‘The Sultan’s self shan’t carry me’: Negotiations of harem fantasies in Byron’s Don Juan
University of Lincoln
Lord Byron’s Don Juan is a poem which depends on gendered literary traditions for both its originality and its intelligibility. In the harem episode of cantos V and VI, we can recognise a libertine fantasy, an Orientalist premise, and a picaresque adventure, but also some traces of epic, the gothic and literature of sensibility. Yet, these tropes are consistently complicated in the poem and used to undermine the gendered foundations of their traditions. This essay considers the formulation of such subversions through explicitly literary paradigms: what signs of gender are referred to, and how are they made intelligible as fictional constructs? By interrogating the use of gendered tropes, their formation as intelligible concepts within literary history, and their negotiations with sexualised conventions of narrative, I intend to highlight the discrepancies in the heteronormative construction of these literary paradigms and Byron’s use of them to suggest sexual fluidity.
Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824) is a poem which depends on gendered literary traditions for both its originality and its intelligibility. In the harem episode of cantos V and VI, we can recognise an Orientalist premise, a libertine fantasy, and a picaresque adventure, with some traces of the epic and the gothic. Yet, these tropes are consistently complicated in the poem and used to undermine the gendered foundations of their traditions. The Don Juan who breaches the sanctity of the harem and finds himself desired by numerous amorous women is also a Don Juan who is made to dress up as an oriental slavewoman and who enacts poses of sentimental heroinism while denouncing libertinism. Such subversions draw attention to the function of gender in Byron’s poem, as has been noted by numerous critics. Susan Wolfson reads them as producing confusion about sexual orientation:
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”.
Wolfson, “Their She-Condition” 585
These categories are, as both Caroline Franklin and Wolfson posit, culturally rather than biologically constituted (Franklin, “Juan’s Sea Changes” 86; Wolfson, “Their She-Condition” 591). My investigation concerns the formulation of such categories in these cantos through explicitly literary tropes: what signs of gender are referred to, and how are they made intelligible as fictional constructs? How are the meanings of bodies established? How are the distinctions between bodily perception and bodily embodiment negotiated? How is the male gaze, as a masculinist literary tradition, constructed in these cantos? What is the function of sexualised scenarios in the production of gendered signs? Rather than emphasise the distinction which Wolfson makes between “hetero-play” and a “homoerotic frisson”, I intend to highlight the discrepancies in the heteronormative construction of these literary paradigms as well as Byron’s use of them to suggest sexual fluidity (Wolfson, Borderlines 164). By interrogating the use of gendered signs, their formation as intelligible concepts within literary history, and their negotiations with sexualised conventions of narrative, I hope to answer these questions and to complicate the sexual and gendered normativity of these literary traditions.
Juan’s flexibility in adopting a range of gendered poses evokes essentialist constructions of gender identity even as it disrupts them. The performance of a gendered role, however, depends not only on artifice and ornamentation but also on specifically gendered narratives through which such signs become intelligible. This process requires what Judith Butler calls “a sustained set of acts, posited through the gendered stylization of the body,” a stylisation that is based on streamlining and aestheticising conventions of gendered and sexualised behaviour (Butler xv). In the harem episode of Don Juan, these conventions are shown to consist of well-known figures such as the Byronic hero, the oriental slavewoman, the libertine, and the cross-dressing boy. By referencing and then complicating such traditions, Byron presents a form of characterisation which functions through the use of competing codes of stylisation and in so doing reconfigures the formulation of literary identity.
At the slavemarket, this significatory contestation is concentrated on Juan’s physicality. The legibility of his body is produced through stylised attributes invested with specific structures of privilege, that is, the aristocratic European masculinity of the Byronic hero:
Upon the whole his carriage was serene:
His figure, and the splendour of his dress,
Of which some gilded remnants still were seen,
Drew all eyes on him, giving him to guess
He was above the vulgar by his mien;
And then, though pale, he was so very handsome;
And then – they calculated on his ransom.
DJ, V. 9
Traits such as the air of unconscious superiority and the handsome pale face are recognisable as heroic in the Byronic mode – they narrate Juan as an emblem of tormented and sentimentalised masculinity. Yet Juan’s presentation also incorporates references to the performativity inherent in this pose. The display of an occasional tear, which “now and then … stole down by stealth” (DJ, V.8), portrays Juan as heroically stoic yet expressive of poignant grief, and foregrounds his interiority and sensibility by revealing his struggle to contain his distress. As the narrator remarks, tears in women are something to be “shed and use[d] … at their liking” (DJ, V. 118), but for men are “a torture,” “as if you thrust a pike in / His heart to force it out” (DJ, V. 118). This passage exposes the differentiation between the cultural encodings of male and female bodies, but also situates these differences in terms of a dichotomy between a performance and an experience, that is, an intentional strategy of manipulation and a set of stylised acts designated to proclaim authentic interiority. Such a distinction highlights the fact that it is the readerly conceptualisation which constitutes the privileged form of meaning. “A woman’s tear-drop melts, a man’s half sears” (DJ, V. 118); the sign of “tears” is evaluated according to the effect it is assumed to have on the viewer, which reaction is then culturally prescribed.
