GOETHE’S FAUST WITH MEPHISTOPHOLEAN NOTES CLIFFED
An inquisitive student eye angled towards the objective of the greater hierarchical meaning and an empirical summary analysis of the great dramatic poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Faust. Why? just because…and also because the library only lets a studious individual (not I) keep the Cliff’s notes of this book out for a week, so instead of it going overdue and overdue we’ll just post it here for you.
Faust, Goethe’s great dramatic poem in two parts, is his crowning work. Even though it is based on the medieval legend of a man who sold his soul to the devil, it actually treats modern man’s sense of alienation and his need to come to terms with the world in which he lives.
This theme has always been an important one in western literature, but it has gained in urgency during our own century. Each generation must explore anew the problems of human estrangement and fulfillment — the best way to begin such a search is to see what the past has to offer. Goethe’s vision may not provide the perfect or the only answer, but it has been a source of inspiration to many readers for more than a hundred years and reflects the thoughts and experiences of one of the 19th century’s most active and gifted minds.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the rare giants of world literature. Throughout a long and full life he demonstrated his prolific genius in many different areas. Goethe composed literary works and established artistic principles that had a profound influence on his contemporaries throughout Europe, and which are still looked to as models. The position he holds in the development of German literature and thought is like that which Shakespeare has in the English-speaking countries.
Goethe was born August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, to a wealthy, middle-class family. He was educated at home by his father and tutors until 1765, when he was sent to Leipzig to study law, his father’s profession. Goethe had shown his literary talent even as a child. While at Leipzig he began to write brilliant lyric poetry and completed his first two full-length plays, although these were not produced until some years later.
After a serious illness and an extended convalescence at home, Goethe resumed his legal studies at Strasbourg and completed the course in 1771. He continued his literary activities there and became acquainted with several of the younger German poets and critics.
Following his graduation, Goethe returned to Frankfurt. His mind was filled with many exciting ideas, and he devoted himself to philosophical studies, mainly of Spinoza, and literature. It was here that he wrote his first important metrical drama, Gotz von Berlichingen (1772), and then the superb short novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). These aroused widespread interest and admiration, and established Goethe’s place as an important literary artist and leader of the “Romantic Revolt” in Germany. During this period he also began work on the earliest version of Faust, Part One (now known to scholars as the Urfaust).
In 1775 Goethe was invited by the young Duke Karl August of Weimar to accept a position at his court. In the next ten years Goethe held several responsible administrative and advisory posts in the government there, serving at various times as privy counselor, and as head of the Ministries of Finance, Agriculture, and Mines. He showed much skill in the problems of government administration, and his practical knowledge and good sense were soon respected, even by those who had originally resented his presence at court. Goethe and the Duke became good friends, but the poet always maintained his independence of thought and action, and did not allow his sovereign to dominate him.
Karl August was an enlightened ruler who gathered many talented writers and artists at his court. The atmosphere at Weimar was stimulating, but Goethe was a conscientious public servant and gave most of his energy to official business. The security and responsibility of his position at court was an asset to him in solving some of his personal problems, but he eventually found that it interfered too much with his literary work. During this period he was often unable to complete manuscripts he had begun or to bring to maturity many pressing ideas. Finally in 1786 he left Weimar on a two year trip to Italy in order to come to terms with himself and his art.
On his return to Germany Goethe lived in a state of semi-retirement and concentrated on his studies and writing. His friendship with the Duke continued and he kept his affiliation with the Weimar court, but aside from the directorship of the Wiemar State Theatre and other cultural matters, Goethe was no longer involved in public matters. Despite this the Duke went on paying all the emoluments to which Goethe had formerly been entitled, thus giving him the material security his work required.
Goethe continued to cultivate his wide interests. His scientific studies included original researches in botany, anatomy, geology, and optics. He also maintained an active interest in current political and social developments, and accompanied the Duke on a military campaign against the French in 1792. Later on he wrote commentaries on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1806 Goethe married the woman who had been his mistress for many years, and by whom he had a son in 1789. His material and domestic stability, as well as an intimate friendship with the poet Schiller, helped Goethe to maintain his emotional serenity and artistic dedication. As the years passed he became acquainted with many of the most prominent men of his time and was highly regarded by all. Napoleon Bonaparte was among his most famous admirers, and remarked when they first met, “Vous êtes un homme,” (You are a man).
The complete edition of Goethe’s vast and uneven literary production comprises 143 volumes. This diverse collection contains Faust, Part One (completed 1808), Faust, Part Two (completed 1832), and many other dramatic works, including Torquato-Tasso (1780), Iphigenia in Tauris (1787), Egmont (1788), and Pandora (1810). There are also the novels, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796), The Elective Affinities (1809), and Wilhelm Meister’s Journeys (1829); and such varied prose works as The Italian Journey (1817), The Campaign in France and The Siege of Mainz (1821); scientific papers like The Theory of Colors (1810); his autobiography Poetry and Truth (1811-1833), and a collection of reminiscences and literary criticism, Conversations with Eckerman (posthumously, 1837). Goethe’s many volumes of poetry include Reynard the Fox (1794), Roman Elegies (1795), Hermann and Dorothea (1798), West-Eastern Divan (1819), and Xenien (1797), in collaboration with Schiller). He also found time to translate many foreign works into German and participated in the editing and publication of several literary reviews. In addition, numerous sizeable fragments of works which he never completed still survive.
By the time of his death, Goethe had attained a position of unprecedented esteem in the literary and intellectual circles. His works and opinions made a deep impression on most of the writers and poets of the early 19th century. His great work, Faust, is still deemed the most important masterpiece of German literature.
Because of the breadth of his thought, his comprehension of human nature and optimistic faith in the human spirit, and his intuitive grasp of universal truths, Goethe is regarded by many as the outstanding poet of the modern world. He died March 22, 1832, but his work lives in its meaning and value for modern day readers.
THE FAUST LEGEND IN EUROPEAN THOUGHT
The Faust legend first flourished in medieval Europe and is thought to have its earliest roots in the New Testament story of the magician Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24). During the superstitious Middle Ages, the story of the man who sold his soul to the devil to procure supernatural powers captured the popular imagination and spread rapidly. At some point the name of Faust was definitely attached to this figure. A cycle of legends, including some from ancient and medieval sources that were originally told about other magicians, began to collect around him. One of the most widely-read magic texts of the period was attributed to Faust and many others referred to him as an authority.
A famous German sage and adventurer born in 1480 was thought by many of his contemporaries to be a magician and probably did practice some sort of black magic. Few details of his life are certain, but it is known that he capitalized on the situation by calling himself “Faust the Younger,” thus acquiring the occult reputation of the legendary character.
After a sensational career, this Faust died during a mysterious demonstration of flying which he put on for a royal audience in 1525. It was generally believed that he had been carried away by the devil. One of the scenes of Goethe’s tragedy is set in Auerbach’s Cellar in Leipzig, the city of this fatal exhibition, because the walls of the old tavern were decorated with representations of Faust’s exploits, and the place was traditionally connected with him.
A biography of Faust, the Historia von D. Johann Fausten, based upon the shadowy life of Faust the Younger, but including many of the fanciful legendary stories, was published in Frankfurt in 1587. That same year it was translated into English as The Historie of the damnable life and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus. In both these popular editions of the “Faust-Book,” the famed magician’s deeds and pact with the devil are recounted, along with much pious moralizing about his sinfulness and final damnation. It was in this version that the legend took on a permanent form.
When the Renaissance came to northern Europe, Faust was made into a symbol of free thought, anti-clericalism, and opposition to Church dogma. The first important literary treatment of the legend was that of the English dramatist, Christopher Marlowe.
Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1588, now usually referred to as Doctor Faustus) was the forerunner of all later English tragedies and had a revolutionary effect on the development of dramatic art. It is still renowned for its exciting theatricality, its beautiful blank verse, and its moving portrayal of a human soul in despair because he cannot accept God and so is condemned to damnation.
Marlowe used the English translation of the 1587 Faust-Book as his main source, but transformed the legendary magician into a figure of tragic stature and made his story a powerful expression of the main issues of Elizabethan thought. As in the earlier versions, Marlowe’s Faustus signs a pact with the devil which consigns his soul to hell in return for 24 years of unlimited power and pleasure. Up to the moment of his death, however, this Faustus is free to resist his seduction by the forces of evil, despite having signed the pact. In the final scenes Faustus becomes terrified by the thought of his impending damnation and desperately wants to save himself, but his faith in God’s merciful love is not strong enough and he cannot repent. After a painful struggle with himself, Faustus is carried off by the devil at the end of the play.
In addition to the difference in the fate of the protagonist, Marlowe’s drama varies from Goethe’s in other significant ways. At the outset Faustus does not invoke the devil because of moral or philosophical alienation, as does Faust, but only from a crass desire for power, and in his adventures afterward there is little effort made to explore the many kinds of human experience and ways to personal fulfillment that are examined in Goethe’s poem. Both characters are torn by conflicts within their own souls, but Faustus is trying to believe in God, while Faust seeks a way to believe in himself. Finally, the theology and morality of Marlowe’s play is that of traditional Christianity. In Faust Goethe tends to use orthodox religion only as a source of imagery. He tells his story in the context of an abstract pantheistic religious system and a fluid moral code that gives precedence to motives and circumstances rather than deeds as such.
Marlowe’s rendition of the legend was popular in England and Germany until the mid-17th century, but eventually the Faust story lost much of its appeal. The legend was kept alive in the folk tradition of Germany, though, and was the subject of pantomimes and marionette shows for many years.
The close of the 18th century in Germany was a time very much like the Renaissance. Before long the old Faust story with its unique approach to the period’s problems was remembered. The German dramatist Lessing (1729-1781) wrote a play based on the legend, but the manuscript was lost many generations ago and its contents are hardly known.
Goethe’s great tragedy struck a responsive chord throughout Europe and reinforced the new interest in the Faust story. Since his time it has stimulated many creative thinkers and has been the central theme of notable works in all fields of expression. In art, for instance, the Faust legend has provided fruitful subjects for such painters as Ferdinand Delacroix (1798-1863). Musical works based on the Faust story include Hector Berlioz’s cantata, The Damnation of Faust (1846), Charles Gounod’s opera, Faust (1859), Arrigo Boito’s opera, Mefistofele (1868), and the Faust Symphony (1857) of Franz Lizt. Even the newest of art forms, the motion picture, has made use of the ancient story, for a film version of Goethe’s Faust was produced in Germany in 1925. But most important, the legend has continued to be the subject of many poems, novels, and dramatic works. Among the more recent of these are the novel, Doctor Faustus (1948) by Thomas Mann and the poetic morality play, An Irish Faustus (1964) by Lawrence Durrell.
Each succeeding artist has recast the rich Faust legend in terms of the intellectual and emotional climate of his own time, and over the past few centuries this tale has matured into an archetypal myth of man’s aspirations and the dilemmas he faces in the effort to understand his place in the universe. Like all myths, the Faust story has much to teach the reader in all its forms, for the tale has retained its pertinence in the modern world. The history of the legend’s development and its expansion into broader moral and philosophical spheres is also an intellectual history of mankind.
Students who are interested in a more detailed study of the Faust theme should begin by consulting E. M. Butler’s Fortunes of Faust, available in any good library.
