Johann Wolfgang von Goethe World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3434

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Goethe is recognized as one of the greatest and most versatile European writers and thinkers of modern times. He profoundly influenced the growth of German Romanticism. His first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was one of the literary sensations of the eighteenth century. A psychological unfolding in letter form, it brings new focus to the epistolary novel. With Elective Affinities, Goethe created a new type of fiction. Instead of concentrating on one individual character, Goethe builds this novel around social concerns, the complications of human relationships, and divorce.

Many of Goethe’s works are autobiographical. The tone of the first volume of his autobiography sets a new standard for autobiographical writings. Because Goethe defines his own writings as fragments of a grand confession, it is important to study his life in order to understand his work. That is especially true of his poetry, which is characteristically extremely personal and private. With his autobiographical writings, Goethe himself makes the most important contributions to the understanding of his own literature.

The lyrical poetry of his early days brought Goethe into the foreground of the German literary arena. Collecting folk songs with his friend Johann Gottfried Herder inspired him to write numerous poems in the folk-song style. Some of these became popular favorites among the German people, such as “Heidenröslein” (“Little Rose of the Heath”) and “The Erlking.” In both poems, Goethe explores the themes of love, alienation, and death. In “Little Rose of the Heath,” the love is that of a young man, and in “The Erlking,” it is the love of a father for a young child. Both poems are reflective of the passions of Goethe’s Storm and Stress period, during which the focus was on depth of emotions and on the individual.

While Goethe’s initial fame comes from his lyric poetry, it is his dramatic poem Faust that is considered the crowning achievement of his long life and one of the masterpieces of world literature. In style, theme, and point of view, it delineates Goethe’s impressive range of development from the early, rebellious Storm and Stress days to the calm classicism and realistic vision of his later years. The themes of the individual’s right to negotiate his own destiny, to strive for knowledge and power, and to cross the threshold into the supernatural all contribute to making Faust a landmark as the first major work in the spirit of modern individualism.


First produced: Faust: Eine Tragödie, part 1, 1829 (first published, 1808; English translation, 1823); Faust: Eine Tragödie, zweiter Teil, part 2, 1854 (first published, 1833; English translation, 1838)

Type of work: Play

A medieval scholar turns to supernatural forces in his quest for knowledge and sells his soul to the Devil.

Goethe began his most famous work, Faust, while he was in his twenties. He published the first part of Faust in 1808 and completed the second part two months before his death. The Faust story is based on the legend of the Renaissance scholar Dr. Faustus, who quested after universal knowledge by means of alchemy and magic. The real Johannes Faustus lived from 1480 to 1540. His legendary adventures became the subject for innumerable puppet shows and popular folk dramas throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Germany. Thus, Goethe was familiar with the Faust myth since childhood, and from the time that he was twenty, until he died at eighty-two, the theme never left his imagination.

The theme of Goethe’s Faust befits both the Romantic fascination with the supernatural and the themes of justice and good and evil, which have occupied literature since biblical times. Goethe takes the theme of good and evil beyond the traditional Christian concept embodied in God and the Devil. Influenced by the study of Oriental literature, Goethe sees the world as a totality composed of opposing forces: light and dark, good and evil, male and female, yin and yang, physical and spiritual, natural and supernatural. God and the Devil (whom Goethe calls Mephistopheles, which means “without light”) are representative of these opposing forces on a larger, as well as a smaller, scale: within the macrocosm (the universe) and the microcosm (humanity). There exists on all levels a constant struggle between the opposing forces, with each side striving to overcome the other. It is this striving that is key to the understanding of Goethe’s work. The redeeming factor of Faust is that he continues to strive. To Goethe, the ideal man, the Faustian man, never gives up striving.

The story of the Faust drama (sometimes referred to as the Gretchen tragedy) begins in Heaven. In “The Prologue in Heaven”—a modern enactment of the Job story—the Devil, Mephistopheles, complains that God’s creation, man, is so pitiful and corrupt that it is no more fun to torture him. God asks Mephistopheles if he knows the good man Faust. The Devil laughs and offers God a bet: “What do you wager? You will lose him yet.” God accepts Mephistopheles’ bet for Faust’s soul and points out that as long as man strives, he will make mistakes, but that he is basically good.