This emphasis on readerly participation invites a more flexible approach to gendered identity. If we consider that Juan’s tears not only align him with the sentimental masculinity of the Byronic hero, that is, with a pose defined by its ability to attract attention and desire, but also that it is his forlorn pose which inspires Gulbeyaz to buy him – what renders him a marketable object in this context – then the effect which Juan’s tears are expected to have is closer to “melting” than “searing.” Positioned as a desirable object whose desirability depends on his distressed virtue, Juan is narrated according to what the narrator claims is the strategy of presenting women as expressing uncontrolled emotion, which presentation is then shown to have an eroticising effect on his audience. Moreover, this display and effect correspond to the romance plot of a heroine who exhibits noble endurance when faced with the prospect of slavery. This use of literary heroinism in Juan’s characterisation complicates his function as a desirable male object and his consequent potential for agency.
Juan’s display of desirability and its connotations are also formulated by discourses of race and nationality. The narrator sets the image of Juan’s solitary pose in the context of a mass of variously coloured and culturally signified bodies, whose experience of the slavemarket is unlikely to be narrated as including individuality or the potential for escape. These conventions, inherent in the adventure narratives which routinely bring European men and their readers to the slavemarket, are reserved only for the white, male, European aristocrat:
A crowd of shivering slaves of every nation,
And age, and sex, were in the market ranged;
Each bevy with the merchant in his station
Poor creatures! their good looks were sadly changed.
All save the blacks seem’d jaded with vexation,
From friends and home and freedom far estranged;
The negroes more philosophy display’d, –
Use to it, no doubt, as eels are to be flay’d.
DJ, V. 7
However, the emphasis on “every nation” – not only Nubians, Georgians, Russians and Circassians – serves to denaturalise Juan’s separation from the other slaves. Although his pale skin and his status as a European aristocrat distinguish him from this motley group within the poem’s taxonomy of characters and in the picaresque tradition it evokes, no such hierarchisation of bodies takes place in the slavemarket. The audience may guess that “He was above the vulgar by his mien” (DJ, V. 9), but this perceived elevation is only noted in connection with his likely price. It is only the narrator, and the literary conventions he employs, that set Juan apart.
This double perspective is maintained when Juan’s companion Johnson recognises him as a gentleman and uses this distinction to re-interpret their situation: “We know what slavery is, and our disasters / May teach us better to behave when masters.” (DJ, V, 23) Such rhetoric can be linked to the aspirations of self-improvement which inform the conventions of a liberal education, as Franklin argues: “Knowledge – through experience – of slavery broadens the mind of the European gentleman, only to establish all the more securely his sense of identity as a master” (Franklin, “Juan’s Sea Changes” 77). Instead of enslaved bodies, they become daring heroes in an adventure plot, and being sold at the slavemarket is merely an opportunity to expand their capacity for sensibility. Nevertheless, the text also suggests a contrast between the endurance praised by Johnson and the considerably more stoic suffering of those accustomed “to be[ing] flayed” without the possibility of heroic escape, and accentuates the fact that their heroic poses are indebted to literary conventions which dictate the adventurer’s anticipated escape rather any actual heroic action. Their characterisation does not suggest any potential for ingenious or daring escape, nor does it have to, since the demands of the picaresque tradition as well as the premise of the Don Juan plot inform us that Don Juan will live to continue his adventures.
This juxtaposition between literary stylisations and a more “realistic” attitude to enslaved bodies is further complicated by the overarching perspective of ocular desire introduced by Baba the eunuch. Baba’s gaze –uninterested at any personal level and thus not participating in gendered conventions of power – serves a levelling function that reduces all bodies to potentially usable objects. Juan’s aristocratic status (and consequent heroic pose in the genres of epic and romance) is cancelled by Baba’s insistence on a more market-based (and bourgeois) narrative. This undermines the position of assumed gentlemanly authority in the production of the desiring gaze, as Baba reconstructs the process of looking with desire and inscribes it with additional connotations:
Just now a black old neutral personage
Of the third sex stept up, and peering over
The captives, seem’d to mark their looks and age,
And capabilities, as to discover
If they were fitted for the purposed cage:
No lady e’er is ogled by a lover,
Horse by a blackleg, broadcloth by a tailor,
Fee by a counsel, felon by a jailor,
As is a slave by his intended bidder…
DJ, V. 26-27
The evocation of various useful objects emphasises the utilitarian attitude taken towards the slaves; each person is assessed in terms of their fitness for a potential use. Aesthetic value is connected to function – well-formed slaves, like well-formed horses, may bring credit to their owners as well as signal elegance and ease of movement. The emphasis on inclusivity – “all are to be sold” and “all have prices” (DJ, V. 27) – indicates that not only women, boys, and other conventionally penetrable bodies, but all bodies can be turned into usable flesh and not even Don Juan is exempt. At the slavemarket and within the wider society that it represents, every body, with the exception of the Sultan, is a potential slave.