MAIN THEME OF FAUST
Despite the complicated plot and the numerous philosophical and literary digressions, a single main theme is evident throughout both parts of Faust and provides a unifying structure for the entire work. This is Faust’s dissatisfaction with the finite limits on man’s potential — the driving force that motivates him in all his adventures as he strives to find a way to pass beyond the boundaries set on human experience and perception.
The whole poem is colored by this sense of dissatisfaction and frustrated striving although its character changes as the story progresses. At the beginning Faust is in a state of negative dissatisfaction, in which he contemplates suicide and willingly accepts the terms of a pact that would terminate his life at its highest point of achievement. Further on in the poem Faust’s dissatisfaction becomes a positive dynamic force that leads him eventually to find a form of personal fulfillment, but his whole life is marked by disappointment since he does not achieve peace of mind before his death, except in an inspired vision of the future.
Closely related to this theme is another one that is first established in the conversation between the Lord and Mephistopheles in the “Prologue in Heaven,” and which is indirectly referred to at other points in the poem. The Lord acknowledges to Mephisto that it is natural for man to fall into error, but asserts that despite this he remains able to make moral distinctions. Thus the issue at stake in the wager made by God and the devil is whether Faust, as a representative of all mankind, will continue to be able to perceive the difference between good and evil, regardless of temptation and personal sinfulness. In the Lord’s view of human nature, it is admitted that man is imperfect and that his ability is limited, but it is also assumed that human imperfection is not absolute and that man’s potential for good can be cultivated. In this sense Faust’s dissatisfaction and striving may be interpreted as an unconscious manifestation of man’s potential to improve himself, even though Faust is frequently misguided by his obsessive efforts to rise beyond man’s natural sphere. It is because Faust does retain his sense of right and wrong, and because his eyes are constantly focused on a vision of something higher than himself, which is ultimately the cause of his frustrated despair, that he is finally rewarded by entrance into Heaven.
Considered in this philosophical context, Faust’s many adventures all communicate the message that to find happiness man must learn to conquer the lower elements of his nature and live constructively within the framework imposed on him. The concluding scenes of the drama and God’s statements in the “Prologue” illustrate that good may arise out of evil, but they do not advocate that evil should be sought after as a means for finding the good. The moral doctrine that Goethe puts forward in Faust teaches that the essential feature of all existence and the law that governs the universe is one of untiring, purposeful, and positive effort, and that man can find his place in life only through striving to participate in this vast cosmic movement, although of necessity in terms appropriate to his human capabilities.
Faust’s life has its tragic aspects, for his career is marked by a long series of crimes and frustrated illusions and he dies without ever having found complete personal satisfaction, but one recent critic has called Goethe’s work “a poem of supreme optimism.” This is because the story has a positive and confident conclusion which holds out the inspiring hope that men can find personal gratification in fruitful activity and acceptance of the laws that govern the universe. Faust’s long, hard path to Salvation is not intended as an example for others to follow. His experience reveals the pitfalls and false turns that are dangers along the road and is meant to encourage readers in finding their own way to harmony with the cosmic order. The hymn of the Mystical Chorus in the final scene of the drama crystallizes this theme that human fulfillment is the result of communion with the spirit of creativity and action that permeates all life when it says, “Eternal Womanhood/Leads us on high.”
BRIEF OUTLINE OF PLAY
Heinrich Faust, a learned scholar, feels that none of his many achievements has provided him with satisfaction or a sense of fulfillment. He yearns to gain knowledge of absolute truth and the meaning of existence. Faust turns to magic in the hope of finding a solution and finally makes a pact with the devil. He agrees to sell his soul if the devil can give him one moment of experience which is so rewarding that his sense of alienation disappears and he calls upon that moment to stay as it is forever.
In Part One of the poem, Faust attempts, with the devil’s help, to find happiness through emotional involvement. His tragic love affair with Gretchen ends in her death, but Faust is much chastened by this experience. In Part Two he tries to satisfy his craving through temporal accomplishments and exposure to all that the world can offer in terms of ideas and externalized gratifications. He attains an important position at the Imperial Court, learns much from the figures of classical antiquity, woos Helen of Troy, wins great victories, and is renowned for his public works, but none of these things gives him lasting peace of mind.
Faust dies bitter and disillusioned. He is finally admitted to heaven by God’s grace, in reward for his endless striving after knowledge of goodness and truth, and his courageous resolution to believe in the existence of something higher than himself.
Summaries and Commentaries: Part I
In this short poem preceding the main action of the tragedy, Goethe describes the thoughts that run through his mind as he sits in his study, preparing to work on the manuscript of Faust after a lapse of many years. He seems to see vague forms and shadows floating in the air before his eyes, ghosts that have haunted him all his life, but now they press upon his consciousness with more intensity than ever before. As these forms become charged with greater emotional significance for him, the world of reality in which Goethe lives seems to fall back into distant recesses of his mind.
These forms represent the long gone friends and loved ones of Goethe’s youth, as well as the ideas he hopes to voice in Faust.
A mood of sad but firm resolution comes over him as he determines to give new life to these shadows — ideas he cannot escape, which have a sort of independent existence. Despite the melancholy tone of his words, Goethe communicates a feeling of firmness and strength that will be maintained throughout the poem.
Prelude in the Theatre
A discussion takes place on the stage of a theatre between a director, a poet, and a clown. They argue about what constitutes a good play. Three points of view are presented. The director is interested in those things which make the play a commercial success: action and novelty. The poet is concerned with the artistry and ideas that make the play’s meaning universal and give it value for posterity. The clown asserts that these views are not contradictory. He points out that the needs of art and the needs of the moment can be reconciled, for that which attracts the general public need not be worthless. The artist can maintain his integrity and still be successful if he stops feeling superior and develops a proper appreciation for the values of everyday life.
Finally the director ends the discussion, reminding the others that there is still much work to be done if they are to put on any play at all. He describes the techniques of producing a play and promises the audience that the whole universe will be presented on his stage — beginning with Heaven and proceeding through the world to Hell.
At first glance this prelude seems only indirectly connected to the tragedy itself, but Goethe uses it to sketch in commonplace terms some of the essential themes that will be treated in Faust. The poet represents the idealist who strives to comprehend eternal values, the clown is the realist who is concerned with the here and now, but both personify important principles of life. The director of the theatre is like the god of a universe, of the mind (conscience) of a single individual. He must blend these disparate elements to create a harmonious world or well integrated personality. The problems he faces on his stage foreshadow those which Faust will struggle with.
In making this analogy between the universe and the individual soul, Goethe draws upon the medieval philosophical conception of the microcosm and the macrocosm. The individual and the cosmos are related to each other as the inner “small world” and the outer “great world,” vastly different in size and scope, but having the same basic essence and responding to the same eternal laws. This is also the relationship between the two parts of Faust.
On a more topical level, the director’s final speech is an analysis of the problems of the playwright, and demonstrates Goethe’s thorough knowledge of stagecraft, derived from many years as a dramatist and director of the State Theatre at Weimar.
Prologue in Heaven
The Lord and all the hosts of heaven are assembled. The three archangels, Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael, individually step forward and recite eloquent praises of the beauty and perfection of the universe and the omnipotence of God. Then Mephistopheles (also called Mephisto, the devil) enters. He cannot imitate the songs of the others, he says, for he lacks their skill. Furthermore, he has seen that the possession of reason and intelligence has made mankind unhappy, and this troubles him.
The Lord counters this criticism of humanity by citing the example of Faust, a man who is not debased by reason and who will ultimately be guided by it to a knowledge of the truth. God and Mephisto differ in evaluating Faust’s potential. The devil censures Faust’s present indecisive confusion, but the Lord excuses it by saying, “Men make mistakes as long as they strive.” He asserts that Faust in the end will attain understanding and peace of mind.
The Lord and Mephisto make a wager to settle this dispute. As long as Faust lives, the devil may attempt to influence and conquer him, but if Mephisto’s judgment of Faust is shown to be wrong, he will have to admit that “A good man with his groping intuitions! Still knows the path that is true and fit.” Mephistopheles and the Lord are both confident of winning and the bargain is sealed. The heavens close, and the Lord and the archangels disappear.
The songs of the three archangels express Goethe’s belief that the universe is a dynamic continuum where action is the law that dominates Nature and man. This doctrine will be illustrated in the story of Faust. In this system the only absolute sin is nonaction; man, despite many errors of judgment or wrong turns can find the path of righteousness, but only if he continues striving. He eventually will succeed if he keeps up the struggle because striving is itself a moral act and his intuitive yearnings all point toward a good end.
Mephisto represents the spirit of negativistic cynicism, of endless denial. He can be a force for good or evil — inducing a man to surrender to his lowest instincts and give up the quest, or driving him by persistent prodding and frustration to find the fulfillment of his ideals, i.e. salvation. The Lord is the paragon of perfection toward which men strive. He is unmoved by Mephisto’s threats to Faust because He knows that man has an innate will for good, and that errors or backsliding are natural incidents in the human progression toward righteousness.
The conversation and bargain between God and Mephistopheles are reminiscent of a similar scene at the opening of the Book of Job. This Biblical connection is emphasized by Goethe’s use of an archaic German style in this section. It creates an exalted and sacred background for the worldly tribulations of Faust and invites the reader to compare Goethe’s conception of the universe, where man is free to err and strive, with that of Job, where he must blindly accept his fate.
The setting of the prologue to the poem in Heaven implies that the life and fate of Faust are matters of universal significance, which will clarify the relationship of God and man, good and evil, existence and nonexistence. Aside from this important purpose, the prologue presents another crucial question, which is symbolically expressed in Mephisto’s wager — whether the Lord has been competent as a Creator and whether his creation, the world and its inhabitants, is worthy of survival.
Night – Faust’s Study (i)
In a narrow, vaulted Gothic chamber Dr. Heinrich Faust sits at his desk, surrounded by a clutter of books and scientific instruments. It is Easter Eve.
Now fifty years old, Faust is depressed and frustrated. He has mastered all the important academic disciplines — Philosophy, Medicine, Law and Theology — has fearlessly inquired into everything that interested him, and is not afraid of the devil or Hell, but he is unsatisfied and believes himself trapped by the limitations of human understanding. Moreover, he feels that his achievements have been of no use to mankind and have brought him no earthly rewards. Now he plans to turn to magic in the hope of at last attaining ultimate knowledge.
Faust studies the esoteric symbols in an old magic book and meditates on their meaning, then invokes the Earth-Spirit. Accompanied by various spiritual phenomena, the Spirit of Earthly Reality appears, but it rebukes Faust, denies their kinship, and vanishes again.
This incident indicates that man’s higher nature makes it impossible for him to be accepted into the gross sphere of complete earthliness, of abstract and formless being. Whatever his wishes, a human being cannot separate existence and consciousness.
Faust begins to despair of ever satisfying his aspirations when Wagner, his famulus or assistant, enters the room and interrupts him. In the conversation which follows both men speak at cross-purposes. Faust is critical of Wagner’s conventional attitudes and Wagner is unable to understand Faust’s unhappy alienation.
