Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Faust (fowst), a perpetual scholar with an insatiable mind and a questing spirit. The middle-aged Faust, in spite of his enthusiasm for a newly discovered source of power in the sign of the macrocosm, finds his intellectual searches unsatisfactory and longs for a life of experiences in the world of humans. On the brink of despair and a projected suicide, he makes a wager with the Devil that if he ever lies on his bed of sloth-fulness or says of any moment in life, “Stay thou art so fair,” at that moment he will cease to be. He cannot be lured by the supernatural, the sensual, or the disembodied spiritual, but he does weaken in the presence of pure beauty and capitulates to humanitarian action. He displays himself as a sensual man in his deep love for Gretchen (Margarete), only to be goaded to murder by her brother, who sees not selfless love in their actions, but only sin. Faust aspires to the love of Helen of Troy, but he is disconsolate when she appears. As an old man, he returns to his early vision of being a man among men, working and preparing for a better world to be lived here on earth. His death is not capitulation, though he thinks at this point man can cry “stay,” and he has never taken his ease or been tempted by a life of sloth. His death is his victory, and his everlasting life is to be lived resourcefully among the creators.
(The entire section is 646 words.)
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Faust contains a large number of minor characters, but the action centers on three main figures.
Heinrich Faust is the play’s protagonist. He is a learned scholar who is dissatisfied with his life and accomplishments and longs to find something absolute and enduring that can end his alienation. Faust represents the opposite of Mephistopheles; that is to say, he is constant striving and motion to understand the universe and his place in it, while Mephisto is denial, negation, a standing still. Ironically, Mephistopheles is an integral part of the Lord’s design, as he tells Faust: “A part of that power which always wills evil, but always does good.” While Mephisto represents negation, by tempting Faust toward surrender, he only succeeds in leading Faust toward his salvation. Faust’s indefatigable movement and curiosity to experience all of God’s creation can only be temporarily swayed by the devil’s temptation. Faust often despairs, but never for long.
Faust reflects humanity’s struggle to find meaning and order in life, representing a sort of everyman. Goethe’s idea that life is meant to be lived animates Faust. Yet, coupled with his ceaseless striving and action, Faust makes moral errors that lead to others’ suffering and often to their deaths. He is distracted by his lust, by his need to conquer nature, by his desire to possess beauty; however, his relentless motion toward goals larger than himself becomes ultimately more important than the errors they precipitate. Also, as long as Faust is under the influence of Mephisto, he will continue to err. Only when he begins to accept the responsibility for Mephisto’s actions—and begins to altruistically feel compassion for others—does Faust begin to extricate himself from the devil’s influence.
Mephistopheles—sometimes called Mephisto—represents negation, stagnation, denial. But in Goethe’s hands, he is also witty, clever, cynical, sardonic, and above all an instrument of doubt. Mephisto seeks to instill a doubt that leads to despair and inaction. While he does aim to trap Faust into inaction, his barrage of cynicism and skepticism only succeed in motivating Faust to continue to strive for meaning. His observations are often correct, but his lack of sympathy, and ultimately of love, allow him to be defeated. Mephisto could be interpreted as a side of Faust that seeks to dominate his psyche...
(The entire section is 613 words.)