Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646
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Faust (fowst), a perpetual scholar with an insatiable mind and a questing spirit. The middle-aged Faust, in spite of his enthusiasm for a newly discovered source of power in the sign of the macrocosm, finds his intellectual searches unsatisfactory and longs for a life of experiences in the world of humans. On the brink of despair and a projected suicide, he makes a wager with the Devil that if he ever lies on his bed of sloth-fulness or says of any moment in life, “Stay thou art so fair,” at that moment he will cease to be. He cannot be lured by the supernatural, the sensual, or the disembodied spiritual, but he does weaken in the presence of pure beauty and capitulates to humanitarian action. He displays himself as a sensual man in his deep love for Gretchen (Margarete), only to be goaded to murder by her brother, who sees not selfless love in their actions, but only sin. Faust aspires to the love of Helen of Troy, but he is disconsolate when she appears. As an old man, he returns to his early vision of being a man among men, working and preparing for a better world to be lived here on earth. His death is not capitulation, though he thinks at this point man can cry “stay,” and he has never taken his ease or been tempted by a life of sloth. His death is his victory, and his everlasting life is to be lived resourcefully among the creators.
Mephistopheles (mehf-ih-STOF-eh-leez), the Devil incarnate and Lucifer in disguise of dog and man. Portrayed here as a sophisticate, cynic, and wit, he is persuasive and resourceful. He works magic, manages miracles, and creates spirits and situations for Faust’s perusal and delectation. His persistence is the more remarkable for the ability of Faust to withstand and refute these offerings, though Mephistopheles often expresses resentment. Somehow more attractive than God and the archangels, he powerfully represents the positive force of evil in its many and attractive guises.
Gretchen, sometimes called Margarete, an innocent, beautiful young maiden. A foil for the Devil, Gretchen remarkably personifies womanly love without blemish or fear. She gives herself to Faust, who swears he cannot molest her, with an earthy abandon and remains for a time unearthly innocent in her raptures, until the forces for morality convince her that she has sinned deeply and that she must pay first by destroying her child and then by being sacrificed to the state, suffering death for her transgressions. Brooding over her brother’s death, she refuses solace from her lover.
Valentin (VAHL-ehn-teen), a soldier and Gretchen’s brother, killed by Faust with the aid of Mephistopheles.
Wagner (VAHG-nur), Faust’s attendant, an unimaginative pedant. Serving as a foil for Faust, Wagner expresses himself in scholarly platitudes and learns only surface things. He aspires not to know all things but to know a few things well, or at least understandably; the unobtainable he leaves to Faust. He serves as the Devil’s advocate, however, in the temptation of Faust by helping Mephistopheles create Homunculus.
Homunculus (hoh-MUHNG-kyew-luhs), a disembodied spirit of learning. This symbol of man’s learning, mind separated from reality, interprets for Mephistopheles what Faust is thinking. The spirit discloses Faust’s near obsession with ideal beauty, and thus Faust is given the temptress, Helen of Troy.
Helen of Troy
Helen of Troy, who appears as a wraith at first and then with form. Representing the classical concept of eternal or ideal beauty, Helen very nearly succeeds where Gretchen failed. She finally seems to Faust only transitory beauty, no matter how mythological and idealized. After this final experience, Faust denounces such hypothetical pursuits and returns to deeds.
Dame Marthe Schwerdtlein
Dame Marthe Schwerdtlein (MAHR-teh SHVEHRDT-lin), Gretchen’s neighbor and friend, an unwitting tool in the girl’s seduction.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613
Faust contains a large number of minor characters, but the action centers on three main figures.
Heinrich Faust is the play’s protagonist. He is a learned scholar who is dissatisfied with his life and accomplishments and longs to find something absolute and enduring that can end his alienation. Faust represents the opposite of Mephistopheles; that is to say, he is constant striving and motion to understand the universe and his place in it, while Mephisto is denial, negation, a standing still. Ironically, Mephistopheles is an integral part of the Lord’s design, as he tells Faust: “A part of that power which always wills evil, but always does good.” While Mephisto represents negation, by tempting Faust toward surrender, he only succeeds in leading Faust toward his salvation. Faust’s indefatigable movement and curiosity to experience all of God’s creation can only be temporarily swayed by the devil’s temptation. Faust often despairs, but never for long.
Faust reflects humanity’s struggle to find meaning and order in life, representing a sort of everyman. Goethe’s idea that life is meant to be lived animates Faust. Yet, coupled with his ceaseless striving and action, Faust makes moral errors that lead to others’ suffering and often to their deaths. He is distracted by his lust, by his need to conquer nature, by his desire to possess beauty; however, his relentless motion toward goals larger than himself becomes ultimately more important than the errors they precipitate. Also, as long as Faust is under the influence of Mephisto, he will continue to err. Only when he begins to accept the responsibility for Mephisto’s actions—and begins to altruistically feel compassion for others—does Faust begin to extricate himself from the devil’s influence.
Mephistopheles—sometimes called Mephisto—represents negation, stagnation, denial. But in Goethe’s hands, he is also witty, clever, cynical, sardonic, and above all an instrument of doubt. Mephisto seeks to instill a doubt that leads to despair and inaction. While he does aim to trap Faust into inaction, his barrage of cynicism and skepticism only succeed in motivating Faust to continue to strive for meaning. His observations are often correct, but his lack of sympathy, and ultimately of love, allow him to be defeated. Mephisto could be interpreted as a side of Faust that seeks to dominate his psyche through worldly desire, and has no understanding of the higher aims of humanity that Gretchen does.
Margaret/Gretchen is Faust’s love interest, a good village girl who is seduced by Faust and ends up imprisoned for killing her child. She is a paragon of idealism, purity, and innocence that is corrupted by Faust’s lust. Her virtue gives her an intrinsic aversion to Mephisto, but does not save her from Faust’s desires. While initially wary, she begins a romance with Faust and remains true to him, even though it results in a tragic outcome for her. Like Mephisto is to Faust, Gretchen’s purity and goodness are contrasted by her mother’s conventionality and her friend Martha’s materialism. After Gretchen sleeps with Faust, her sense of guilt begins to dominate her thoughts—particularly since Faust seems to have abandoned her—leading to her personal tragedy. While Gretchen dies at the end of Part I, and 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.
Most of the other characters in Faust are generally flat, representing social and cultural attitudes toward morality and position that provide contrasts to the more complex and intricate characters of Faust, Mephistopheles, and Gretchen.