Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s masterwork of dramatic poetry, summarizes his entire career, stretching from the passionate storm and stress of his youth through the classical phase of his middle years to his mature, philosophical style. Composition of the work occupied him from the time of his first works in the 1770’s until his death in 1832, and each of its various sections reveals new interests and preoccupations as well as different stylistic approaches. Nevertheless, the work possesses a unity that testifies to the continuing centrality of the Faust subject in Goethe’s mind.
The first scenes that were composed, those of Faust in his study and of Gretchen, reflect the twenty-three-year-old Goethe still preoccupied with university parodies based on his student experiences but at the same time increasingly interested in titanic projects. In his desire to pursue knowledge and surpass previous limitations, he was typical of other young writers of this period. In fact, Faust was originally one of a planned series of dramas about heroic figures who transgress society’s rules—among them Julius Caesar, Prometheus, and Götz von Berlichingen.
Goethe stresses the tragedy of the scholar whose emotional life is not fulfilled and who seeks for limitless knowledge, only to find himself frustrated by mortal limitations. The scenes with Gretchen provide emotional release but leave Faust with a sense of guilt for the destruction of purity. The theme of the unwed mother, a popular one among young poets of this period, represents a revolt against traditional bourgeois values, giving occasion for much social criticism. In the Gretchen scenes, Goethe, who as a student had romances with young village women, evokes great sympathy for Gretchen, who acts always out of sincere emotion and desires only the good. His theme of the corruption of all human questing, because of the inherent imperfections of human knowledge and of will, receives here its first expression, though with no philosophical elaboration. Neither Faust nor Gretchen wills evil, yet evil comes by way of Mephistopheles. The devil, in every utterance the cynic opposed to Faust’s idealistic hopes, exposes the coarse reality that in his view is the sole aspect of human life on earth.
Faust was first published in 1790 as a compilation of fragments that dated back to the...
(The entire section is 977 words.)