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Faust: Parts I and II
Johann Wolfgang Goethe



The story of Faust begins in Heaven. Mephistopheles, the Devil, is visiting the Lord, complaining, as usual, about the Lord's creation, man. When the Lord asks him whether he knows Faust, Mephistopheles, saying he does, seizes the opportunity to bet with the Lord that he can lead Faust astray. The Lord is quite confident that Faust knows the right way; he's also tolerant of Mephistopheles, whose role is to keep prodding man into action.

Faust is a very learned professor, who, however, is dissatisfied with human knowledge, which by its nature is limited. Using magic, he conjures up the Earth Spirit in his darkened study. Regarding himself as more than mortal, he tries to claim the Earth Spirit as a colleague, but the Spirit rejects him scornfully and disappears. Despairing, Faust contemplates suicide. He is saved by the sound of the bells welcoming Easter morning. He and his research assistant, Wagner, go out into the sunlight and enjoy the greetings of the crowd, which remembers the medical attention given to the people by Faust and his father. Faust is still depressed, denying the value of medicine and feeling torn between the two souls in him, one longing for earthly pleasures, the other seeking the highest spiritual knowledge. A dog follows Faust and Wagner home.

Back in his study, Faust tries to translate the Gospel of St. John, while the dog becomes restless. Eventually, the animal changes shape so monstrously that Faust realizes he is dealing with the Devil. Presto! There is Mephistopheles!

At this first meeting, Mephistopheles introduces himself and his powers to Faust; then he tricks Faust into sleeping so that he can leave. When he returns, magnificently dressed, Mephistopheles makes a bet with Faust. He agrees to do anything Faust wants, but if Faust ever says that he is totally satisfied, that the moment is so perfect he wants time to stop, then he will die and Mephistopheles will have his soul. They sign their pact in blood.

Mephistopheles tries to please his "master." He takes him to a Witch's Kitchen, where Faust is magically transformed into a young man. When Faust meets Margarete- called Gretchen, the shortened version of her name- walking in the street, he is consumed with passion for her and orders Mephistopheles to arrange for him to possess her immediately.

Mephistopheles, who has more sense than his master about how to conduct love affairs, takes Faust into Gretchen's room while she is absent. They leave a casket of jewels, but Gretchen's mother, when it is found, insists that it be given to the Church. Mephistopheles then leaves a second present of jewelry, which Gretchen this time conceals at a neighbor's house.

From that point Gretchen is doomed. Faust seduces her and makes her pregnant. When Gretchen's brother, Valentine, intervenes, cursing her as a whore, Mephistopheles, with Faust at his side, kills Valentine.

Mephistopheles takes Faust off to a witches' celebration, Walpurgis Night, on top of a mountain, where at first Faust is fascinated by the fantastic whirl of magical apparitions but then is disturbed by reminders of Gretchen. By the time he returns to the real world, Gretchen has been condemned to death for the murder of her illegitimate baby and has gone mad in her prison cell. As Mephistopheles drags Faust away, a heavenly voice calls out that Gretchen's soul is saved.

Part II of Faust begins in a natural setting with Faust recovering from his horror. Mephistopheles is preparing to introduce Faust to the great world of politics and power. They appear at the Emperor's court, where Mephistopheles solves economic problems by suggesting that the court issue paper money against the value of gold hidden underground.

Using his magic, Mephistopheles stages for the court a magnificent masque, a pageant of symbolic figures, in which Faust appears dressed as the god of wealth. The Emperor himself arrives, dressed as the Greek god Pan. The entire pageant dissolves in magic fire, which impresses the Emperor so much that he asks for more. He wants to see the famous beauty of Greek mythology, Helen of Troy, and her Trojan lover, Paris.

Mephistopheles tells Faust that such a request will strain their powers, for Faust must go down to seek the help of the Mothers, mysterious beings who control the underworld. Mephistopheles assembles the court to witness Faust's evocation of Paris and Helen, in the form of visions. Faust is so overcome with Helen's beauty, and with the desire to possess her, that he faints as the visions fade.

