Don Juan | Study Guide

Lord Byron

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Don Juan | Symbols

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Don Juan is a long poem spread across numerous locations and featuring many characters. Symbols such as the ocean, disguises, and food play an important role as they allow Lord Byron to deliver nuanced observations of the world in a concise manner.

The Ocean

The ocean is an important symbol in the poem because it represents a barrier between Don Juan and the outside world. The body of water is a vast and dangerous expanse that must be crossed. The voyage Juan takes from Spain to Italy is symbolic. He leaves his youthful innocence and a potential scandal behind in Spain while travelling toward maturity in Italy. The ocean is the blockade which must be traversed in order to reach maturity and to become a man. Juan's voyage is a symbolic demonstration of his transition from teenager to adult. He leaves behind the carelessness of youthful infidelity and moves toward a future as a responsible adult.

The ocean presents a difficult challenge. The transition from teenager to adult is not easy to achieve. The motion of the ocean makes Juan sick. A storm destroys his ship and leaves him at the mercy of the water. The storm reminds Juan of the dangers of leaving behind his innocent youth. The aftermath of the shipwreck exposes him to terrifying, traumatic moments. He watches as his dog and his friend are killed and eaten by the survivors because they fear death in the ocean. The ocean is a looming threat that forces them to turn to cannibalism. Juan rejects the symbolic demands the ocean places on him and he would rather die than cross certain moral thresholds such as eating the flesh of a human being.

Juan refuses to adhere to the ocean's symbolic demands. He maintains his innocence and escapes. Juan is rewarded for his ability to maintain his innocence and his morality while being subjected to the symbolic challenge of the ocean. He is found by a beautiful woman named Haidée and immediately falls in love. The relationship between Juan and Haidée is a symbolic reward for his triumph over the ocean. The crossing of the ocean becomes the first great act of Don Juan's life and he is subjected to many more. This first triumph is merely an act of survival but each successive triumph has Juan take a more active role, whether he is escaping a Turkish palace or leading battalion of Russian soldiers. The symbolic value of the first ocean crossing is that it represents Juan's ability to triumph by staying true to himself and his moral values.

Disguises

Disguises symbolize the search for identity and meaning in Don Juan. Don Juan spends the narrative of the poem searching for love and happiness and this search is often tied to identity. He is raised to be young and innocent by a mother who is terrified that he will follow in his father's footsteps. She tries to impose an identity upon Juan and in doing so she disguises the world. The reality of life outside of the household is veiled behind a specific model of education and Juan does not learn about reality or truth. This attempt to disguise the world backfires when Juan is embroiled in a scandalous affair. The symbolic meaning of this failure illustrates the nefarious nature of disguises. Juan must set out to tear away the disguise from the world and learn about his true self, his actual identity.

The search for identity becomes complicated when Juan is sold into slavery. He is taken to a slave market in Constantinople and bought by Gulbeyaz. She insists that he dress as a woman and forces him to adopt a disguise. This disguise presents a clear threat to Juan's life. He manages to trick the Sultan into thinking that he is a woman but then must spend the night in the women's quarters. Gulbeyaz becomes infuriated that he may have slept beside another woman and she demands that he be executed. Juan has a disguise imposed upon him and suffers as a result. He manages to escape with his life but he never again adopts a disguise. He learns the symbolic threat of masking one's true identity.

The final sections of the narrative feature one of the most important disguises and one of the most anxiety-inducing moments in the poem. The Duchess Fitz-Fulke disguises herself as a ghost while walking around a large country estate. She represents a danger to Juan already as he has been told that she has a tendency to become involved in scandalous relationships. The confusion over Juan's potential marriage to the Duchess Fitz-Fulke or to another woman causes him to become anxious. He cannot sleep because he struggles to think of his identity as a married man. The marriage may disguise his true identity especially if he marries the wrong woman. The woman dressed as a ghost becomes a physical symbol of this anxiety. She terrifies Juan as she poses a real threat to him. Juan was not scared or anxious during a battle or when he was lost as sea but the image of the ghost terrifies him. The true terror is the symbolic meaning of the disguise. Juan overcomes his fear by reaching out and removing the disguise. This act is a demonstration of his willingness to form an identity. He wants to become active and he wants to rip away anything which might mask or disguise his understanding of himself. Disguises are important symbols because they represent Juan's search for meaning and identity and provide him with an opportunity to overcome his fears.

Food

Food is a symbol of wealth and indulgence in Don Juan. Demonstrations of gluttony such as the party at Lambro's home are indulgent celebrations of wealth and power. Juan and Haidée choose to revel in their newfound love by laying on extravagant meals which they will never eat. Byron's poetry becomes as long and as indulgent as the meals themselves as he describes each course in detail. This demonstration of luxury and privilege infuriates Lambro when he returns home. The young couple are tragically punished for their decision to use food as a symbol of their luxurious love. The food is a symbol of their joy but it quickly becomes a reason for their downfall.

The use of food as a symbol of wealth and indulgence returns at the end of the poem. The food eaten by the guests as the home of Lord Henry Amundeville and Lady Adeline Amundeville is even more indulgent than the feast thrown by Haidée. Byron goes into even more detail on the items on offer and flexes his poetic muscles by finding tricky rhymes for each and every item. His extravagant descriptions of the food and his lavish poetry reflect the expense of the meal. The food is a way to satirize the upper classes of English society by consuming to the point of illness. Byron abandons all pretense of narration advancement and feasts himself on line after line of exuberant description poetry. His words become an extension of the satire. The lives of the rich and wealthy of England have no narrative function beyond greedy excess.

The counterpoint to the symbolic meaning of food in Don Juan is the aftermath of the shipwreck. Wealth and power mean nothing when people are so close to death. The perilous conditions make everyone equal so there is no food and no room for indulgent descriptive poetry. The only food that is available is transgressive. The men turn to cannibalism in an effort to survive. They kill and eat Pedrillo and compromise themselves on a moral level. Not only do they commit murder in a desperate bid to survive but they eat the flesh of another human being. The symbolic meaning of this action is clear as all of the men die a short time after. The only survivor is Juan who refused to partake of the cannibalism. The use of humans as food has a different symbolic meaning. Pedrillo's death shows that there are some lines which should not be crossed and that some prices are not worth paying. Juan survives because his refusal of his friend as food is a symbol that he understands the boundaries of morality better than the others.

Questions for Symbols

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