Critical Overview

Critiques of Faust run from the reverential, especially in Germany after its initial release in 1808, to that of the utterly dismissive. The praise centers on Faust’s indefatigable striving toward an ideal, while the criticism concerns Faust’s moral goodness because his actions cause the suffering and death of several characters, including his love Gretchen. Many critics also question the overall aesthetic unity of the work because Goethe composed it over sixty years of his life: Part I was published in 1808, and Part II was published in 1832. It seems to lack a unified style and structure and is more literary than theatrical.

Many early twentieth-century critics align the figure of Faust with Goethe, finding many parallels between character and writer, like his dissatisfaction with the world around him, his various relationships with younger women, and his multifarious genius.

The critic Nicholas Rennie argues that Goethe had a disdain for that which appears chaotic and disordered; he, therefore, shares the Enlightenment idea that if something appears random, we are just incapable of perceiving the cause. He aligns Goethe’s belief in a “prägnanter Augenblick”—or a blink of the eye that is capable of seeing the totality of the universe—with Faust’s own desire for understanding. Dieckmann aligns Faust and its style with the surreality of the symbolist movement rather than with traditional Aristotelian drama by appealing to our senses rather than to our reason.

Critics are concerned about the intellectual traditions explored in Faust, but also about the work’s influence on Modernism. Recent critical views consider the character Faust as a precursor to the modern hero, especially the existential figure who seeks intensity and desires to live all of life’s pleasure and pain to its fullest. Through Nietzsche, twentieth-century writers like Hemingway, Joyce, Sartre, and Mailer create protagonists who, through their will, strive for answers in an increasingly chaotic and amoral world.

The critics Swales and Swales argue that this contention between modern sensibilities and tradition are reflected in the characters of Faust and Gretchen; the former represents the secular and the individual, while the latter is influenced by mother, church, culture, and politics. Therefore, their love affair is a tragic meeting between these distinct worldviews. In this way, Faust predicts both the positive and negative consequences of modernity.