The reference to a lady and her lover is particularly suggestive; the most respectful desire is here transformed into utilitarian objectification. The signification of gendered bodies at the slavemarket depends on specific cultural and economical paradigms, as Franklin argues:
Female generativity is a commodity with a high value for patriarchy … Because a woman’s power of generation constitutes her value (particularly with regards to slaves, who reproduce both the means of production and the product itself) … the sexual rebellion [of a Circassian virgin sold at the marketplace] against patriarchy is meaningful, whereas that of Juan is only of indirect importance in facilitating it.
Franklin, “Juan’s Sea Changes” 79
While the patriarchal conventions which determine the meaning of female generativity and virginity do not exclude Juan from the exchange of usable bodies, they do exempt him from forced pregnancy and childbirth in addition to rape, and ensure that his violation would not serve economic as well as ideological ends. However, although the cultural constructs of female chastity and virginity do not apply directly to Juan, his position as a sexual object still functions within the same system of signification; buying a virginal young woman for sexual purposes carries different connotations than buying a virginal young man for sexual use, but the latter can still be positioned as potentially dominated and violated. If, as Carole Pateman argues, male bodies cannot be enslaved sexually as “male” bodies, but rather must first be turned into “female” bodies (that is, into bodies that can be penetrated), then Juan’s lack of female genitalia (or any absence of non-heterosexual experience) does not spare him from the possibility of sexual enslavement and rape, or from the burden of institutional and cultural vulnerability (Pateman 64).
All of this produces a narrative which undermines the implied masculine privilege of the readerly gaze in both the epic and the erotic genres. Juan’s presentation as a Byronic hero implies a traditionally female readership, while Johnson’s insistence on their gentlemanly status exposes the ease with which such rhetoric is undermined, and its aspirational function compromised. Baba’s non-gendered gaze serves to determine all enslaved bodies as possessing an inherent potential for use and effects a multiplication of potential desires, positions, and sexualities. Furthermore, when the narrator describes the pleasures of “purchasing our fellow creatures” he also suggests that this pleasure is shared by his audience, and thus expects the reader to be complicit in this exploitation of enslaved bodies, both visual and otherwise. The act of looking becomes connected to desire through objectification which, crucially, includes the masculine hero among its objects. Juan is brought to a slave market, marketed as a body whose chief value lies in its beauty, and bought as a property to be consumed. If Juan’s desirability is dependent on his being presented through such stylised tropes, the distinction between the spectacle of handsome Juan that is presented to the reader and the one that is presented to all the potential buyers becomes blurred with consequences both for his identity and his appearance.
The narrative strategy of dressing Don Juan as a slavegirl makes use of the tension between the eroticisation of stylised bodies and the commodification of enslaved bodies. This serves to multiply the range of erotic readings which Juan’s body is made to bear, as the act of cross-dressing is represented through several competing conceptual structures. The various functions of identity, performance, and observation within these structures are revealed in the overlapping of conflicting perspectives – the narrator’s, Baba’s, Juan’s – which emphasise the interdependence between these traditions of reading and their production of eroticised bodies.
When Baba requests that Juan put on “a suit / In which a Princess with great pleasure would / Array her limbs,” Juan reacts by standing mute, giving the suit “a slight kick with his christian foot” and declaring, “Old gentleman, I’m not a lady” (DJ, V. 73). Juan’s refusal signals both his belief in a correlation between his gender identity and his appearance, and his understanding of the perception of gendered bodies. Wearing such a costume means participating in a demeaning spectacle; the culturally coded value which Juan’s male body exhibits would be reduced to the powerlessness, vulnerability, and insignificance of a female body. However, there is also another cultural code of cross-dressing operating behind these lines, one which connects the bodies of youths with the costumes of aristocratic women, and presupposes (or invites) a desiring male audience. Juan is asked to present himself as “a lady,” “a Princess,” and this act, Thomas A. King argues, can be read as a stylisation which accentuates the function of social status in differentiating between variously hierarchised and desirable bodies (King 80). The boy actors of the Renaissance and Restoration stages – arguably the most readily available literary context for male to female cross-dressing – were seen to embody not only unstable gender identity but an invitation to be seen as desirable objects that were sexually available (King 80). King suggests that “boys who performed as public women or as boys openly represented themselves as subjects desiring their own sodomitical abuse” (King 85). This disrupts Juan’s insistence on his own gendered experience and shifts the focus to the viewer, as King points out: “at stake here is the sex of the spectator. Boys, enacting wanton display, seduced their spectators into occupying the place of the pederast” (King 133).
