The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

Don Juan, Canto I

(Note first of all the anglicized pronunciation of the hero's name: in stanza 1, it rhymes with "new one" and "true one.")


The story of Don Juan first appears in an old Spanish legend concerning a handsome but unscrupulous man who seduces the daughter of the commander of Seville and then, when challenged, kills her father in a duel. In the original version, Don Juan mockingly invites the statue of the father to a feast; the statue appears at the banquet and ushers Don Juan to hell. There are many re-tellings of this story in drama and theatre; Mozart used the story for his opera Don Giovanni  (1787).

Hero or Anti-hero

The poem begins "I want a hero"; that is, "I need a hero for my story." Given the glimpse of the time that we are given in stanzas 1 and 5, why is finding a hero in this age difficult?

Is Don Juan a hero or an anti-hero? How has Byron changed him from the original Don Juan? Compare Byron's Don Juan to Porphyro. Byron's Don Juan is possibly a parody of the romantic hero--acted upon rather than active, putty in the woman's hands, terrorized by her outraged husband, caught in comical and farcical situations that strip him of any supposed dignity. But if he's not the kind of hero to be feared and respected, is there nevertheless something attractive about him? And is he in part likeable for the very things that make him NOT a traditional hero? If so, is there a positive side to "wanting" a hero?

The Educated Intellectual Woman

There's some pretty unkind satire in Byron's treatment of the educated woman (Although Byron denied any connection, certain aspects of this section seem to reflect Byron's attitude to his wife, from whom he separated after one year of marriage.) Note the way that Byron uses bad rhymes to make fun of Donna Inez and to ridicule her seriousness ("so fine as" to rhyme with "the brain of Donna Inez"; "intellectual" to rhyme with "hen-pecked you all.") Part of the humour derives from the apparently-common assumption that the educated and intellectual woman will be aggressive and domineering. Remember that Mary Wollstonecraft , in arguing for a better education for women, felt it necessary to reassure her readers that they need not fear that women would then become "masculine."

Don Juan's Education

One of the reasons why education is mocked is its association with sexual repression and a puritanical approach. (Again, think of Blake's depiction of the repressive and deadening nature of religion in "the Garden of Love.") In stanza 40, Byron exposes the contradiction of elevating the classics as an important part of education, yet then being embarrassed by the sexual component in ancient myth and epic. In stanza 44, Byron has fun with an even more ridiculous aspect of repressive education: The Classics are published in expurgated versions, in which any lines with sexual references in them are removed from the text, so that the text may be taught to schoolboys without fear of corrupting them. But we are then told that, in respect for the great writers, the editors put all the excised lines in an appendix at the back of the book--thus giving the schoolboys a concentrated bit of pornographic reading in one dose.

The Attractive and Sexual Woman

Donna Julia is presented with a mixture of sincerity and fun. In stanza 61, for example, the elevated though rather conventional praise of the woman's beauty is suddenly deflated by the sudden lowering of tone in the last five words. The comic reversal, however, makes fun not of Donna Julia but of the poet, laughing at the lover's tendency to idealize (and at the embodiment of such idealization in the love sonnet) and bringing love down to a matter-of-fact human level.

Donna Julia herself, however, still follows the pattern of the idealized heroine (compare Madeline and Juliet): pretty, gentle, sweet, sexually-attractive and even sexually responsive but also passive, submissive, self-sacrificing, and accepting of her fate to the point of victimization. In the early episode, Donna Julia breaks somewhat out of this role by being the older (23 years old!) married woman and not the innocent girl. Byron thus somewhat reverses gender roles and has the sexually-mature woman take a more active role in seducing the naive and innocent young man. However, at the end of the Canto, Donna Julia's farewell letter to Don Juan (as she departs this life to enter a convent) has her slip back into the patient, faithful, devoted, deserted "wife":

"Mine is the victim, and would be again;" (l. 1532)
"Man's love is of man's life a thing apart,
'Tis woman's whole existence;" (ll. 1545-46)

Though Donna Julia goes off to a convent, there is a strong sense of love being her religion: "To all, except one image, madly blind" (l. 1566) Note that when Donna Julia speaks in her own voice, the satire goes into the background; the male idealization of woman reasserts itself for a brief moment.