The dull, unimaginative but honest Wagner is a parody of bourgeois pedantry. His characterization emphasizes the differences between the search after knowledge for its own sake or for worldly rewards and the search for true understanding.
After Wagner departs, Faust returns to bitter thoughts about human impotence. The sight of a skull makes him think of suicide as the solution to his problems. He is about to drink a glass of poison when the pealing of church bells and the melodious singing of a choir remind him of the Easter message of resurrection and eternal life. Faust does not literally believe in these concepts, but they bring back memories of his childhood religious faith and their symbolic meaning restores his self-confidence.
The Easter message that inspires Faust is the hope of life’s rebirth from corruption and death. It predicts the course that Faust will follow — first sinking lower and lower into the depths of personal degradation, then rising to the highest level of human fulfillment and salvation.
Outside the City Gate
It is Easter Sunday afternoon. The townspeople are all strolling into the countryside to welcome the advent of Spring. Their mood is gay and youthful. It is as if they are celebrating the world’s resurrection from winter, Faust remarks to Wagner, for the two scholars have joined the throng on this beautiful day.
Faust eagerly attunes himself to the holiday atmosphere and shares the peoples’ happiness, but Wagner is too stiff and formal to enjoy himself. They stand watching while a group of youngsters sing and dance. Faust says:
Here is the plain man’s real heaven — Great and small in a riot of fun;
Here I’m a man — and dare be one.
A peasant comes by and respectfully praises Faust’s skill as a physician. This reminds Faust of his own feelings of futility. He tells Wagner that he is torn between two currents in his soul; one is tied to the pleasures of the world, but the other reaches out to the stars. Faust says he would forego all earthly joys if he could satisfy his lofty, spiritual desires. Wagner is frightened by Faust’s talk of spirits and warns him against such thoughts.
The men return to town. On the way they notice a mysterious black poodle following them. To Wagner it seems only a harmless little dog, but Faust senses something occult about it.
The simple and joyous life of the common people depicted in this scene is the result of their humble, unthinking acceptance of the world. Faust envies them, but is prevented from following their example by the highly developed spiritual side of his character.
Faust’s Study (ii)
Evening finds Faust in his study. The poodle is still with him. Faust’s soul is tranquil after his happy afternoon, and he feels confident of finding peace. He says:
Ah, when in our narrow cell
The lamp once more imparts good cheer,
Then in our bosom — in the heart
That knows itself — then things grow clear.
Reason once more begins to speak
And the blooms of hope once more to spread;
One hankers for the brooks of life,
Ah, and for life’s fountain head.
But Faust’s depression begins to return with these last words. To renew his inspiration he sets about translating into German the Gospel of Saint John, but cannot get past the first line, “In the beginning was the Word.” After making several attempts to select a rendition that satisfies him, Faust finally decides on, “In the beginning was the Deed.”
This episode crystallizes one of the main philosophical themes of the poem — Goethe’s conception that action is the creative and ruling force of the universe. This is the metaphysical meaning of Faust’s final translation.
The poodle begins to growl and continues to do so as long as Faust goes on reading the Bible. Faust realizes that some mysterious spiritual presence has taken on the form of the dog. He uses a magical incantation to force it to appear. In an instant Mephistopheles stands before him in the guise of a travelling scholar.
This is a crucial moment. Mephisto has been in pursuit of his intended victim ever since making the wager with God, but it was up to Faust to take the first step in his own seduction by recognizing and invoking the devil. This act confirms Mephisto’s suspicion of Faust’s disgust with positive methods of finding satisfaction and illustrates Faust’s movement toward the nihilistic cynicism which characterizes the devil. Mephisto’s costume is purposely chosen to make Faust feel at ease with him, and to prevent him from becoming frightened as he had been by the terrifying supernatural appearance of the Earth-Spirit.
Faust senses his visitor’s identity, but Mephistopheles refuses to reveal his name. Instead he describes himself by explaining his function in the divine plan, saying he is
A part of that Power
Which always wills evil, always procures good . . .. . . the Spirit which always denies.
A metaphysical debate follows concerning Mephisto’s description of himself as only a part of a whole — a concept which Faust finds hard to accept. After their talk Faust invites Mephistopheles to visit him again. The devil prepares to leave but cannot go because Faust has not released the spell that invoked him. Faust refuses to free Mephistopheles. The unexpected discovery that even the devil is subject to a form of law makes him wonder about the possibility of making a contract with him. He intends to force Mephistopheles to buy his freedom.
The devil is not as powerless as he has been pretending, however. He calls up a choir of spirits who lull Faust to sleep with an idyllic song about the sensual pleasures of pagan, southern lands. Next Mephistopheles summons the aid of some mice and makes his escape. When Faust awakens the room is empty. He wonders whether he has been dreaming.
Faust’s belief that Mephisto’s appearance was only a dream is one of many hints that the devil is partly a symbolic representation of hidden aspects of Faust’s personality (of human nature in general).
Faust’s Study (iii)
The next day Faust is alone in his study again. Mephistopheles enters, dressed as a nobleman. He tries to tempt Faust by offering him a life of limitless wealth and pleasure, but Faust sadly declines the offer, saying that the world’s pleasures cannot end his doubts or satisfy his needs.
Mephistopheles taunts Faust for his failure to commit suicide on Easter Eve and drives him to voice a rejection of the value of life and the traditional Christian virtues. The devil urges Faust to begin a new life with his assistance, and to exist no longer as an ordinary human being. If Faust agrees to become his servant after death (i.e. to sell his soul), Mephisto will be his during life and will guarantee to provide all that Faust desires.
Faust accepts this offer with some hesitation, for he doubts Mephisto’s ability to fulfill his end of the bargain, but makes a significant change in the wording of the pact. Faust promises that if any moment, however brief, is so charged with pleasure for him that he says, “Linger a while! Thou art so fair!” that will be the day of his death and he will serve the devil forever after.
Mephisto’s costume in this scene is a reminder to Faust of the narrow limitations on the world in which he has been living until now. Faust’s change in wording recalls the divine law that action is the ruling force of the universe, and raises the story of this Faust to a higher philosophical level than that of the hero of the old legends. The terms of the new pact mean that only when Faust is so satiated with pleasure that he chooses to be in a state of rest or nonaction will he be damned. In other words, the primal sin is to absolve oneself of the responsibility for motion and activity. This idea is in full accord with Mephisto’s nihilistic principles so the devil accepts the amended pact. In Goethe’s religious thought, movement, action, and striving are equated with virtue, while nonmovement, passivity, and resignation are sin. Since Faust does not believe in the traditional heaven and hell, he is really offering little in his own terms, and is betting his life rather than selling his soul. In Faust’s mind there is no certainty that eternal life really exists, so he is merely stating his willingness to give up an existence that he is already dissatisfied with. Faust’s desire is not intrinsically an evil one, despite his pact with the devil. As the Lord said in the “Prologue,” striving and error are the path of even the righteous man. At this point Faust’s final end is still uncertain, but his opportunity to redeem himself is undiminished by his alliance with Mephisto.
The devil is unsure of his ability to fulfill Faust’s request, but he accepts the challenge and their pact is signed in blood. Faust is filled with eagerness to taste all those aspects of life that he has neglected until now. He has found that reason and magic were unable to console him, but hopes to find understanding and knowledge through emotional and physical experience. Faust and Mephistopheles are interrupted when a student knocks at the door. Faust is in no mood to see him and asks Mephisto to take his place. The devil puts on Faust’s academic gown.
The young freshman has just arrived in town and wants the advice of the great scholar Faust on his studies, but Mephisto confuses him by a bitter, satirical attack on pedantry and academic learning. The devil’s analysis of the traditional learned disciplines parodies Faust’s in the first scene. Before the student departs, Mephistopheles sarcastically writes in his album, Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum (“You shall be like God, knowing good and evil”), the advice given by the serpent to Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The devil as portrayed by Goethe performs a necessary function in the execution of the divine purpose. Despite his cynical belief in the futility of learning and the grossness of mankind, Mephisto often speaks the truth. His advice to the student is important for understanding God’s attitude toward Faust’s moral errors — one comes to know good partly through knowing evil, and one cannot come to know God without this knowledge. Moreover, true knowledge is gotten only from experience.
After the student goes, Faust re-enters the room. Mephistopheles cheerfully congratulates him on his new life and they set out on their adventures.
Auerbach’s Cellar in Leipzig
Four men, Frosch, Brander, Siebel, and Altmayer, are drinking in a tavern in the city of Leipzig. Mephistopheles has offered to show Faust the pleasures that can be gotten from convivial company and good cheer. They enter and join the others.
After observing their coarseness and watching Mephistopheles befuddle them with magic tricks, Faust realizes that this is not the answer to his longing. He voices his disgust and urges that they go. Before they leave, Mephisto works another spell, to demonstrate to Faust the inherent bestiality of human beings.
For the significance of Auerbach’s Tavern as the setting for this scene, see the section on “The Faust Legend in European Thought,” page 8. The mood of this scene is comic, but there is an undertone of seriousness, for in their drunken revelry the four men are desperately seeking an escape from frustration and boredom. Faust’s disgust with their bestiality is an ironic portent of the low state to which he will fall before the play ends. Faust’s intellect and conscience are too highly developed for him to find satisfaction in the animalistic “freedom” and irresponsibility of drunkenness, but this is not because his moral sense is so secure; rather, he has not yet been tempted at his real weak spot — lust. This episode establishes the pattern of all the events in Part One, where, except for the restoration of Faust’s youth (which can be interpreted symbolically), Mephisto does nothing for him that he could not have done himself.
Now Mephistopheles brings Faust to the mysterious lair of a witch. A brewing cauldron tended by a weird family of monkeys occupies the center of the room, and the place is filled with the occult symbols and paraphernalia of black magic and sorcery. A strange vapor permeates the air. The mood of the place is grotesque and ugly.
The devil has promised that the witch will concoct a potion to remove thirty years from Faust’s age so he can more easily enjoy sensual pleasures. At first Faust is repelled by what he observes around him, but then, in a mirror on the wall, he sees the image of a beautiful young woman and all his ardor is aroused. The restoration of his youth now becomes such an exciting prospect that he soon overcomes his distaste for his surroundings.
After a while the witch returns to her den. Following some repartee with Mephistopheles, she prepares the potion and Faust drinks it. The brew is immediately effective. Faust eagerly looks into the mirror again to recapture his vision. Mephisto repeats his promise to introduce Faust to many new delights and predicts that he will soon meet his vision in the flesh. In an aside the devil remarks that:
With a drink like this in you, take care — You’ll soon see Helens everywhere.
The devil’s reference is to Helen of Troy, the legendary paragon of womanhood. He implies that Faust’s natural desires have been so heightened by the magic aphrodisiac potion that he will be attracted by any woman he meets. The most important point is that Faust’s initial desire arose spontaneously before he took the drink.
Throughout this scene there are symbolic allusions to an evolutionary theory of human development. It is implied that in regaining his youth, Faust is moving backward toward the primeval world from which human reason and civilized institutions once developed.
He is abandoning the highest human attainments to find fulfillment in his baser animal instincts. Evolutionary symbolism will be used many times in both parts of the poem to put Faust’s personal adventures into a broader perspective that has reference to all humankind.