Furthermore, wearing the costume of a specifically oriental lady aligns Juan with all the European women who played the role of “Roxana” in order to attract male attention, a role which was associated particularly with prostitutes. Juan’s participation in this tradition highlights the negotiations of visual and narrative control, as Ros Ballaster argues: “performing the role of Rox(ol)ana … always suggests women’s hidden capacity to control through visual and verbal language the consuming look of their audience” (Ballaster 65). This notion is developed by Baba’s perspective, which counters Juan’s argument by privileging perception over embodiment. Baba’s reply of “What you may be, I neither know nor care” (DJ, V. 74) disturbs the correlation between identity and appearance, and reminds us that in the harem, all bodies have only the meaning that is required by their owners. The surface of the body is expected to signal only the appropriate performance, not any felt or expressed subjectivity. This suggests a conception of bodies as malleable in terms of appearance and meaning, and one which includes the liberatory potential of gendered performance and the manipulation of audience perception that it entails. Peter Graham views Juan as “Stripped of all his accustomed privilege, subjugated in every possible sense, our hero in heroine’s costume is forced to feel feminine and reduced to behaving (or freed to behave…) in accordance with his disguise” (Graham 84). Describing the performance of femininity as both a constraint and a freedom highlights the narrative potential of this trope. In Don Juan, it incorporates a liberatory fantasy of heroinism as well as the danger of sexual slavery.
The blazon offered for Juan’s recostumed body narrates him as a virginal heroine in a romance plot: “a pair of trowsers of flesh-colour’d silk,” and “a slight chemise, as white as milk” (DJ, V. 77). Unblemished womanhood, which in the context of libertine fantasy reads as an invitation for ruin, is here also constructed as a tabula rasa, an unwritten body with the potential for inscribing meaning through narrative action. Yet, as Wolfson suggests, Juan’s performance of femininity is also narrated as highlighting “the artifices to which females are routinely trained. His costuming and coaching ‘to stint / That somewhat manly majesty of stride’ (DJ, V. 91), a dressing down for him, is every woman’s schooling for success” (Wolfson, Borderlines 189). Wolfson emphasises the potential for agency in such a performance of femininity, the “schooling for success” that incorporates both the manipulation of one’s performance and its reception. However, the costume of a slavewoman, connotating nubile beauty and sexual availability, can be exploited by Juan as a strategy for greater narrative as well as situational agency. A crucial aspect of a young beauty’s fate in an oriental harem is, after all, the anticipated ravishment, and Juan shows his awareness of this when he promises to show off the strength of his arm “if any take me for that which I seem” (DJ, V. 82). Nevertheless, a few moments later Juan, now transformed into a “maid” by the narrator, is prepared to exchange his virtue for respectability and security: “Nay … the Sultan’s self shan’t carry me, / Unless his highness promises to marry me” (DJ, V. 84). Juan’s rationalising recalls Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s (whom Byron references several times in the poem) tale of a Spanish gentlewoman who decided to marry her kidnapper/rapist, and which highlights the verbal dexterity and agency of the enslaved woman (Montagu 1: 408-409). Ballaster finds in this tale a more radical transformation of the Orientalist premise.
Here, the familiar narrative of a Christian/gentile chastity threatened by oriental lust serves as a vehicle to expound a form of rationalism and a hard-headed calculation of ways in which women may maximize their opportunities under oppression.
Such allusions to the conventions of harem tales foregrounds the function of erotic fantasy in the construction of the narrative, but also serves as a reminder of Juan’s ability to manipulate these fantasies. Throughout this episode Juan shows himself to be malleable both in terms of his physicality and his function in the plot: he can be read as a dashing adventurer, whose inviolable heroic position is maintained by his class, nationality, gender and race; or as a virtuous beauty, who suffers ravishment but ends by falling in love with the ravisher because of his impressive character and/or lovemaking; or as a foreigner who is sold into slavery and subjected to sexual abuse.  By presenting its hero as able to function within a number of eroticised positionalities, the poem sets up an economy of desire where bodies are rendered desirable through referential gender-play, and thus envisions a world where sexuality is not by default based on genital object choice.
During his encounter with the sultana Gulbeyaz, the site of contested meanings moves from Juan’s body to his performance. This scenario allows him to adopt a number of heroic (and heroinic) roles and to display his capacity to function simultaneously within a variety of gendered paradigms. The most rewarding of these seems to be that of an oppressed heroine.
Then rising haughtily he glanced around
And looking coldly in her face, he cried,
‘The prison’d eagle will not pair, nor I
Serve a sultana’s sensual phantasy.
‘Thou ask’st if I can love? be this the proof
How much I have loved – that I love not thee!
In this vile garb, the distaff, web, and woof,
Were fitter for me: Love is for the free!
I am not dazzled by this splendid roof.
Whate’er thy power, and great it seems to be,
Heads bow, knees bend, eyes watch around a throne,
And hands obey – our hearts are still our own.’