The Nature of Love

Stanzas 90-94 present a satirical look at the young lover as romantic dreamer. Byron has a lot of fun laughing at philosophical, metaphysical conceptions of life and love, suggesting instead that we would be better to ground our responses in physical reality: "eyes" (l. 1592) and "dinner" (l. 1594)

Note his satirical treatment of Wordsworth and Coleridge (stanza 91). Whereas the Victorian critic Arthur Hallam praised Wordsworth as a "poet of reflection," for Byron Wordsworth's speculations (especially on the spiritual side of life) were out of touch with reality and at worst simply incomprehensible (see also l. 1773).

Later, in stanza 116, Byron again suggests that Platonic idealism is divorced from reality, but here he goes farther to imply that such idealized notions of love function simply as a convenient mask of self-deception and hypocrisy. The more cynical view of love that hovers in this Canto, and that develops more fully in the rest of the poem, is that love is in reality a game of mutual self-deception, whose goal is merely sensual satisfaction.

The Plot

Byron uses the old plot of adultery and revenge but converts it into a bedroom farce. The potentially serious theme is deflated by common details and low characters. Note the ridiculous behaviour of Don Alfonso (stanza 143), the detail of the chamber pot under the bed (stanza 144), the lawyer jokes (stanzas 159 and 164), the near suffocation of Don Juan under the covers between two women (stanzas 165-6), and the use of sudden comic reversal in the discovery of the pair of shoes (stanza 180). Note also the somewhat unheroic manner of Don Juan's escape (stanza 186).

The Narrator

The narrator is in many ways a more important figure than Don Juan in this first Canto. Perhaps the real tension here is between the non-ironic and selfless view of love embodied in Donna Julia's letter and the cynical skeptical view advanced by the narrator. (Like "The Prelude" and "Michael," this poem presents a "double-plot": the story and the writing of the story.)

The narrator remains aloof from his story, refusing to take the role of the serious, reflective poet. The higher aims of poetry are mocked (stanzas 133-4). The figure of the poet himself becomes a figure for laughter with his comic entrance into the story (stanza 24). In his asides and remarks, he remains entertaining, witty, unpretentious, colloquial, and earthy. His attitude seems to be one of world-weariness mixed with sense of humour.

What is Narrator's Point of View?

Regarding idealism, he is clearly dismissive, although charitably so toward the young. Regarding love, he seems disillusioned and cynical. He implies that the real pleasure in love lies in the illusion  of romantic passion. This being so, he suggests that reality is self-generated and subjective (stanza 214). Love is a product of desire; we see love's presence because we want  it to be there, not because it "really" is.

"The illusion's gone forever" (l. 1717)
"The credulous hope of mutual minds is o'er" (l. 1726)

The narrator suggests that now, in his maturity, he approaches life more realistically, at a lower level of expectation. There is every indication, however, that within cynicism there lurks a buried, lost romanticism. Perhaps the cynic is closer to the romantic than to the realist. The cynic's posture of aloofness derives from the fact that he understands romantic intensity too well.

The Function of Byron's Satire

Like Pope ("The Rape of the Lock"), Byron satirizes his society, but whereas Pope's satire attacks lack  of seriousness , Byron's laughter is aimed at pretentious  seriousness. Pope's mock epic reminds his audience of the "true values' embodied in the serious epic; Byron's comic epic laughs at the high expectations and ideals embodied in the epic, seeing them as excessive and unrealistic--at least for his time.

If there are positive values endorsed in Byron's poem, perhaps they are the values of frankness and openness. Byron saw himself as the foe of "cant"--the opponent of false virtue and hypocrisy. And he poem is still a celebration of life, and of its pleasures--such that they be. 

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