Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost

I have just enrolled in my third Coursera course. This course is titled, The Fiction of Relationship, conducted by Brown University. In this course, we examine the different types of relationships found in fictions and literature. This 12 week-course requires me to read one assigned book a week, a daunting task especially when the books are not my kind of books. If you think I am addicted to Coursera, you may be right, for many of my fellow Coursera classmates also displayed similar addiction, enrolling in one course after another. My reason for taking this particular subject is that I hope it’ll helped in my writing career. Not surprisingly, I find many writers enrolled in this course as well.


This book was written in 1731 by French author Abbe Prevost, and translated by Leonard Tancock for Penguin. It created an uproar during that period and was not well received. Even so, this is Prevost’s most popular novella (short novel) and an opera was even made of it.

Reading it three centuries later, the story is still as relevant today as in 18th century Paris, and would most likely be found in the scripts of  modern Korean Dramas or long-winded Taiwanese dramas.

I have never read a book as thoroughly and as detailed as I did this book, as is most often required for literature text. The last book I did the same was To Kill a Mocking Bird for my O’levels. While I grew to like To Kill a Mocking Bird, I hated this book.

This is a narrative from the perspective of des Grieux, a twenty-year-old boy (same age as my son) who on his way to study to become a priest when he was 18, met a beautiful 15-year-old girl, Manon Lescaut, on her way to become a nun at the convent, fell in love with her and they decided to elope. As the author describes in his sophisticated language : ‘All our ideas about marriage were forgotten at Saint-Denis; we tricked the Church of its rights, and before we had given the matter a thought found ourselves man and wife.’

The problem was, they had no money, and Manon was a girl who was fond of material pleasure and fun life, and was soon swayed by an old rich man. Feeling betrayed, des Grieux was captured by his brother to return home. A few months later while giving a speech at a church, he met Manon again and they ran away again. Thereby is the gist of the story. des Griuex could not keep up with the materials that his mistress desired and she was forced to look to other men for it, while he was forced to commit vice, theft and even murder to be with her.

In my class, the professor obviously found this relentless chase between des Grieux and Manon amusing and deserving of further exploration. Like his pupils, I was disgusted with both the protagonists. They were silly and totally unlikeable. Of course, I was probably reading the book from a parental’s perspective. The plot is probably provocative in 18th century and the melodrama makes good reading. But I think modern readers have become more sophisticated to appreciate such naiveté.

As a literature student, we were taught to look for metaphors in the story, and examine the background of 18th century France, where corruption was rampant, the hierarchy of the people distinct – from the servants to the rich, and how women was viewed often as sexual objects. Funnily in this book, Manon is the only woman described, if you disregard the brief meeting between des Grieux and another woman who was sent by Manon to take her place.

Also interesting point to take note of is the narrative writing, which if spoken live, would require four hours to listen to. Jean Scard wrote in his introduction of this book, that ‘The unstable relation between the relived past and an anxious traumatized memory makes the narrative astonishingly mobile and alive. Everything  that was said, everything that happened, is filtered through memory and made present by an unremittingly partial and impassioned  narrator.’

He further writes ‘…the intensity of the passion alone creates the inner landscape of the lover: his happiness, anxieties, anger, heartache, hope, melancholy, humiliations, pride, remorse…the intensity of his passion, and this violence generates all kinds of irrational behaviour…it is difficult today for us to appreciate the exceptional nature of these ‘movements of the heart.’

Yes, it’s difficult for me to appreciate the book.


About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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