DJ, V. 126-127
Juan’s insistence on not being swayed by wealth or power aligns him with such morally righteous heroines as Clarissa Harlowe and Fanny Hill, thus situating him in the traditions of sentimental and pornographic literature and inscribing him with narrative centrality and social authority in both. His association of love with freedom is, as Ruth Bernard Yeazell notes, a verbal echo of the Byronic slavewoman (Yeazell 147). All three forms of heroinism locate their moment of narrative triumph (and dramatic tension) in the separation of heart and body, since a crucial part of the heroine’s narrative is to declare that regardless of what depravities are acted upon their person, their “hearts are still [their] own.” These strategies, however, also include the possibility of a heroine who can be seduced and, who, at the first touch of the wicked ravisher, will succumb in a swooning fit of pleasure.  Juan’s attempt to liberate himself employs a form of rhetoric that is heavily invested in conventions of harem fantasy. The “sentimental depiction of the conquest of the East,” which Tim Fulford argues was the crucial tenet of Byron’s Eastern tales, is here employed against the European male – even Juan’s resistance to sexual slavery can only be couched in sentimental terms, as the successful production of a harem fantasy depends on incorporating all problematic notions into the seduction plot (Fulford 36).
Gulbeyaz’s “Christian, canst thou love?” (V.116) sustains this rhetorical mode, which collapses any distinction between “love” and coerced sexual performance. For Gulbeyaz, there is no concept of love outside enforced sexual acts and her request not only confirms the primacy of discourse predicated on the sentimentalisation of slavery, but also annuls any possibility of separating interiority from performance. There is no interiority; “Love” is a meaningful concept only in the context of sexual performance.
The conflict between Juan and Gulbeyaz’s understanding of the word “love” highlights their different uses of the rhetoric of sentimentality. By affirming the function of stylisation in conceptions of gender and sexuality, it also exposes the psychological consequences of slavery. Byron’s narrator reveals how Gulbeyaz has been socialised to see other people as slaves (DJ, V. 112), and slaves as human beings without interiority. Because they must display pleasure with their performance (DJ, V. 128), that performance must be pleasurable and originate in the desires of the performers rather than their owners. This premise corresponds to the masculinist construction of the harem fantasy – the idea that women are always willing because they have no subjectivity beyond their required performance.
Gulbeyaz’s attempt to adopt the pose of a ravisher is founded on her equation of coerced consent with love. That she is required to gain Juan’s consent (she does not possess a male body and therefore lacks the equipment to enforce her will on Juan) exposes the masculinist basis of the sentimentalism of coerced consent. Although she can find other ways to rape him (she can use objects to penetrate him, or order other slaves to do so), these options would require an acknowledgement of Juan’s lack of consent, and thus undermine her rhetoric.
The text oscillates between hints of the implications of sexual slavery and a sentimentalisation which glosses over them, but also shows their interdependence in the formation of harem fantasy. For Juan, the mere suggestion of such rhetorical strategies produces a shift in narrative attention and accords him agency and heroic charms.
Juan was moved: he had made up his mind
To be impaled, or quarter’d as a dish
For dogs, or to be slain with pangs refined,
Or thrown to lions, or made baits for fish,
And thus heroically stood resign’d,
Rather than sin – except to his own wish:
But all his great preparatives for dying
Dissolved like snow before a woman crying.
DJ, V. 141
This stanza demonstrates how Juan’s gothic imagination allows him to expand his heroic potential. Juan’s eagerness to play a martyr for love and his virtue, as long as his pains are “refined” and his resignation heroic, reformulates his pose into an amalgamation of literary stylisations. The conceptions of cruelty and oppression which he imagines are recognisable as signs of Christian martyrology (“quarter’d as a dish for dogs,” “thrown to lions”), and follows the tradition of white slave narratives in emphasising the distinction, religious, moral and racial, between himself and his captors (MacLean 191; Wheeler 138). His determination to be “impal’d” recalls John Donne’s homoerotic fantasies of submission to the penetration of a dominant God. By engaging in such imaginative work, Juan is able to produce a culturally privileged role for himself, but all his posturings deflate at the sight of Gulbeyaz’s tears. Unlike Juan’s earlier weeping, Gulbeyaz’s tears have the force of an institutionalised cultural construct; her attack by a strange and sudden surrender renders Juan’s resistance futile. If Gulbeyaz abandons her libertine role, he cannot sustain his pose of distressed virtue. The interdependence of gendered positionalities, however, provides him with another privileged role. In a display of what Graham calls Juan’s “good-natured and innately obliging” nature, Juan subscribes to a more chivalrous performance and offers his service to an unhappy lady, that is, positions himself as humouring the excessive amorousness of a gentlewoman and thus occupies both cultural and moral high ground (Graham 91). As a facet of the libertine attitude, this pose announces a shift towards a more conventional harem fantasy.