Later, on the street of a typical German town, Faust sees Margareta (usually called Gretchen, her nickname in German), recognizes the maiden of his vision, and develops a great passion for her. He tries to strike up a conversation, but Gretchen refuses to respond to his advances and walks away.
When Mephistopheles joins him, Faust excitedly describes Gretchen’s youthful beauty and asks the devil to get her for him. Mephisto replies that he has no power over Gretchen because of her innocence and piety. Undaunted, Faust boasts that he will seduce her without help and asks Mephistopheles to cooperate by getting him jewelry and other expensive gifts for the girl.
In this scene Faust’s sordid lust is contrasted with Gretchen’s chastity and feminine warmth. As their romance progresses in the remaining episodes of Part One, Gretchen will develop into a character of genuine tragic stature.
Alone in her small bedroom Gretchen braids her hair and wonders about the strange man who accosted her so boldly on the street earlier in the day. Then she goes out to visit a neighbor.
Faust and Mephistopheles enter the room, for Faust has expressed the wish to see where Gretchen lives and sleeps. He is moved by the simple furnishings and asks Mephisto to leave. Alone, Faust soliloquizes about the strange sense of calm he feels among Gretchen’s things and the passionate love welling up within him.
For a moment the wholesome purity of his surroundings causes Faust to waver in his plan to seduce the maiden. Mephistopheles returns with a chest of jewels, however, and quickly turns Faust’s thoughts away from such moralizing. They leave the jewels and go out.
Gretchen comes in again. After commenting to herself about the oppressive atmosphere of the tiny room and the odd tension she feels, the maiden prepares for bed. While undressing she sings a charming little song, “There was a king in Thule! Was faithful to the grave . . .” Suddenly she discovers the jewels. She is so delighted by their beauty that she barely wonders about the significance of their unexplained presence in her room.
Gretchen’s song, with its theme of fidelity in love, reveals her naiveté and idealism. Its innocence foreshadows the deep impression which Faust, in the guise of a handsome and generous young nobleman, will make on her, and her complete devotion to him once he has won her love.
Faust is pacing back and forth, deep in thought, when Mephistopheles enters. The devil angrily reports that Gretchen’s mother has learned about the jewels and, suspicious of their origin, has turned them over to the priest as an offering. He comments that
The Church has an excellent appetite.
She has swallowed whole countries and the question
Has never risen of indigestion.
Only the Church . . . can take
Ill-gotten goods without stomach-ache!
The theme and conclusion of this poem are religious, but Goethe believed that man’s salvation was dependent on his own efforts and individual relation with God. Faust’s life illustrates this doctrine. Therefore, Goethe felt, there was no need for a church to act as an intermediary for man. In addition, he despised the Church because of its corruption, materialism, and worldliness. He felt it maintained a religious facade but was irreligious and rotten at its core. Mephisto’s remarks here are typical of many anti-clerical gibes and accusations throughout the poem.
In this scene Faust asks Mephisto to get new jewels to replace those which were given away by Gretchen’s mother. This definitively establishes Faust’s guilt for the tragic events to come, and shows that the second thoughts he had while meditating were not very sincere. The action of Gretchen’s mother and the priest has given him a chance to give up his attempt to seduce the maiden, but Faust decides to go ahead with his original plans.
Martha, the neighbor, is Gretchen’s friend. At the opening of the scene she is alone, thinking about the long absence of her husband. Gretchen runs in and tells Martha that she has found another casket of jewels, but this time has not told her mother. Martha advises that she continue to keep it a secret, otherwise these will be taken from her also.
Mephistopheles enters the house and attempts to win the friendship of the women by flattery. He pretends to be a traveler, then claims he knew Martha’s husband in Italy and was a witness to his death. Martha is not upset by the news, particularly since her husband left no estate, but wants definite proof so she can be free to remarry.
Mephistopheles flirts with Martha and says he will return with a young companion (Faust) who will attest to the death. He asks that Gretchen be present also, saying that his friend has an eye for attractive girls. Though embarrassed, Gretchen agrees, and a meeting is arranged for that evening in Martha’s garden.
Martha’s worldliness and materialism make her an effective contrast to the innocent and romantic Gretchen, and a human counterpart to Mephistopheles. This scene is important because it shows Gretchen’s first moral lapse in her decision to keep the second casket of jewels a secret, and thus is the first step leading to her eventual downfall. Gretchen’s motives are not evil — she is moved by a naive joy in what seem to her only pretty baubles. Gretchen’s sins will become more serious, but the simplicity and innocence of her motives will not change. She will be victimized by her lack of experience and her faith in human nature.
In Martha’s Garden
In the garden behind Martha’s house, Faust courts Gretchen, and Mephistopheles courts Martha. The two couples stroll back and forth, on and off stage, so that only parts of each conversation are overheard. Gretchen tells Faust about her life at home and her love for her baby sister. Faust is charmed by her tale and the general tone of the scene is idyllic, although this mood is repeatedly broken by bits of the cruder conversation between Mephisto and Martha.
This unique scene is known as the “quartet.” Through the device of the alternating conversations, the outlooks of Faust and Mephistopheles are contrasted. The devil is cynical and materialistic, but Faust still possessed some degree of spirituality and idealism. These are momentarily reinforced by his exposure to Gretchen. As he comes to know her virtues, Faust’s original lust is transcended by feelings of real love. At the same time this scene reveals that Gretchen is already deeply in love with Faust and ready to do anything he asks her. The differences between them as individuals contrast the peace of mind produced by natural innocence and a simple life with the mental turmoil caused by a complex, introspective mind and familiarity with a vast body of knowledge.
In a sheltered bower in the garden, possibly a few days later, Faust and Gretchen kiss and pledge their newly discovered love for each other. Mephistopheles and Martha interrupt them and say it is time for the men to leave. Gretchen does not allow Faust to escort her home because she fears her mother’s disapproval, but she promises to meet him again. After he has gone, Gretchen wonders whether it can be true that a gentleman like Faust really loves a simple girl like herself.
Some editions of Faust do not separate the last scene from the one preceding it, but it seems justified by the implications in the conversation that there has been a short lapse of time between them. This scene is the culmination of the first stage of Faust’s romance. At this point he is unable to decide whether love or lust is dominating his actions, but it is no longer possible for Faust or Gretchen to turn back now, whatever his decision. Because of the submissive character of her love for Faust, Gretchen’s future is entirely in his hands. This scene also establishes the conventionality of Gretchen’s mother, a factor which will be a partial cause of unfortunate events later on in the story.
Forest and Cavern
Torn by the ambivalence between his unselfish love for Gretchen and his passionate desire for her, Faust seeks the solitude of the woods for his thoughts. He is grateful for the new joy in life which his love for Gretchen has given him, but he is undergoing severe emotional pain also because of his unsatiated lust. He realizes despondently that he is becoming dependent on Mephistopheles for the fulfillment of his wishes.
The devil enters and urges Faust to stop brooding. He reminds Faust that it was he who saved him from suicide and who is responsible for his present ecstasy. Furthermore, Mephisto goes on, Faust is only rationalizing when he tries to make his love for Gretchen seem exalted. His interest in the girl is carnal; he ought to admit this and take advantage of the situation.
Faust protests this callous indifference to his feelings, but Mephisto’s continued erotic references to Gretchen have stimulated his passion. Still confused by his doubts, Faust can no longer control himself and hurries away to see Gretchen, saying:
I, the loathed of God . . .Her too, her peace, I must undermine . . .This was the sacrifice I owed to Hell!
Help, Devil, to shorten my time of torment!
What must be, must be; hasten it!
Let her fate hurtle down with mine,
Let us go together to the pit!
In this crucial transitional scene Faust wrestles with himself and the dual aspects of his nature strive to gain dominance. He is tormented by self-doubts and torn between spirituality and sensuality, conscience and desire, idealism and nihilism — in effect, between the ways of life represented by Gretchen and Mephisto. Faust reproaches himself but cannot maintain his balance. Mephisto is unable to convince Faust that his feelings for Gretchen are only physical. Faust is so confused and demoralized that he retreats from further debate and follows the path of least emotional resistance — that to Gretchen’s bed — with no concern for the possible consequences, her welfare, or his own ethical qualms.
Alone in her room, Gretchen sadly thinks that Faust has abandoned her. She sits at her spinning wheel and sings:
My peace is gone,
My heart is sore,
I shall find it never
And never more . . .
The “Spinning Wheel Song” is one of Goethe’s best-known lyrics. It expresses Gretchen’s overwhelming love for Faust. Her words indicate that her coming “seduction” will not be an unwilling one.
Faust and Gretchen are together in the garden. She has noticed that he never participates in any religious rites, and she is concerned about the state of his soul. She asks whether he believes in religion.
In answer, Faust states his tolerance for the beliefs of other people, despite his contempt for conventional religion and orthodox theology. He defines God as the creative spirit of the universe and describes his personal faith in Nature and human emotions as manifestations of this cosmic guiding force. He explains:
Then call it what you will — Happiness! Heart! Love! God!
I have no name for it!
Feeling is all;
Name is mere sound and reek
Clouding Heaven’s light.
Faust’s answer is an equivocating one and demonstrates a contempt for reason and analytical thought. His creed, as given here, visualizes God as a dynamic force that imbues all of life with vitality and form. It can only be known by feeling and intuition, and not through artificial rituals or systems of belief. To recognize this force is to worship it, and the name one uses is of no importance. To a certain extent this is a statement of Goethe’s own beliefs, but Faust overemphasizes the importance of sensory experience because of the influence Mephisto has on him. Faust’s real concern here is not to give a complete or even a truthful answer, although he is truthful, but only to overcome a potential barrier between himself and Gretchen.
Faust’s reply has not fully satisfied Gretchen, but she turns to another source of anxiety — her intuitive distrust and fear of Mephistopheles. Faust reassures her, then asks permission to come to her room that night. Gretchen’s only objection is that her mother might overhear. Faust gives her a sleeping potion for the old woman. They arrange their rendezvous and Gretchen leaves.
Mephistopheles enters and comments sardonically about Gretchen’s concern for Faust’s religious status. Faust defends her, but Mephisto responds with some caustic remarks about Faust’s interest in the girl. He adds that he will share Faust’s pleasure with her in the coming night.
The devil’s keen understanding of Faust’s character is shown by his observation that Faust is really not loathe to violate Gretchen’s trust and that the spirituality in her, that Faust continually praises, is just another source of her sensual attraction for him. The devil’s final remark implies his belief that the damnations of Faust and Gretchen will be ensured by their tryst that night. He will enjoy snaring both their immortal souls, and, as a result, winning his wager with God.
At the Well
An uncertain period of time has gone by since the last scene. Gretchen and Lisbeth, another young woman, are at the town well drawing water. Lisbeth gossips about a maiden of their acquaintance who has been made pregnant by her lover. She makes some bitter comments about the girl’s character and predicts that the man will not marry her. Gretchen reacts to this story with sympathy.
After Lisbeth leaves, Gretchen muses on the lack of understanding she once had shown for girls in this predicament. Now that she is pregnant also, though no one else knows as yet, she has learned compassion. Lisbeth’s predictions about the other girl’s lover make Gretchen more aware of her own plight, for Faust has abandoned her. Gretchen does not understand what drove her to sin, but insists to herself that her motives were pure.
