Prévost D'exiles, Antoine-François (1697–1763)
PRÉVOST D'EXILES, ANTOINE-FRANÇOIS (1697–1763)
PRÉVOST D'EXILES, ANTOINE-FRANÇOIS (1697–1763), French ecclesiastic and man of letters. Prévost is best known as the author of the novel Manon Lescaut (1731), a love story with tragic overtones in which the hero and heroine, Des Grieux and Manon, are caught and ultimately crushed by the cruel, and at times sordid, social reality of early-eighteenth-century France. The son of a royal magistrate from northern France, Prévost entered the church in 1720 as a novice in the Benedictine congregation of Saint-Maur. His relationship to monastic life was conflicted almost from the beginning. In 1728 he asked to be transferred to a less severe branch of the order, but when his request was denied, he fled dressed as a layman.
The ensuing period of his estrangement from the church was extremely productive from a literary standpoint. Prévost published three volumes of his seven-volume novel, Mémoires et aventures d'un homme de qualité (1728–1731; Memoirs and adventures of a man of quality)—the work known today as Manon Lescaut is actually the last volume of this multivolume novel—as well as the first four volumes of his second novel, Cleveland, le philosophe anglais (1731–1739; Cleveland, the English philosopher), which, although read today only by specialists, also enjoyed great popularity in Prévost's own day.
The same period was disastrous, however, from a financial standpoint. Prévost sought refuge from his creditors in England on two different occasions, but when his financial situation continued to deteriorate, he returned to France in 1734. That same year Prévost formally requested and was granted absolution for his faults and authorized to transfer to a less severe branch of the Benedictine order.
Religion and morality are central concerns in much of what Prévost wrote, but both his contemporaries and his modern readers have tended to be drawn to other aspects of his work. In his Confessions (1782), Prévost's illustrious younger contemporary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), the author of Du contrat social (1762; The social contract), wrote of how profoundly his early reading of Cleveland had affected him. Many of Rousseau's central themes—especially his views concerning the spontaneity of feeling and its role in defining human nature in ways that conflict with the dictates of social codes and hierarchies—resonate with the discourse and situations of Prévost's characters.
In the twentieth century the influential literary historian Eric Auerbach identified Manon Lescaut as one of the most important precursors of the literary realism of the nineteenth century. Other critics have taken up the question of the relationship between Prévost's life and work in order to emphasize the authenticity that they argue his tortured personal existence brought to his fiction. This approach has naturally led them to focus on the perspective and dilemmas of Prévost's male protagonists, but a newer generation of scholars has argued that this focus distorts the deeper implications of his fiction, especially Manon Lescaut. For them, the true protagonist of the novel is not Des Grieux but Manon, who seeks pleasure and freedom in a social world constructed on the basis of a hypocritical double standard with regard to women. From a literary standpoint, Manon Lescaut is without question Prévost's masterpiece, but his other works are also of interest in that they provide a fascinating depiction of Enlightenment culture, whose major trends they not only reflect but also influenced.
Prévost's knowledge of English and of English culture was virtually unique among his French contemporaries, and he exploited it in a number of ways. He is the author of the French translations of two novels by the eighteenth-century English novelist, Samuel Richardson—Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison —which were to influence greatly the development of the novel in France. He edited and served as the major contributor to Le pour et contre (1733–1740; The pro and con), a review of English culture written for a French audience. But it was also through Prévost's English contacts that he became the French editor and translator, and eventually (when his English colleagues abandoned the project) the general editor, of the fifteen-volume Histoire générale des voyages (1746–1759; A general history of voyages), a compilation and presentation of virtually all the journals authored by the major European explorers of the world outside of Europe. This highly influential work represented perhaps the most important precursor of Denis Diderot's better-known Encyclopédie. More recently, scholars have also insisted on its value as a synopsis of early European ethnography and an indication of the role played by an interest in non-European societies in the creation of the culture of the Enlightenment. It also reflects, however, an interest that was evident in some of Prévost's earliest work, especially Cleveland, which contains a detailed fictional portrait of the life of native Americans. Prévost's legacy thus lies not only in the individual works he authored but also in the links he helped establish between various aspects of Enlightenment culture and letters and perhaps, above all, between the exploration of the "inner" worlds of feeling, passion, and thought, and the "outer" worlds defined not only by French society and culture but increasingly by the "new worlds" outside of Europe, which in Prévost's lifetime Europeans were still only beginning to explore.
See also Encyclopédie ; Enlightenment ; French Literature and Language ; Richardson, Samuel ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques .
Prévost, Antoine-François. Manon Lescaut. Translated by L. W. Tancock. London, 1949.
Auerbach, Eric. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by W. R. Trask. Princeton, 1968. First published 1946.
Gearhart, Suzanne. "The Sexual Interruption of the Real." In The Interrupted Dialectic: Philosophy, Psychology, and Their Tragic Other, pp. 133–156. Baltimore, 1992.
Rabine, Leslie. "Sex and the Single Girl at the Dawn of Liberalism." In Reading the Romantic Heroine: Text, History, Ideology, pp. 50–80. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1985.
Segal, Naomi. The Unintended Reader: Feminism and Manon Lescaut. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1986.
Sgard, Jean. Prévost romancier. Paris, 1968.