He is transported back into his study, which he had left years before and has not revisited since. Wagner, who has become a doctor, is trying to produce human life. Mephistopheles' presence adds the final spark. A tiny man, Homunculus, appears like a bright light in a test tube. Homunculus leads the way to the plains of the Peneios river in Greece, where the Walpurgis Night will take place.

As they meet mythological figures from literature, Faust discovers a way to reach Helen in the underworld. Mephistopheles finds a disguise as one of the Phorcyads (three female monsters who share one eye and one tooth). And Homunculus discovers a way to realize his being by uniting with a sea goddess. He smashes his test tube against the chariot of Galatea (a goddess of beauty) in a blaze of light, symbolizing creation.

Helen has come back from the underworld at the point where she is returning to her original home in Sparta, after spending ten years in Troy. She is frightened of the revenge that her husband, King Menelaus, is planning against her. Mephistopheles, in the shape of Phorcyas, points out that she can be rescued by walking to a medieval castle. There, Faust, dressed as a medieval knight, greets her. They unite to produce a son, Euphorion, who is the spirit of poetry (and a symbol for the English poet, Lord Byron, whose "unsatisfied nature" and striving for a heroic form of existence, as Goethe told Eckermann, epitomized the contemporary Romantic poet).

Euphorion has a brilliant, though short, career but when he tries to fly he crashes to the ground. Helen returns to the underworld, broken by the tragedy that her beauty seems always to bring about. Faust is left only with her garments.

Again, Faust must reconcile himself to being a failure. He plunges into a scheme to reclaim land from the sea and control it. In order to gain the land, he and Mephistopheles must help the Emperor suppress a rebellion. They bring to the battle the Three Mighty Men who fought with King David. They win the battle through magic, but barely.

With Mephistopheles' help, Faust reclaims the land. He builds a magnificent palace overlooking the shore but is irritated because he has allowed an old couple, Baucis and Philemon, to keep their tiny cottage and a chapel on the land. He asks Mephistopheles to remove the couple to a small farm he has promised them. Mephistopheles takes the Three Mighty Men to do the job; they burn down the cottage and the chapel, killing the old couple and a traveler who was visiting them.

Although Faust has failed again, he does not stop striving and planning. He is struck blind by Care, who tries to make him worry about his coming death. He dies reflecting that he has never found any moment so beautiful, so pleasant, that he wanted it to linger. So Mephistopheles loses his bet. The Devil cannot claim Faust's soul, but he tries to snatch it by trickery. He is outmaneuvered, however, by a chorus of angels, who are so sexually alluring that Mephistopheles becomes distracted by their charms and doesn't notice they are stealing away Faust's soul.

Faust's soul is carried to Heaven by the angels and by the souls of children who have died young. The three penitent women of Christianity pray to the Virgin Mary to save Faust's soul. When Gretchen adds her voice to theirs, the Virgin Mary allows her to lead Faust's soul upward. His journey is completed and he is at rest in Heaven.

[Faust: Parts I and II Contents]


The following is a discussion of the major characters in Faust. There are in addition many other interesting, if less developed, characters, and they are discussed at the appropriate places in The Play section of this guide.


    While Faust has clearly recognizable human characteristics, he is larger than life. He embodies the best and the worst in man, and in many ways he is a symbol of all humanity. Faust is involved in most of the scenes, but he probably reveals himself most clearly through his monologues and through his conversations with Mephistopheles. The monologues show a man without satisfaction or inner peace, always striving. He is continually reaching for more knowledge, more power, more experience. He is also changeable, given to despair when he can't get what he wants. His striving leads inevitably to failure. Some readers have seen these failures as Faust's tragedy, for everything he touches turns to dust. But in these failures he represents humanity, for, as the Lord declares in the Prologue in Heaven, man must make mistakes while he strives.

    On one important score, Faust comes out ahead. He bets Mephistopheles that he will never find one moment so fulfilling that he will say to it, "Stay, Thou art so fair!" Faust never does. So he frustrates the Devil and justifies the Lord's confidence in him. It is for his striving, his never giving in, that he is finally saved and his soul carried upward.

