Faust Questions and Answers
by Johann Goethe

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Do you think Faust ever really loves Gretchen, or do you think his intention all along is to seduce and abandon her? Or does he love the idea of Gretchen?

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When to the moment I shall say,/ “Linger awhile! so fair thou art!”/ Then mayst thou fetter me straightway,/ Then to the abyss will I depart!

In Goethe's masterpiece, Faust's damning pact with Mephistopheles is what dooms his relationship with Gretchen. In his newly youthful guise (courtesy of the witch), he can now taste the sensual pleasures of the world to his heart's content; Gretchen just happens to be one of those pleasures. She is, by all accounts, a noble and faithful daughter to a widowed mother. Innocent of guile and bereft of her father and little sister at a young age, she is housekeeper of the home she shares with her mother.

Faust is immediately smitten when he sees Gretchen, or rather, he finds his lust inflamed by the sight of her. When Faust and Gretchen part in the garden, without any promise of the consummation of Faust's desires, Mephistopheles goads him to distraction by intentionally weaving sexual imagery into his sly monologue. He tells Faust that Gretchen will be left 'love-sick evermore' by Faust's lack of masculine fortitude in procuring the sensual experience both of them desire. At this point, Mephistopheles just wants Faust to bed Gretchen so that he can win the pact.

She loves thee with an all-devouring flame./ First came thy passion with o’erpowering rush,/Like mountain torrent, swollen by the melted snow;/ Full in her heart didst pour the sudden gush,/Now has thy brooklet ceased to flow./

As to whether Faust really loves Gretchen, the evidence is to the contrary. Yes, he is fascinated by Gretchen's goodness and innocence; that all her positive attributes are enshrined in a visually attractive package doesn't hurt either. But we must not forget Faust's original desire for self-actualization or self-fulfillment; this is what originally drove him to make a pact with Mephistopheles. His desire to slake his sexual appetite is a microcosmic part of that all-pervading desire. He is searching for meaning; he hasn't found it yet in Part 1, where most of Gretchen's interaction with Faust is delineated.  If you read Faust' conversation with Gretchen regarding faith in God, you will see that Faust's present focus is not so much cerebral as it is visceral. He wants to feel; he doesn't want to think about the consequences of bedding a nubile, young woman.

Then call it, what thou wilt,/— Call it Bliss! Heart! Love! God!/ I have no name for it!/ ’Tis feeling all;/

So, we find that, after impregnating Gretchen and killing Gretchen's brother, Valentine, in a duel, Faust escapes to indulge in the macabrely decadent pleasures afforded at the Witches Celebration on Walpurgis Night. He leaves Gretchen to face the aftermath of a night of sensual pleasure on her own, agonizing in the cathedral about her sins and grieving over her own brother's death. Faust doesn't instinctively set out to abandon Gretchen, but he doesn't plan for a future together with her either. So, on this point alone, his love (if it can be called that) for Gretchen is superficial at best, and gratuitous at worst.

His conscience is only pricked when he realizes that Gretchen is in prison for her part in drowning their child. He tries to pin the blame on Mephistopheles for Gretchen's plight, but Mephistopheles will have none of it. He tells Faust that all responsibility really lies with him. Meanwhile, Faust begs Gretchen to leave the prison with him, but Gretchen chooses not to do so. She grieves that the day of judgment, which should have been the day of her 'bridal,' has come for her. Helpless, Faust has to leave Gretchen to her fate. Gretchen's willingness to face judgment for her sins ensures her salvation. It is from this experience that Faust begins to see that sensual gratification alone will not ensure his self-fulfillment.

 

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