Goethe’s Faust is a complex work of literature that is concerned with the place of humanity in the cosmos, the striving of its protagonist beyond his human confines, the implications of his going too far, and the consequences that his quest have on his community.
Goethe wrote Faust in two parts (Part I in 1808, Part II in 1832), and together they revise the Faustus legend to fit with Romantic sensibilities and eighteenth-century attitudes toward earthly life and the beyond. The theme of a man selling his soul to the devil for earthly desires—fame, knowledge, wealth, power—developed from a profound Christian belief in life after death. 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.
Faust’s universe is one of motion and flux, one where humanity is but a part, and one in which Faust tries to find values that are permanent and dependable as his experiences bring continual transformations: from hope to despair, from lust to spirituality. He literally journeys across the world, through mystical festivals, from old age to youth, in his quest for belonging and contentment. Through all of his accomplishments, Faust remains disillusioned and bitter at his death, but for his endless striving and belief in something beyond himself, Faust is saved from damnation by God’s grace.
Heinrich Faust, a well-esteemed and learned scholar, is at a crossroads in his life. He seems to have achieved an enviable position in his understanding of humanity, but he feels as if there is something missing. He longs for a metaphysical truth, a more profound meaning to life—an understanding and experience of creation that has so far eluded him. In his despair, Faust turns to magic and the occult, making a pact with the devil: if Mephistopheles can provide Faust with a moment of happiness in which the latter is so content that he desires it to last forever, the devil then wins his soul. Part I of Faust concerns Faust’s discontent, his pact with Mephistopheles, and his emotional love affair with Gretchen. Part II finds Faust looking for contentment through external experiences in what the world has to offer: achieving a powerful political position, meeting various classical personalities (including Helen of Troy), and precipitating many public projects. Yet the answers he seeks remain elusive.
Part I Part I opens with the Lord and the assembled heavenly host calling upon Mephistopheles, or Mephisto. The Archangels—Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael—first praise creation, remarking on its order, continuity, mystery, and power, but Mephisto complains that reason and knowledge have only made humans suffer. Faust is used as an example: the Lord maintains that Faust will eventually succeed in finding the right road by his striving toward an understanding beyond himself. The Lord agrees to allow Mephistopheles to tempt Faust, and He further agrees not to interfere.
Before Faust meets Mephisto, the former is alienated, literally living in his tower that cuts him off from life in the outside world. Faust is a scholar, but he despairs in what he sees as his alienation from the world and the greater meaning in life that his erudition has not brought him. On Easter Eve, Faust attempts to summon and control a spirit, but he is unable to and becomes frightened, and he thinks of suicide. The bells of Easter morning stop him, inspiring hope and signaling an imminent change in his life. On Easter, Faust and his apprentice Wagner walk among the villagers and observe their joyous acceptance of life, prompting Faust to remark...
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that he would gladly give up his earthly pleasures if his loftier spiritual questions could be answered. A black poodle follows them back to Faust’s study and, when Faust casts a spell, changes into Mephistopheles, who is then captured by Faust. Discovering the reality of the situation, Faust considers entering into a contract with the devil, since he too is governed by the Lord’s law. Mephistopheles tempts Faust with riches, but Faust refuses. Mephisto finally offers to help Faust start a new life beyond the bounds of the simple human being, and Faust agrees to give the devil his soul only if Mephistopheles serves him during his earthly life. The day of Faust’s death will be when he is content. Faust signs the contract in blood.
Mephisto and Faust first stop at Auerbach’s Cellar for some human company and good cheer, but Faust realizes quickly that the answers he seeks cannot be found among folks that seek to escape the frustrations of life through alcohol. The next stop is the Witch’s Kitchen, a den of the primeval and grotesque, where Faust sees an image of a beautiful young lady, Gretchen, in a mirror. He drinks a potion that takes thirty years off his life, and Faust’s lust is awakened.