    In Faust's relations with Mephistopheles you see an arrogant, impatient man, who uses any means available to get what he wants. Faust is absolutely clear about his relationship to Mephistopheles- Mephistopheles is a servant. In his other relations, you see the brilliance of Faust, why he has the genius to represent humanity. He is capable of passionate romantic love, of courageous action, of large-scale organization. He will probably win your sympathy, even in his ill-fated affair with Gretchen. Try to imagine what it must be like to pick up the pieces of your life after you have caused the destruction of a beautiful young girl and three other innocent people (her mother, brother, and baby). Faust does it.

    You may admire Faust more than you like him. It's hard to think of relating to him, although you may recognize parts of his character in your own actions and those of people around you. Because he is all of us, he isn't really any one of us.


    It may seem strange, but some think that Mephistopheles, the Devil, is more human than Faust. Mephistopheles 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 on the Peneios River, and ends scenes with comments that puncture inflated sentiments. Several explanations have been given for Mephistopheles' name, including that it derives from the Greek, Me-phaustophiles, meaning "No Friend of Faust" and that it comes from the Hebrew Mephiztophel, "corrupter and liar."

    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. Why did Goethe make Mephistopheles seem so human? Some readers believe that Goethe wanted to suggest that this spirit of negation is within man. Others believe that Goethe didn't think man was simple enough to fall for a stupid devil. Because man has intellect, they argue, the Devil must have intellect. Some even see Mephistopheles as the symbol of intellect without feeling.

    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 on innocents like Baucis and Philemon. He thinks he knows better than his master how to woo women and takes over the wooing of Gretchen. At the same time, he exercises his own authority when he can.

    You're never quite confident that Mephistopheles can control his trickery and magic. For example, it's not clear whether the Mothers really do exist or are just invented on the spot to cover Mephistopheles' incompetence. During the battle with the rebellious emperor, it looks as if the real Emperor, who has trusted Mephistopheles, is going to lose. He isn't a trustworthy Devil.

    But no devil is trustworthy. You'll remember that the Lord has deliberately "paired" him with mankind to keep man on his toes. The Devil's job is to "play the deuce, to stir, and to entice." He's there to keep things off balance, so that man is always reaching for what the Devil seems to offer.

    Above all, Mephistopheles loses his bet. As the Lord foretold at the beginning, Faust would know the right way and never be satisfied by anything Mephistopheles could do.


    Margarete, or Gretchen (a favorite name in German folk tales), is a more lifelike character than Mephistopheles and Faust; she is a person you would recognize if you met her. She is a sweet, simple, modest girl, who lives at home and helps her mother. She knows right from wrong (as you can see from her polite refusal of Faust's advances at first) and has an innocent religious faith of the kind idealized by Romantic writers.

    Her downfall is a puzzle to you only in the sense that all similar cases are puzzles. Why does such a girl give in to presents and flattery? Gretchen's mother is so strict that she gives the first casket of jewels to the Church. Gretchen then responds with deception, storing the second set of jewels in the house of her neighbor, Martha. Perhaps if her mother had been more understanding, or Martha less of a "pimp," or Gretchen morally stronger in herself, the tragedy wouldn't have happened.

    Gretchen is up against the Devil, who by definition has no morals and no mercy. He's been told to get her for Faust and he does. From the moment she gives in to Faust, she begins to lose herself. She seeks comfort in her simple religious faith but cannot withstand society's disapproval and her brother's curse. She becomes mad, kills her baby, and is condemned to die.

    Gretchen's sad story was based on a court case known to Goethe. He uses her story for social purposes, to make the point that she is a victim of an attractive man of a class higher than her own. Some girls might have been strong enough to resist the temptation or even to put up with the guilt, but they would not have been sufficient for Goethe the dramatist. He needed a fragile girl like Gretchen who trusted in a simple religious faith and her own feelings.


    Wagner is called Faust's "famulus," a combination of servant and research assistant who lives and studies close to Faust, his mentor. Wagner is the sort of person you feel you ought to admire but can't bear. He has his heart in the right place, and says all the expected things. Look at him trying to appease Faust with praise of his father. You can't object to what he says, but it doesn't reflect Faust's mood at all.