Despite Mephistopheles’ gleefully wicked intent to make Faust “eat dust” like his cousin the Snake, God tells Mephistopheles that He never hated him or those like him, but instead, he considers him necessary to provoke humankind to action. These lines embody the key to understanding the theme of the Faust story and the Faustian striving:

I have never hated the likes of you.Of all the spirits of denialThe joker is the last that I eschew.Man finds relaxation too attractive—Too fond too soon of unconditional rest;Which is why I am pleased to give him a companionWho lures and thrusts and must, as devil, be active.

Goethe depicts the Devil not as the customary embodiment of fear-filled threat and wickedness but rather as a jovial but serious mischief maker. When the curtain closes after the prologue and Mephistopheles is left alone on stage, he humorously observes that God is not all that bad, saying, “I like to see the Old One now and then.”

The first part of the tragedy begins with Faust alone in his study. Dr. Faust is a professor, doctor, lawyer, and theologian. He has studied all that there is to study but bemoans the fact that he still knows nothing. He teaches, but he feels that he is merely leading his students by the nose, since they could read for themselves and know all that he knows. He would like to be able to teach something that would improve humankind.

There is one subject, though, of which Faust knows virtually nothing: the world of the spirits. He opens a book on mystic art by Nostradamus and sees the sign of the Macrocosm and then of the Earth Spirit. Inspired to venture into this mystic world, he calls forth the Earth Spirit. In a flash of red flame, the Spirit appears before him, then vanishes, as Faust is unable to detain it. Feeling dejected, Faust decides that there is only one way to experience the world of the spirits, and that is to go through the door to death. He considers crossing that threshold and reaches for a vial of poison. As he lifts the poison to his lips, Faust hears the church bells outside ringing on Easter morning (symbolic, of course, of rebirth). He puts the poison down, decides to delay his quest for now, and takes a walk in the village with Wagner, his student.

A black poodle joins Faust and Wagner on their walk and follows Faust back to his study. The poodle fidgets nervously as Faust reaches for the Bible and begins to read: “In the Beginning was the Word.” Faust ponders the biblical text, then writes what he considers to be a correction: “In the beginning was the Deed.” The squirming poodle distracts Faust. Then Faust realizes that this dog is not an ordinary one. Suddenly, mist fills the small room, and from behind the stove, Mephistopheles steps forward, dressed like a traveling scholar.

When Faust asks the name of his guest, Mephistopheles identifies himself as the dark side of Totality, the evil side of good, the power that negates, but in negating creates “A part of that Power/ Which always wills evil, always procures good . . . I am a part of the Part which in the beginning was all/ A part of the darkness which gave birth to light.” The image of Mephistopheles as a part of the Greater Whole, as that force that destroys (negates), but in destroying the old creates the new, is essential to the theme of the play. Believing that he can still Faust’s unrest and continuous striving, Mephistopheles challenges Faust to a wager. He agrees to be Faust’s servant and to do or show him anything that he wants. If Faust ever says that he is totally satisfied, that the moment is so perfect that he wants it to last forever, then he will die and Mephistopheles will possess his soul.

The Devil and Faust sign their bet in blood. Before they begin their quest, Mephistopheles takes Faust to the Witch’s Kitchen for a youth potion. The witch, startled to find two traveling scholars in her kitchen, does not recognize the Devil. He chastises her and tells her that the Devil must go along with the times. The time for cloven feet, pitchforks, and traditional views of Satan is over: “Satan has long been a myth without sense or sinew. . . . They are quit of the Evil One but the evil ones remain./ You may call me Noble Baron, that should do; I am a cavalier among other cavaliers.”

On leaving the Witch, Faust and Mephistopheles begin their adventures. In their sojourns, Faust falls in love with a young girl, Margaret—usually referred to as Gretchen. Gretchen is the embodiment of innocence. She falls in love with Faust but is uneasy around Mephistopheles. Since Gretchen lives with her mother, consummating their love is a problem until Mephistopheles secures a sleeping potion. Unfortunately, the sleeping potion is too strong, and Gretchen’s mother dies. Gretchen’s brother, Valentine, appears and challenges Faust to a duel. Faust, with Mephistopheles at his side, kills Valentine. Faust is then ushered away by Mephistopheles to a witches’ celebration, the Walpurgis Night. In the meantime, Gretchen has discovered that she is pregnant. She gives birth, then kills her illegitimate child and goes to prison.

