Don Juan

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617

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Although the Don Juan of literary and operatic tradition is a coldly amoral seducer, Byron’s version of the character begins as a sheltered youth but is progressively tarnished by his worldly experiences. A wellborn Spaniard, Juan is sent abroad when his mother and her lover, Don Alphonso, discover him to be having an affair with Alphonso’s 23-year-old wife, Julia.

Don Juan’s grand tour of Europe, from Greece, Turkey, and Russia to England, contains all the material of epic convention: storm and shipwreck, slavery, warfare, and political diplomacy. Most prominent among his experiences, however, is love. Juan’s seduction by Julia is soon followed by an island idyll with a pirate’s daughter, Haidee. Enslaved by the pirate, he is purchased for the pleasure of a sultana, makes a conquest of a pretty harem girl, and, after aiding in the Russian victory at Ismail, becomes the latest in Catherine the Great’s parade of paramours. The poem ends at an English country house where three aristocratic beauties vie for his attentions.

The tale of Don Juan is a lively one, but much of the time only a pretext, a thread on which Byron strings the pearls of opinion. Byron’s digressions--some serious, some lighthearted, some savage, but all eloquent--treat a wide range of subjects. Byron shares his religious doubts, political convictions, and poetic values. He describes what he has read, eaten, seen, and felt. He shares his preferences and fiercely attacks his enemies, especially William Wordsworth, the poet laureate Robert Southey, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh, and Lady Byron, from whom he had separated. Don Juan’s candor scandalized some 19th century readers but tends to delight its modern audience.

Bibliography:

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.

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