Don Juan’s entrance into the harem evokes a number of Orientalist tropes (a plethora of amorous women, a European man secreted among them), but this premise is gradually destabilised as the narrator draws attention to his own (and the reader’s) fantastical ogling and distinguishes it from the actual erotic play. Women in Orientalist discourse are, according to Edward Said, “the creatures of male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” (Said 208) Byron’s harem addresses these concepts by restructuring the context and asking: how are they available and why are they willing?
The answer to the first inquiry refutes any claims to masculine prowess which the penetration of a harem might have been expected to reinforce: the women are only available to the narrator’s voyeuristic gaze because Juan has been purchased as a pleasure slave, dressed up as a girl, and placed in a harem by the Sultana’s eunuch. Moreover, his access, and the narrator’s consequent lascivious gaze, is only to sleeping bodies, that is, bodies that are unaware of being observed and unable to respond. This suggests an anxiety about the possibility of the returned gaze, and is part of a wider cultural tradition. Yeazell posits that since European men were forbidden to look upon Muslim women they “responded by conceiving the harem as a place given over to obsessive exercise of the eye” (Yeazell 21). The function of the haremwomen as naturalised objects of the European male gaze is reiterated in Byron’s poem, but also presented as something constructed by the imaginative work of the viewer:
Many and beautiful lay those around,
Like flowers of different hue and clime and root,
In some exotic garden sometimes found,
With cost and care and warmth induced to shoot.
One with her auburn tresses lightly bound,
And fair brows gently drooping, as the fruit
Nods from the tree, was slumbering with soft breath
And lips apart, which showed the pearls beneath.
One with her flushed cheek laid on her white arm,
And raven ringlets gathered in dark crowd
Above her brow, lay dreaming soft and warm;
And smiling through her dream, as through a cloud
The Moon breaks, half unveiled each further charm,
As, slightly stirring in her snowy shroud,
Her beauties seized the unconscious hour of night
All bashfully to struggle into light.
DJ, VI. 65-66
The narrator’s choice of metaphors is indicative; by alluding to flowers, plants and fruit in his description of the women, he aligns the desiring gaze with a long tradition of blazons expressed through botanic similes. This tradition has connotations of pornographic naturalism, but also emphasises the women’s physical and mental fragility, their need for “cost and care and warmth,” as a justification of their use as luxury items. The focus on specific body parts not only rehearses the tradition of fragmenting the female body into stylistically significant attributes but also creates a romanticised reading of “flushed cheek[s]” and “raven ringlets” that repeats the convention of the male gaze as a response to a display of female desire. This reformulation of the bodies of slavewomen into an eroticised display is developed further by the connection with visual art: One lady is depicted as “marble, statue-like and still” who “Lay in a breathless, hushed, and stony sleep; / White, cold and pure” (DJ, VI. 68). Unveiled body parts are eroticised by their unveiling and by their arrangement as unconscious spectacle, and the close narrative attention creates an effect of intimacy. By establishing a voyeuristic position with connotations of stalking, this problematises the reader’s invited participation.
The implied reader of Don Juan is denoted as male and specifically as a “gentleman.” Moyra Haslett argues that the poem is “written from a specifically masculine perspective and addressed conspiratorially to masculine intimates” (Haslett 81). Such a hierarchy of viewer and object produces a gendering of desire – only masculine desire is coded as intelligible and although female readers may eavesdrop, as Haslett suggests, they cannot participate in the text’s formulation of desiring subjectivities (Haslett 191). Desire in this episode is narrated along a paradigm of cultural conceptions that are shared between men only (that is, cultured, European gentlemen), with references to a libertine tradition that is by default inaccessible for women. However, as this male gaze is constructed as selectively blind (the fragmentation of the desirable body), defined by impotence (the women are available only visually and voyeuristically) and requiring an excessive stylisation of female bodies in order to form a desirable spectacle, it is also denoted as limited and ultimately irrelevant in the harem’s exchange of desire.
The willingness of oriental women is resolved in Don Juan by foregrounding the harem as a site where female same-sex desire is not only prevalent but prevails over other desires. The narrator describes a place where “a thousand bosoms [are] / Beating for love as the caged birds for air” (DJ, VI. 26) and “Where all the passions have, alas! but one vent” (DJ, VI. 32). The coy suggestiveness of “And what is that? Devotion, doubtless – how / Could you ask such a question?” (DJ, VI. 33) indicates both the expected answer and the referential function of Orientalist fantasy in producing this reaction. Jane Stabler confirms that “as Byron never tired of pointing out, his readers had to construct the innuendoes to which they took exception” (Stabler 120). The discrepancies between these innuendoes and the more explicit statements produce a widening field of signification and of erotic possibilities. Charles Donelan may interpret Juan’s popularity as a sign of his overwhelming masculinity which somehow “naturally” attracts the attention of the haremwomen and Wolfson may see it as confirmation of Juan’s conquest of drag as well as of the east – both readings which maintain a heteronormative paradigm of desire that privileges masculinity – but such paradigms and privileges, while certainly possible in Byron’s harem, are not presented as dominant signifiers (Donelan 95; Wolfson 196).
