Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Don Juan Tenorio

On its own behalf each country seems to choose one man, historical or imaginary, to stand for the race, making as it were an incarnation of all the virtues and all the vices wherewith it is pleased to charge itself; and nothing really better explains the character of a people than their choice of a national hero. Fifty years ago John Bull was the typical Englishman. Stout, rubicund and healthy, with a loud voice and a somewhat aggressive manner, he belonged distinctly to the middle classes. He had a precise idea of his rights and a flattering opinion of his merits; he was peaceable, but ready enough to fight for commercial advantages, or if roused, for conscience sake. And when this took place he possessed always the comforting assurance that the Almighty was on his side; he put his faith without hesitation on the Bible and on the superiority of the English Nation. For foreigners he had a magnificent contempt and distinguished between them and monkeys only by a certain mental effort. Art he thought nasty, literature womanish; he was a Tory, middle-aged and well-to-do.

But nowadays all that is changed; John Bull, having amassed great wealth, has been gathered to his fathers and now disports himself in an early Victorian paradise furnished with horse-hair sofas and mahogany sideboards. His son reigns in his stead; and though perhaps not officially recognised as England's archetype, his appearance in novel and in drama, in the illustrated papers, in countless advertisements, proves the reality of his sway. It is his image that rests in the heart of British maidens, his the example that British youths industriously follow.

But John Bull, Junior, has added his mother's maiden name to his own, and remembers with pleasure that he belongs to a good old county family. He has changed his address from Bedford Square to South Kensington, and has been educated at a Public School and at a University. Young, tall and fair-haired, there is nothing to suggest that he will ever have that inelegant paunch which prevented the father, even in his loftiest moments of moral indignation, from being dignified. Of course he is a soldier, for the army is still the only profession for a gentleman, and England's hero is that above all things. His morals are unexceptional, since to the ten commandments of Moses he has added the decalogue of good form. His clothes, whether he wears a Norfolk jacket or a frock coat, fit to perfection. He is a good shot, a daring rider, a serviceable cricketer. His heart beats with simple emotions, he will ever cheer at the sight of the Union Jack, and the strains of Rule Britannia bring patriotic tears to his eyes. Of late, (like myself,) he has become an Imperialist. His intentions are always strictly honourable, and he would not kiss the tip of a woman's fingers except Hymen gave him the strictest rights to do so. If he became enamoured of a lady with whom such tender sentiments should not be harboured, he would invariably remember his duty at the psychological moment, and with many moving expressions renounce her: in fact he is a devil at renouncing women. I wonder it flatters them.

Contrast with this pattern of excellence, eminently praiseworthy if somewhat dull, Don Juan Tenorio, who stands in exactly the same relation to the Andalusians as does John Bull to the English. He is a worthless, heartless creature, given over to the pursuit of emotion. The main lines of the story are well known. The legend, so far as Seville is concerned, (industrious persons have found analogues throughout the world,) appears to be founded on fact. There actually lived a Comendador de Calatrava who was killed by Don Juan after the abduction of his daughter. The perfect amorist, according to the Cronica de Sevilla, was then inveigled into the church where lay his enemy and assassinated by the Franciscans, who spread the pious fiction that the image of his victim, descending from its pedestal, had itself exacted vengeance. It was an unfortunate invention, for the catastrophe has proved a stumbling-block to all that have dealt with the subject. The Spaniards of Molina's day may not have minded the clumsy deus ex machina, but later writers have been able to make nothing of it. In Molière's play, for instance, the grotesque statue is absurdly inapposite, for his Don Juan is a wit and a cynic, a courtier of Louis XIV., with whose sins avenging gods are out of all proportion. Love for him is an intellectual exercise and a pastime. 'Constancy,' he says, 'is only good for fools. We owe ourselves to pretty women in general, and the mere fact of having met one does not absolve us from our duty to others. The birth of passion has an inexplicable charm, and the pleasure of love is in variety.' And Zorilla, whose version is the most poetic of them all, has succeeded in giving only a ridiculous exhibition of waxworks.

But the monk, Tirso de Molina, who was the first to apply literary form to the legend, alone gives the character in its primitive simplicity. He drew the men of his time; and his compatriots, recognising themselves, have made the work immortal. For Spain, at all events, the type has been irrevocably fixed. Don Juan Tenorio was indeed a Spaniard of his age, a man of turbulent instincts, with a love of adventure and a fine contempt for danger, of an overwhelming pride; careful of his own honour, and careless of that of others. He looked upon every woman as lawful prey and hesitated at neither perjury nor violence to gain his ends; despair and tears left him indifferent. Love for him was purely carnal, with nothing of the timid flame of pastoral romance, nor of the chivalrous and metaphysic passion of Provence; it was a fierce, consuming fire which quickly burnt itself out. He was a vulgar and unoriginal seducer who stole favours in the dark by pretending to be the lady's chosen lover, or induced guileless maids to trust him under promise of marriage, then rode away as fast as his horse could carry him. The monotony of his methods and their success are an outrage to the intelligence of the sex. But for all his scoffing he remained a true Catholic, devoutly believing that the day would come when he must account for his acts; and he proposed, when too old to commit more sins, to repent and make his peace with the Almighty.

It is significant that the Andalusians have thus chosen Don Juan Tenorio, for he is an abstract, with the lines somewhat subdued by the advance of civilisation, of the national character. For them his vices, his treachery, his heartlessness, have nothing repellent; nor does his inconstancy rob him of feminine sympathy. He is, indeed, a far greater favourite with the ladies than John Bull. The Englishman they respect, they know he will make a good husband and a model father; but he is too monogamous to arouse enthusiasm.


William Somerset Maugham