Gender, Power, and the Sexual Politics of Byron’s Don Juan
Blue and pink. Both words are colors. Both words exist in a spectrum of possibility. When speaking of gender, or sexual politics, both words have very clear connotations that undoubtedly give power of one over another. George Gordon, henceforth known as Lord Byron or Byron, attacks those connotations or conceptions in his epic poem Don Juan. The satirical inversion of the classic Don Juan character is a construct of Byron’s that allows for the poet to engage the reader in a confrontation of whether the long held notions of then-contemporary society are justified. Byron’s stance, while flowing with unabashedly antagonistic rhetoric, should be construed as alarmingly progressive within a modern context yet realistically frowned upon during his era: the subversion of gender roles, the relationships with multiple women, and the perpetual hidden meanings within the text that allude to a LGBT culture, are all key examples that Byron did not write this text to “giggle and make giggle” (Black, 644) as he so claims – “Don Juan” is clearly a text meant to provoke the establishment to a point that forces them to recognize he and others like him are there.
“It is the epic of modern life” (744) are the ending words to the introduction of Don Juan within a 1905 edition of The Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron. Modern life, is a particularly interesting, and most appropriate, phrase if it were Byron’s intentions. Life, for the author, was never quite average – which, in the era, would have a connotation of conservative social mores. Byron’s life was always more modern, with all the positivity and negativity that the word can encompass. According to his biography within The Broadview Anthology for British Literature: The Age of Romanticism – henceforth known as The Broadview Anthology – Byron was raised by his mother after his father ran off after his birth. As the text states, Byron’s mother was alarming similar to Juan’s, noting the author was: “the object of his mother’s capricious mixture of love and sudden overwhelming rages, deeply conscious of his lameness, and steeped in Calvinism. Here, too, at ten years old, he was regularly molested by his nursemaid” (654). Even at that early age, foundations can be seen for the author’s preeminent text, foundations that will eventually hurl quivers at the established foundations.
The other notable reason Byron was put in a position to embark on writing Don Juan was because of the changing nature of women, and to a broader extent, gender, throughout the course of the eighteenth century. In his book of essays, Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, Terry Castle explains that the “moralized thermometers and barometers of the eighteenth century … altered their nature over the course of the century” (23). Castle discusses the production of scientists, namely in the areas of thermometers, barometers, and other weather vanes, throughout the preceding 100 years and likens their increased domestic presence to the increased awareness of female culture leading to the British romantic era. In the early eighteenth century the comparisons between women and the like were new, Castle writes:
“Women were usually considered the primary embodiments of mercuriality – witnessed by their purported fickleness, emotional variability, and susceptibility to hysteria. The delicate, ever-changing movements of the weatherglass suggested its seemingly feminine sensibility and unpredictability. The language of late seventeenth and eighteenth-century meteorology occasionally echoed the new and increasingly feminized language of sensibility emerging in popular fiction and journalism of the time. (25).
By the end of the eighteenth century, Castle would argue that the weatherglass would become a “sexual ambigue” (33). The gist, according to Castle, is meaningful “because it suggests similar ambiguities at a deeper level of conceptualization” (33) and “It testified to changing conceptions of masculinity and femininity, and, by degrees, to a profound alteration in the Western conception of human nature itself” (33). This train of perspective shifts in culture would become increasingly key in the construction of Don Juan for Byron. Without the changing landscape of society, or the innate innuendo in the imagery of the female thermometer, Don Juan would have never existed.
The dedication at the start of Don Juan is a pointed anchor for Byron to rail against whenever he so chooses and is an example of the “flexible structure [that] allowed him to range widely, moving with ease from high-flown philosophical reflections to the most trivial minutiae, and back again – sometimes within the same stanza” (Black, 644). Placing his personal vendetta with Robert Southey at the start of the epic, preceding the text, is a direction to the reader that Byron will be railing against the system and conformity. He says that his story will be unlike any other once the first Canto is introduced. In verse six Byron writes:
Most poets plunge “in media res”/
(Horace makes this the heroic turnpike road),/
And then your hero tells, whene’er you please,/
What went before – by way of episode,/
While seated after dinner at his ease,/
Beside his mistress in some soft abode,/
Palace, or garden, paradise, or cavern,/
Which serves the happy couple for a tavern. (648).