The reference to “sentimental friendship” reconfigures the fantasy of harem lesbianism into an emphasis on female desire, women’s feelings, and the valorisation of relationships which exclude men. Tim Hitchcock states that “the rise of ‘romantic friendship’ had provided an alternative language in which to describe female relationships” where, in accordance with the new definitions of female sexuality as passive rather than lustful, “lesbian relationships came to take on many of the characteristics increasingly imputed to women in general: sensitivity, emotional empathy and a deeply hidden sexuality” (Hitchcock 87; 91). When Byron’s narrator presents his odalisques as feeling for Don Juan “A sentimental friendship through and through, / Extremely pure” (DJ, VI. 39), he aligns them with heroines of sensibility, that is, with women whose capacity for emotive devotion accords them narrative significance. Juan is included in this exchange of desire for sentiment because he, too, corresponds to an ideal of heroinic sensibility, being pretty, shy, and with experience of a distressing event that is shared by the community. Furthermore, this interpretation of Juan creates a world where women’s imaginative work produces desire, and situates it as a correction of the Orientalist convention which imagines lesbian practices in the harem (Yeazell 119). The hints evoked by the narrator highlight the expected assumptions about harem women. Kader Konuk has argued that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in her letters anticipates accusations of wantonness and is eager to discredit such rumours, but while Byron’s text similarly expects a sexually charged reading, his strategy, unlike Montagu’s emphatic denial, subverts these conventions by replacing them with a narrative of desire which excludes the male viewer and renders male sexuality irrelevant (Konuk 395).
These complex negotiations between desiring perspectives culminate in the characterisation of Dudù. Described by references to literary and visual arts, Dudù’s presentation emphasises her function as an object of the gaze who, crucially, interpellates a specific kind of implied reader/viewer; one who appreciates Roman mythology, Shakespearean drama, and Greek sculpture as well as beautiful women. She is a “kind of sleepy Venus,” and “fit to ‘murder sleep’ in those / Who gazed upon her cheek’s transcendent hue, / Her Attic forehead, and her Phidian nose” (DJ, VI. 42). Such allusions to Greek sculpture align her with ideal bodily beauty, but also draw attention to the imaginative work that produces her desirability. A reference to ancient Greek art elevates the reader’s erotic fantasy as well as shows how Dudù’s body is made intelligible by being reformulated into a stylised form. Narrating an oriental woman as desirable by evoking Greek civilization exposes the cultural appropriation inherent in the production of the cultured male gaze. Dudù, unlike Lolah and Katinka, is not introduced by her nationality or hair/skin colour, but by references to neo-classical ideals and a gentleman’s expected enjoyment of them.
The conventional passivity of the oriental woman finds new layers in Dudù. She is “a soft Landscape of mild Earth, / Where all was harmony and calm and quiet” (DJ, VI. 53). Dudù seduces by displaying a surface that is pleasing, serene, and silent. She communicates without aggression, or even words, which the narrator reads as a fundamental aspect of her charm and her eroticisation is defined by the absence of anything that might detract from the ideal fantasy. Donelan argues that
Dudù attains to the sublime in so far as she remains silent, subjugated certainly, both by the Sultan and by the fantasist, yet curiously also deliberate in her silence, intending her distance from language, exploiting quietness as tact so that it becomes a positive quality working to effect her aims.
“Silence” becomes an overloaded concept – we are told that her “talents were of the more silent class” (DJ, VI. 49), but even as the narrator gestures towards a plethora of sexual acts and skills, we are also shown how Dudù manipulates her lack of speech to her advantage with the Mother of the Maids and uses it as an active response. By maintaining the façade of passivity whilst playing her own game, Dudù undermines the masculine gaze placed upon her and destabilises the production of desire in the text.
The narrator’s refusal to divulge the details of the night’s events contributes to this disruption. The reader’s perspective on Dudù’s scream, her consequent explanation of her nightmare and the blushing embrace with Juan is pointedly external, and salacious details have been replaced with hints which, as Stabler argues, “incites the reader, Othello-like, to supply those very details” (113). Because we are familiar with the conventions of the Don Juan narrative, we are invited to imagine certain activities taking place, but this reliance on readerly imagination serves also to reconfigure the production of erotic fantasy. The suppositions on which the fantasy is based are disrupted even as the narrator invites us to make further assumptions; harem women are available, but only visually and whilst sleeping and unaware of the voyeuristic gaze; harem women are amorous, but only for each other; Dudù is mild and silent, but her silence is deliberate and meaningful; something happened under the covers, but we are not going to see it.