Originally in her idyllic affair with Faust, Gretchen had acted naturally and without submitting to the inhibitions of convention, following what one critic has called, “the divine right of emotion.” Her only justification for her actions had been subjective. Now she is beginning to accept society’s standards again, is regaining the conventional absolute distinctions between right and wrong, and will soon become a victim of the destructive forces set loose by a sense of guilt.
A Shrine in the Ramparts
At a shrine of the Mater Dolorosa located in a niche in the city wall, Gretchen makes an offering of flowers and seeks consolation for her sorrows. Gretchen’s prayer reveals the full extent of her anguish. She pleads for divine mercy, crying:
Save me from shame and death in one!
Ah, bow down,
Thou of the woeful crown,
Thy gracious face on me undone.
Several months have gone by and Faust has deserted Gretchen. The vague premonitions of impending downfall that she felt in the last scene have now become more acute. Confused and frightened by the things she has experienced, Gretchen instinctively seeks solace from the “Mother of Sorrows.” In a symbolic sense Gretchen is now a “mother of sorrows” herself, since she bears Faust’s child within her.
Gretchen’s brother Valentine, a soldier, stands in the street outside her house. He relates how his sister’s unsullied reputation was once a source of pride and happiness for him. Now he has heard rumors about her and sadly realizes that her innocence has been lost.
Valentine’s love for Gretchen is sincere, but his attitude is cruel and unimaginative. He is waiting at her doorway with hopes of catching her lover and getting revenge. Suddenly he sees two figures, Faust and Mephistopheles, advancing up the dark street. Valentine steps back into the shadows, hoping that this will be his chance.
Beneath Gretchen’s window Mephistopheles sings a song that mocks her misery. Faust seems to have no feelings left for the poor girl and is interested only in satisfying his carnal appetites again. He asks Mephistopheles to get more jewels because he does not want to call on Gretchen empty handed.
Valentine steps forward, smashes Mephisto’s lute, and challenges Faust. The two men draw their swords. Mephistopheles assists Faust in the fight and Valentine is mortally wounded. The noise wakes the neighbors and a crowd gathers, but Faust and Mephistopheles manage to escape.
Gretchen comes out and discovers to her horror that the dying man is her brother. She tries to comfort him, but with his last words Valentine insults his agonized sister and predicts a sordid future for her.
Valentine serves as a representative of conventional morality. He demonstrates its intolerance, brutality, and inability, from Goethe’s point of view, to deal compassionately with real human problems.
Nonetheless, Valentine’s personal inadequacies are not bad enough to justify his murder. Until this scene it has been possible to sympathize with Faust and to view him as an innocent victim of Mephisto’s guile, or to ignore his immorality because of the empathy one feels for his dilemma. But now Faust is at his lowest ebb — he has no sympathy for the girl whom he seduced and deserted, he speaks of Gretchen as if she were a common prostitute, despite the love he once claimed to feel for her and her continued love for him, and he participates in a senseless and cowardly murder. From this point on the reader has an objective picture of Faust’s evil side and will be better able to understand the moral crisis he faces on the Walpurgis Night and in Gretchen’s prison cell.
The heartbroken Gretchen attends a service at the cathedral to find forgiveness for her sins and solace for her almost unbearable suffering. The church is crowded, but she is alone, except for an Evil Spirit who lurks nearby and reproaches her. Whispering in her ear, the Spirit enumerates her transgressions — she is pregnant, Valentine is dead because of her, and her mother is dead also, killed by the sleeping potion which Gretchen gave her.
The Spirit’s cruel taunts destroy Gretchen’s remaining hopes for mercy and her misery increases. The emotional intensity of the scene is heightened by the alternation between the choir chanting the powerful Latin Hymn Dies Irae (“The Day of Wrath”) and the hissing accusations of the Evil Spirit. At last Gretchen reaches the limit of her endurance and faints.
Gretchen is unable to benefit from the comforting influence of religion because she is conscious of her guilt and fears damnation. In Goethe’s view, conventional religion is too limited and inflexible to be able to solace the unhappy sinner. The Church does not understand God or human nature; thus it cannot help Gretchen or forgive her sins. Gretchen is indeed guilty in a legalistic sense, but her remorse is genuine and there were extenuating circumstances behind each of her crimes, even though this does not absolve her of personal responsibility. The Spirit that torments Gretchen takes none of this into consideration. It makes accusations that are grounded in facts, but it presents a wholly negative interpretation of God’s mercy and withholds all possibility of forgiveness from the penitent. That is why Goethe has made it into an “evil” Spirit.
It has been nearly a year since Valentine’s death and Faust has again abandoned Gretchen. Now it is Walpurgis Night (April 30th), the time of the annual gathering of witches and spirits at the top of the Brocken in the Harz Mountains (located in central Germany) to celebrate a satanic orgy. The mountain top is covered with swarms of demons dancing and singing. The tension rises to a mad crescendo of evil as Mephisto guides Faust through his fiendish assembly, introducing him to all the infernal spirits of medieval legend, and inducing him to participate in their rites. While coupled in an erotic dance with a young female witch, Faust suddenly notices a mouse coming out of his partner’s mouth. The shock of this causes him to remember Gretchen. He has a vision of her in chains, becomes distressed, and starts to wander away. Mephistopheles immediately springs into action. He gives a fanciful interpretation of the vision and tries to distract Faust by leading him to a theatre on the mountainside.
Faust has been brought to the Walpurgis celebration to complete his degradation and make permanent his lapse from morality. This episode can be interpreted symbolically as the descent into Hell promised in the “Prelude in the Theatre.” The atmosphere of the scene is one of evil, black magic, and fantastic confusion. The witches and demons that Faust encounters are incarnations of all the many facets of evil. Their characterizations or satanic functions mirror many earlier incidents in the poem and bring home a bitter lesson to Faust about the true nature of his “new life.” Here on the mountain Faust is made to face the awful reality of his own degeneration, but at the last moment his moral sensibility makes a final effort to assert itself. He remembers Gretchen and the love for her which was his first real participation in life.
Walpurgis Night’s Dream
or the Golden Wedding of Oberon
and Titania — A Lyrical Intermezzo
The play which Faust and Mephistopheles attend has no connection with the rest of the tragedy. It is made up of a series of satiric four-line verses directed against some of Goethe’s contemporaries, and is of little interest to those who are not specialists in the history of the period. The poems of the play are recited by a succession of mythological figures, like Oberon, Titania, and Ariel, and various strange individuals whose names have symbolic or satirical meanings.
This poem was originally written by Goethe as a separate piece. He inserted it here because it served as well as anything else for an interlude and also expressed his contempt for artistic convention. To an extent the poem also illustrates the great influence which the works of Shakespeare had on Goethe.
Desolate Day, in Open Country
Faust knows now that Gretchen is in prison and asks Mephistopheles to help free her. The devil refuses. He says there is no need to be concerned since she is not the first girl to be punished for her sins. Faust becomes infuriated and harangues Mephisto:
Dog! Loathsome monster! . . . Not the first, you say . . . It pierces me to my marrow and core, the torment of this one girl — and you grin calmly at the fate of thousands!
Mephistopheles sneers that humans are always like this. They join forces with the devil but have not the courage or will power to endure the consequences of their decision. He also reminds Faust of his own responsibility for Gretchen’s misfortunes. Mephisto says
Now we’re already back at our wit’s end — the point where your human intelligence snaps. Why do you enter our company, if you can t follow it through? . . . Did we force ourselves on you — or you on us? I cannot undo the avenger’s bonds, his bolts I cannot open. Save her! Who was it who plunged her into ruin? I or you?
Faust continues to insist that Mephistopheles rescue Gretchen. In his despair he shouts wild threats at the devil. Mephisto tries to sway him by pointing out that there would be great danger in any rescue attempt because avenging spirits linger at the place of Valentine’s death to punish Faust, the murderer. But Faust is no longer concerned with his own welfare and persists. Finally Mephistopheles relents. He agrees to do all he can, but adds that he does not have unlimited power in matters of this sort.
This is the only scene of the tragedy in prose. The violent shift in style makes a sharp contrast with the luxuriant lyrical poetry of the preceding scene to emphasize Faust’s rediscovery of his moral responsibilities, incomplete as this is, and his return to the world of reality. Faust is still not fully aware of Mephisto’s evil nature, since he calls upon him to help in the rescue of Gretchen, and this request reveals that he is still dependent on Mephisto and thus still a potential victim of the devil’s powers of dehumanization. Faust’s newly discovered moral fervor seems genuine, but he does not acknowledge his own guilt for Gretchen’s misfortune. This scene is an affirmation of the power of love rather than morality, but it suggests the underlying relationship of the two principles and thus is not inconsistent with Faust’s definition of God earlier in the poem and the conclusion of Part Two.
Night, Open Country
Faust and Mephistopheles, mounted on magic black horses, gallop wildly past the gallows outside the town on their way to rescue Gretchen. The night is dark and threatening. Spirits prowl through the air.
This scene of only five lines is the shortest in the tragedy.
Assisted by Mephistopheles, Faust makes his way to Gretchen’s cell. When he enters, Faust finds that she has been driven insane by her imprisonment and sense of guilt. Gretchen does not remember him and huddles fearfully in the corner of the cell, thinking he is the hangman come to execute her for having drowned her baby. Gretchen pleads with Faust to spare her life and begs permission to hold her infant once more.
Faust is grief-stricken by this discovery. He cries out in despair. Suddenly Gretchen regains her senses and recognizes him. She joyously leaps up and her chains fall off. Faust and Gretchen embrace. Now that her lover has returned, Gretchen is no longer afraid and feels confident that everything will be well.
Faust tries to hurry Gretchen out of the cell before morning light, but she rejects his offer of escape. She knows she cannot evade punishment for her crimes and foresees no peace except that of the grave. Faust unsuccessfully tries to change her mind.
As dawn breaks Mephistopheles enters the cell and warns Faust to come along. Gretchen recognizes the devil and fears he has come for her. She prays for divine mercy:
Judgment of God! I have given myself to Thee!
O Father, save me! I am thine!
Mephistopheles tells Faust to come at once or share Gretchen’s doom, for, he says, “she is condemned!” But a voice from Heaven interjects, “Redeemed!” Once again Mephisto summons Faust and they depart together. The scene closes with Gretchen’s voice faintly calling after her loved one.
The scene is particularly praised by critics for its poignant portrayal of Gretchen’s madness. Gretchen’s restoration to sanity when she sees Faust illustrates the regenerative power of love. Her refusal to escape is based on her acknowledgment of responsibility for her acts and her acceptance of God’s law. She has a simple and clear-cut conception of right and wrong which is incomprehensible to the still inwardly doubting Faust. Gretchen is granted salvation by God’s grace (the voice from Heaven) because her crimes were the result of inexperience and her motives were never sinful or impure. Gretchen was led into sin by following her instincts, but in Goethe’s thought it is part of being human to err. One is redeemed in the end if his conscience learns to know the difference between good and evil, rejects sinfulness, and repents. Gretchen’s final words, “Heinrich! I shudder to look at you,” express her horror at the ungodly, negativistic life Faust has chosen by maintaining his association with Mephisto, rather than any change in her feelings for him. Her final cries are an effort to make him abandon the devil and throw himself into the merciful arms of the Lord.
