of a Man of Quality Who Has Retired from the World" ("Memoires et aventures d'un homme de qualite qui s'est retire du monde") and it is difficult not to read into the work a good degree of autobiographical detail, although it is important also to understand that while elements of his own life may well have found their way into the book, it is also true that Prevost was writing within a well-established genre, the novel of feeling that was so popular in 18th century France.
In a nutshell, Manon Lescaut is a cautionary tale about what will happen to any young man of noble birth who falls in love with a woman of the lower orders. This is something of a reversal from modern cautionary tales in which women lose their rank and their virtue because of the scoundrels within whom they fall in love and reflects the very different ideas that were present about both class and gender in Prevost's time as opposed to our own.
Prevost himself, as noted above, knew not a little of what he was writing about. When he was not studying for the priesthood, he entered the army twice, only to turn once again to the church, only to be dismissed by the Jesuits. He was ordained by the Benedictines, and as a member of this order seemed to find no true calling for chastity. He was forced at least in large part because of these affairs to flee to England, where continuing affairs caused him to be defrocked.
Prevost's explorations of sexuality in this book were therefore most certainly based on personal experience, and his use of the New World as a metaphor for a place that people who are too committed to pleasures of the flesh suggests at least two aspects of his own experience. We read in this novel some condemnation of uncontrolled sexuality that perhaps reflects his training as a priest and the official teachings of the Catholic Church, to which he returned after his dismissal from the priesthood.
But even more than this, we sense in his use of the New World as a place of both exile and escape a longing for a place where one could go that was outside of the bounds of social conformity as he knew them. For a European of his class and historical moment, the New World must have seemed to offer up endless possibilities for pleasure in a setting in which the savages no doubt cavorted all they wished and in which a man (and even a woman) could find pleasure without disgrace.
This same ambiguity we see in Prevost's use of the New World as a place to which one might well be exiled for one's sins (and yet at the same time allow one to find one's true, unfettered self once one arrived there) is reflected in the character of Manon herself, who is one of the more ambiguous figures in French literature. We can in fact read her as an embodiment of both the virtues/pleasures and the perils that Prevost seemed to believe lay in the Americas.
Manon is not a heroine in the model of previous French heroines: She is not obviously good or virtuous. She is at most points throughout the book a temptress, a reincarnation of Eve. This is hardly surprising that a woman whose body inclines men to think about touching her. There were few cultural positions available to women in France, and while it is of course something of an over-simplification to argue that women in both the literature and the society of France in the 18th century had to be either whores or angels, it is not very much of an oversimplification.
Manon is, of these two possibilities, more whore than she is angel or Madonna, but still she remains at least something of a combination of the two, and it was no doubt this ability of Prevost's to try to create a female character that was more realistic, whose sexuality more closely mirrored the real sexuality of real women, that marked this book as the remarkable literary effort that it is and has helped maintain its popularity when the rest of the works by Prevost have become simply literary and historical footnotes.
Which is not to say that Manon is a particularly likable character. She is indeed almost an anti-heroine, a woman who is far more concerned about her own comfort than about any of the traditional virtues or even about the man she loves.
Prevost must have in at least some way been intending to shock his readers, who would have been thoroughly accustomed to entirely virtuous females inhabiting the pages of the other novels that they would have read. But one has the sense that he was not writing simply for the pleasure of shocking people but because he was genuinely interested in exploring new ways of depicting women and men within the context of a world in which everything had been changed by the presence of a New World to which Europeans might go and rewrite their own personal histories.
We may perhaps better appreciate the complexities of Manon as well as the thoughtful way in which Prevost uses the metaphor of the New World if we compare it to a book like Jane Eyre, a work in which women have reverted entirely to an adherence of being either perfectly good and faithful or entirely demonic. Jane is herself the virginal angel of this book - chaste, nurturing, a filial figure rather than a lover. She epitomizes the goodness of an Old World maiden - unsophisticated in the ways of the world, someone who does not know about or care about her own sexuality.
In direct contrast to her is Bertha Mason who is, among other things, a female representative of the forces of the New World (for we must remember that she has come to be Rochester's wife from the West Indies, a place as steeped in sexuality as England is not) and she bears with her all of the unbridled physicality of the Americas. The first time we meet her, we see her as Rochester does - a barely human figure, reduced by her physicality to a bestial state, a state of savagery like that in which the natives of the New World must live:
He lifted the hangings from the wall, uncovering the second door: this, too, he opened. In a room without a window, there burnt a fire guarded by a high and strong fender, and a lamp suspended from the ceiling by…