Academic journal article French Forum

Layers of Portraiture in Manon Lescaut: Changing Modes of Representation in a Changing Society

Academic journal article French Forum

Layers of Portraiture in Manon Lescaut: Changing Modes of Representation in a Changing Society

Article excerpt

An object of critical evaluation most commonly in the contexts of the mid-seventeenth-century romance and the 1659 portrait books Divers portraits and Recueil des portraits et eloges en prose et en vers, the literary portrait as it relates to the early modern psychological novel is curiously absent from scholarly discussions. (1) The verbal sketch, however, did not expire as a social or literary currency when its novelty as a salon game waned. Indeed, the literary portrait continued to provide, in both set-piece and expanded form, the primary mode of character development in eighteenth-century French psychological novels. Moreover, I will argue that within the novel's frame the verbal sketch took on enhanced functions related to evolving modes of "realistic" depiction, the exploration of representational systems, and the changing sociopolitical climate.

Here, I will offer a new reading of Abbe Prevost's Manon Lescaut through the lens of verbal sketching, an analysis that aims likewise to illustrate the literary portrait's essential role in eighteenth-century literature and society (if the two may be separated). In Memoires d'un homme de qualite and its framed tale Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, Prevost presents ongoing portraits of his characters that vary wildly in their clarity, content, and means of execution. A feature of the early psychological novel, indicated by its frequent characterological title, is the extensive use of what I term the hyper-portrait, an expanded, time-infused psychological depiction that unfolds throughout the novel. Prevost establishes such a link between traditional seventeenth-century portraiture and novelistic character development when he exhibits set-piece descriptions of the narrator, Renoncour, in the Memoire's preface, and of the lovelorn chevalier, Des Grieux, in that of Manon Lescaut.

While the idealized brushstrokes of the former portrait, which describes the narrator as "dans sa jeunesse un des hommes de France les mieux faits et du meilleur air," (2) match those of its salon predecessors, the conflicting content of Des Grieux's set-piece portrait in Manon combined with Renoncour's shifting self-presentation over the course of his narration reveal an ironic game at the heart of Prevost's treatment of portraiture. A close reading of Manon's preface indicates that the depiction Prevost forges of his male narrator is infused with a subtle irony. Prevost presents Renoncour in the final volume of his memoirs as a ridiculed social type, a description that ironically reshapes the galleries of masculine heroes presented in seventeenth-century romances and portrait compilations. After a brief look at how this analysis fits into the body of criticism devoted to Manon Lescaut, I will establish that the narrator's use of portraiture allows for a novel interpretation of the masculine "I." By considering irony lodged in the use of literary forms, my observations about portraiture's role in this narrative and its surrounding memoir may well provide a link between structuralist and feminist approaches to this much-discussed text.

There is a great deal of tension in the historic and modern critical discussions of Manon Lescaut. Eighteenth-century interpretations focus almost exclusively on Manon's moral status. (3) Modern feminist critics such as Naomi Segal and Nancy K. Miller continue to analyze Manon, but they consider her the unfortunate object of a male agenda of literary oppression and sexualization. Using sexually charged language, Segal attempts to counteract the nineteenth-century compulsion to make Manon into a fetish: "in the Romantic age, Manon is extracted from her context and bounced about like an inflatable doll: she becomes the focus of fantasy and fixation." (4) Accusing Des Grieux of "narrative bad faith," (5) she adopts a position that aims to balance a fixed gaze on narration (principally that of Des Grieux) and on Manon's status as a voiceless woman. …

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