Student Question

What is the significance and symbolism of Margaret (Gretchen) in Faust?

Quick answer:

At first, Margaret might represent two main stereotypes about women in Faust. They're either saintly and chaste or corrupt and sexually active. However, as we learn more about Margaret, we realize that she's a caring person who raised her little sister. She also immediately senses the evil nature of Mephistopheles. A favorable, feminist reading might talk about how Margaret transcends stereotypes. After all she suffered, she's still going to heaven.

Expert Answers

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In Johann Goethe's Faust, we think it’s safe to say that Margaret is a complex character that both symbolizes and transcends many stereotypes and sexist tropes about women.

When Faust first sees Margaret in the street, what does he say again? He says, "Fair lady, let it not offend you, / That arm and escort I would lend you!"

Margaret replies, "I'm neither lady, neither fair, / And home I can go without your care."

Here, we have two different depictions of Margaret. Faust sees her as a virtuous, beautiful woman. Margaret sees herself as an unscrupulous, promiscuous woman.

This scene might symbolize the paradox that many women face. There's something called the Madonna-whore complex. It’s where patriarchal society pressures women to believe that they must choose between either saintliness or unseemliness. There’s no middle ground.

We might say that Margaret is of such importance because she shows how such stereotypical roles prevent us from seeing women as complex and dynamic humans.

Whatever she is, Goethe shows us that Margaret is a caring, perceptive person. She raises her little sister with lots of love, and she recognizes the nefarious character of Mephistopheles right away.

In the end, who is saved? It's Margaret.

Again, a favorable feminist reading of Faust might talk about how Margaret transcends sexist categories and symbolizes the strength and resilience of woman. Think about all that Margaret had to go through, and yet she's still going to heaven. That seems like a rather amazing human to us.

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