    It's appropriate that Wagner can't give the spark of life to Homunculus. He becomes a scientist after working hard and developing his abilities. But it takes the presence of Mephistopheles to produce Homunculus, who immediately shows all the brilliant intuition his "father," Wagner, lacks. Wagner is left alone again, deserted by Homunculus as he was by Faust years earlier, to live the conventional life he is fitted for. Wagner's soul cannot soar. He and his kind do the work of the world.


    The only character besides Faust, Mephistopheles, and Wagner common to both Parts I and II of Faust is the Student whom Mephistopheles interviews in Faust's study and then meets again as a graduate. He begins timid and wide-eyed, eager to learn from Mephistopheles, who is disguised as Faust, and surprised when his mentor talks obscenely about a doctor's female patients.

    When you see him again, as Baccalaureus (a graduate), how changed he is! He knows everything, despises his elders, and sounds like a student radical of the 1960s when he says that anyone over thirty is as good as dead. He personifies, as Goethe told his secretary, Eckermann, the arrogance of youth. Mephistopheles backs away from him because he's so obnoxious.


    The Emperor is found only in Part II, where he appears in two of the five acts. The character derives from the traditional Faust story, which includes a visit to an Emperor's court, where Faust and Mephistopheles amaze the court with their magic tricks.

    Goethe's Emperor is an incompetent, vain ruler who seeks personal pleasure at the expense of his kingdom. The Emperor permits Mephistopheles to trick him into signing an order authorizing the printing of paper money, thus ruining the state economy. Then he allows a rival emperor to collect a rebellious army, and again acts helplessly until Mephistopheles uses magic to defeat them. When you see him for the last time, he is submitting to the blackmail of the Archbishop, while protesting under his breath.


    Helen is not so much a character as an embodied myth, as she herself recognizes. She is the heroine of Homer's Iliad, a great Greek epic poem. (When Paris fell in love with her and stole her from her husband King Menelaus of Sparta, the Trojan War was ignited. Helen's former suitors had sworn an oath to defend her husband's rights. They formed an army that defeated the Trojans and reunited Helen with Menelaus.) In Faust, she is afraid for her own safety, as well as for that of the chorus. But she is courageous, as you see when she agrees to seek help from the medieval knight, who turns out to be Faust. She shows her queenly graciousness when she forgives Lynceus, the watchman, for not announcing her arrival.

    In the end, Helen is defeated by her own beauty. As she says, beauty and good fortune do not mix. You feel her intense emotion as she embraces Faust one last time and follows their son, Euphorion, to the underworld.

[Faust: Parts I and II Contents]



Faust is a verse drama in two parts. Part I has three preliminary sections (Dedication, Prelude in the Theater, and Prologue in Heaven) and twenty-five scenes, each with a name, usually describing the setting. Part II, like many conventional plays, is divided into five acts, and each act contains scenes with descriptive names. The total length of Faust I and II is 12,110 lines of poetry. It would take some twenty hours for the play to be performed uncut!

Because the play does not have the usual act and scene structure throughout, the lines are numbered consecutively from beginning to end, like those in a poem.

There are three major questions regarding the structure of Faust: Is it one play or two? Is it a play at all? Is it a tragedy?


You'll want to make up your own mind about the unity of Faust. Some readers argue that the two parts are separate and should be treated as such. It's true that the story of Part I is better known than anything in Part II, perhaps because of Gounod's opera, Faust, which is based on Part I.

Other readers believe that the two parts form an essential unity. The parts are divided artificially, because they were composed at different times in Goethe's life. These readers believe that if you separate one part from the other, you'll miss major themes.

The original Faust story had a fairly simple structure. Faust, or Faustus, as he was originally called- the Latin word faustus means "lucky"- made a bargain with the Devil and signed it in blood. The Devil takes Faust to a student tavern- where the two fool the students with magically produced wine- and then to the Emperor's court, where Faust magically calls Helen of Troy from the dead and falls in love with her. At the end of twenty-four years, Faust vainly calls on God's mercy as Mephistopheles drags him away to Hell.