The philosophical opining comes from the first lines when Byron addresses what most poets do in the situation he ventures into. As the verse progresses Byron becomes increasing detailed in his opinions on the setting, like Black suggests in his description of the poet. The commentary on how epics usually work is a big, early indicator of difference in the story. The little taste of Byron, two verses before he delves into the story of where Juan came from, establishes the style that would become known as Byronic – a style that Byron uses to explore all of his ideas about gender, sexuality, and many other things.
Women play a massive role in Don Juan. In her essay, “Quiet Cruising o’er the Ocean Woman”: Byron’s “Don Juan” and the Woman Question” Caroline Franklin calls the text a work in “Sexual Jacobinism” (604), later defined as “the subversion of conventional sexual morality” (604). What Franklin means is that Byron used his piece, on the surface, as a discussion of sexual mores, yet underneath [mildly, underneath], the sex was a vessel for political satire. The usage of women for that purpose would become more poignant with the following revelation from Franklin:
“The social status of women is a reliable indication of the degree of governmental authority in a state … Scrutiny of the role of women in various to elevate the degree of liberty afforded by the government to the individual subject is also an important function of the Byronic heroine in Don Juan” (607-608).
Franklin would conclude that Haidee represented the patriarchy, Dudu the despotic, Catherine the feudal, and Adeline the oligarchy. For the time having so many female characters serve a greater symbolic purpose was assuredly out of the ordinary. But the following question lingers: are they to be considered placeholders – a certain archetype of a person that Byron believes to be fitting in the context of the larger discussion – or are they real characters – women with wants and needs that stand above whatever their political realities dictate to them?
Maybe Byron’s comment to Lady Blessington can begin to answer the question. Byron is noted as saying: “I was, and am, penetrated with the conviction that women can only know evil from having experienced it through men; whereas men have no criterion to judge of purity or goodness but woman” (610). Byron’s comment is largely misogynistic and in contrast to the immediacy, in modern sensibilities, of his characters. The words of Julia, from whatever little inlet she pens her letter to Juan from the convent, stand out here, “I write in haste, and if a stain/ Be on this sheet, ‘tis not what it appears./ My eyeballs burn and throb, but have no tears” (671). Juan had an equal part in the relationship with Julia, but for her indiscretions she is locked away, forced into religion. Juan simply moved away. Even if Byron has a certain misogynistic sensibility in his personal life, and some may argue that the crude nature of Byron’s verse still highlight those thoughts, Julia feels, to the reader, as if she has an aware central core. She recognizes her actions and faults. She professes to Juan, in following verses:
I loved, I love you, for this love I have lost/
State, station, heaven, mankind’s, my own esteem,/
And yet can not regret what it hath cost/
So dear is still the memory of that dream (671).
In the larger point of sexuality within Don Juan, and how Byron uses it to subvert norms, it’s important to recognize that Julia acknowledges she loses “my own esteem,” which is almost a direct reference to the conception she had of herself in the four prior categories. The ironic aspect to the revelation is that once she is able to conceptualize herself without those four markers, she is essentially a “male” character in her thought processes. But, because of her gender, she is forced to spend the rest of her days being inducted into religious order as a method to combat the demons of her personal nature.
Shona M. Allen, in her essay, “La Femme est Naturelle, C’est-A-Dire Abominable: Gender, Liminality and Blurring the Boundaries in Don Juan,” Allen argues that Julia is just the first in a line of women within the text that are more than stationary sexual conquests upon the map of Don Juan. Allen writes:
That the vast majority of the women in Don Juan are to some extent sexual predators goes without saying, but they are often rather more complex characters that this label might imply, and are not really femmes fatales at all. … Yet, no matter whether implicit or explicit animal imagery is used and no matter the status of the women concerned, it is clear that there is something intrinsically liminal about these women. (174-175).
The concept falls in line with what seems to be the overall point about the presence of female characters in Don Juan. While they have flaws that can, and arguably should, be interpreted as politically metaphorical, they can also be defined in the context of humanistic. Their lives are marred by the actions of Juan. Maybe Byron thinks that is a bad thing.