This is the end of the first part of the tragedy, a portion of a larger work but at the same time complete in itself. So far Mephisto has lost his wager with the Lord and failed to secure Faust’s soul. God’s faith in man has been upheld by Faust’s moral renewal on the Walpurgis Night and his final though misguided effort to do a good deed. Despite his flirtation with sensuality and evil, Faust’s love for Gretchen had developed into something more than lust. In addition, he has realized that the total abnegation of reason is repugnant to human nature. While he has not yet redeemed himself, these decisive changes in his outlook seem to justify the Lord’s belief in the innate goodness of mankind.
Faust, however, has still not found happiness or fulfillment in life, and is not sufficiently purged of sinfulness to terminate his alliance with the devil. In his next to last speech Faust says, “I wish I had never been born!” showing his continued alienation, heightened now by the slight experience he has had with love and true spirituality: At this point, though, Faust is unable to apply his new knowledge to himself and still hopes to satisfy the craving of his empty soul through temporal achievements brought about with the devil’s help. Thus, the resolution of Faust’s struggle with his soul is in doubt, but a passionate and moving love story has come to a tragic end. At its close Faust seems at last to be on the right path.
Gretchen’s salvation and her loving concern for him right up to the moment of her death are lessons which will make a permanent impression on him. Faust knows now that he cannot find himself through uninhibited sensuality, but he must taste all the world has to offer before he learns that only in God lies human fulfillment. The relationship of the events in Part Two to those in Part One is not as close as might be expected, due to the long time interval between their composition by Goethe, but nonetheless the strand of Faust’s adventures is taken up and carried to its ultimate philosophical conclusion in the remaining sections of the poem.
Part 2: Act I: Pleasing Landscape
The second part of Faust is much longer than the first and contains many complicated allegorical elements. Because less emphasis is usually given to Part Two in classroom study and to avoid unnecessary confusion, this section of the treatment is briefer than the first. It concentrates on the main details of the plot and the broad philosophical themes of this part of the story.
At twilight Faust rests in a flowery meadow where he tries to fall asleep. A choir of spirits led by Ariel sings to him. When Faust awakens he feels refreshed and ready to continue his adventures.
Most striking about the beginning of Part Two is the complete change of mood from the final scene of Part One. It appears as if the past has been obliterated and Faust has retained in his memory no continuity of experience from which to draw upon to increase his self-knowledge or moral sensibility. At the same time the choir’s song expresses the power of Nature to cleanse and renew even the most tormented soul. Faust seems inspired by a faint glimpse of the eternal truths he is seeking. He realizes now that man cannot grasp the ultimate directly and must find it in a context suited to his limited human perceptions. Faust will continue his efforts to satisfy his ambition, but on a scale more in proportion to his abilities. In addition, he will no longer seek fulfillment in sensual passion.
Mephistopheles appears at the Emperor’s court in the guise of a jester. Various officials report to their sovereign about the government’s financial crisis and related problems. The new jester suggests that the Emperor make use of the kingdom’s hidden resources by mining the gold buried beneath the land, and also makes vague hints that the issuance of paper money would ease the situation. The court officials are confused by these suggestions and distrust Mephisto, but everyone admits that he seems to be competent and worldly. The Emperor ends the meeting and announces a great carnival to celebrate Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
This scene has been shown by some critics to be an inversion of the “Prologue in Heaven” of Part One; the Emperor represents the Lord, the court officials the archangels, although they complain instead of offer praise, and Mephisto continues to play the role of an outsider, although here he supports the established order rather than condemns it. In this scene the devil continues to exemplify the spirit of mundane and physical things, as is implied in the advice he offers the Emperor. The reaction of the Emperor and his courtiers to Mephisto’s suggestion shows the basic frivolity and emptiness of those concerned only with things of this world. This impression will be strengthened in the next few scenes.
The portrayal of the weak, self-indulgent Emperor and his flighty court has been thought by some scholars to be a picture of the corruption of the Holy Roman Empire immediately before its collapse. Whether or not this is so, the scene is certainly a vivid picture of incompetent governments in general.
Spacious Hall and Pleasure Garden
Everything is prepared for the Lenten carnival. A herald announces its start, pointing out the differences between this affair, which will be in the Italian mode, and the typical Germanic festival.
The next morning the Emperor and his courtiers gather. Faust and Mephisto are among them. The previous impression of decadence is reinforced in the conversations which now take place. It is revealed that the Emperor, with hardly any conception of the significance of his act, has accepted the advice about paper money based on the potential underground resources of his kingdom. The country has been flooded with the new currency and everyone is pleased by what appears to be prosperity.
The herald’s contrast alludes to the differences between the Gothic first part and the Classical second part of Faust.
A pageant now takes place in which many allegorical figures representing the different degrees of worldliness and many aspects of human experience appear. Faust is among them, disguised as the god of wealth. He demonstrates his magical skill to the Emperor and convinces him of the soundness of Mephisto’s new financial scheme. The Emperor gives him permission to implement it.
Most of the figures in the pageant are drawn from Greek mythology, signifying the emphasis on Classical thought that will be maintained throughout much of Part Two. There is also a suggestion, from the predominance of artists and poets, that there is a close connection between the evolution of art and the evolution of the human spirit. The Boy-Charioteer who drives Faust is the personified spirit of poetry — a selfless source of beauty and inspiration — and seems to mirror one side of Faust’s personality. The main sources of imagery in this scene — fire and gold — refer to the dangerous elements within and beneath society. Neither of them is basically bad, but both can be misused to the detriment of mankind. This scene has been read by some scholars as an allegory of the French Revolution, but its full meaning is looser and more generalized. It warns that society can be destroyed by the very things that also ensure its existence.
A Dark Gallery
Faust and Mephistopheles converse privately. The Emperor has asked Faust to invoke the spirits of Paris and Helen of Troy, but Faust needs the help of Mephisto to fulfill this request.
The devil is unable to offer any assistance. He suggests that Faust visit the “Eternal Mothers,” mysterious spirits who are the source of all life and live in a grotto deep in the earth. Faust is suspicious of this advice, but Mephisto assures him that only by groping in emptiness and reaching through limitless space will he find what he seeks. Faust say3 he is not afraid and will search even in the Void to find the All.
Mephisto gives him a magical jeweled key and instructions for finding the Mothers. He describes their abode and tells Faust how to behave there. After Faust goes out, Mephisto expresses his doubt about whether the mission will be successful.
This is the first time in Part Two that Faust and Mephisto are alone together. Mephisto’s role in this scene indicates that he no longer exercises the active influence over Faust that he had in Part One, for Faust’s visit to the Mothers will be his first independent enterprise since he began his association with the devil.
The superficiality of Christianity is suggested by Mephisto’s inability to accompany Faust and his lack of power over Classical spirits, for he is a Christian devil. A religion which is unable to comprehend such basic elements of life, this implies, is not an adequate one. The Mothers are cosmic forces who symbolize the mystical essence of life which existed before man was ever created and which made his creation possible. They are the source of all form and being and it is important, to understand Goethe’s philosophical thought, to note that they are feminine spirits. This femininity symbolizes the constant creative and generative force of the universe by virtue of which man and Nature exist, and which is reflected in all human and natural phenomena.
State Rooms and Baronial Hall
The Emperor and his courtiers have gathered in a brightly lit chamber to see Paris and Helen. While waiting for Faust to complete his preparations, the ladies badger Mephisto for advice about cosmetics and love potions. The mood of the scene is light and cheerful.
Everyone moves to a dimly lit Gothic hall where Faust will present his mythological spectacle. Mephisto offers to act as prompter and makes many sardonic comments throughout the scene. By magic Faust makes a Greek temple appear, then Paris and Helen are seen in the foreground. Most of the courtiers are unimpressed and make caustic remarks about their looks, but Faust is overwhelmed by Helen’s beauty. When he tries to take her away from Paris, however, he is knocked down by a burst of thunder and falls unconscious. Mephisto lifts Faust up and carries him out of the room.
The audience is too superficial to appreciate the classical ideals represented by Paris and Helen, but Faust sees in them the archetypes of human perfection. His attempt to seize Helen symbolizes the effort to join ancient and modern together to achieve a perfect synthesis of the universe’s finest elements. His failure indicates the difficulty of grasping the mystery of life and blending such disparate factors by a single act of will. Space and time cannot so easily be conquered, Faust has learned.
Part 2: Act II: Narrow Gothic Chamber
This is the room which was Faust’s study in Part One. Mephisto brings him here and puts him, still unconscious, on the bed. Wearing Faust’s academic gown, Mephisto summons Nicodemus, the new famulus who has replaced Wagner. Wagner, in turn, has replaced Faust at the university. Mephisto asks the servant to call his master.
Meanwhile, a baccalaureus (graduate) enters. It is the freshman whom Mephisto teased in Part One. Now he has completed his studies and has a proud, complacent attitude about his knowledge and understanding. He still thinks Mephisto is a professor and engages in an argument with him. He praises his own academic stature and insults Mephisto. After the graduate leaves, Mephisto comments that he is still quite young, and one has to be old to understand the devil.
The return to the scenes of Part One indicates that Faust is still far from his goals and is now about to start on an entirely different means of attaining them. Mephisto’s final words imply that true insight can be the result only of experience and experimentation. The baccalaureus is Goethe’s caricature of a new intellectual trend in his day which he felt carried pragmatism and faith in human omnipotence to dangerous lengths. The graduate’s inability to recognize the devil is an example of the inherent limitations and artificiality of his kind of knowledge.
In a nearby laboratory Wagner is hard at work. He tells Mephisto, who has joined him, that he is about to create a human being. After some manipulations, a tiny humanoid figure appears in the bottle Wagner is tending. It is Homonculus (“little man”).
The tiny figure begins an animated conversation with Mephisto and Wagner. Seeing Faust on the bed in the next room, Homonculus floats to his side and eavesdrops on his dreams. He suggests that Faust should not be awakened in his present state of mind. Instead they should take him to Greece to participate in the Classical Walpurgis Night. Mephisto has never heard of this event and asks what it is. Homonculus explains that the Classical spirits are the only true ones and describes the differences between the gloomy northern witch’s fête to which Mephisto is accustomed and the joyous warm southern festival. Mephisto is dubious, but finally accepts the invitation when Homonculus tells him about the erotic pleasures he can enjoy with the Thessalian witches who will also be there.
Mephisto lifts up Faust’s unconscious body and goes out with Homonculus. They leave Wagner behind, telling him to continue his studies and predicting that someday perhaps he will find fame and virtue.
Wagner’s creation is the high point of conventional scholarly attainment; it bears the semblance of life but is not real flesh and blood. Homonculus is an archetypal figure, representing the vital life spirit in man and Nature. He is driven by an intense desire to find the secret of existence so that he can become truly alive. In some ways Homonculus is a miniature Faust, but their goals are different: Faust is trying to overcome his physical nature and find peace on a spiritual level, while Homonculus hopes to find fulfillment through an enhanced physical existence. Homonculus also seems to be a personification of Intellect, and is always conscious of his limitations because he possesses none of the emotions that lead real human beings into false impressions or aspirations.
