Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 977

Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s masterwork of dramatic poetry, summarizes his entire career, stretching from the passionate storm and stress of his youth through the classical phase of his middle years to his mature, philosophical style. Composition of the work occupied him from the time of his first works in the 1770’s until his death in 1832, and each of its various sections reveals new interests and preoccupations as well as different stylistic approaches. Nevertheless, the work possesses a unity that testifies to the continuing centrality of the Faust subject in Goethe’s mind.

The first scenes that were composed, those of Faust in his study and of Gretchen, reflect the twenty-three-year-old Goethe still preoccupied with university parodies based on his student experiences but at the same time increasingly interested in titanic projects. In his desire to pursue knowledge and surpass previous limitations, he was typical of other young writers of this period. In fact, Faust was originally one of a planned series of dramas about heroic figures who transgress society’s rules—among them Julius Caesar, Prometheus, and Götz von Berlichingen.

Goethe stresses the tragedy of the scholar whose emotional life is not fulfilled and who seeks for limitless knowledge, only to find himself frustrated by mortal limitations. The scenes with Gretchen provide emotional release but leave Faust with a sense of guilt for the destruction of purity. The theme of the unwed mother, a popular one among young poets of this period, represents a revolt against traditional bourgeois values, giving occasion for much social criticism. In the Gretchen scenes, Goethe, who as a student had romances with young village women, evokes great sympathy for Gretchen, who acts always out of sincere emotion and desires only the good. His theme of the corruption of all human questing, because of the inherent imperfections of human knowledge and of will, receives here its first expression, though with no philosophical elaboration. Neither Faust nor Gretchen wills evil, yet evil comes by way of Mephistopheles. The devil, in every utterance the cynic opposed to Faust’s idealistic hopes, exposes the coarse reality that in his view is the sole aspect of human life on earth.

Faust was first published in 1790 as a compilation of fragments that dated back to the 1770’s. Between 1797 and 1806, with Friedrich Schiller’s encouragement, Goethe returned to the work and created the prologue in heaven and the pact with Mephistopheles, both of which are crucial to the philosophical aspect of the work. Mephistopheles, no longer the absolute opponent of God, is included in the divine framework; he is a necessary force in creation, a gadfly. The action in the work now becomes a wager between God and Mephistopheles, which God must win. The old blood contract between Faust and Mephistopheles is converted into a wager: Mephistopheles must make Faust deny his very nature by giving up his quest for ever higher satisfactions in a moment of absolute fulfillment. Damnation, for Goethe, is the cessation of human striving toward the absolute, and this striving is good, no matter what mistakes human beings make in their limited understanding. He makes this clear in the prologue: God recognizes that human beings will err as long as they strive, but He states that only by seeking after the absolute, however confusedly, can they fulfill their nature. Mephistopheles sees only the confusion and futility of the results as well as the coarseness of human life. He is blind to the visionary, poetic quality of Faust that animates his quest. This relationship, established in the first part, continues until the end of the play. In each episode, Faust begins with an idealistic vision of what he seeks, but he never attains it. Seen externally, Mephistopheles is always right—it is internally that Faust’s quest has meaning.

In the original Faust story, Faust meets Helen of Troy, an episode that occupied Goethe in the period of his fascination with the classical world. The third act of part 2 is the union of Faust, the northern, modern, Romantic quester, with Helen, who represents classical harmony and ideal beauty. In this act, Goethe, after imitating the style of Greek tragedy, brings Faust and Helen together in an idyllic realm of fantasy filled with music. This music—Goethe actually wanted an operatic interlude—underlines the purely aesthetic nature of the experience. Helen cannot be the end of Faust’s seeking; their relationship can exist only in the mythical Arcadia, where reality, symbolized perhaps by Helen’s husband, Menelaus, cannot intrude. The act was subtitled “Classic-Romantic Phantasmagoria,” and Goethe followed it immediately with a scene in which Faust sees visions of both Helen and Gretchen and is drawn toward the latter in spite of Helen’s ideal perfection. Gretchen, however tragic, is real.

The final sections of Faust were composed between 1825 and 1831. In them, Faust’s appearances at court are developed and the final scenes of Faust’s redemption return to the framework established in the prologue. Faust’s last days are still unsatisfied and his quest is as violent as ever; his merchant ships turn to piracy, and a gentle old couple is killed to make room for his palace. His final vision, however, is that of all humanity, which strives to turn chaos to order and seeks a dimly imagined goal represented in the final scene by an endless stairway. Here, on the path toward the divine, Faust continues to strive. His life is redeemed by a divine love represented by Gretchen, who in spite of her crimes is also there, a penitent who prays for Faust. On Earth all is transitory and insufficient. Only from the point of view of the divine does all the confused striving attain a meaning that was, in fact, implicit in the stanzas that the three archangels sing at the opening of the play, twelve thousand lines earlier.

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