A Man For The Ages
Although Moliere’s Don Juan was written in 1665, its central themes can be carried over through the ages up to today. Moliere creates many fascinating characters limited not only to Don Juan, but his servant, wife, father, and others he encounters throughout the play. In Don Juan, Moliere creates a character who shapes the world to fit his own personal illusions by an egotistical abuse of power. Even greater, is Moliere’s ability to create characters who can interact with such a main character, trying to even challenge this abuse of power, however unsuccessful. In this essay, I will examine the characteristics of Don Juan, and the uses of the other characters and how other characters uses their own unique way to try and get Don Juan to change his ways.
Don Juan, himself, is a completely egotistical character. Abusing his power to get what he wants when he wants, Moliere “creates a noble and self-contained Tartuffe who needs no aid from an established canon of belief to rule the lives of others”. Walker, Moliere, pg. 101. Don Juan has already been born to great blood, and does not need the approval of others to rationalize what he does. His ancestry is reasoning and almost a scapegoat for Don Juan throughout the play. However powerful Don Juan does seem throughout the play, there is also another side of Don Juan that almost seeps out of Don Juan very subtly. Don Juan is a contradiction himself, the power of his tyranny and at the same time, his dependence upon his “victims”, or those he tricks and dehumanizes. In Act I Scene 2, Don Juan is explaining his feelings to his companion Sgnarelle. Sgnarelle tells him how he does not approve of the way Don Juan “makes love left and right”. To this, Don Juan answers:
That’s a fine thing, to want to pride ourselves in
S all the other beauties that may strike our eyes! No, no:
Constancy is good only for nincompoops………….
Bringing her gently to the point where we want to bring
Passion is finished, and in the tranquility of such a love
We fall asleep, unless some new object comes to awaken
Our desires and offer our heart to the alluring charms
Of a conquest to be made.(pg. 322)
In this passage, Don Juan is trying to sound powerful and self-assured, but in reality this simply portrays him as a scared man. Scared to love unconditionally, to commit himself one-hundred percent to another female. This type of self-talk is not uncommon in the majority of men today. When Don Juan stated “to be dead from our youth on to all other beauties” and ” “in the tranquility of love we fall asleep”, it almost sounds that he is afraid to grow up and does not want to contemplate his own mortality. By keeping a solid rotation of “other beauties”, Don Juan will continually feel young and unaffected by growing old. This can easily be transferred to today’s culture, where rich old men start to think about their mortality, and in turn leave their aging wife for a younger one, and perhaps a red sports car as well. Although Don Juan sees nothing wrong with this reasoning, his friends, family, and lovers all see what disastrous path this life will lead the main character on. All try with great pleading to stop this, and all fail to the stubborn Don Juan.
The first character to plead with Don Juan is his wife, Dona Elvire. Dona Elvire was seduced out of the convent by Don Juan, only to later learn of her husbands’ betrayal. In Act I Scene 3, Dona Elvire confirms her suspicions and admits her “simplicity and weak heartedness in doubting a betrayal which so much evidence confirmed” (pg. 326). She asks Don Juan for a reason in which return Don Juan makes his servant Sgnaraelle address her. Don Juan finally answers for his actions stating:
I opened my eyes of my soul upon which I was doing.
I reflected that in order to marry you I stole you from the
Enclosure of a convent, that you broke your vows
That bound you elsewhere, and the Heaven is very
Jealous of this kind of thing. Repentance seized
Me, and I dreaded the divine wrath (pg. 327)
Don Juan has the audacity to tell Dona Elvire his good faith and conscience is the reason he can no longer be her husband. Don Juan is exploiting the morality of Heaven, even mocking them, as if he is laughing at all that is good and moral, and doing so on his own terms. Even though Don Juan is “dreading the divine wrath”, it is ironic that it is the divine wrath which in the end takes Don Juan from the Earth. Dona Elvire is not at all at a loss in this play, for she undergoes an almost saintly transformation who in good nature comes back in Act IV Scene 6 to warn Don Juan that “heavens dread anger is ready to fall” on him (pg. 367). Even this does not affect Don Juan, who is aroused by Dona Elvire’s plain clothing and tears that he asks her to stay.
Dona Elvire was not the only character who tried to help change Don Juan’s immoral ways. His servant, Sganaralle “sets basic comic tone, opening and closing the comedy and illuminating the character of Don” (Walker, Moliere, pg. 103). Don Juan would not have been such a forgivable person by the reader if it were not for his constant companion. Although his words to Don Juan are those of reason and knowledge, he often fails and stumbles over his own words, and in turn is laughed at for his ineffectualness. In Act III Scene 1, disguising themselves for flight, Sgnarelle and Don Juan discuss belief and credulity. Sgnaralle asks Don Juan “what he believes in”, to which Don Juan answers ” I believe two plus two makes four and four plus four equals eight” (pg. 347). Sgnarelle goes on to make the point:
Studied…Can you see all the contrivances that the
Machine called Man is composed of without wondering
At the way one part is fitted into another… My argument
Is that there is something admirable in man, no matter
What you say, that all the scholars could never explain.
Isn’t it wonderful that here I am, and that I have
Something in my head that thinks a hundred different
Things in one moment, and does whatever it likes…” (pg. 348-349)
Sgnaralle admits he is simple, but also admits being simple has allowed him to view the simplicities of a man’s life. All the little things is from a higher source. However in continuing this argument, Sgnaralle loses balance and falls, discrediting himself to Don Juan who answers back “now your argument has a broken nose”. Control in the relationship of Don Juan and Sgnarelle is expressed through words, and of course Don Juan is the master seducer through his language and not his actions.
Pleads for Don Juan to amend his ways are not only limited to lovers and companions. Don Juan’s father, Don Louis also tries to get through to his son as well. Don Louis recognizes that his son is riding on the coattails of his familys’ power through his birth and in turn is using this power for seduction, fraud, and corrupt means. In Act IV Scene 4, Don Louis reprimands his son:
I too am very tired of your behavior. Alas! How
Little we know what we’re doing when we do not leave
To Heaven the responsibility for the things we need, when
We try to be wiser than it is, and when we come to pester
It with our blind wishes and our thoughtless requests!
Don Louis is aware of his sons’ feelings of being better than heaven, and without thinking, degrading the family name. Don Louis also forestalls his sons future by telling him ” Heaven’s wrath upon you and wash away” As true in his character, Don Juan, unaffected by such words does not listen even stating after his father leaves, “Oh! Die as soon as you can, that’s the best thing you can do.” (pg. 366) Don Juan even “retreats into a fixed position of hypocritical piety which he assumes to dupe his father, adopting the “stylish voice” to suit his needs” (Walker, Moliere, pg. 105) Mocking heaven once again, Don Juan tells his father he shall “make amends in that way for the scandal of my past actions, and strive to obtain from Heaven a full pardon for them” (V, 1 pg. 372).
Don Juan was a great seducer, who in the end was seduced by his own illusions of reality, and the illusions of himself. In the end, Don Juan meets the supernatural, which was outside his “illusion” of reality for the entire play. By not entertaining the thoughts of change or adaptation, the outcome is rather ironic and comic. By this, Moliere seems to make the point that the illusion of ones own human power is a human weakness. Don Juan’s character can be used across time, as well as his encounters in the play. Representing characters of a modern life, Dona Elvire was the wronged lover, Sgnarelle, the caring friend, and Don Louis the disappointed, irate parent. Don Juan proves in each of us there is someone fighting the “rules” of a truly moral and decent life, and the consequences of deceiving others as well as deceiving oneself.