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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1811

First produced: 1665

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First published: 1682

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Seventeenth century

Locale: Sicily

Principal Characters:

Don Juan, a philanderer

Sganarelle, his valet

Elvire, his betrayed wife

Don Louis, his father

Don Carlos, and

Don Alonse, Elvire's brothers

Statue of the commander

Critique:

DON JUAN is not really representative of Molière's work , but it holds lasting interest for the modern reader for two reasons. Written to fatten the lean exchequer of his company's theater because of the enforced closing of TARTUFFE, as well as to please his fellow actors, it is an excellent example of the skill and speed with which Molière could turn out a play. It also departs from his usual technique in making use of the melodramatic and supernatural elements which characterized the original Spanish drama from which it was adapted. Here, as in his other dramas, Molière holds to his genius as a revealer of the hypocrisies and manners of his day, and the play brought down on itself the harsh criticism of those who had been shocked by the boldness of TARTUFFE. By the spectacle-loving Parisians it was hailed with delight.

The Story:

Don Juan's philandering habits filled Sganarelle, his valet, with apprehension that such scandalous behavior could only bring on him the wrath of heaven and an evil end; but Don Juan blatantly affirmed that any love he had for one fair face could not withhold his heart from others, and as for heaven, he was not afraid of divine wrath. His valet knew him for the greatest scoundrel on earth, a man who was ready to woo a fine lady or country lass at any time but who tired of them in rapid succession. Through fear, however, he remained faithful to Don Juan and often applauded his master's acts, even though he really detested them.

In one of his many affairs Don Juan had killed a Commander. Though officially pardoned, he was believed not entirely free of guilt, and friends and relatives of the dead man sought revenge. They followed Don Juan on one of his philandering journeys to a town where he determined to separate a pair of lovers he had chanced upon and to gratify his passion for the lady. The happy pair had planned a sail on the sea, and he prepared to follow in another vessel manned by villains ready to do his bidding.

Meanwhile, Donna Elvire, whom Don Juan had seduced and carried off from a convent where her brothers, Don Carlos and Don Alonse, had placed her, had got wind of his escapade and followed him. She upbraided him for his desertion. Don Juan refused to admit that he was tired of her, but he wished her to believe that he repented his former madcap behavior in forcing her to marry him against her will. From this sin he would deliver her by allowing her to return to the convent and her former obligations. Elvire, seeing through this deception, threatened him with the anger of an injured woman and declared that heaven would punish him for the wrong he had done her.

Don Juan gave chase to the vessel which carried the object of his most recent infatuation. But his plans were upset when a sudden squall arose and both ships were wrecked. Don Juan was rescued by Pierrot, a country lad, and brought with his men to land. He made immediate love to Charlotte, Pierrot's sweetheart, and she, overwhelmed by his smooth talk and social bearing, promised to marry him. At that moment Mathurine, another country lass who had caught the philanderer's fancy, accosted Don Juan, but he cleverly led each girl to think she was his only love and the one he would marry.

When Don Juan heard that his pursuers were closing in on him, he changed clothes with his valet. Sganarelle devised a better disguise. Putting on the attire of a physician, he prescribed remedies at random for ailing country folk, not knowing whether his medicines would kill or cure.

In the wood through which they were traveling, Don Juan and Sganarelle sought to evade their pursuers. They discoursed on heaven, hell, the devil, and another life, Don Juan declaring himself a practical man who held no belief in such stupid and supernatural things. Deep in argument, they lost their way. Suddenly, through a clearing in the trees, they saw Don Carlos, Elvire's brother, being attacked by a band of robbers. Don Juan rushed to assist the stranger and succeeded in routing the attackers. Don Carlos, not knowing that his rescuer was his own sister's seducer, expressed his gratitude to Don Juan for saving his life. At this moment Alonse came upon them. Their friendly attitude horrified him, for he immediately recognized Don Juan and demanded of his brother that this betrayer of their sister be killed. Don Carlos pleaded for delay and won for Don Juan a day's respite, but he agreed that after this short delay justice would be done and vengeance satisfied.

As Don Juan and Sganarelle continued on their way, Don Juan gave voice again to the song that his heart belonged equally to all the fair sex and that his attraction to Elvire had entirely faded. Among the trees they came on a statue, part of the tomb which the Commander had been building when killed by Don Juan. On a sudden whim Don Juan insisted that the shocked Sganarelle approach the mausoleum and invite the Commander to dine with them. To their amazement the statue nodded its head in assent. Overwhelmed, they retreated hastily, although Don Juan boldly asserted that strong minds are not affected by a belief in anything supernatural.

