Why is Gretchen a tragic figure in Faust?

Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust is a tragic figure because she is seduced by Faust and then kills her child before being condemned for her actions. Because of her innocence and naïveté, she fails to recognize his depravity and is ill-prepared to resist him. When society censures her behavior as sinful, she is driven to destroy the baby who resulted from the seduction. Her tragedy includes both her suffering on Earth and her death.

Expert Answers

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

In Johann Goethe’s Faust, the character of Gretchen is a tragic figure because she causes the death of her baby. Ironically, she is caught up in a sequence of damaging actions not because she is evil but because she is good. It is her basic goodness and purity that contribute to her undoing and the child’s death. Compounding the tragedy is her brother’s death while trying to avenge her. Goethe suggests that shielding people from the harsh ways of the world is not effective. Her innate goodness is undermined by her ignorance, as she lacks the ability to formulate adequate defenses against a man who is backed by infernal forces.

Goethe may imply that there is an element of pride in Gretchen’s fall. Her confidence that she would not give in to temptation may have led to her underestimating Faust’s power. Once she succumbs to seduction, her problems quickly snowball. She is open to further transgressions, such as despair, that lead her to rash actions. While Goethe leaves it somewhat ambiguous whether she actually murdered her child, she is clearly responsible for the baby’s death. Gretchen remains a tragic character because she does not become fully evil. Her guilt and remorse prompt her to reject Faust’s offer of help as she finally manages to free herself from his hold.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team