In the midst of the bizarre activities of the Walpurgis Night, Faust is distracted by a mirror image of Gretchen in jail. He confronts Mephistopheles with what he (the Devil) has done. Mephistopheles, however, reminds Faust that he is merely his servant, and that Faust, alone, is responsible for his actions. In other words, the Devil did not make him do it; he simply facilitated the act.

Faust goes to Gretchen and, with Mephistopheles’ help, wants to get her out of prison. Gretchen at first rejoices at seeing Faust, but when she realizes that Mephistopheles is behind him, she turns away from Faust and bids him farewell. All she wants is to die and be punished for her sins. After Faust and Mephistopheles leave, a heavenly voice calls out that Gretchen’s soul is saved, she having been an innocent victim of circumstance. Thus ends Faust, part 1.

At the beginning of Faust, part 2, Faust awakens, again on Easter morning (a new rebirth), to continue his adventures with Mephistopheles. Faust has learned that personal gratifications do not satisfy him and now sets out on an expedition to do something for humankind. He encounters a king who is out of money, and Mephistopheles suggests issuing paper money.

Faust, part 2, is considerably longer than Faust, part 1, and is usually considered too cumbersome for stage productions with its intricate network of details. A familiarization with the major themes, however, is important in understanding the Faust story in its entirety. One of the themes that occupied much of Goethe’s later works is classical mythology. In the second part of the tragedy, Faust falls in love with Helen of Troy and asks Mephistopheles to conjure up the famous heroine. He marries Helen and has a son with her, whom he calls Euphorion. When Euphorion (who is thought to be a symbol for the English poet Lord Byron) is seven years of age, he tries to fly from the top of a ledge and crashes to the ground. With the death of Euphorion, Helen of Troy returns to the underworld, and Faust is left to continue his quest for satisfaction.

Goethe filled Faust, part 2, with extensive symbolism, revealing his increasing interest in the more restrained and structured classics, contrasting his earlier fascination with the Romantic extremism. The union of Faust and Helen represents the union of Romantic emotionalism and classic restraint. Their offspring is euphoria (Euphorion), but euphoria is short-lived.

Tragedy and failure do not prevent Faust from his striving. In the hope of doing something of value for humankind, he seeks to reclaim land from the sea to convert it into a public housing project. By the end of Faust, part 2, Faust is one hundred years old and blind. He hears digging outside and thinks that Mephistopheles is finally working on the housing project. Overjoyed at the thought that finally something will be done for humankind, Faust makes his way outside to let Mephistopheles know that this moment is the one for which he has been waiting. He dies reflecting that he has never found a moment so beautiful, so pleasant, that he wanted it to linger. The digging sound that Faust heard was Mephistopheles preparing Faust’s grave. In the final scene of part 2, the soul of Faust is carried to Heaven, saved because the moment that he had found most beautiful was a moment that he thought would benefit humankind.

In contrast to the traditional Christian concept of good and evil, Goethe depicts the two forces not as mutually exclusive but as part of the greater Totality, as intricate parts of the Whole, of which all are a part. In portraying the opposing forces as existing in the macrocosm (the universe) and the microcosm (humankind), Goethe indicates that both forces exist on every level, that all humankind has an inherent goodness that is sometimes challenged by inherent badness.

Goethe’s perspective is directly influenced by Oriental thought. Western interest in Oriental literature began to spread in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century with the Romantic fascination for the exotic and reached a high point during the nineteenth century.

The Sorrows of Young Werther

First published: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, 1774 (English translation, 1779)

Type of work: Novel

An artistic and intellectual young man, tormented by hopeless love for a young married woman, ends his anguish with a gunshot to his head.

The first great popular success of Goethe’s career was The Sorrows of Young Werther. It is a sentimental and psychological novel in letter form, influenced by Samuel Richardson, an eighteenth century English novelist famous for his epistolary novels. The letter-writing style is a natural genre for Goethe, whose writings are filled with biographical and autobiographical elements.

The character, Lotte, to whom the protagonist, Werther, is irrevocably drawn was inspired by Goethe’s unhappy infatuation with Charlotte (“Lotte”) Buff, the fiancé of his friend G. C. Kestner. Goethe met Lotte during his summer stay in Wetzlar in 1772. The end of the novel, with Werther pulling the trigger of the gun pointed at his head, was most probably prompted by the tragic fate of Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, secretary of the Brunswick ambassador, who committed suicide in October, 1772, after a public reprimand and the subsequent ostracism from aristocratic circles for his infatuation with the wife of a colleague.

