When Manon Lescaut and the Chevalier Des Grieux meet, the beautiful Manon is being escorted by her brother (Lescaut) to a convent. Des Grieux falls immediately in love with her, eventually convincing her to run away with him in order to escape both the fate of wasting away as a nun and the clutches of Geronte – a wealthy old man conspiring to abduct her.
When Geronte arrives to follow through with his plan, he sees the young lovers fleeing to Paris in his carriage. Lescaut, sensing the opportunity that could come with having his sister attached to a man of means, calmly assures Geronte that Manon loves finery too much to be content with an impoverished student. They will go after her tomorrow.
Manon is now Geronte’s mistress, his wealth having lured her away from Des Grieux, but although she loves her splendid surroundings, she loves Des Grieux more. He eventually appears, initially admonishing her faithlessness, but quickly succumbing to her pleas for forgiveness. Geronte arrives to see them locked in a passionate embrace, and calls the police. They make to flee, but Manon insists on packing her jewellery first, a fatal delay that results in her arrest.
Manon has been sentenced to deportation to America – Des Grieux and Lescaut’s attempts to facilitate her escape having proved futile. Des Grieux’s desperation to be with Manon makes him resort to begging to be permitted to board the ship, even as a cabin boy. Eventually, the Captain agrees, and the two lovers rejoice that they will at least be together.
Manon and Des Grieux are wandering alone in the desert, having fled from New Orleans. Manon is exhausted and begs Des Grieux to look for shelter while she rests. He leaves, and she is plunged into a state of desperation and fear, knowing that her death is imminent. Des Grieux returns having found nothing. Soon after, Manon expires in his arms - saying that death will wipe away her faults, but her love will never die.