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....
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