In the letters to his friend, Goethe’s character, Werther, describes the joy and agony of his love for Lotte. She also feels the attraction but is betrothed to Albert, whom she subsequently marries. Werther befriends Lotte’s husband but is convinced that Albert’s love for Lotte is not as deep as his own. After a passionate embrace with his beloved, the chaos and excruciating turmoil in his heart become unbearable for Werther. He asks Lotte to let him borrow Albert’s pistols for safety on a journey that he never takes. Instead, in an ironic twist, the weapons of protection provide Werther with the means to end his suffering.

Goethe’s sentimental novel stands for more than the fate of Werther. It becomes the creed of a whole generation protesting the oversimplified and optimistic rationalism of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and its disregard for emotions. The Sorrows of Young Werther met with enthusiastic response from its readers and was soon translated into most of the European languages.

Its popularity produced a kind of Werther fever, with imitations of Werther behavior, which unfortunately led to a series of suicides. For a brief time, the publication of the novel was stopped and its sale banned. The reverberations of the effect of The Sorrows of Young Werther reached into the twentieth century, with psychologists referring to a rash of suicides among young people as the “Werther syndrome.” The popularity of this novel testifies to Goethe’s success in directing into a single channel the many currents of sentimentalism that were so prevalent during the German Romantic period.

“The Erlking”

First published: “Erlkönig,” 1782 (collected in Selected Poetry: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 2005)

Type of work: Poem

A father on horseback, clutching tightly his feverish and hallucinating child, rushes in vain to get his son home before he dies.

The theme, setting, and mood of Goethe’s “The Erlking” capture the spirit of the Romantic period of the late eighteenth century. Characteristics of Romanticism include a love for nature, a fascination with the supernatural, and the recurring themes of love and death, all of which are contained in Goethe’s poem.

“The Erlking” begins with a narrator describing a father’s frantic ride home on horseback, through the woods, holding tightly his feverish child. The child begins to hallucinate and tells his father that he sees the Erlking:

“O father, see yonder!” he says;“My boy, on what do you so fearfully gaze?”“O, ’tis the Er’king with his crown and shroud.”“No, my son, it is but a dark wreath of cloud.”

The father’s rational explanation of what his son sees remains unheeded. The feverish child describes the luring of the Erlking, who invites him to come with him, promising toys and playmates. The fearful child hesitates, but the Erlking persists and finally takes him by force. At the end of the poem, the father arrives home with his son dead in his arms.

The Erlking symbolizes death, which is to the Romantic a source not only of fear but also of attraction to the unknown and the supernatural. Goethe’s poem embodies the universal theme of the loss of innocence. In this perspective, the Erlking becomes the monstrous maturity, which lures youth but destroys its innocence. The fatalistic tone of the poem suggests that innocence inevitably succumbs to, and is destroyed by, the socialization of adulthood.

Goethe’s poem reflects the Romantics’ view of society as the culprit in the destruction of innocence. They believed in the natural goodness of humankind and emphasized the expression of feelings, which they considered more important than intellect. In eighteenth century Germany, emotionalism burst forth in violent form in the Storm and Stress literary movement, of which Goethe was an integral part.

“Wanderer’s Night Song”

First published: “Wanderers Nachtlied,” 1776 (collected in Selected Poetry: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 2005)

Type of work: Poem

Addressed to the creator, the poem is an appeal for freedom from the torment of the soul and the bustle of life.

“Wanderer’s Night Song” is representative of the poems written by the young Goethe at the height of his Storm and Stress years. It is indicative of his love of nature and his view of nature as the creator of all things. “Wanderer’s Night Song” exemplifies Goethe’s pantheistic ideas and sentiments, which he developed out of his study of the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the eighteenth century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The poem is an appeal to nature to allow the sweet freedom (symbolic of death) to enter the chest, suggesting the stopping of the heartbeat. This poem, like “The Erlking” and The Sorrows of Young Werther, yearns for freedom from emotional agonies, a freedom attainable only by crossing the final threshold of physical existence.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Long Fiction Analysis


Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749 - 1832)