Don Juan by Lord Byron: Summary and Critical Analysis

The first canto of Don Juan contains basically the introduction to the main character Don Juan, besides some story by way of introducing his parents and his first love affair. Byron, however, manages to expose so many things of the 'vain culture' of his society by means of the many digressions and passing comments. The delightful story is intended to give the reader some corrective laughter.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)

The story itself is simple, almost lost among digression and comments. Don Jose and Donna Inez, the parents of Don Juan are mismatched. It was generally known that in her younger days she had an affair with Don Alfonso, the husband of Donna Julia, her friend and neighbor. Donna Julia and Don Alfonso are mismatched by age as Donna Inez and Don Jose are mismatched by incompatibility of character and personality. Donna Julia deceives her husband.

But while Don Juan is still a small boy, his father dies, leaving the boy in the care of his mother, Donna Inez, a righteous woman who made her husband's life miserable. She has her son tutored in the arts of fencing, riding, and shooting, and she herself attempts to rear him in a moral manner. The young lion Juan reads widely in the sermons, lives of the saints and the classics, but he does not seem to absorb from his studies the qualities of his mother thinks essential. At sixteen, he is a handsome lad much admired by his mother's friends. Donna Julia, his mother’s friend, in particular, often looks pensively at the youth. Julia is just twenty-three, but married to a man of fifty. Although she loves her husband, or so she tells herself, she often thinks of young Don Juan. One day, finding herself alone with him, she gives herself to the young man. The young lovers spend long hours together during the summer. (The prescribed section ends with a digression where the narrator is making a commitment to be moral himself-from next winter!) Then they start meeting and staying together for hours, even at Julia's home; it was on one such occasion that Juan is caught hiding in a heap of clothes by Julia's husband. The canto ends as Juan returns home early in the morning with most of his clothes left in the hands of the angry husband.

Don Juan is a vast creation and it is not always interesting; there are many dull stanzas in which Byron says nothing interesting. But despite some weaknesses in structure, characterization, and philosophy of life, Don Juan is an 'epic carnival'. It has scope, variety of human experience, common sense, much matter for laughter, clever and witty observation, ease and fluency; that is why Walter Scott said the "it has the variety of Shakespeare". Don Juan was intended as a satire on abuses of the ‘present states of society.’ It is a quietly mocking satire on everything, and a serious satire on the hypocrisies of high society, the false glory associated with war, man’s pursuit of fame, the little devices by which people try to deceive themselves, the human penchant for rationalization, It ridicules things in a unique tongue-in cheek manner that strikes, without seeming to, everything on its way. In general, the style, of Don Juan is the easy conversational or epistolary style.

Byron has written this poem in the Italian ottava rima, or eight-line stanza, the poetic form favoured by the Italian satirical writers of mock-heroic romances. The rhyme scheme of 'ottava rima' is abababcc. But Byron used a lot of a new comic rhyme, forcing slant and unusual rhymes to hint at the incongruity and satires beneath. He has also used the concluding couplet to round off the whole stanza by giving a sudden twist or commentary on the preceding lines themselves. The witticism and the anti-climax, or a swift fall from the lofty-sounding idea to the low, that surprises the reader are also other features in Don Juan.

The style of Don Juan is the antithesis of the grand style. It has the easy going laxity of ordinary conversation. In fact, Don Juan has not one style but a "multiplicity of styles" or tones, the "medley" style: grave, gay, serious, ludicrous, sentimental, laughing, ironic cynical, urbanely, naughty, wittily outrageous, unexpectedly twisting familiar figures of speech and infusing them with fresh vitality, and accomplishing all these along with the most ingenious poetic devices of rhythm and rhyme imaginable. It stands in debt to the Italian comic-epic poets for its ottava rima verse form, its manner and mood, deliberate lack of coherent construction, length determined by the will of whimsy of the poet, variety of incidents and digressions, and for the startling alternations of mood and pervasive modernity of spirit. The rapid movement from romantic seriousness to burlesque suggests a Chaucerian quality, the same movement between romance and burlesque, chivalry and bawdry, ideal and real. Perhaps the most conspicuous characteristic of the Junoesque style is the conversational and colloquial tone.

What the poem most frequently attacks, in love religion, and social relations, are very considerable vices-sham, hypocrisy, complacency, oppression, greed, and lust. Furthermore, the satire constantly though silently assumes as more all positives the qualities of courage, loyalty, generosity and above all, total candor, it merely implies that these virtues are excessively rare, and that the modern world is not constituted to reward to encourage, or even to recognize them when they make their appearance.

The 'society' and 'civilization' represented by Don Juan's mother, Julia and their community is the most important object of satire in Canto I. They believe in the ‘morality’ of exhibition; if they appear moral. It doesn't matter what they do! They suppress in all possible ways the natural impulses of the 'natural' child or man. This issue brings us to another crucial thematic concern of Don Juan: Juan's mother, like a typical 'civilized' person tires (though hypocritically and unsuccessfully) to thwart all the natural desires of the child while she tries to teach him all the dead languages, religious sermons that he can't understand, the art of war to the child (riding, fencing, gunnery and how to climb a fortress – or a nunnery), expurgated classics (which posed problem with filthy loves of the gods and goddesses who roamed in public without proper bodices), and the likes. But one should note that his mother used to read all the filthy stories herself. But a few stanzas later we find that his mother doesn’t care when Juan begins to have immoral relations with her neighbor Julia, because she was angry with Julia's old husband who had rejected her love in her youth. Where then does a good education go (beyond a hypocritical theory) in this scheme of things in a 'civilized' society? Don Juan's mother is afraid to see him grow up into an adolescent! This tells us how our societies reject the natural processes of life and the realities of natural impulses, and seeming to be better than the nature itself, destroy all potential good in man.

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Sharma, K.N. "Don Juan by Lord Byron: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 14 Nov. 2013,

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