What perspective does Goethe provide us on the modern capitalist through his characterization of Faust in Faust Part I and Part II?

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To answer this, it is necessary to look at Faust's character through the lens of Marxist criticism since that is the theory that addresses issues of capitalism. It must be noted that while Karl Marx was first published in 1842 in The Rhenish Gazette, Goethe reluctantly finished Faust in 1831, more than ten years before Marx wrote anything. Thus it cannot be supposed that Goethe was asserting any Marxist ideology since Marx had not yet expressed such ideology. This said, it is possible to discuss the characterization of Faust in traditional Marxist critical terms.

Exploitation is a prime factor in Marxist critical theory. It is usual of Marxist criticism to analyze Faust in Part I as the capitalist exploiter and Gretchen (Margaret) as the exploited worker. Faust is said to have ambitions for a particular service and Gretchen is said to represent the supplier of that service. This is putting love in very utilitarian terms yet this is how Marxist theory characterizes Faust. This characterization is problematic in that it does not even begin to explain Faust's behavior once he learns Mephistopheles has betrayed him by withholding news of Gretchen's life and imprisonment in "Dreary Day," "Night," and "Dungeon."

The characterization in Part II shifts, placing the exploitation focus on the inhabitants of the land Faust desires to redeem from the assaults of tide and time. Even though Faust has built lovely safe dwelling for these inhabitants, he is characterized as exploiting them for the land they hold in order to free the land for his own purposes and wealth. Baucis and Philemon are the prime example of this exploitation. They decline the offer, or exploited coercion, of a resettlement to a lovely new home. Marxist critical theory asserts that Faust accelerates his exploitation by ordering Mephistopheles to remove them. This is seen as the ultimate exploitation, taking capitalist wealth at the cost of the loss of life, particularly since it is the ringing of the "shame" producing chapel bell that drives Faust on.

(The little bell on the dunes rings out.)
Faust (Startled.): Accursed ringing! Wounding me
With shame: a treacherous blow:
My realm’s laid out there, endlessly,
But, at my back, this vexes so,
Proclaiming, with its jealous sound: 11155
My great estate is less than fine,
The old hut, all the trees around,
The crumbling chapel, are not mine.
And even if I wished to rest there,
A strange shadow makes me shudder, 11160
It’s a thorn in my eye, and deeper:
Oh! Would I were somewhere other!

This analysis of the characterization of Faust as a capitalist is difficult to support in light of the fact that (1) Faust reprimands Mephistopheles in the strongest possible terms and (2) Faust turns away from magic after this event. which he deeply regrets.

Faust: Were you deaf to what I said? 11370    
I wanted them moved, not dead.
This mindless, and savage blow,
Earns my curse: share it, and go!

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that Goethe is rendering a powerful statement through Faust about the nature of capitalism.  Faust's desire to appropriate the world in accordance to his own subjectivity is essential to understanding his characterization.  For Faust, there is no end to his constant appetite for appropriation.  In the world of love, power, and mere being, Faust constantly seeks more and his activity is a reflection of what it means to be human.  In much the same way, Goethe might be suggesting that the modern capitalist seeks to do the same.  Just as Faust wanted more and demanded to be more with an insatiable appetite for all that is brought with it, the capitalist views their world in much the same light.  There is always more money to be made, greater profits to be had, and more companies to dominate.  This is where I believe that Faust's character drives him and represents why he is what he is.  In this, Goethe's perspective on capitalism is also the basic idea of what he sees as Faust's fundamental human quality in the desire to appropriate the world around him in accordance to his own subjectivity.

Read the study guide:
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question