I guess I’ll just start with the proposal, even though that comes a few pages before the close of the novel.
‘“We are both too sound in heart and soul,’ I said, ‘to go on living in defiance of our duty. It is true that we did so in France, where it was equally impossible for us to give up loving each other and to satisfy our love in a lawful way; but here in America, with nobody to depend on but ourselves and no further obligation to observe the arbitrary laws of social standing and public option, where indeed we are thought to be married, what is there to prevent our being so in fact, and purifying our love by the vows authorized by the Church?’
There seems to be some cavernous hole in the plot that I’m missing. But let’s back up.
We meet the Chevalier des Grieux, looking mopey and despondent as he follows a chained procession of prostitutes that are about to be sent to America as a punishment for their crimes. The narrator gives this seemingly pathetic barnacle some money and a few tender and sympathizing looks and the young man is hurried off.
Two years later, a “chance” meeting reintroduces us to this young man, now shabbier and with an ambiguous housing situation (i.e. possibly homeless) and bereft of his fair maiden. The young man agrees to follow our good narrator to a pub and once again leach off his good will and generous spirit and as a form of compensation the young man entertains him with the sad narrative of his life.
The Chevalier des Grieux represents all second sons in a land that practices primogeniture. While he is petted and spoiled he is also completely superfluous, the wealth and title will go to his older brother and he must take up his cross (of Malta - the order his parents intend for him to join), and devote himself to the church as all good second sons do. But upon our introduction, des Grieux is a 17 year old boy in all the biologically predictable chaos of puberty and a life of chastity just isn’t really his jive.
As he’s wandering the streets one day he happens upon a carriage filled with beautiful women, some about his same age, all about to be forced into the nearest convent for a life of monastic chastity. It takes him one second to realize these women are prostitutes and the next to fall in love.
“I had not been in love for more than a minute, but already love had so sharpened my wits that in a flash I made up my mind that such a project must not be allowed to blast my hopes. The way I spoke to her soon made her realize the state of my feeling, for she was much more experienced than I was. I gathered she was being sent to the convent against her will, and I see now that it was probably to check the pleasure-loving tendencies that had already shown themselves in her, and that were to bring so much suffering on herself and me.”
I think within the first 13 pages everything is laid out for us. 1) He is the superfluous son of a wealthy family and as such lives a life of little expectations. As long as he can manage not to completely destroy the family name it’s a no holds barred situation. 2) He never has any intention of legitimizing his union with Manon…she is a one dimensional prostitute and as such gets what she deserves.
I would argue that this is in no way a love story. A love story is Cinderella being discovered as the only one with an impossibly perfect foot and the waif like structure that can be supported by a glass slipper…and then of course the unlikely situation where class systems and economic striation are thrown to the wind because after one dance and said foot structure the Prince is in love enough to publicly commit himself to this ash maid and make her his queen. Cinderella pulls at our heart strings because we ultimately want to believe that love can triumph over even the most improbable of situations despite what Claude Levi-Strauss has to say about it.
Manon Lescaut is the antithesis of Cinderella, but also the more pessimistically realistic version of life.
Upon des Grieux' discovery of Manon he decides he must marry her and free her from her life of forced matrimony to God…only…he doesn’t quite make it that far and instead shacks up with her, hidden away in the labyrinthine streets of Paris. (aka the Prince upon discovering Cinderella to be the proprietor of the sought after foot doesn’t marry her or publicly acknowledge her as his queen but secretly keeps her in a attic apartment in Paris = not a love story).
What makes this whole narrative so incredibly painful, isn’t the fact that he’s a rich kid with a mistress, but his constant professions of love and introspective soliloquies on his faithful devotion, countered by her fickle nature and predilection for pleasure and conspicuous consumption. His take away 5 pages into their perfect bliss is “everything was so perfect, if only Manon wasn’t a whore and completely unfaithful to me…”
His lack of agency and actual introspection makes me wish for a time machine so I could travel back to 1728 and punch this fictitious bastard in the face.
It gets so much worse.
After his spending money runs out and they are forced to support a meager lifestyle of limited outings and plain food, he notices Manon begins dressing nicer and wearing jewelry he doesn’t recognize…Only to catch her with her new sugar daddy, an old man with an infinite supply of disposable income. Des Grieux can’t compete with this man’s independent wealth and his older brother dutifully arrives and drags him back home where he is lectured just enough to make the reader want to gag, but not effectively enough to lead to character development.
And so, in what can only be described as a Woody Allen Möbius strip, the plot repeats itself three times, each time the stakes are raised and the consequences increasingly disastrous. At first des Grieux attempts to get over his cuckolding by devoting himself back to the church and a life of quiet thought and contemplation…only to have Manon show up at one of his lectures (presumably on chastity) and woo him back to the life of a reprobate:
“Manon, devil, oh you deceitful devil!’ She repeated, amid floods of tears, that she she was not trying to justify her abominable behavior. ‘What do you want then?’ I cried. ‘I want to die,’ she answered, ‘unless you give me back your love, for without that I cannot live.’ ‘Then why don’t you ask for my life?’ I said now weeping too, in spite of myself; ‘ask for my life, which is all I have left to give you, for you have had my love along.’
The couple finds themselves put in and escaping from prisons and dungeons, dodging dragoons and militias only to be found time after time by the same old man enraged and apoplectic at their continuous defiance of his right and prerogatives.
What I don’t understand is if des Grieux had married her from the beginning none of this would have been an issue. Or even after the second plot repetition. But marriage is not comprehensible, because in real life you can only jump one class level at a time. A Maid might marry her boss in Manhattan…but if he’s working, he’s not independently wealthy, the .01%. Des Grieux is the .01%. And in that echelon you don’t marry scullery maids (Cinderella) or prostitutes (Manon) no matter how beautiful they are…unless…
In the last and final plot repetition, as des Grieux finds himself abandoned by the private militia he has spent his last franc on hiring to fight off Manon’s captors, he realizes his only hope is to follow Manon and the other prostitutes from a distance, hoping to be included in whatever plans their nefarious captors have in mind. The plans happen to be a three month boat ride to the colony of Louisiana and forced marriage to a lucky colonist. Des Grieux sneaks on the boat and somehow convinces everyone by his good manners and pathological lying that he and Manon are married and as they disembark to this new world, they are free to begin their lives together as husband and wife. Only…even this concept is anathema to the literati of the French 1720’s. So an elaborate plot twist makes des Grieux and Manon once again run for their lives, this time while pausing to whisper sweet nothings and do acts of service for each other- culminating in the star crossed lovers spending a night in the cold (des Grieux gives up his clothes to make a bed and pillow for his darling love) only to have her DIE FROM EXPOSURE!
GA. Literally this novella was the worst.
The only thing more annoying than des Grieux….and he may have been the most infuriating protagonist ever…was his loyal dog of a friend, Tiberge. If it is unlikely to jump more than one social strata at a time, it is even more unlikely that des Grieux had friends. His only form of communication is that which involves asking for money and then spending it all on his prostitute…but while our hero is bereft and destitute in New Orleans, who shows up with a little extra spending money just to check on him? Tiberge!
I honestly don’t even know what genre to classify this in. It took Abbe Prevost 2 months to write this novella and it seems about what one would expect from 2 months worth of work and a lot of coffee breaks.