Wagner is left behind because he has already fulfilled his noblest function — the creation of Homonculus. In other words, learning is valuable but not sufficient in itself. It must be abandoned for other means when no longer useful in the struggle to comprehend the ultimate.
Classical Walpurgis Night:
Pharsalian Fields, By the Upper Peneus,
By the Lower Peneus,
By the Upper Peneus (II),
Rocky Caves of the Aegean
This series of connected scenes begins on the plain in Greece where the spirits of mythology have gathered for their annual festival on the eve of August 9th (the day of the battle of Pharsalus in which Caesar defeated Pompey), but the action takes place in several other locations also. A profusion of historical and mythical characters appear in a dreamlike sequence of events. There are many references to a wide variety of philosophical and metaphysical ideas, on both didactic and allegorical levels. For the sake of brevity and clarity these scenes will not be summarized. Instead their main themes and events will be pointed out.
There are three interconnected strands of action in the Classical Walpurgis Night — Faust searching for his idealized vision of Helen, Homonculus searching for the way to become a real human being, and Mephistopheles looking for erotic adventures. The three characters move in and out of the action, as they separate and then rejoin each other at various points. Their adventures develop independently, but the experiences of each mirror the quest and aspirations of the others. The things that take place and the mystical figures that appear can be interpreted on various allegorical levels, but in general are related to the poem’s exploration of ways to end Faust’s alienation and to form a synthesis of the Romantic and Classical ideals.
At the end, despite many diversions, Faust is no longer trying to escape from reality. He retains his determination, now more enlightened and mature, to find Helen. Homonculus has discovered that the ocean is the ultimate source of all life. He throws himself into the water, among the sea gods and nymphs, where he is transformed into a potent life spirit with the prospect eventually of developing real manhood through Nature’s evolutionary scheme. Mephisto is forced to face the enormous disparities between his Germanic Christian outlook and the Greek view of life. He finally finds amorous satisfaction only among the most repulsive and ugly spirits.
In all these scenes Goethe demonstrates his high regard for the free and courageous Greek spirit, and the harmonious Classical outlook on life. In addition, there are philosophical examinations of various beliefs about the origin of life in which Goethe supports a theory of gradual evolution that on a physical level reflects Faust’s slow moral evolution. In effect Goethe uses these scenes to conduct a scientific and theological survey of the universe. Many of the incidents and characters also mirror earlier happenings in the poem or foreshadow coming ones. They provide deeper insights into the meaning and function of the episodes and the overall purpose of the second section of Faust.
Part 2: Act III: Before the Palace
of Menelaus in Sparta
The scene has changed to the kingdom of Sparta, shortly after the Trojan War. Helen enters with a chorus of captive Trojan women while Menelaus and the Greek troops remain on the beach to celebrate their victory and safe return home after the capture of Troy. The women express their fears about the future.
Mephistopheles enters, disguised as Phorkyas, an ugly hag. She reviles Helen and sadistically says that Menelaus plans to kill her and the others. The women become terrified, but Mephisto Phorkyas assures them that there is a way to save themselves. Nearby, she continues, is the castle of a powerful northern lord whose armies have conquered much of the surrounding country while the Greeks were away at Troy. This barbarian chieftain (Faust) will surely protect them.
The women are unable to decide what to do, but the sound of approaching soldiers hastens their decision. They ask Phorkyas to take them to Faust.
In many ways Act III resembles a Greek tragedy; Greek metrical forms and a chorus are used, and the development of the plot follows the Classical formula. The story seems intended to reconcile the Classical and Romantic ideals in a new synthesis — the Modern. This concept is at variance with Goethe’s own view as expressed in other parts of the poem which were written at different periods in his life. The initial antagonism between Helen and Mephisto symbolizes the innate hostility between beauty and ugliness, or between idealism and eeeevil.
Part 2: Act III: Inner Courtyard of a Castle
Mephisto-Phorkyas instantaneously transports Helen and the women to Faust’s medieval castle. The Gothic setting is in sharp contrast to the Classical one of the last scene. The movement from Sparta to the castle seems to have transcended Time, for it is now the Middle Ages and Faust appears as a Germanic knight.
Faust greets Helen with warmth and flattery. He calms the fears she and the women feel, and shows his trust in Helen by giving her the responsibility for the prisoner Lynceus. There is some elaborate medieval pageantry, organized by Mephisto, which successfully diverts the women and they soon feel at ease. Faust begins to woo Helen in earnest, much in the manner of a medieval troubadour. He declares himself her vassal and pledges his undying love. Up to this point Helen’s speeches have all been unrhymed, in the Greek manner. Now Faust teaches her how to rhyme and they join together in a love duet, while the chorus praises their union.
Suddenly Mephisto-Phorkyas warns that the army of Menelaus is coming. Faust assembles his soldiers and sends them to meet the enemy, speaking proudly of German military prowess. He goes on at length in praise of the glories of Greece’s Golden Age, then urges Helen to flee with him to Arcadia, where they will find bliss and freedom together.
Faust’s role as a northern conqueror symbolizes the destruction of Greek civilization by barbarism, followed by the desire of the conquerors to possess the classical serenity and beauty of the earlier culture, here personified by Helen. Lynceus represents the disorganized wanderlust and lawlessness of the northerners which can be quelled by submission to Greek principles of order and restraint; thus his fate is determined by Helen. The marriage of Faust and Helen will combine Germanic energy and vitality with Greek moderation and sensitivity. It is a poetic representation of the rediscovery and absorption of Classical culture by the northern peoples during the Renaissance, and a prophecy of a new cultural synthesis which will merge the best of the two earlier civilizations to form a new and better one. The legendary Eden of Arcadia to which Faust and Helen go is a physical image of the youth of humanity. In Arcadia there are no established rules or conventions, and life can begin afresh. It is the only place where Faust and Helen can find the freedom in which to combine and give birth to their new principle of civilization.
The women of the chorus lie at rest in a peaceful green meadow. Phorkyas enters and reports to them about the wondrous things that have just taken place in the secluded bower where the lovers Faust and Helen have hidden themselves. A son, Euphorion, has been born to them. The lad is beautiful, alert, energetic, artistic. Already he is able to talk and move about freely. A strange aura surrounds his head and sweet music emanates from the cave around him.
Helen, Faust, and Euphorion come out. The boy promises that his existence will make their love more intense. They express their tender affection for each other. Suddenly Euphorion is filled with a wild desire to fling off all earthly shackles and soar high into the heavens. He is unable to restrain his passion and begins to pursue the maidens of the chorus. He embraces one, but the girl vanishes in a burst of flame.
Next Euphorion tries to climb a tall cliff in an effort to reach the greatest possible heights and survey the entire world. He does not heed the warnings of the chorus or his parents that such a rash attempt to grasp the ultimate so early in life will only result in his destruction. Danger, he replies, is a necessary and exhilarating part of life. Euphorion reaches the top of the cliff and hurls himself off, in an ecstasy of Romantic enthusiasm. For a moment he remains suspended in air, then falls to his death. His body disappears, but his clothing and lyre remain on the ground.
Euphorion’s parents and the chorus lament his untimely end. The boy’s voice is heard calling his mother to join him. Helen sadly bids Faust farewell, saying that happiness and beauty can never permanently be combined. She vanishes, leaving her veil behind.
Phorkyas tells Faust to keep the garment as a memento and inspiration. The heartbroken Faust is carried off in a cloud. Phorkyas reveals herself to be Mephisto in disguise and predicts that he will soon meet Faust again.
Euphorion is patterned after the English poet Byron, whose work blended Classic and Romantic themes, and whose temperament was unrestrained and adventurous in the “faustian” sense — ever striving to attain new experiences and greater heights of understanding. He was much admired by Goethe. The characterization also bears a similarity to the Boy-Charioteer of Act I. Euphorion’s passionate aspirations and early death are meant to show the doom caused by excessive enthusiasm and extremes of violence and rebelliousness; in short, the inability to adjust to the requirements of real life. His death and Helen’s disappearance convey the message that the two ideals, Romanticism and the Classical heritage, are integral parts of life, but are not in themselves sufficient for one to live by. The tangible remains left behind, the lyre and the veil, are reminders that for proper adjustment one must retain his belief in these ideals, but something more is required also. The final lyrics of the chorus assert the immortality of poetry, and affirm the value of life and creativity. They express Goethe’s conception of the universe as a fluid whole which embraces all aspects of being.
Part 2: Act IV: Mountain Heights
Faust still has a vague image of Helen in his mind as he gazes about at the jagged mountains among which he finds himself. Mephisto enters and engages in a lecture on the origin of mountains with which Faust disagrees. Mephisto tries to tempt Faust with another offer of a life filled with pleasure and glory, but Faust does not accept. He has another sort of project in mind — a scheme for the reclamation of land from the sea. Such a battle against the forces of Nature is the only fit project for him to engage in, Faust says.
Mephisto claims to have known all along that Faust would suggest this plan. He tells Faust that a serious crisis was caused in the Empire by their earlier prank of inducing the Emperor to issue vast amounts of worthless paper money. Now the Emperor has been forced into a war to defend his throne and is encamped nearby with his army. Mephisto suggests that they aid the Emperor in this war, in return for which they can ask a gift of coastal lands for Faust to experiment with.
Faust protests that war is a wasteful pastime, and adds that he has no knowledge of military matters. Mephisto invokes the Three Mighty Men who fought with David and the Israelites against the Philistines. He assures Faust that with the help of these ancient heroes and his magic they will be successful. They set off for the Emperor’s camp.
The discussion on the origin of mountains is based on geological theories current in Goethe’s time, but also illustrates the theme of order arising out of chaos, which is the symbolic meaning of Faust’s land reclamation project. In this scene Faust tells Mephisto that he has learned that activity is man’s “natural element.” His intense desire to reclaim the useless lands that are submerged beneath the sea is based on a moral aversion to inactivity and sterility. This new plan of Faust’s is an important confirmation of God’s optimistic view of human nature in the “Prologue in Heaven” and reflects a significant change in his outlook.
At this point it may seem like a moral regression for Faust to accept Mephisto’s offer of assistance, but since Mephisto’s magical aid in the war will be intended to get land for this worthwhile project, it can also be related to the theme of order from chaos and illustrates the principle that even destructive forces can be harnessed for constructive ends. The most important point of this scene is that as a result of his uplifting experiences in Greece and his exposure to noble ideals, Faust has developed a more mature and vigorous moral sense. He is resolved to enter into a struggle with Nature itself to assert the dominance of human order over unrestrained chaos.
The Emperor and his officers are in their headquarters discussing their dangerous position. Just as the Emperor turns the command of the army over to a more competent aide, Faust enters the royal tent and offers his assistance. He promises to help win the battle with the aid of his friends. The offer is accepted, the battle is fought, and the Emperor’s forces are victorious. Mephisto and his magic play an important part in winning the victory.
Faust’s wise assignments during the battle of the Three Mighty Men, who represent Youth, Maturity, and Old Age, shows that all human talents are useful if well organized. The victory is won with the aid of Mephisto’s magic, by virtue of which Nature is made to fight alongside the Emperor’s army. This symbolizes Goethe’s belief in the natural vitality of the Germanic peoples, and again asserts the beneficial uses to which destructive or neutral forces can be put by wise and systematic planning.