Byron’s engaging with women, in his personal life, was far from consistent. Within The Broadview Anthology there are letters of Byron to various women within his life that could each be used to impose any type of theory upon the poet. In his letter to Lady Byron he is decisively combative, with a poignant desire to reconcile any ill will either may have towards each other that, in some ways, fully contradicts his tone. He openly asks her questions such as “Were you then never happy with me?” (715), “Had I not acknowledged to you all my faults and my fancies?” (715), and, quite frankly states, “This is not just” (715). But his letter to his half-sister Augusta take on a decidedly different tone. It’s congenial and strikes images of a person in life and not a person just on a book cover. There’s also an essay by Peter Cochran, “Mary Shelley’s Fair Copying of Don Juan,” that looks at Shelley’s relationship with Byron after the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Cochran writes of Mary Shelley’s state of mind during those days:
Mary seems never to have admitted the possibility that, like all other women he met, she might find Byron attractive in himself, irrespective of any memories of her husband which his company evoked, and despite her “opinion of him” or of “the subject of his conversation” (2).
All three examples are important because it gives credence to the thought that Byron may be contending for women’s place in society. Paul Douglass, in an essay titled, “Lord Byron’s Feminist Canon: Notes toward Its Construction,” noted that Byron had more of a respect for women, and women writers, than what may be popularly acknowledged. Douglass writes:
Indeed, he was profoundly influenced by scribbling females. His poetry, letters, and journals exhibit many traces of the power of women’s language and perception-not just contempt frustration, or occasional grudging admiration for such “canine” felines as Madame de Stall. … In a broad sense, his career was shaped by the gravitational pull of a feminine perspective, reflected In his borrowing and adapting from women writers, and in the development of the female (and male) characters in his work. (3).
Byron’s stance on women in Don Juan may be something more than the exercise in posturing most tend to believe.
Refocusing on the idea of difference in Don Juan, from the formations of the epic to the characterizations of Julia or Haidee, an extended moment needs to be given to Susan J. Wolfson’s essay “”Their she Condition”: Cross-Dressing and the Politics of Gender in Don Juan.” Wolfson contends that “Signs that seem clear markers of difference can become agents of sexual disorientation that break down, invert, and radically call into question the categories designed to discriminate ‘masculine’ from ‘feminine’” (585). Wolfson describes that the instances of cross-dressing in Don Juan do two very specific things: 1) engage the earlier question of what is masculine and what is feminine, and 2) illuminate Byron’s own homoeroticism. Throughout the essay, Wolfson engages the conception of Byron present in Franklin’s work, but takes all of the ideas a step further. Growing from the point that love as embodied by a man is heroic and as embodied by a woman is evil, Wolfson believes “Byron’s concentration tugs at a network of affiliations” (589) when it comes to gender. She focuses on the concept of mobility for an extended period of time, eventually musing “Don Juan at times complicates the language of gender in ways that focus on the definition of self in gendered society” (591). This is at the heart of the idea of sexuality and gender in the late eighteenth century, in the apparent eyes of Byron. If the people, as individuals were realizing things about them that were contrary to socially held conventions, what’s bound to come next? An appropriate scene is the nursing back to health of Juan by Haidee. Oddly similar to the impetus for meeting that Tristan and Isolde once shared, Haidee and Juan’s love feels hyper-innocent, with her repeated descriptions of being ignorant, and his condition of suckling at the teat of female power figures, the entire relationship was doomed to death in naivety. But in that moment of Haidee gazing upon Juan for the first time, Byron equates Haidee to a mother, writing:
And she bent o’er him, and he lay beneath,/
Hushed as the babe upon the mother’s breast,/
Drooped as the willow when no winds can breathe,/
Lulled like the depth of the ocean when at rest,/
Fair as the crowning rose of the whole wreath,/
Soft as the callow cygnet in its nest; (692).
The power relationship here is very clear, Juan, in his exasperated slumber, is at the will of Haidee. There is even some sexual imagery that exemplifies the power. Unable to woo, or even engage with, her, Byron likens Juan to a drooped willow – an overt phallic image. The scene, which would have been recognized from places such as Tristian and Isolde or other chivalric romances of earlier centuries, is a classic example of the inversion within Don Juan.
