Narrative Archetype: The Don Juan


Johnny Depp in 'Don Juan' by Marina Cardoso
Johnny Depp in ‘Don Juan’ by Marina Cardoso

I’ve always been fascinated by the stories that are continually re-told.   These tales often involve odd-balls, who subvert the dominant social code in order to re-shape the universe according to their desires, for better or worse.

The Don Juan or womaniser, is one such selfish, idealistic creature. Of course, the D.J has a female counterpart, (the femme fatale), but she comes with her own mythology, so for now we’ll focus on him. Infidelity is so common, that only those who cheat or womanise spectacularly achieve folkloric anti-hero status. While the one-time interloper, who ruins a relationship often elicits scorn and disapproval, the man who beds and deceives multiple women, often simultaneously, arouses a host of more complex emotions.

A few months ago, when I sat down to dinner with a group of old work colleagues, my friend Amy suddenly piped up ‘have I got a shit-bag story for you!’ The story concerned Amy’s friend, (let’s call her Lucy) and a love-interest  (James) who protested that she was special to him, but wouldn’t commit to being her boyfriend, because, as she later found out, he was bedding a different girl every night and asking his flatmates to clean away the residue from the previous night’s shenanigans before he brought his next conquest home. As Amy’s story unfolded, Lucy wasn’t the protagonist anymore, James was. Our sympathy for the victim swiftly gave way to marvelling at  James’s  grotesque work of deception. How had he been able to get away with this priapic bachelor’s dream and seem disingenuous enough to retain Lucy’s trust? Had she known on some level? Who  were these flatmates who compliantly spruced up James’s make-shift brothel, and then finally summoned Lucy to reveal all in a final U-turn? But most importantly, why were we so morbidly hooked on this anti-hero’s story?

DJ's conquest enjoying a pensive moment. Film still from  'Don Juan', 1926
DJ’s conquest enjoying a pensive moment. Film still from ‘Don Juan’, 1926

On the one hand, the answer was pretty obvious. This story, with its clearly-defined victim and anti-hero provided a bonding opportunity because we were in unanimous agreement that James had acted unfairly and that Lucy, apart from being  naïve, was in the right. All of us had at one point dated men who  resembled James, and hearing Amy’s story reinforced our satisfaction that we had survived and completed the experience. For many of us, dating and relinquishing a Don Juan is a rite of passage, and the narrative formula of a woman wronged, ( in Lucy’s case on a magnificent level) and a cheat discovered, is strangely appealing.

You would think that there is nothing as strengthening for the bonds of sisterhood than a Don Juan story. On one occasion, girls who entered an elite student residence were warned of one womanising resident’s ways: this gentleman did not only bed women by the twelve-dozen but openly judged whether  they were ‘fuckable’ by criteria such as breast tissue (his knowledge of the mammary gland rivalled specialists) and from his sample of two, dismissed Canadians as bad in bed. You get the picture, this resident openly regarded women as sex objects, a view that did not sit easily with most residents’ feminism. There was a silent agreement that consorting with him was absolutely verboten for any self-respecting woman. Still, despite, or maybe because of these restrictions, one new Spanish resident couldn’t resist him. However, afraid of her ‘sisters” scorn, she begged him not to tell anyone that they had slept together. When I heard this story, the dress historian in me couldn’t help but wonder if she wore a disguise on her way to meet him, maybe a Little Red Riding hood style cape – something that provides cover, but projects ingenuity…

batescape cape with domed buttons designed by John Bates for Jean Varon 1960s

I think that our Spanish heroine succumbed to (or maybe even pursued) the blacklisted seducer not only to satisfy her libido, but to actually feel part of the community she had just joined. Not content to obediently look in from the outside, she wanted her share in the adventure; perhaps by being with this man, she could vicariously imbue a measure of his devil-may-care attitude and like him, periodically live on a whim regardless of her principles and others’ disapproval. I imagine that though the Spanish girl initially lost some respect amongst the community, eventually, she was welcomed back , because ironically you have to periodically leave the sisterhood to become a fully fledged member. Our fascination with Don Juan figures and the mythology that surrounds them, stems from a need to occasionally depart from the ‘happily ever after stories’ with their well-suited couples and just rewards, and contemplate behaviour that is as enthralling and capricious as life itself.