The rest of Part I deals with Faust’s romance with Gretchen and her tragedy. When he first meets her, Faust is rebuffed by Gretchen on the street. Mephisto cannot help because she is pure and innocent, so Faust sets off to win her himself. Mephisto and Faust plant a box of jewels in Gretchen’s room. She finds them and is delighted, but her mother donates them to the church. After giving her more jewels, Faust begins a romance with Gretchen, getting her pregnant. After his lust wins over, Faust seemingly abandons her, seeing Gretchen as more of a common prostitute than a lover deserving of respect and compassion. Gretchen’s brother, Valentine, attempts to avenge her honor after a night of drinking, but Faust kills him, and he and Mephisto flee. While they are distracted at the Walpurgis Night orgy (marking a year’s passing), Gretchen is imprisoned for killing her child. When Faust hears of her incarceration, he returns to rescue her, but she has gone insane from guilt and despair, and she dies, ending Part I.
Part II Part II is longer than Part I and is divided into five acts, drawing more on a classical tradition rather than gothic influences. Act I begins with Faust’s renewal and his implied decision not to seek answers in physical desire, but to see what the rest of the world can offer. The Empire is materially prosperous, and Mephisto and Faust convince the Emperor to issue paper money. He agrees, but asks that Faust summon the spirits of Helen and Paris; Faust does so before the court with the help of the Eternal Mothers, and he is taken by Helen’s beauty. He tries to steal her from Paris but is knocked unconscious by a burst of thunder. Mephisto carries him away.
Act II opens back in Faust’s study from Part I. Wagner has replaced Faust at the university and is hard at work creating a human being. He shows Mephistopheles his little man in a jar, or Homunculus, who suggests that they take Faust to experience a classical Walpurgis Night. During this parade of classical figures, Faust searches for Helen, Mephisto searches for sensual pleasures, and the Homunculus searches for a way to become human. Mephisto finds what he is looking for in the basest and ugliest spirits, and Faust eschews his quest for an idealized form of beauty and seeks to find the real Helen.
Act III begins in Sparta, after the return of the Greek victors from Troy. Mephisto appears to Helen and a chorus of captured Trojan women as Phorkyas, telling them that Menelaus intends them harm; however, he convinces them that a local chieftain (Faust) can protect them. Mephisto transports them to Faust’s gothic castle, where Faust puts them at ease and begins to court Helen, but it is not long until Menelaus’s army shows up. They escape to Arcadia, where Faust and Helen have a son, Euphorion. Their son is the combination of the Classical and Romantic, and he seeks to gain knowledge and experience beyond his years. He is warned of the dangers, but casts himself off a cliff to his death. Helen then leaves Faust, expressing that happiness and beauty cannot be permanently combined. Heartbroken, Faust floats away in a cloud.
In Act IV, Faust decides to undertake a project to reclaim land from the sea; however, before he can begin his war with nature, he, with the assistance of Mephistopheles and the Three Mighty Men, help the Emperor win a military war. After their victory, the church claims much of the seized booty, but Faust is rewarded with a large strip of coastal land.
Faust’s plan begun in Act IV is nearing a successful completion at the outset of Act V. Philemon and Baucis, peasants who live in the region in a simple house, tell a wandering stranger about Faust’s experiment and their own refusal to sell their land to Faust. Meanwhile, Faust, now over 100 years old, orders Mephisto and the Three Mighty Men to evict the peasants. They do so, but with more violence than Faust intended: Philemon, Baucis, and the stranger are killed and the cottage burned. Faust begins to feel heavy guilt and remorse, taking responsibility for the evil he has caused; this begins his spiritual penance. In his study, Faust is accosted by Want, Debt, Distress, and Care. The latter tells him that humans will have no peace in life and blinds him, but Faust is determined to finish his project before his death. Faust has a vision of people living on his reclaimed lands and proudly says the words from his agreement with Mephisto in Part I: “Stay, Thou art so fair.” He immediately dies, but his soul is saved before Mephisto and his demons have a chance to claim it. Faust is freed from sin and is reunited with Gretchen among a host of saints and angels where he can work toward his ultimate salvation.