Some of the problems in Goethe's Faust are caused by the different structures of the two parts, as well as by the change in subject matter from Part I to Part II. Part I has no act divisions and the scenes are differentiated by names, not scene numbers. In it, Faust makes a bet with the Devil- the Devil will be his servant, and he will possess his soul at death unless Faust is never able to say he is satisfied. The rest of Part I concerns the seduction and ruin of Gretchen by Faust. In the end, Gretchen is saved.

The atmosphere of Part I is gloomy. The action takes place in and around the German university town where Faust lives, except for the scenes in the Witch's Kitchen and on the mountain, where the Walpurgis Night celebrations are held. It is also unified by the characters' preoccupation with their relationship to God. Faust explains his religious faith in his Credo, and attempts to translate the Gospel of St. John. Mephistopheles has to admit that he is part of God's scheme, with a duty to stir up mankind. Gretchen has a conventional, simple faith that increases the pathos of her suffering.

Part I, therefore, seems basically to consist of one piece. The impression of unity is even stronger if you interpret the last few lines to mean that Mephistopheles is taking Faust away to Hell as Gretchen is executed. Part I also was a product of the "Sturm und Drang" phase of Goethe's writing and is full of emotion, a sign of Romanticism.

Part II has a different structure and much more varied subject matter. It has the conventional five acts divided into scenes, but, again, these have names instead of numbers. In it, Faust serves an Emperor, marries Helen of Troy, becomes a successful man, and, in the end, gains redemption. The work for the Emperor and the appearance of Helen of Troy are from the original Faust story. But the union of Classical and Romantic, in the marriage of Faust and Helen and the birth of their son; the story of Homunculus; the Carnival masque and the making of paper money at the Emperor's court; the Classical Walpurgis Night; Faust's land-reclamation project; the tragedy of Baucis and Philemon; and the salvation of Faust, are Goethe's own inventions.

Some elements are clearly intended to produce unity. For example, the two Walpurgis Nights are balanced against one another. In addition, Gretchen and Helen are placed in contrast- the simple German maiden and the legendary Greek beauty. The Prologue has its counterpart in the final scene, where Faust's soul is carried off to Heaven.

There is no doubt that if you read the two parts separately you will have a different experience from what you would have if you read Parts I and II together. The question is, what kind of unity does the work have? You may find yourself on the fence, believing in a weak unity of the two parts but convinced that some sections are more successful than others.


Faust doesn't have the structure you probably expect in a play- a rising action that reaches a climax, and then a falling action during which the plot is resolved. It has been called a "cosmic vision or dream," and readers have thought of it as a series of episodes in dramatic form- somewhat like an epic.

An epic is a poem or narrative on the largest scale, dealing with national origins and heroes (as do Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid) or man's relation to God (as do Dante's Divine Comedy and Milton's Paradise Lost). Epics can have the structure of a journey (for example, the Odyssey is a journey). Faust is a journey through the life of a hero who is meant to symbolize Western man. Its episodic structure reflects the succession of events in Faust's life. Although Faust may seem to lack a governing form, certain features give it internal structure. The diagram shows a structure that some readers perceive as holding the whole drama together.

Faust begins on the left side in despair. His spirits rise with his love for Gretchen but are dashed when she dies. He moves from the sphere of personal, subjective action to intellectual action as he achieves union with Helen. Again, he loses his love, but this time on a higher level- he is less overwhelmed than he was by Gretchen's death. Finally, his immortal part is taken to Heaven in a mystical ceremony of salvation.

Notice that the diagram indicates no connection between Faust and Heaven at the beginning: Faust attains Heaven through the jagged upward progress of his life. You will realize, as you read the drama, that it isn't quite as neat as this diagram suggests. The intellectual and political actions overlap, and Faust's enjoyment of his reclaimed land occupies only a part of Act V. But the diagram will help guide you in the unfamiliar territory of Goethe's creation.


Goethe subtitled Faust "A Tragedy," thereby presenting his readers with a puzzle. In what sense is Faust a tragedy? To the Greeks, who developed the literary form called tragedy, as well as to the Elizabethans (Shakespeare and his contemporaries), tragedy meant a play dealing with the fall of a great man as a result of a fatal flaw in his character. But Faust is saved at the end.

