Lord Byron's Don Juan

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Juan and Haidee


Brave men were living before Agamemnon
And since, exceeding valorous and sage,
A good deal like him too, though quite the same none,
But then they shone not on the poet's page
And so have been forgotten. I condemn none,
But can't find any in the present age
Fit for my poem (that is, for my new one);

So, as I said, I'll take my friend Don Juan.
Canto I, stanza 5

Affectionate Parody of the classic epic + Alternate Character Interpretation of the legendary Byronic Hero Don Juan = Lord Byron's famous satirical Narrative Poem. From 1818 to 1824, Byron completed 16 cantos and a fragment of a 17th before Author Existence Failure cut his poor hero's story abruptly short. Byron wrote in letters, "I have no plan -- I had no plan ... a playful satire, with as little poetry as could be helped, was what I meant." The result is a highly Troperiffic tale told by a Lemony Narrator that frequently indulges in Conversational Troping and Lampshade Hanging in-between criticizing society, waxing philosophical about the wonders of love and the pain of heartbreak, and occasionally telling the life story of Don Juan.

Instead of a Lovable Rogue, a Casanova, The Charmer, and a Handsome Lech of an Anti-Hero whose favorite hobby is seducing women, Byron's Don Juan is an honorable but naive young man who's So Beautiful It's a Curse and finds himself the target of women (some with less than honorable motives) in every country his travels take him to. Far from demonizing the fair sex, however, or portraying all women as lustful, the poem actually frequently addresses the sexual Double Standards of the day and portrays plenty of the hero's relationships as deep, loving, and genuine before inevitable tragedy strikes. Yes, Love Hurts, for both men and women, just in different ways thanks to society's rules.

Byron traces Don Juan's susceptibility to women's charms and almost complete ignorance on all matters related to love and passion to his childhood on the shores of the Guadalquivir River in Seville, Spain. After the death of his father Don Jose, Juan was raised by his overprotective mother Donna Inez, who was determined that his education "should be strictly moral" (canto I, stanza 39, line 4), meaning zero Sex Ed and only severely bowdlerized versions of all classic myths and poetry: "But not a page of anything that's loose/ Or hints continuation of the species/ Was ever suffered, lest he should grow vicious" (I.40.6-8). Juan's strict, sheltered life ends when he is 16, thanks to...

#1: Donna Julia, his mother's 23-year-old best friend. Poor Julia hasn't had much reason to enjoy her marriage to the 50-year-old Don Alfonso, who is now currently cheating on her with Donna Inez. When Julia realizes that she is falling in love with her handsome young friend and that, try as she might, she cannot deny her feelings, she resolves they will be Just Friends and that she will settle for loving his heart and soul and nothing more: "Love then, but love within its proper limits/ Was Julia's innocent determination" (I.81.1-2). Juan, meanwhile, cannot understand the strange new feelings he's experiencing no matter how many hours he spends wandering alone through the fields and forests dwelling on them. Finally, one summer day as the two are sitting in their bower together, Julia accidentally touches Juan's hand, he starts stroking her hair as she leans against him, One Thing Led to Another...

After the Star-Crossed Lovers first yield to their passion, the Narrator apologizes for making a sudden Time Skip to November, when Don Alfonso catches on and storms Julia's bedroom looking for evidence of her infidelity. Juan almost escapes discovery but is caught fleeing the house. As a result of the scandal, Juan's mother sends him to stay with relatives in Cadiz "To wean him from the wickedness of earth" (II.8.7), and Julia is sent to a convent, but not before she sends Juan a love letter that he takes on his voyage.

Before Juan can even begin to recover from the heartbreak of being separated from Julia, a storm sinks his ship, leaving him stranded in a lifeboat with several other passengers. Over the next few weeks, Juan's starving companions kill and eat his spaniel, tear up Julia's love letter to draw lots for who will be killed and eaten, and then kill and eat Juan's tutor Pedrillo. Juan refuses to join in the latter, which turns out to save him as eating Pedrillo causes many of the passengers to go insane and die anyway. Juan is eventually the only survivor remaining. He finally washes up, almost-dead from hunger and dehydration, on an island in the Cyclades, where he is found and rescued by...