Dudù’s manipulative performance and her agency in keeping her bedmate reconstitutes her as a character with narrative power as well as highlights the discrepancy between her actuality and our expected conventional reading of her. While Dudù’s performance retains the surface meaning of her position as a slavewoman, her passivity loses its significance as the mark of her objectification. Moreover, as her subterfuge succeeds and they retire to bed, our observation of their activities comes to an end. The reader is not given access to later action, nor instructions to imagine it. This annuls the privileged position of the reader within the exchange of desire and Dudù becomes the sign of our exclusion as she disproves the meaning granted to her by the implied male reader. The masculinist premise of the slavegirl fantasy is shown to consist of a voyeuristic pose that is easily refuted. As Jerome McGann argues,
The harem episode is a theatrical display of a certain kind of “sex in the head” …. And it is an onanism of poetry precisely because its eroticism, founded in the sentimentalist project, here executes that project in a space of solitude. The harem episode is an image, in short, not of fulfilled but of frustrated desire. Its pretence to be something else – its pretence to display an ultimately fulfilled eroticism – is an essential feature of its deepest truth.
The exclusion of the implied male reader also includes a refutation of its heterosexist premise. Franklin suggests that the harem is a site of threatening femaleness for a Don Juan: “The greatest challenge for Juan lies in confronting the sexual self-sufficiency of this female institution” (Franklin, “Juan’s Sea Changes” 82). She goes on to argue that Juan’s response to this challenge is to ‘reaffirm … his Western masculinity doubly, not only by deflowering a seventeen-year-old virgin, the property of the sultan, but by tricking and converting her to heterosexuality at the same time” (Franklin, “Juan’s Sea Changes” 82). The poem, however, does not go quite so far. We are not told what action from Juan’s part (or whether the action is his or hers) causes Dudù to scream, nor are we told how, precisely, they choose to occupy the remainder of the night. A Don Juan set loose in a harem might be expected to concern himself only with sexual practices that will reinforce his position as the stereotypical locus of masculine power, i.e. vaginal penetrative intercourse, but since this Juan is narrated through a more flexible approach to gendered and sexualised positionalities, it is not necessary to interpret his sexual practices in a heteronormative mode, especially as the narrator has kindly left the matter open.
Dudù’s conversion to heterosexuality is also undetermined by the text, and the poem’s open-endedness includes the potential for Juan to be converted into non-heteronormative forms of sexuality. There are no indications that in Byron’s seraglio the phallus is the privileged signifier. Dudù’s eagerness to initiate Juanna into the mysteries of sentimental friendship implies that the sexual practices she is familiar with are unlikely to be phallocentric and that she, along with the other haremwomen, finds Juan attractive because of his feminine appearance. One might even argue that it is Juan who is converted to lesbianism.
The harem episode in Don Juan displays a sustained tension between two contradictory and juxtaposed perspectives; one which evokes a plethora of unrestrained erotic possibilities and one which foregrounds the social and cultural privileges within the literary traditions evoked. Byron uses stylised notions of gender to produce eroticised scenarios; Juan’s sentimental masculinity at the slavemarket invites Gulbeyaz to take up a libertine pose, and the virtuous heroinism he adopts with his slavewoman disguise situates him within a heteronormative harem romance as well as a homoerotic fantasy. By drawing attention to the “gendering” of the characters (the Byronic mode of Juan’s heroism), the intertextual formation of their plot-positions (Juan’s entrance to the harem as both picaresque hero and sentimental heroine), and the sexualisation of the narrative (our voyeuristic gaze on the harem women), the text widens the field for both gender identifications and erotic possibilities. This stylisation of bodies, positions, and subjectivities serves to undermine any idea of desire based on a simple binary of sexed bodies, but rather locates eroticism in the play between gendered roles and conventions. Moreover, by juxtaposing these stylised paradigms with “realistic” elements that are often incorporated into the narrative in ways that evoke pathos – the crowd of shivering slaves, the threat of rape in the harem, Gulbeyaz’s inability to conceive of a world outside sexual slavery – the text exposes the dark underbelly of the gendered and racialised ideologies it employs.
Dr Jennifer Sarha is a Romanticist who likes to dabble in the eighteenth century. Her research is concerned with questions of gender history and sexuality in narrative, and she likes to mix queer theory with literary historicism. She is currently employed by the University of Lincoln, UK.
A kidnapped English heroine describes the distinction made for ‘Captives who, by Appearance, seemed above the Vulgar’ in The Female Captive: A Narrative of Facts Which happened in Barbary, in the Year 1756 (London: C. Bathurst, 1769), I, 176.
Pederasty meaning here, as elsewhere in King, desire for males in subordinate positions rather than pedophilia.
Several eighteenth-century novels raise this possibility. See for example William Chetwood, Voyages, Travels, and Adventures of William Owen Gwin Vaughan Esq., with the History of his Brother Jonathan Vaughan, Six Years a Slave in Tunis (1736).
See for example, The Lustful Turk and Lovelace’s hopes in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa.
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