Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust commences in Heaven with the angels Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael praising the Lord as creator and wise ruler of Heaven and earth. The devil Mephistopheles mocks human beings as failed creations because reason makes them worse than brutes. The Lord tells Mephistopheles that he will illuminate his servant Faust. Mephistopheles wagers with the Lord that he can corrupt Faust instead. The Lord assents because a good man cannot be misled, even by the temptations of a crafty devil. Moreover, the Lord knows, Mephistopheles will actually make Faust a better man; human beings need an impetus to overcome their innate sloth and to prod them into action.
In the next scene, Faust appears in acute despair because his intellectual studies have left him ignorant and without worldly gain and fame. In order to discover the inner secrets and creative powers of nature, he turns to black magic. Thus, he conjures up the Earth Spirit, the embodiment of the forces of nature. However, the Earth Spirit mocks Faust’s futile attempts to understand him. Without hope of understanding nature, Faust prepares to poison himself.
At that moment, church bells and choral songs announcing that “Christ is arisen” distract Faust from killing himself. Celestial music charms Faust out of his dark and gloomy study for a walk in the countryside on a beautiful spring day in companionship with his fellow human beings. Observing the...
(The entire section is 904 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Goethe began his most famous work, Faust, while he was in his twenties. He published the first part of Faust in 1808 and completed the second part two months before his death. The Faust story is based on the legend of the Renaissance scholar Dr. Faustus, who quested after universal knowledge by means of alchemy and magic. The real Johannes Faustus lived from 1480 to 1540. His legendary adventures became the subject for innumerable puppet shows and popular folk dramas throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Germany. Thus, Goethe was familiar with the Faust myth since childhood, and from the time that he was twenty, until he died at eighty-two, the theme never left his imagination.
The theme of Goethe’s Faust befits both the Romantic fascination with the supernatural and the themes of justice and good and evil, which have occupied literature since biblical times. Goethe takes the theme of good and evil beyond the traditional Christian concept embodied in God and the Devil. Influenced by the study of Oriental literature, Goethe sees the world as a totality composed of opposing forces: light and dark, good and evil, male and female, yin and yang, physical and spiritual, natural and supernatural. God and the Devil (whom Goethe calls Mephistopheles, which means “without light”) are representative of these opposing forces on a larger, as well as a smaller, scale: within the macrocosm (the universe) and the...
(The entire section is 1979 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
While three archangels sing in praise of God’s lofty works, Mephistopheles appears and says that he thinks conditions on earth to be bad. The Lord tacitly agrees that human beings have their weaknesses but points out that His servant Faust cannot be swayed from the path of righteousness. Mephistopheles makes a wager with the Lord that Faust can be tempted from his faithful service. The Lord is convinced that he can rely on the righteous integrity of Faust, but he knows that Mephistopheles can lead Faust downward if he is able to lay hold of Faust’s soul. Mephistopheles considers Faust a likely victim because Faust is trying to obtain the unobtainable.
Faust is not satisfied with all the knowledge he acquires. He realizes the limits of human knowledge and sees his own insignificance in the great macrocosm. In this mood, he goes for a walk with his servant, Wagner, among people who are not troubled by thoughts of a philosophical nature. Faust finds this atmosphere refreshing, and he is able to feel free and to think clearly. Faust tells Wagner of his two souls, one clinging to earthly things, the other striving toward suprasensual things that can never be attained as long as his soul resides in his body. Limited in his daily life and desiring to learn the meaning of existence, Faust is ready to accept anything that offers him a new kind of life.
Mephistopheles recognizes that Faust is vulnerable to attack. In the form of a dog,...
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Goethe’s Faust is a complex work of literature that is concerned with the place of humanity in the cosmos, the striving of its protagonist beyond his human confines, the implications of his going too far, and the consequences that his quest have on his community.
Goethe wrote Faust in two parts (Part I in 1808, Part II in 1832), and together they revise the Faustus legend to fit with Romantic sensibilities and eighteenth-century attitudes toward earthly life and the beyond. The theme of a man selling his soul to the devil for earthly desires—fame, knowledge, wealth, power—developed from a profound Christian belief in life after death. Goethe updates the legend by adding a prolonged love story, making his devil an ironic and mocking figure, and allowing Faust’s soul to escape damnation.
Faust’s universe is one of motion and flux, one where humanity is but a part, and one in which Faust tries to find values that are permanent and dependable as his experiences bring continual transformations: from hope to despair, from lust to spirituality. He literally journeys across the world, through mystical festivals, from old age to youth, in his quest for belonging and contentment. Through all of his accomplishments, Faust remains disillusioned and bitter at his death, but for his endless striving and belief in something beyond himself, Faust is saved from damnation by God’s grace.
Heinrich Faust, a well-esteemed and learned scholar, is at a crossroads in his life. He seems to have achieved an enviable position in his understanding of humanity, but he feels as if there is something missing. He longs for a metaphysical truth, a more profound meaning to life—an understanding and experience of creation that has so far eluded him. In his despair, Faust turns to magic and the occult, making a pact with the devil: if Mephistopheles can provide Faust with a moment of happiness in which the latter is so content that he desires it to last forever, the devil then wins his soul. Part I of Faust concerns Faust’s discontent, his pact with Mephistopheles, and his emotional love affair with Gretchen. Part II finds Faust looking for contentment through external experiences in what the world has to offer: achieving a powerful political position, meeting various classical personalities (including Helen of Troy), and precipitating many public projects. Yet the answers he seeks remain elusive.
Part I opens with the Lord and the assembled heavenly host calling upon Mephistopheles, or Mephisto. The Archangels—Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael—first praise creation, remarking on its order, continuity, mystery, and power, but Mephisto complains that reason and knowledge have only made humans suffer. Faust is used as an example: the Lord maintains that Faust will eventually succeed in finding the right road by his striving toward an understanding beyond himself. The Lord agrees to allow Mephistopheles to tempt Faust, and He further agrees not to interfere.
Before Faust meets Mephisto, the former is alienated, literally living in his tower that cuts him off from life in the outside world. Faust is a scholar, but he despairs in what he sees as his alienation from the world and the greater meaning in life that his erudition has not brought him. On Easter Eve, Faust attempts to summon and control a spirit, but he is unable to and becomes frightened, and he thinks of suicide. The bells of Easter morning stop him, inspiring hope and signaling an imminent change in his life. On Easter, Faust and his apprentice Wagner walk among the villagers and observe their joyous acceptance of life, prompting Faust to remark that he would gladly give up his earthly pleasures if his loftier spiritual questions could be answered. A black poodle follows them back to Faust’s study and, when Faust casts a...
(The entire section is 1425 words.)