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Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust commences in Heaven with the angels Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael praising the Lord as creator and wise ruler of Heaven and earth. The devil Mephistopheles mocks human beings as failed creations because reason makes them worse than brutes. The Lord tells Mephistopheles that he will illuminate his servant Faust. Mephistopheles wagers with the Lord that he can corrupt Faust instead. The Lord assents because a good man cannot be misled, even by the temptations of a crafty devil. Moreover, the Lord knows, Mephistopheles will actually make Faust a better man; human beings need an impetus to overcome their innate sloth and to prod them into action.

In the next scene, Faust appears in acute despair because his intellectual studies have left him ignorant and without worldly gain and fame. In order to discover the inner secrets and creative powers of nature, he turns to black magic. Thus, he conjures up the Earth Spirit, the embodiment of the forces of nature. However, the Earth Spirit mocks Faust’s futile attempts to understand him. Without hope of understanding nature, Faust prepares to poison himself.

At that moment, church bells and choral songs announcing that “Christ is arisen” distract Faust from killing himself. Celestial music charms Faust out of his dark and gloomy study for a walk in the countryside on a beautiful spring day in companionship with his fellow human beings. Observing the springtime renewal of life in nature, Faust experiences ecstasy. At this moment, Faust yearns for his soul to soar into celestial spheres.

This Easter walk foreshadows Faust’s ultimate spiritual resurrection. However, he must first undergo a pilgrimage through the vicissitudes and depths of human life. Thus, Faust wagers his everlasting soul with Mephistopheles for a fleeting moment of satisfaction in this world. Mephistopheles commands a witch to restore Faust’s youth so that he is vulnerable to sensuous temptations. When Faust sees the beautiful young girl Margarete, he falls into lust and commands Mephistopheles to procure her. Mephistopheles devises a deadly scheme for seduction. Faust convinces Margarete, who is only fourteen years old, to give her mother a sleeping potion, prepared by Mephistopheles, so that they can make love. Mephistopheles makes poison instead; the mother never awakens.

Unwittingly, Margaret has murdered her mother. Furthermore, she is pregnant by Faust and alone. When Faust comes to visit Margarete, he finds her brother, Valentine, ready to kill him for violating his sister. Mephistopheles performs trickery so that Faust is able to stab Valentine in a duel. Dying, Valentine curses Margarete before the entire village as a harlot. Even at church, Margarete suffers extreme anguish as an evil spirit pursues her.

In contrast, Faust escapes to a witches’ sabbath on Walpurgis Night. He indulges in orgiastic revelry and debauchery with satanic creatures and a beautiful witch until an apparition of Margarete haunts him. Faust goes looking for Margarete and finds her, in a dungeon, insane and babbling. At this moment, Faust realizes that he has sinned against innocence and love for a mere moment of sensual pleasure. Even though it is the very morning of her execution, Margarete refuses to escape with Faust and Mephistopheles. Instead, she throws herself into the hands of God. As Faust flees with Mephistopheles, a voice from above proclaims, “She is saved!”

In Part Two , Mephistopheles tempts Faust with wealth, power, and aesthetic pleasure. The greatest temptation is Helen of Troy, the figure of ideal beauty. For the entertainment of the emperor and his court, Faust conjures up Paris and Helen. Faust becomes enchanted with Helen and pursues her apparition into mythical ancient Greece. Faust weds Helen and they have a child. However, the child dies from a fall, and Helen vanishes to the underworld. Faust realizes that the marvels of classical mythology, the beauty of Helen, and the...

(The entire section is 2,560 words.)