The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
When Don Juan is a small boy, his father dies, leaving the boy in the care of his mother, Donna Inez. Donna Inez is a righteous woman who made her husband’s life miserable. She has her son tutored in the arts of fencing, riding, and shooting, and she attempts to rear him in a moral manner. The young Don Juan reads widely in the sermons and lives of the saints, but he does not seem to absorb from his studies the qualities his mother thinks essential.
At sixteen, he is a handsome lad much admired by his mother’s friends. Donna Julia, in particular, often looks pensively at the youth. Donna Julia is just twenty-three and married to a man of fifty. Although she loves her husband, or so she tells herself, she thinks often of young Don Juan. One day, finding herself alone with him, she gives herself to the young man. The young lovers spend long hours together during the summer, and it is not until November that Don Alfonso, her husband, discovers their intrigue. When Don Alfonso finds Don Juan in his wife’s bedroom, he tries to throttle him. Don Juan overcomes Don Alfonso and flees, first to his mother’s home for clothes and money. Then Donna Inez sends him to Cadiz, there to begin a tour of Europe. The good lady prays that the trip will mend his morals.
Before his ship reaches Leghorn, a storm breaks it apart. Don Juan spends many days in a lifeboat without food or water. At last the boat is washed ashore, and Don Juan falls exhausted on the beach and sleeps. When he awakens, he sees bending over him a beautiful girl, who tells him that she is called Haidée and that she is the daughter of the ruler of the island, one of the Cyclades. Her father, Lambro, is a pirate, dealing in jewels and slaves. She knows her father will sell Don Juan to the first trader who comes by, so Haidée hides Don Juan in a cave and sends her maids to wait on him.
When Lambro leaves on another expedition, Haidée takes Don Juan from the cave and they roam together over the island. Haidée gives jewels, fine foods, and wines to Don Juan, for he is the first man she ever knew except for her father and for her servants. Although Don Juan still tries to think of Donna Julia, he cannot resist Haidée. A child of nature and passion, she gives herself to him with complete freedom. Don Juan and Haidée live an idyllic existence until Haidée’s father returns unexpectedly. Don Juan again fights gallantly, but at last he is overcome by the old man’s servants and put aboard a slave ship bound for a distant market. He never sees Haidée again, and he never knows that she dies without giving birth to his child.
The slave ship takes Don Juan to a Turkish market, where he and another prisoner are purchased by a black eunuch and taken to the palace of a sultan. There Don Juan...
(The entire section is 1139 words.)
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Seville. City in southwestern Spain. Calling it “a pleasant city,/ Famous for oranges and women,” Byron sets the tone and theme for his treatment of place. The poet is deliberately light-hearted about his legendary hero, pointing out how the provinciality of the city and of his upbringing makes him ignorant of sex and therefore susceptible to the charms of beautiful women. The restrictions of place stimulate the hero to seek a larger world of experience.
Greek island. Exiled from Seville, where he has been caught making love to another man’s wife, the hero falls in love with the ruler’s daughter in a setting that resembles an erotic paradise. Because Haidee’s father is away, the lovers are free to indulge themselves—although Don Juan finds himself exiled again when the father returns. The Greek island becomes another example of the world as a place that conspires against lovers.
*Constantinople. Turkish capital to which Don Juan is taken by sailors who rescue him after he is abandoned at sea. There he becomes a subject of the Ottoman rulers and continues to attract the amorous attentions of noble women. Byron uses Constantinople to place his hero at the crossroads of the Christian and Turkish empires, demonstrating that for all the differences in customs between East and West, his hero’s desire to keep his dignity intact while enjoying himself never slackens. Places threaten to change the hero, but his spirit proves remarkably resistant to the coercions of environment.
*Russia. Even after Don Juan is captured by Russians besieging the Turkish city of Ismail and he becomes a lover of Russia’s ruler, Catherine the Great, he remains stubbornly his own person and not merely the plaything of Russia’s great autocrat.
*England. Sent to England as part of a diplomatic entourage, Don Juan becomes a fixture of English society, fending off women who look upon marriage as a career. Byron provides many satirical descriptions of his superficial native land, admirably summing up Don Juan’s journey from “lands and scenes romantic,” where lives are risked for passion, to a “country where ’tis half a fashion.”
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bloom, Harold. “Don Juan.” In The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry. Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. Explores how Byron’s attempt to straddle the worlds of fallen and reborn humanity places his epic in the same visionary landscape as that of other Romantic poets.
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Don Juan. Edited by T. G. Steffan. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Excellent edition of Byron’s epic, derived from Steffan’s four-volume variorum edition. Complete with extensive notes, variants, commentary, and bibliography.
Crane, David. The Kindness of Sisters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. A study of Byron’s reputation after death, exploring bitter and conflicting accounts by the wife he divorced and the sister he seduced.
MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. A biography that re-examines the life of the poet in the light of MacCarthy’s assertion that Byron was bisexual, a victim of early abuse by his nurse.
McGann, J. J. Don Juan in Context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. An analysis of the personal, literary, and historical influences of Byron’s epic. Individual chapters discuss the problems of form, development of language, chronology of composition, and the importance of imagination as a creative and analytical faculty.
Ridenour, G. M. The Style of Don Juan. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960. Examines the classical theory of styles and its impact on Byron’s paradoxical vision and his involvement in the narrative as speaker. Particular attention is paid to the Fall as a metaphor for the creation of art, nature, sexual identity, and a persona.
Wolfson, Susan. “‘Their She Condition’: Cross-Dressing and the Politics of Gender in Don Juan.” English Literary History 54 (Fall, 1987): 585-617. Argues that categories that historically define “masculine” and “feminine” are often inverted in Don Juan. Dressing young Juan as a slave girl and the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke as the Black Friar are two examples of playful attempts at exposing and challenging the inadequacies of socially constructed gender roles.