The character of Gretchen in Johann Goethe’s Faust goes from being a pure young woman who is innocent of worldly ways to a fallen woman who is guilty of committing numerous sins. These transgressions lead to her disgrace and even a death sentence, as well as the deaths of others. The serious consequences of her unfortunate choices serve to remind the audience of both the difficulty and the importance of staying on a straight and narrow path. Gretchen stands for the innately flawed character of all females, as she succumbs to temptation in the form of male seduction.
In many ways, Gretchen can be seen as Faust’s polar opposite. Being sheltered from social ills, she falls into temptation. Faust, in contrast, actively seeks things—especially the magical dark arts—because he knows they are forbidden to him and to all humans. She shows that she is fully human as she embraces carnal knowledge, whereas Faust tries to place himself above other humans.
The depths to which Gretchen falls as a result of her sexual indiscretion may indicate Goethe’s severe assessment of female honor. The virtue she initially embodies is inadequate to protect her. Her character’s weakness in not resisting male sexual power seems to characterize all females’ frailty. The seriousness of her lapses is confirmed as they ultimately lead to the death of a truly innocent creature, her baby, as well as that of her noble brother. Gretchen’s story suggests the importance of female chastity.