Part 2: Act IV: The Rival Emperor’s Tent
After the battle the Emperor’s troops carry off booty from the defeated enemy’s camp. The Emperor and his courtiers enter his former rival’s tent, and the sovereign distributes rewards to his loyal followers. The Emperor and the Archbishop argue about the morality of accepting diabolical help in the battle and the size of the share of loot to which the Church is entitled. The Emperor is forced to submit to the prelate’s greedy demands because of the Church’s great power. Afterwards he rewards Faust by giving him a large strip of coastal land, most of which is under water, and which everyone considers worthless.
This scene reiterates Goethe’s low opinion of the established Church, which has already been noted in the Commentary to Part One. The Emperor’s indiscriminate rewarding of his courtiers and his neglect of his kingdom’s real problems emphasizes the decadence of his Empire and any other human institution that is not organized according to sound and harmonious moral principles. In payment for his services, the Emperor gives Faust a large strip of what he thinks is worthless land. This is an additional demonstration of the Emperor’s lack of imagination and good sense. It also serves to call attention to Faust’s courage and dedication in attempting to reclaim the land for human use.
Part 2: Act V: Open Country
Faust’s project, though not yet completed, has been successful. Philemon and Baucis, an old couple who live in the area, tell a wandering stranger about Faust’s amazing achievements. It is also revealed that Faust is determined to own all the land in the region. They have refused to sell him the little cottage where they have spent their lives together, although he has offered them a great estate in exchange. The wanderer leaves and the two old people go to pray.
Faust’s great project, an achievement that is of widespread and permanent value to mankind, is seen through the eyes of a simple peasant couple. Their view shows that Faust’s new world of power and prosperity possesses elements that menace the peaceful and humble way of life that they have enjoyed for so long. This may be an effect of Faust’s continued reliance on Mephisto’s demonic help. The couple’s prayer in the chapel to the “old God” is a symbolic expression of resistance to Faust’s new regime. The names Philemon and Baucis evoke an idyllic old Greek legend in which a couple with the same names offered hospitality to Zeus and Hermes when the gods were travelling through the earth incognito. It is an ironic portent of events to come, but also definitively establishes the old people’s virtue and innocence.
Faust, now more than one hundred years old, broods in his palace garden about his failure to acquire the old couple’s house and orchard. Mephisto and the Three Mighty Men return from a pirating expedition and land at the new port that Faust has built. They report the success of their voyage to him. He orders them to evict Philemon and Baucis from their cottage and secure the property for him.
Faust is beginning to feel uncertain about his relationship with Mephisto and about the wisdom of having unleashed the evil forces which he allowed the devil to put to work in his behalf to help complete the project. Now they are slipping out of his control and are misusing the fruits of his labor, as is shown by the piratical expeditions that sail from his newly built port. Mephisto’s reference to biblical parallels to Faust’s desire for the cottage, indicates the devil’s belief that great human achievements cannot be accomplished without the unjust use of power, but this is not a fair interpretation of the feelings that are bothering Faust. The innocent and peaceful lives of Philemon and Baucis make him feel guilty and uneasy. Faust’s comment that their cottage is situated on high, “original” ground, i.e. land not created by his drainage project, and his annoyance when he hears the bells from the chapel where they are praying, shows that he resents the natural life enjoyed by Philemon and Baucis because he is unable to participate in it. He believes foolishly that the possession of their land will satisfy his moral craving and bring him the peace he desires.
Faust learns to his sorrow that Mephisto and the Three Mighty Men have carried out his orders with more violence than he intended. Philemon and Baucis and their wanderer friend have been killed, and the house and orchard which Faust coveted have been burned. Faust is overcome by remorse and anger at this miscarriage of his plans. Left alone, he begins to feel strange premonitions.
Faust had earlier justified to himself his plan to evict the old couple from their home by the rationalization that he would give them another house at a different location. Now he is genuinely sorry for what has happened and realizes that he is completely responsible for their deaths, even though this had not been the intent of the orders he gave Mephisto. This is the first time that Faust has taken on himself the full blame for the evil consequences of his acts and is a major step in his personal moral development.
Immediately afterwards, while alone in his room, Faust is accosted by four grey hags who have risen from the smoke of the burning cottage. They are Want, Debt, Distress, and Care. The first three cannot reach him, but he is unable to resist Care, who warns him of the coming of her brother Death. In his conversation with Care, Faust tells her that he cannot become free until he releases himself from his dependence on Mephisto’s magic power. He also says that he has learned that man should be concerned only with what is legitimately attainable in human life and should not seek after impossible things. Care tells Faust that man is unable to find peace in life, but she is unable to frighten him. In a final effort to weaken his resolution she breathes on him and makes him blind, but Faust remains determined to complete his great project in the short time left before his death.
Faust has been rapidly coming to a state of moral regeneration as a result of meditations on his experiences caused by the needless deaths of Philemon and Baucis. Care’s visit was an unsuccessful effort to deflect him from such thoughts. Faust’s loss of sight does not alter his resolution to complete his task because he is now concerned only with spiritual and not material or physical things. He has at last rejected his constant obsession about his own destiny, and by so doing has begun to find himself through service to others and active leadership in humanity’s struggle to build a better world.
The Great Outer-Court of the Palace
A gang of Lemures (a species of monkey, but also a name for a type of ghost) under the supervision of Mephistopheles works at digging Faust’s grave. The blind Faust comes out and overhears the sound of their shovels. He thinks that they are continuing the work on his project. Faust is filled with a proud vision of the prosperity and happiness of the people who will someday inhabit the reclaimed lands. He is self-reliant and confident despite his impending death as he describes the utopian future he visualizes. As he speaks he utters the words of the bargain made in Part One, “Stay, thou art so fair,” but he intends them in relation to the future in which he sees the fruition of his dreams and work and not to the present moment. After saying these last words Faust collapses dead in the arms of the Lemures, who lay him on the ground beside the grave. Mephisto has ignored the context of Faust’s statement and complacently assumes that he has won Faust’s soul.
Mephisto is concerned only with the terms of the pact in a strict legalistic sense and does not realize that the most significant factor is that Faust’s soul has never been surrendered to him. Faust’s victory over Care has resulted in a personal reformation that will, in the eyes of God, outweigh all the years he lived in moral error. The deaths of Gretchen, Euphorion, Philemon, and Baucis have taught Faust the duty of self-surrender. Just before his own death he finally discovered that which he was seeking — the meaning of his relationship with the rest of humanity, past, present, and future, and the joy of participation in the continuous constructive activity that permeates the universe.
While the Lemures bury Faust, Mephisto and a horde of devils wait to take his soul into custody. Suddenly the heavens open and a host of angels appear. They strew the grave with rose petals and the air is filled with the sound of their singing. Mephisto argues with them as they descend to the grave, but to no avail. Chanting a hymn about the healing truth of Love and the bliss that awaits purified souls in communion with the “All-in-All,” the angels take Faust’s body in their arms and carry it up to Heaven.
Mephisto realizes that he has been defeated, and that his scheme to win Faust’s soul has failed because of his own mishandling. He attributes his defeat to his failure to take into account the power of Love and the strange ways in which it manifests itself.
The hymn sung by the angels explains that souls who have purged themselves of foreign elements and are in harmony with God and their fellow creatures, and with the Love that motivates the entire universe, are entitled to receive God’s grace.
A chorus of holy men, among whom are Pater Ecstaticus, Pater Profundis, and Pater Seraphicus, sing the praises of Heaven. A host of angels enters, bearing the immortal remains of Faust. Other angelic choirs join in the singing. They are joined by the spirits of children who died in innocence at birth, and by three famous penitent women from the Bible, Magna Peccatrix, Mulier Samaritana, and Maria Aegyptica, who prepare the way for the entrance of Una Poenitentium, once called Gretchen. Doctor Marianus chants the praises of the Blessed Virgin, the Queen of Heaven. The Penitent who was formerly Gretchen expresses her ecstasy that Faust has been saved. The Mater Gloriosa calls upon Gretchen and Faust to rise to the higher sphere. Doctor Marianus prostrates himself in adoration of the Virgin and the salvation which her grace brings. The scene closes as a Mystical Chorus chants a hymn which says that all things are symbols of the great Eternal Reality and that through love the spirit of Eternal Womanhood leads mankind to Truth and Salvation.
Although there are many elements of Catholic religious symbolism in this scene, they were adopted by Goethe only because he saw in them a means to give tangible expression to his beliefs, and do not demonstrate his adherence to orthodox Christianity.
The three holy fathers in the first chorus represent three saints who manifested in their lives different aspects of Faust’s longing for oneness with the universe. The spirits of the children who died at birth achieved salvation because of their experience, whereas Faust has been saved as a result of the heightened knowledge and insight gained through great experience. The presence of all these figures in the place to which Faust’s soul is brought, indicates that striving for union with the ultimate is part of the essential character of all life, and is the basis from which immortality arises.
The angels who bring in Faust’s soul reveal that he has not yet attained Salvation. Now that he has been liberated from sin, however, he will commence his purification and will free himself from the remaining traces of his earthly existence. He will be reborn, in a sense, like the spirits of the innocent children, and with them will rise to the higher levels of Salvation. Doctor Marianus is the leader of the community of holy men, and on earth was a teacher of the doctrine and meaning of the Blessed Virgin. The three penitent women pray to the Virgin in behalf of Gretchen, just as the children are praying for Faust, and Gretchen is praying for Faust. This indicates that Salvation is most surely gained by altruistic concern for others, which is also the message of Faust’s great project in behalf of humanity.
All the inhabitants of Heaven seem joined together in a single harmonious adoration of the central glory represented by the Virgin, and all are in a state of motion in which the universal law of action is fulfilled. The striving which characterized Faust’s life will be continued, but in another sphere and another form. He will be led and helped in his new journey toward beatitude by Gretchen, just as she helped him in Part One to participate in life’s joys for the first time, and together they will reach a new summit of bliss in adoration and union with the spirit of the cosmos.
In the drama’s final lines, the Mystical Chorus explains that all things are merely symbols of the eternal verity, that the earthly reflects the heavenly, and that in Heaven the unattainable becomes possible for the souls of the blessed. The Eternal Womanhood which is the spirit of the Mater Gloriosa is a symbol of the divine love and forgiveness that nurtures all man’s acts and accomplishments and which inspires his spiritual development, and the creative principle that gives meaning and function to all elements of the universe.
The poetic expression of these metaphysical ideas in the final scene sums up the philosophical meaning of Goethe’s powerful drama. It indicates that Faust has been admitted to Heaven because of his positive spiritual attitude and his constant striving, rather than any moral evaluation and weighing of his life. The drama has also demonstrated the delusions and tragedies that are caused by living in association with evil, negation, and frustration, through Faust’s unhappy experiences while under the influence of Mephistopheles. The final message of Faust is that life’s purpose is to live; that is, only through acceptance of life and continued effort to maintain life is one able to find immortality. Faust was victorious over Mephisto because, despite his errors and frustrations, he never lost his faith in life’s essence and continued, in the face of adversity, to search for something higher than himself which alone could give his existence meaning.
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