Brief summaries, commentaries, and notes on Faust.
Faust, Part 1
- Prologue in Heaven
- Night (1)
- Outside the City Gate
- Faust's Study (1)
- Faust's Study (2)
- Auerbach's Cellar in Leipzig
- Witch's Kitchen
- A Street (1)
- Out Walking
- The Neighbor's House
- A Street (2)
- A Garden
- A Summerhouse
- A Cavern in the Forest
- Gretchen's Room
- Marthe's Garden
- At the Well
- The City Wall
- Night (2)
- The Cathedral
- Walpurgis Night
- Walpurgis Night's Dream; or Oberon and Titania's Golden Wedding
- An Overcast Day, a Field
- Night, Open Country
- A Prison
Faust is a real person that was born around 1480 in the small town of Knittlingen. He must have had some formal education and it is likely that he spent a number of years as a wandering scholar, although it now seems certain that he styled himself as a 'Doctor' without having any right to the title (Smeed 1). He practiced magic and was proficient in hypnotism. He even cast a horoscope for the Bishop of Bamberg in 1520. He caught peoples attention where ever he went with his flamboyant personality. Tradition has it that he died in Staufen in 1540 or 1541; the house in which this is supposed to have happened is now an inn (Smeed 2).
Mephistopheles, the Devil, is a cynic, and cuts things down to size with his quick wit. He calls the Lord an "old gent," satirizes the university faculty, teases the mythological creatures he meets, and ends scenes with comments that puncture inflated sentiments. In Faust, Mephistopheles is the spirit of negation, "the spirit that always denies." In that respect, he is the exact opposite of God, who is the spirit of creation. Mephistopheles is a servant, both of God and of Faust, and has the soul of a servant, of a person who must obey but resents it and takes every opportunity to assert what domination he can. He is a servant of God because he is a part of Creation; he has to exist in order for good to exist. He is a servant of Faust because God allows it. But he isn't always willing to do what his master wants, especially at critical moments. He messes up orders, often with disastrous effects and thinks he knows better than his master how to woo women and takes over the wooing of Margarete. At the same time, he exercises his own authority when he can.
In Goethe's Play, Faust is the protagonist. Immediatly when reading the play, the reader begins to get a sense of who this character is. Faust is man who believes in Heaven and Hell, and also that there is a higher being, God, and the Devil. Faust is thought to be a smart, well-learned man by many. Though he seems to be intelligent, Faust is a bit nieve. For example, when Mephisto is attempting to strike up a deal with him for being his "servant", Faust assumes that Mephisto will just trust that he will keep his word. But Mephisto insists that there be in writing some sort of proof of their agreement. Also, when Wagner and Faust are walking through the dark and come across the black poodle, Faust has some sort of strange feeling about the dog. However, Wagner convinces him to think nothing of it and talks him into taking the dog home. Soon after this, the poodle begins getting larger turns into a hippopotamus-like creature. Mephisto then appears "out of" the dog.
Wagner is a student of Faust's with a bad habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is also somewhat "nerdy" and socially inept. Like Faust, he also despises the vulgarity of the real world and spends every waking hour engrossed in his studies.
Margarete is a young, modest, and religious woman of a lower class than Faust. She lives with her mother and helps out around the house. She is referred to as Gretchen, which is a shortened version of Margarete, many times throughout the story. Faust finds Margarete attractive and tells Mephistopheles to get her for him. At first, she refuses his advances, but eventually agrees to a love affair and thus begins her downfall. When Faust gets her pregnant, she is persecuted by society and cursed by her brother as he lay dying. Out of insane desperation, Margarete murders her mother and child and is thrown into prison. Faust and Mephistopheles attempt to rescue her, but discover that she is completely mad and are forced to leave her behind. As Mephisto and Faust leave the prison, a Heavenly voice says that Margarete's soul has been saved.
Works in Auerbach's Cellar in Leipzig and is sickened by the lovesongs that the other men sing. He threatens to take revenge on the "slut...who played him false" with "a rock heaved through her kitchen window" (1905).
She is the neighbor of Gretchen. She allows Gretchen to come over to wear the jewelry that she isn't allowed to wear at her own home. Mephistopheles tells her that her husband is dead and tries to seduce her.
A girl in Gretchen's village who is jealous of anyone that finds love. Since she is not allowed to have a beau, she takes pleasure in hurting others through gossip. Even though she only appears in one scene, her words regarding the pregnant Barbara have a devastating effect on Gretchen, who may be in the same condition herself.
Gretchen's brother and a soldier. He started a fight with Faust and Mephisto after he found out about Faust getting Gretchen pregnant. He is killed by Faust after the encounter.
Urge for Knowledge
The most significant theme in Faust is the drive for mankind to understand what they do not know. Faust, in a way, is representing the entire human race: "He is able to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, but must make errors before he can learn and grow" (Campbell 257). The human is naturally inquisitive about the world and the universe. Faust is unhappy because he can not find the answers to life, and he even contemplates suicide to end his despair. It is his “urge for knowledge" that is the driving force behind the play. His curiosity also forces Mephisto into the wager with God so that he can prove that humans are unhappy because of their intelligence.
References in Popular Culture
Mephistopheles is Goethe's devil. The devil is a fallen angel that became evil. The idea of a "Devil" is nearly universal with similar incarnations spanning Norse, Greek, Hindu, and many other religious sects. In the Norse mythology it is referred to as Loki, and in the Greek pantheon Pan.
Easter symbolizes the rebirth of Christ. The bells begin to chime and the chorus begins singing songs of praise at the same time Faust is about to poison himself. When he hears the chorus, Faust comes out of his stupor and does not go through with the act. This is like rebirth; Faust was so close to death but then he comes back to reality.
Bible Refernces And Interpretations
Line 59 “Do you know Faust?”