While Byron had many dalliances with the feminine throughout his personal life that led to the fermenting of Don Juan, an intriguing question is asked of his relationships with men. How homosexually-influenced is the text of Don Juan? Does Byron’s sexual satire with political implications come from some sort of agenda? The earlier cited Broadview anthology notes Byron as engaging with liberalism of the era, but can it be argued that Byron pushed for anything in his seminal text? Peter Cochran, in his book of essays Byron and Women (and Men), engages with those questions. In his own essay within the text, “Byron’s Boyfriends,” Cochran details a long list of men, starting from his chaps in grade school, and the intimate –sexual, emotional, or both – relationships they shared with the bard, referencing coded messages in letters, private engravings, and overreactions at perceived slights from former lovers. Cochran points to an incident in Don Juan that may have evolved from a homosexual détente, writing, “In an excellent essay, Cecil Y. Lang argues that both Byron and Hobhouse were debauched by Ali, and that a coded version of what happened is put into Don Juan, in the encounter between Juan and Catherine the Great” (44). The idea seems more plausible when the earlier referenced assertion by Franklin, calling the Catherine the Great character a “mock queen of chivalry” (608). What’s more of a mock queen than one with a penis? And although the possibility may not be overtly said, the rumors spreading about Byron during the period could have dictated conception when it came to the character.
While the femininity of Byron’s women, the cross-dressing dialog of the text, and the homosexual links of the text have all been discussed, it’s critical to note the androgyny in Byron’s Don Juan before any other assertions or conclusions can be had. “The Androgynous Antics of Byron and the Bard” is written by Anna Camilleri and details the effect Shakespeare had on the gender fluidity of Byron’s work, namely the impact Venus and Adonis had on Don Juan. An early example of Camilleri’s references Juan cross-dressing as Juanna as the beginning of such androgyny. Camilleri writes:
In As You Like It, we see Rosalind “dramatizing” that very question: she does indeed imitate gender, and the “gesture” of her crossdressing has the most disorientating effect on her male companions, both straight and gay. In the case of Don Juan I would argue that we can observe the latter only. The process of Juan being dressed as a harem woman (“Juanna”) is not the imitation of gender, but a dramatization of the artificiality of fulfilling a particular gender identity. (71-72).
The comedy, in Don Juan and in multiple works of Shakespeare, comes from a character being aroused at someone in drag and subsequently dealing with those revelations, according to Camilleri. Further, they play into concepts of power and sexual dominance. Camilleri notes:
For Byron especially, concepts of power and of sexual dominance are closely related … The concept of “yielding” is resonant throughout … Don Juan. We hear from Juan that: “I yield thus far; but soon will break the charm / If any take me for that which I seem” (DJ V.653-654). Juan is clearly aware here of the perils of convincing transvestitism. (79).
The outrage of contemporary romantic society could understandably be outraged from the predicament. Sodomy was illegal during the era in Britain and France and was the reason for Byron’s travel to Greece. Yet, as it has been established, Byron knows the reader knows this and is forcing them to deal with the fact, engage in the conversation of inverted social standards. Before moving forward, for a moment, it seems prudent to hone on the idea of yielding in a different essay, in the interest of getting a second opinion on the component.
Christina Dokou, in her essay “Androgyny’s challenge to the “Law of the Father”: Don Juan as epic in reverse,” contends that from birth, Juan was placed into a state of androgyny. Dokou asserts, “Even when Juan’s femininity as the effect of society’s oppressive force is most pronounced, womanizing the womanizer actually works to the advantage of Juan’s sexuality, for it allows him to elude the male castration complex by surrendering male subjectivity beforehand” (Dokou). Pair this idea of surrendering the subjectivity of the male castration complex, with Camilleri’s theory of yielding, and there is an interesting recipe for a lead character in Juan. Yes, he is distorted by Byron’ narrator – who may or may not be an alternate side of Byron, and, in some respects, Juan – but he is also birthed by the man with a decisive intent: to illustrate a modern conception of society.
