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In a prologue in Heaven, reminiscent of the biblical Book of Job, Mephistopheles bets God that he can corrupt God’s faithful servant on earth, Faust.

Faust is a restless striver with an insatiable desire for experience and knowledge. He wagers that the devil can never cause him to be self-satisfied, or to wish any experience or achievement to last forever.

Mephistopheles tempts Faust with debauchery. Together they attend a witches’ Sabbath. The devil restores Faust’s youth and tempts him with the love of a woman, Gretchen. Faust becomes adviser to the Emperor and marries Helen of Troy, the world’s most beautiful woman, but Faust finds none of these experiences ultimately satisfying.

In an effort to be useful to his fellowman, Faust drains a large tract of swampy land, making it productive for thousands of people. Though old and blind now, Faust imagines the fair scene he has created, and wishes for the moment to be prolonged.

With this expression of satisfaction, he loses his wager with the devil, who attempts to claim Faust’s soul.

God, however, intervenes. Unquestionably, Faust has sinned: He has seduced and then abandoned the innocent maiden, Gretchen; he has caused an old couple who stood in the way of his reclamation project to be burned in their cottage. Still, God declares that while Faust made mistakes, he always strove to do good and therefore deserves salvation.

Goethe transformed a legendary medieval folk figure into a representative Western man, and a crude legend about a magician’s desire for pleasure and power into a story of man’s highest hopes and noblest aspirations.


Atkins, Stuart. Goethe’s “Faust”: A Literary Analysis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. Evaluates Faust first and foremost as a drama, showing each section’s dramatic as well as symbolic function, and seeks to demonstrate the organic unity of the work. Highly recommended.

Fairley, Barker. Goethe’s “Faust”: Six Essays. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1953. A knowledgeable and well-written set of studies by a preeminent Goethe scholar. Recommended.

Gillies, Alexander. Goethe’s “Faust”: An Interpretation. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1957. An important and detailed analysis, with lucid, helpful comments. Recommended for the more advanced student.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust: A Tragedy. Translated by Walter Arndt and edited by Cyrus Hamlin. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. Contains introductory essays by both the translator and editor, as well as substantial interpretive notes. Also offers sections on primary sources for Faust, Goethe’s outlines and correspondence, reactions by contemporaries, twelve essays by modern critics covering different aspects of the work, and a select bibliography. Useful for all levels.

Gray, Ronald. Goethe: A Critical Introduction. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967. A discussion of Goethe’s life and works, highly useful as an introduction to Faust. Two long chapters (7 and 8) discuss Faust in detail. Gray also compares the value of Faust as literature to Goethe’s lesser works. Includes a table of biographical dates, an index, and a select bibliography.

Watt, Ian. Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Ian Watt studies the origins and literary uses of Don Quixote, Don Juan, Faust, and Robinson Crusoe as pervasive myths of the modern individualist world.

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Critical Evaluation


Critical Overview