Job 1.8 “Have you considered my servant Job?”
This parallel sets the entire stage for the play. God and the Devil (Mephistopheles) make a bet about the fate of Job (Faust) if God removes his protection from around him and allows the Devil to use whatever means he wants to tempt him. Faust is not used exactly “as prototype of human goodness at this point… [but] is offered as an exception to Mephistopheles’ generalizations about mankind” (Atkins18) .
Line 95 “Dust he will eat...”
Genesis 3.14 “And the Lord God said unto the serpent, because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly thou shalt do, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.”
This is an important verse and metaphor throughout the text. According to the history of the bible, the reason why Satan was cast down from heaven is because he refused to prostrate before the new creature (man) that was created, thus disobeying God’s command. After the war in heaven, Satan and those that fought at his side were cast down to hell and earth. After Satan induced Eve into biting the apple from the tree of good and evil, he was cursed as referenced in Genesis 3.14.
Mephistopheles feels that humans “act more beastly than beast ever do” (46). The parallel made between the two lines shows a direct connection between how Mephistopheles feels that man is the lowest of creatures. The dust referred to in these quotes is also a reference to death. From the clay of the ground man came and to ashes he will return. “The pact is that Faust will die when he stops striving” (Brown 51). It is Mephistopheles’ job to keep Faust from focusing on striving and return to dust or death.
Line 2147-2148 “Go out into the fields right now, this minute, start digging and hoeing away, working hard.”
Genesis 3.19 “in the Sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Genesis 3. 23 “The Lord god sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.”
Mephistopheles makes a reference to the curse that was placed upon Adam to till the ground and he would now have to work very hard for food which was at one time given to him in the Garden of Eden. Mephistopheles uses it as a threat to Faust who immediately says that it is “not my sort of thing, humbling myself to work with a spade” (2155-2156). Fear is used in this case to get Faust to do what Mephistopheles wants him to do. He uses Faust’s fear that he will be returned to the same life as he had before which would be a condemnation or punishment.
Line 288- 289 “Me, made in God’s own image, not even equal to you”
Genesis 1.26 “And God said let us make man in our image and after our likeness.”
Faust misinterprets the quote. He is saying that he was made in the image of God when the quote clearly refers to the God using the plural pronouns us and our when referring to the image. Faust shows his arrogance and ignorance during the dialogue with the Earth Spirit. Although he is clearly able to call the spirit to him, he is unable to maintain control of it. Faust tells the spirit that comes to visit him that “We’re equals, I know” (282) expressing his feelings of equal rank to the spirit being. Faust is “constrained to admit that the sources of all being remain [still] inaccessible to him” (Atkins 27) after the Earth Spirit leaves him and that he in fact does not understand it.
Line 1819-1822 “All theory, my dear fellow, is gray, and green the golden tree of life.”
Genesis 3.22 “and now lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
This line is important because Mephistopheles is speaking to a young, fresh, impressionable student. As he did in the story of Eve, the devil is uses the word gray which is a word meaning some confusion, doubt or haziness as when he told Eve in the bible that God had lied to her and it was not as cut and dry as God had said. This is the same way he is speaking with the college student saying that choosing another path will be better or the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. As the deal was set between The Lord and Mephistopheles, Faust is an individual who is “given the freedom to prove himself conscious of the right path” (Heffner 68).
Line 1829 “Eritus sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum.”
Genesis 3.5 “Ye shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.”
At this verse Mephistopheles writes in the student’s book an encouragement, the very same encouragement he gave Eve was according to the bible to eat from the tree. With the college student he uses this same statement in the sense of seeking out knowledge which is two fold corresponding with the two natures that exist with in man. It is Faust’s desire to seek knowledge by way of the occult (evil) that leads him into a pact with the devil but it is ultimately “not on the strength of [his] good deeds but of his human striving that Faust is granted ultimate salvation” (Heffner 67).
Just as Satan tempts Faust, he also tempts priests. Faust is tempted by the Devil. The devil is willing to do anything for Faust to make him happy:except make moral decisions. The Devil becomes Faust’s servant. He does so to get Faust’s soul, this occurs when Faust is finally truly happy. As soon as Faust becomes happy, he will die and the Devil will get his soul. Priests are also tempted by the Devil in the way of their vow for celibacy. Many priests are sexually tempted to sin and indulge their mortal yearning. Although they know that this indulgence is sin, the Devil makes the opportunity appear very promising and pleasurable. Faust has the same problem; the Devil says he will do anything for him to please him. Faust believes he can withstand the Devil’s temptations to become perfectly happy; so he accepts the Devil’s challenge. Faust begins with having the Devil make him young again, and then he sees a beautiful young lady and demands that she be his. Then failing to see the Devil’s trickery, he gives in to the Devil’s demise and “deflowers” her and she becomes pregnant. Faust then leaves and she goes crazy in her jail cell. Priests are often subjected to public reproach after committing their sins. Faust’s sin was not the sin that the Lord and the Devil bet on. Faust did not find a moment that he wanted to linger. The Devil fails to tempt Faust enough to take his soul.
External Links and Resources
- Study Guide for Goethe's Faust
- Faust Study Guide
- Another Faust Study Guide
- Booknotes on Faust
- Faust, Class Study Guide
Atkins, Stuart. Goethe’s Faust: A Literary Analysis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Brown, Jane. Goethe’s Faust: The German Tragedy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust, Part 1. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Vol. 2. 8th Ed. Trans. Martin Greenberg. Sarah Lawall, et al, eds. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. [All primary text citations are taken from this edition unless otherwise noted.]
Heffner, S. Helmut Rehder, and W. Twaddell. Goethe’s Faust: Introduction Part I Text and Notes. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1954
Smeed, J.W. Faust in Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1971.