Don Juan | Study Guide

Lord Byron

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Don Juan | Themes

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Don Juan plays on familiar and recurring ideas of romance and love, youth and innocence, and poetry and glory to illustrate Lord Byron's own particular worldview.

Romance and Love

Romance and love emerge as key themes throughout Don Juan as the protagonist finds himself embroiled in increasingly absurd situations. Romance is always on the minds of the characters. From the sheltered upbringing of Don Juan, to the death of the mother of his child, to the meetings with royalty, to the experiences in the English high society, Juan's charm and affect make him a target for romantic plots and schemes. This targeting of Juan is a key difference between Lord Byron's Don Juan and the legendary Spanish hero of the same name. The traditional character of Don Juan was a seducer, a womanizer, and a man of dubious moral principles. Juan's experience of romance and love is similarly common but approached from a different angle. Juan is rarely the seducer in his romantic entanglements and the power dynamic often favors the women he meets. Donna Julia is his mother's friend and an older woman. Haidée nurses him back to health from his weakest point. Gulbeyaz has the power to order his execution. Catherine the Great is the empress of a huge country. Lady Adeline Amundeville is Juan's host and Aurora Raby is happy to ignore him. In each of these situations Juan does not have the power or the opportunity to act as the seducer and impose romance or love on others. He is the target of seduction rather than the active agent of romance.

The themes of love and romance are demonstrated by the death of Haidée. After a brief affair with Donna Julia, Juan falls in love with Haidée. Their relationship is a short, vibrant burst of romance. She teaches him an entire language just as she teaches him how to be in a loving romance. Juan learns everything he knows about love from Haidée rather than the physical side of romance that he learned from Julia. The importance of Haidée in Juan's thoughts and character is clear. After she dies he thinks about her constantly. He cannot talk to a woman on the slave ship because he is too sad and his conversation with Gulbeyaz is stopped when he bursts into tears. Juan learns about the importance of love by being torn away from his romantic partner. Love and romance are as keenly felt when they are taken away as when they are present. Haidée becomes the most important figure in Juan's conception of love and romance because she teaches him what it means to lose everything.

The gradual change in Juan's ideas of love and romance is felt in the later cantos. Juan arrives in England as the subject of numerous affairs, scandals, and romances. He meets Lady Adeline Amundeville and discovers a different kind of romance. The two characters have an unspoken romantic affection for one another. Juan likes Lady Adeline but does not think about her in a romantic context due to the respect he has for her marriage and her husband. She tries not to think of Juan in a romantic way because she does not want to confront the reality of her empty marriage. The characters circle around each other and talk about love in an abstract sense. They plan a possible marriage for Juan and imagine the women he might wed but the unspoken subtext of their time together is a slow burning love for one another. Byron admits this in his narration but refuses to commit to whether they might act on their love. The change in Juan's character is demonstrated by the respect and reluctance he shows. He does not act on his affections as he might have done in his youth. The relationship with Lady Adeline illustrates the way Juan's ideas of love and romance grow throughout the text.

Youth and Innocence

Don Juan portrays youth and innocence as praiseworthy and celebrated characteristics. These themes emerge in the story when Donna Inez attempts to preserve the innocence of her child for as long as possible. Juan's youth is spent being sheltered from anything controversial or bad in any way. His mother worries that he will become a philandering waste of a man like his father. She spends so much time impressing the importance of innocence into Juan's youth that she turns him into a charming, sweet young man. The result of this is that her friend Donna Julia falls in love with Juan. Donna Inez's efforts to preserve youth and innocence eventually explode and she accidently cultivates a scandal. She makes her son too naive and too innocent to the point where he cannot help but act on his emotions and offer up his love to a woman in a difficult situation. Juan's innocence is fleeting and Donna Inez's final attempt to ensure that her son remains pure is to put him on a ship and send him abroad.

Donna Inez's efforts to protect Juan's innocence after the scandal fail. The affair between Juan and Julia was a scandal but the shipwreck and the subsequent deaths are a true loss of innocence. The aftermath of the storm robs Juan of his youth and his innocence. The deaths of the crew and Juan's associates, the cannibalism, and the experience of nearly dying shows Juan that there is a different world beyond his sheltered childhood. The shipwreck becomes the shedding of Juan's innocence in that it shows him a world of pain and suffering but it also helps to illustrate the extent to which Juan will always remain a pure figure. He refuses to eat his friend Pedrillo even in the name of survival. There are some boundaries which Juan will not cross and some ways in which his innocence cannot be corrupted. The shipwreck shows Juan a new world and forces him to grow up but it also consecrates the innocent, incorruptible streak that has been pressed into his personality from a young age.

After the shipwreck Juan's life speeds from one adventure to the next. He has little time to reflect on the ways in which he grows and matures during this period. His exposure to a wide array of characters has an impact on him and by the time he arrives in England he has loved, lost, fought, and killed people. Juan does not quite shed his innocence but he slowly sheds his youth. He matures into a more nuanced, more reflective person. He loses his impulsiveness and learns to better express himself. His announcement that he believes Aurora Raby is the best candidate for potential marriage demonstrates that he has thought about the idea rather than just selecting the easiest, most satisfying, and most immediate option. Juan becomes a more considerate man as he says goodbye to his youth. His innocence remains and continues to make him a compelling figure but he adds depth and nuance to his personality which he lacked as a teenager.

Poetry and Glory

Poetry is a vehicle for glory in Don Juan. Lord Byron is a poet and a narrator and he ensures that the reader is keenly aware of both of these identities. He revels in his role as the poet and makes specific references to his own meter, subject, and style. Byron aims to glorify himself even when he speaks with apparent modesty. He professes to being little more than a storyteller while deploying thousands of verses of perfectly executed, perfectly uniform rhyming schemes. Glory and success are important products of poetry and Byron demonstrates that he is aware of this. He turns the power of poetry on himself and develops his own legend over the course of the many years in which he wrote Don Juan. The poem is self-aware and self-glorifying in that Byron emerges as just as much of a character as Don Juan.

The glorifying power of poetry works in both directions. Byron is able to glorify himself and his friends while denigrating others. The litany of insults, mocking lines, and occasionally libelous accusations are never hidden. Poets such as William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), and Robert Southey (1774–1843) are all ridiculed at various points throughout the poem. The opening dedication to Southey was so stinging that it was suppressed until Byron's death. Byron builds up his own glory through poetry and uses his poetry to put down others. In doing so he elevates his own glorification by ensuring that he looks better in comparison to his contemporaries. The poem becomes a vital tool in spreading the legend of Lord Byron and the terribleness of his pathetic peers.

The powers of poetry are not limited to poets. Byron also turns his attention to historical figures. Alexander Suvorov (1730–1800) was a Russian general and a military hero. He appears as Suwarrow in Don Juan and, even though the modified name is slightly mocking, Byron's reverence for Suwarrow is palpable. Suwarrow leads his army to a great victory and finds himself glorified in Byron's poem. By comparison Lord Castlereagh (1769–1822) is savaged by the poet. Byron's words suggest that he understands that the power of poetry is that truly great literature influences the generations to follow. The inclusion of figures like Castlereagh ensures that the insult is not immediate. Byron attempts to elevate certain figures and denigrate others over the course of centuries. Contemporary readers of Don Juan may only know the Russian general or British politician through their appearances in the poem. The interplay between poetry and glory is demonstrated by the way in which these historical figures have their perception shaped by appearances in literature. The themes of poetry and glory are apparent through a simple reading of Don Juan. The shared historical memory of these figures is shaped by the decisions Byron made as a poet and the personal grievances and biases he felt as an individual. Poetry glorifies some and curses others.

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