#2: Haidée, the daughter of Lambro, a pirate captain and slave trader who has set himself up as king on his island home. Haidée and her maid Zoe hide Juan in a cave to protect him from being killed or sold as a slave by Lambro and nurse him back to health. Despite initially not speaking a word of each other's language, Juan and Haidée fall in love, and when they receive word that Haidée's father has been killed on his latest voyage, she fearlessly brings Juan to live in her father's home as her husband. Unfortunately, the rumor could not have been less true, and Lambro is furious to return home and find Juan set up as the master of his house. Haidée tries to defend him, but her lover is taken from her and put on her father's slave ship in chains. Haidée breaks down in shock and eventually dies, along with her unborn child. Juan, meanwhile, is taken to a slave market in Turkey, where he makes friends with an Englishman named John Johnson before the two of them are bought by the sultana's servant, Baba. Baba takes Juan to meet...

#3: The sultana Gulbeyaz, who has never had to deal with not getting what she wants until now, when Juan refuses to sleep with her. To keep her husband from discovering her plan, she has Juan dressed like a woman and sent to spend the night in the seraglio with the sultan's harem. Due to a shortage of free beds, the matron assigns Juan to share a bed for the night with...

#4: Dudu, 17-years-old, quiet, rather pensive, in stark contrast to the fiery, hot-blooded Haidée. Dudu awakens the whole harem at 3 in the morning with hysterical screams that she explains as the result of a nightmare, although it is hinted (but not confirmed) to the reader that she discovered "Juanna's" secret. At any rate, Gulbeyaz becomes so jealous the next morning upon hearing parts of the story that she decides to punish Juan by having him and Johnson drowned at the end of Canto VI.

Canto VII begins with the Russian army besieging the Turkish fort of Ismail. Juan and Johnson show up, having escaped the seraglio with Baba and two unidentified women (how is never explained), and join the fight. The Russians are eventually able to break through the walls and take the fort. Juan risks his life to rescue a 10-year-old Muslim girl named Leila from being killed in the subsequent slaughter. As a reward for this noble display of "courage and humanity" (VIII.140.2), Juan is chosen to convey the despatch to St. Petersburgh. He takes Leila with him, whom he adopts as his daughter and vows to protect from now on. Arriving in the Russian royal court as a famed war hero, Juan instantly catches the eye of...

#5: Queen Catherine II, who prompts the narrator to expound upon the benefits of dating older women. Juan and the queen get along well, and his mother and relatives back in Spain are even pleased to hear of his new position, so what can go wrong this time? His health eventually begins to suffer in the cold Russian climate. Despite her unwillingness to be separated from her new favorite, Catherine finally plans to send Juan on a diplomatic mission to England as a thinly-disguised excuse for sending him to a warmer climate to continue to live in the luxury she believes he deserves with as many expensive gifts as she pleases. Juan finds himself the object of desire of just about every woman in England. Unfortunately for them, after the exotic women he's used to, most of them strike Juan as rather boring. One of his most significant fangirls is...

#6: Lady Adeline Amundeville, who is actually able to converse with Juan like a friend. Since she is already trapped in a proper but loveless marriage, she sublimates her desire for Juan by planning to arrange his marriage with someone else. She tells herself that she wants to get him married to protect him from the evident advances of the aggressive and seductive...

#7: Duchess of Fitz-Fulke, who pranks Juan by dressing up as the ghost of the Black Friar while they are staying at the Amundevilles' country estate. Juan notices that, while recommending women he should marry, Lady Adeline deliberately leaves out the dazzlingly-beautiful...

#8: Aurora Raby, the 16-year-old local beauty, whom Juan is attracted to for her resemblance to Haidée and thinks would actually make a reasonable match since she is Catholic. Juan briefly suspects that she is the "ghost" that scares him half to death before unmasking the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke the second night.

And that's where the completed cantos end. Although, given that Byron's letters state, "I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest," perhaps this is to Juan's advantage.


Tropes used in Lord Byron's Don Juan include:

Most epic poets plunge in medias res
(Horace makes this the heroic turnpike road),
And then your hero tells when'er you please
What went before by way of episode,
... ...
That is the usual method, but not mine;

My way is to begin with the beginning.
—I.6.1-4, 7.1-2)

A tigress robb'd of young, a lioness,
Or any interesting beast of prey,
Are similes at hand for the distress
Of ladies who can not have their own way;
But though my turn will not be served with less,
These don't express one half what I should say:
For what is stealing young ones, few or many,

To cutting short their hopes of having any?
—V.132.1-8
  • Write Who You Know: This Don Juan has much in common with Byron himself, of course, but several critics, as well as Byron's own friends, have noted numerous similarities between Donna Inez and Byron's wife, Annabella Milbanke.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Donna Julia (and possibly Lady Adeline if the story continued). The narrator blames this on Double Standards and Ugly Guy, Hot Wife.