Prévost's Memoires d'un honnête homme: a critical edition
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Whereas in the eighteenth century the formal qualities of the Memoires d'un honnête homme were praised and its depiction of society criticized, twentieth-century critics see it as an important social document lacking a unifying structure. An attempt is made to unravel how much of the avant-propos's account of the time and circumstances of the novel's composition is fact and how much fiction. This unfinished novel covers less than one year of a projected fifteen years of tragic adventures. The Monde moral takes up the same material again in 1760. Prévost uses a series of binary oppositions in his characterization, notably male/female, father/son and hard/soft contrasts. Secondary characters shed light on the count, an "honnête homme" struggling unsuccessfully towards maturity. The depiction and testing of "honnêteté", contrasts between appearances and reality, and between misanthropy and sentimentalism constitute important themes. The novel can be read as a vindication of Prévost's own absence from the well-known salons. Models for all the characters can be found in the "parlementaire" society he frequented. It is an important novel because of Prévost's depiction of character through the manner of narration. Different types of fictional traditions are used for the minor narrators. The count's reactions to their stories are statements of Prévost's own position as a novelist. A self-consciously empirical analysis of society is accompanied by an understanding of the subjective nature of all observations. The count's tragedy is the failure of reason and prudence to encompass human experience. Early editions are examined in detail. The text is presented with variants and explanatory notes. Appendices give selected contemporary criticism and a table of adjective frequencies in this novel and in Manon Lescaut. There is an extensive bibliography.