In Byronic fashion, it’s an appropriate time to revert back to the narrator. With examples of gender differences, sexuality, and the state of feminine society in Don Juan all established, not much has been mentioned of the reason for the narrator’s perpetual insertions throughout the narrative of the epic poem. If the narrator is fully Byron, the vitriol he receives is understandable within the context of society. The “Remarks on Don Juan,” from the August 1819 edition of Blackwood’s Magazine, listed within the Broadview Anthology, praises the genius of the poet, but rails against his perceived subversions: “Love, honour, patriotism, religion, are mentioned only to be scoffed at and derided, as if their sole remaining resting-place were, or ought to be in the bosoms of fools” (713). Yet if the narrator isn’t fully Byron, what is to be said of the perception of the work. If Byron, as he contends that he wrote this piece “to giggle and make giggle” (644), wrote this piece using just a portion of himself as the narrator, because, as the dedication, and the persistent allusions into his personal life, allows, parts of Byron are 100 percent engraved into the parchment, can we, the reader, take any of the assertions made to this point as valid if the narrator is in any way unreliable? It’s an interesting question. There seems to be more evidence leading to more of Byron being in the speaker’s position than less of him. In the summary for the text in The Broadview Anthology, Byron is noted as having written the following to his friend Douglass Kinnaird in 1819, “Confess – you dog! Is it not life? Is it not the thing?” (644). Descriptions as such make it all but irrevocably certain that Byron poured himself into the text.
In some ways the narrator serves as contrast to the factors of Don Juan, almost trying to manipulate the reader into believing that he had nothing to do with the circumstance of the story. Of the verses in which this manipulation begins to stand out, verse 52 is the first that’s tangible. Byron writes:
For my part I say nothing – nothing – but/
This I will say – my reasons are my own -/
That if I had an only son to put /
To school (as God be praised that I have none)/
‘Tis not with Donna Innez I would shut/
Him up to learn his catechism alone,/
No – no – I’d send him out betimes to college,/
For there it was where I picked up my own knowledge. (654).
There are a lot of interesting things happening in the verse. By commenting on the situation Juan lives in with Donna Innez, Byron is using his power as the narrator to manipulate the reader’s perception of Juan and Innez’s relationship. Second, the commentary comes with an irony for all those who knew of Byron’s early life, as he spent the majority of his childhood being raised and taught by his mother. One could theorize that Byron, aware that rumors of him were being spread around like wildfire, openly saw this as a place, as the narrator, to interrupt because the people would draw the ironic connection to him, maybe even going as far to suggest this verse as an earlier indicator from Byron that in this story the reader should not trust anyone – even himself – to give unbiased information. This is the first of many interludes in which Byron embarks on a power struggle with the narrator that oddly mirrors the subjects he discusses in the bulk of the text.
Byron published Don Juan close to twenty years after the fall of the Bastille and a handful of years following Napoleon’s final battle. In many ways, Don Juan mark a transitory period for British society. As Castle notes, women were beginning to move past their previous conceptions of being irrational fluids in a fragile, almost phallic structure. Conventional morals, as Franklin suggests, were becoming subverted – concocted into new paradigms of subjectivity. What actions/nature make a man masculine and by what nature/actions is a woman feminine? The exploration of the instinctual nature of men and women, outside of the confines of religion or social mores, were being acknowledged and discussed. When Byron writes to his friend Kinnaird and forcefully questions: “Is it not life? Is it not the thing?” (644), Byron is referring to the everything and nothing that makes humanity what it strives to be. Byron’s story and the sexuality, gender, and power-struggle narratives that live within its walls confronts the reader, in the context of late 18th, early 19th, and even contemporary society, highlighting the contradictions we employ to define ourselves, and the people around us, in an effort to establish meaning.
The story of Don Juan is an epic battle against the waves of nihilism that come from not knowing who he is at his core. He is wrapped up in the appearance of himself in the eyes of others. He is lost to the patriarchy with the absence of his father and spends the duration of the text as a subverted feminine representation of a man subservient to the wills of a dominant woman because that is all he is ever taught to be. Yet Juan never wallows, or finds reason to wallow, in what many would call a conventional train of logic. He strives to find joy after each seemingly fatal mistake. Byron’s Don Juan is a story of alternates, a look at the world through eyes that differ from the patriarchy. If Byron doesn’t use dominant, masculine female characters, if he doesn’t travel Juan throughout the world, engaging in cultures that symbolize real-life events, if he doesn’t apply the linguistics that allude to a counter-culture dying in the silent shackles of subservience, then he doesn’t write Don Juan. And the world is worse off.
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