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 springtime renewal of life in nature, Faust experiences ecstasy. At this moment, Faust yearns for his soul to soar into celestial spheres.
This Easter walk foreshadows Faust’s ultimate spiritual resurrection. However, he must first undergo a pilgrimage through the vicissitudes and depths of human life. Thus, Faust wagers his everlasting soul with Mephistopheles for a fleeting moment of satisfaction in this world. Mephistopheles commands a witch to restore Faust’s youth so that he is vulnerable to sensuous temptations. When Faust sees the beautiful young girl Margarete, he falls into lust and commands Mephistopheles to procure her. Mephistopheles devises a deadly scheme for seduction. Faust convinces Margarete, who is only fourteen years...
(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 microcosm (humanity). There exists on all levels a constant struggle between the opposing forces, with each side striving to overcome the other. It is this striving that is key to the understanding of Goethe’s work. The redeeming factor of Faust is that he continues to strive. To Goethe, the ideal man, the Faustian man, never gives up striving.
The story of the Faust drama (sometimes referred to as the Gretchen tragedy) begins in Heaven. In “The Prologue in Heaven”—a modern enactment of the Job story—the Devil, Mephistopheles, complains that God’s creation, man, is so pitiful and corrupt that it is no more fun to torture him. God asks Mephistopheles if he knows the good man Faust. The Devil laughs and offers God a bet: “What do you wager? You will lose him yet.” God accepts Mephistopheles’ bet for Faust’s soul and points out that as long as man strives, he will make mistakes, but that he is basically good.
Despite Mephistopheles’ gleefully wicked intent to make Faust “eat dust” like his cousin the Snake, God tells Mephistopheles that He never hated him or those like him, but instead, he considers him necessary to provoke humankind to action. These lines embody the key to understanding the theme of the Faust story and the Faustian striving:
I have never hated the likes of you.Of all the spirits of denialThe joker is the last that I eschew.Man finds relaxation too attractive—Too fond too soon of unconditional rest;Which is why I am pleased to give him a companionWho lures and thrusts and must, as devil, be active.
Goethe depicts the Devil not as the customary embodiment of fear-filled threat and wickedness but rather as a jovial but serious mischief maker. When the curtain closes after the prologue and Mephistopheles is left alone on stage, he humorously observes that God is not all that bad, saying, “I like to see the Old One now and then.”
The first part of the tragedy begins with Faust alone in his study. Dr. Faust is a professor, doctor, lawyer, and theologian. He has studied all that there is to study but bemoans the fact that he still knows nothing. He teaches, but he feels that he is merely leading his students by the nose, since they could read for themselves and know all that he knows. He would like to be able to teach something that would improve humankind.
There is one subject, though, of which Faust knows virtually nothing: the world of the spirits. He opens a book on mystic art by Nostradamus and sees the sign of the Macrocosm and then of the Earth Spirit. Inspired to venture into this mystic world, he calls forth the Earth Spirit. In a flash of red flame, the Spirit appears before him, then vanishes, as Faust is unable to detain it. Feeling dejected, Faust decides that there is only one way to experience the world of the spirits, and that is to go through the door to death. He considers crossing that threshold and reaches for a vial of poison. As he lifts the poison to his lips, Faust hears the church bells outside ringing on Easter morning (symbolic, of course, of rebirth). He puts the poison down, decides to delay his quest for now, and...
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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, Mephistopheles follows Faust when the scholar returns home. After studying the Bible, Faust concludes that human ability should be used to produce something useful. Witnessing Faust’s struggle with his ideas, Mephistopheles steps forth in his true identity, but Faust remains unmoved by the arguments of his tempter.
The next time Mephistopheles comes, he finds Faust much more receptive. Faust decides that, although his struggles are divine, he produces nothing to show for them. Faust is interested in life on this earth. At Mephistopheles’ suggestion that he can enjoy a sensual existence, Faust declares that if ever he could steep himself in sloth and be at peace with himself, or if ever Mephistopheles could so rule him with flattery that he becomes self-satisfied, then that should be his end. Because Faust renounces all things that make life worthwhile to most people, he further contracts with Mephistopheles that if ever he finds experience so profound that he wishes it to endure, then he would cease to be. This is to be a wager, not the...
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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...
(The entire section is 1425 words.)