In Goethe's Faust, when Mephistopheles tries to claim Gretchen's soul, what happens?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Goethe's Faust is a version of the original story of Doctor Faustus first appearing in 1587 in the Faust Chapbook. "Romantic sensibilities and eighteenth-century attitudes toward earthly life and the beyond." Faust is written in two parts. Part I was first published as a fragment in 1775, then in a more complete form in 1808. Part II wasn't written until 1832, when it was then published posthumously.

Goethe updates the legend by adding a prolonged love story, making his devil an ironic and mocking figure, and allowing Faust’s soul to escape damnation.

Included also is the worthiness of man (and woman), and God's forgiving nature.

Faust is a man of substantial accomplishment, but he wants more:

"He longs for a metaphysical truth, a more profound meaning to life"...(and "longing and contentment").

Much like the temptation of Adam and Eve, based on a promise of knowledge and an ensuing fall from grace, Faust turns to magic and is challenged by Mephistopheles (Mephisto) whom he rejects until a wager is struck that Mephisto cannot satisfy Faust's desires with human pleasures.

Margaret (also known as Gretchen) is pursued and charmed by Faust (with Mephisto's planning) against her better judgment. Innocent at the start,

[Gretchen] is a paragon of idealism, purity, and innocence that is corrupted by Faust’s lust.

Faust seduces her (again with Mephisto's help) and she becomes pregnant with Faust's illegitimate child. After Gretchen sleeps with Faust, she begins to feel strong pangs of guilt. Whereas she can resist Mephistopheles, she cannot resist Faust because she loves him.

During the seduction, Gretchen unknowingly poisons her mother with a sleeping potion. She drowns her baby and is imprisoned for killing the child. Faust separates himself from her after the murder of Gretchen's brother and seems to treat her with disregard; it seems he has abandoned her. Surprisingly, when Faust tries to free her from prison, she refuses to go:

"...she has gone insane from guilt and despair, and she dies."

When Gretchen dies and Mephistopheles believes that she will be punished for her sins, Goethe presents a loving, forgiving Lord who judges this lamb, who is lost from the flock, with compassion.

Mephisto is convinced she is damned, she is saved by the Lord, seemingly based on her innocence, her unintentional sins, the wisdom she gains through her suffering, and her repentance.

For Mephistopheles, who is incapable of love, the sense of God's boundless love is something he cannot comprehend: so when he believes Gretchen's soul is lost to eternal damnation, God's love for her intercedes on her behalf, and she is saved.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team