Don Louis, father of Don Juan, threatened action to put an end to his son's irregularities, reproaching his son for his unworthy life and lack of virtue, from the consequences of which even a worthy name could not protect him. A tradesman and creditor, Monsieur Dimanche, also learned where Don Juan was hidden. Although he blandly acknowledged his indebtedness to the tradesman, Don Juan had no intention of meeting his obligations, and he put the honest man off with hypocritical words of solicitude and friendliness.

Elvire, veiled, let Don Juan know that her love for him was now wholly free from sensual attachment and that she would retire to the convent from which he had taken her. Fearing that he could not escape the wrath of heaven, she implored him to reform before he was utterly crushed.

Meanwhile, Sganarelle and Don Juan had forgotten their invitation asking the statue to dinner. When the meal was served, the statue knocked at the door and seated itself at their table. The statue challenged Don Juan to dine with it the next day.

These happenings led Don Juan to pretend conversion and penitence to his father, who was overjoyed. But his so-called reform was merely a sham to further another of his designs, for Don Juan still believed that hypocrisy was a fashionable and privileged vice. He would boldly don the clothes of hypocrisy, more relentlessly than ever continue to persecute his enemies, and, holding to a good opinion of himself alone, adapt himself to the vices of his age.

Don Carlos demanded that Don Juan recognize Elvire publicly as his wife, but Don Juan demurred, saying the matter was no longer in his hands as Elvire was resolved to go into retreat and he to reform. Sanctimoniously, he begged Don Carlos to leave everything to the will of heaven, but he also warned that if attacked he would fight.

Don Juan, in calling on heaven, had gone too far. A ghost in the form of a veiled woman warned him to repent of his sins immediately. Don Juan, thinking he recognized the voice, challenged the figure and raised his sword to strike, but the shape changed to that of Time with a scythe before vanishing. Later the statue returned, adding its threat of a terrible death if Don Juan persisted in his wickedness. Scorched by an invisible flame, Don Juan cried out, but amid lightning flashes and thunderous sounds, the earth opened up and swallowed him. Thus he who neglected debts, seduced his victims, dishonored friends, and violated all laws finally offended heaven. The things which he held in scoffing disbelief brought about his doom.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

Molière's DON JUAN is one of the great examples of a work of literature or drama that was ahead of its time. The play scandalized and confused Molière's contemporaries, and only in modern times has it achieved a worthy appreciation. It was the complexity of Don Juan's behavior that made him a puzzle to the French and a fascinating figure to later audiences. The spectators of the classical age were bewildered by a play, really a tragi-comedy, in which the unities were neglected, and which contained magic, fantasy, and buffoonery. Yet today we are intrigued by the impossible task of analyzing the haughtiness and arrogance of Don Juan, of trying to understand the depths of his hypocrisy, villainy, and despair. Molière took the Spanish hero and made him not merely a heedless libertine and unbeliever, but, by strengthening the atheism suggested by his predecessors until it dominated the play, gave his hero the deep and bitter philosophy of the man who cannot help himself, who must deny even if it destroys him.

The play lays bare the hero's soul, yet the plot is surprisingly weak. It is structured in loose sequences of scenes, the main characters providing the only strong link; the great speeches, the rhetorical rhythm, are what carry the drama forward. Don Juan thought himself free from all obligations, believing neither in God nor hell nor doctors, nor in the sacredness of promises, yet as an aristocrat he assumed that others would keep their obligations to him. His servant, Sganarelle, was his opposite in every way, earthy where Don Juan was lofty, meek where the Don was scornful, superstitious where his master was skeptical. They were the perfect French counterpart to Don Quixote and Sancho.

Molière improved upon both the comic and retributive elements of the original story, and elected to make Don Juan's climactic act of self-damnation his decision to play the hypocrite, hypocrisy being the vice most loathesome to Molière. When Don Juan begins a speech by stating that he is entirely sincere, it is a sign to the audience that he is being quite the opposite. Don Juan combined in his personality the romantic qualities of the lover and the supreme egoism of the tragic hero. He gloried in his own exaggerated image of himself, even comparing himself to Alexander. Don Juan, like all tragic heroes, caused his own doom, by violating, through his hubris, the basic moral laws.

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