Since Faust represents mankind, is Goethe saying that man's life is tragic because man must always strive and err without satisfaction? If so, why is Faust carried off to Heaven at the end? Perhaps Goethe merely meant by "tragedy" a drama of serious and lofty subject because he wanted Faust to be treated as the highest form of art. Tragedy, like epic, has traditionally been regarded as the most demanding form for both writer and audience, dealing with the deepest philosophical and moral questions.


If you're asked where the action of Faust takes place, you're justified in answering "Everywhere!" The action takes place in Heaven; in Germany and the Greek Islands; in the air above the earth; in mountains, forests, caves, rivers and river valleys, and the sea. Its settings are those required by the story as it moves, episode by episode, through the epic tale of Faust's life.

As with space, so also with time. Faust is a Renaissance scholar, and the first few scenes retain a rough sense of that historical period. But the Walpurgis Night is timeless, especially in its relationship to Gretchen's story. The Emperor's court seems roughly contemporary with Goethe's time, for the introduction of paper money is discussed. But with Faust's journey down to the Mothers and the subsequent raising of the ghosts of Helen and Paris, things become hazy.

Time has no meaning in the Helen act, where Faust, who belongs in the sixteenth century, becomes a medieval knight from a period three hundred years earlier in order to meet a mythological queen from the times of classical Greek literature. Between them they produce a son, who resembles the poet Byron, Goethe's contemporary- all without any break in the action!

After this, nothing surprises the reader, not even the onstage transporting of Faust's soul to Heaven. The final scene has no possible historical time, for it combines the fathers of the Church, biblical characters, and Gretchen from Part I.

Goethe felt free to place the story of Faust's life in such a vast setting because Faust represents all mankind. He has all the vices and virtues of mankind on a grand scale. He is supposed to be larger than life and you need to see him in a setting of cosmic scale. He is constantly striving to reach beyond the limits of the physical world and humanity, constantly striving for understanding and fulfillment- and he never gives up.


Faust has a general overarching theme- man's life on earth and quest for knowledge and power. Naturally, such an ambitious theme must include many subthemes. Some of these are listed below, and you will be able to add to the list as you read the play.


    The stories on which Faust is based were cautionary tales for Christians: Man must not seek to go beyond the limits set by God. In those stories, the Devil promises Faust unlimited power for a limited time and then, as repayment, takes Faust's soul to Hell.

    Goethe's Faust does not contain such a bargain with the Devil. Instead, it has two wagers. The Lord bets Mephistopheles that he won't be able to make Faust deviate from "the appointed course," and Faust bets Mephistopheles that he won't be able to make any moment so pleasurable that Faust will cry out for time to stop. Thus, the bet between Faust and Mephistopheles concerns fulfillment. If Faust is ever tempted to stop reaching for something new, he will forfeit his soul. But he doesn't lose it, because he is never satisfied, emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually.

    You may have heard the expression "the Faustian spirit." It refers to the restless striving for knowledge and power. The Faustian spirit cannot stop. It is human to strive ever upward and, unfortunately, often to make mistakes in the process. The striving theme raises an important question: Does human striving inevitably lead to destruction and self-destruction, or is there some other human quality to balance these effects?


    In Western thought since the eighteenth century there's been a conflict between the Classical and the Romantic. Romantic means what is emotional, subjective, spontaneous, springing from the common people, like Gretchen. Faust's relationship with her is intense but destructive, for both of them give way to uncontrolled emotions. The atmosphere of Faust Part I reflects the mood of Romanticism. The Classical spirit is associated with the aristocracy of Helen, traditional formality like that of Greek tragedy, restraint, and the subordination of the individual to the collective good.

    The marriage of Faust, representing Romanticism typical of Germany and Northern Europe, and Helen, representing Classicism typical of Greece and Southern Europe, shows the tension between the two sides. The marriage can take place only in the imagination, and its products are short-lived, like the poet Euphorion.

    Like the Faustian theme, the tension between the "Classical" and the "Romantic" spirits is a constant feature of our lives. A vivid example was the 1960s student movement, which in the name of individual freedom questioned social authority and restraint.


    Goethe believed that the guiding force of the universe is love, and he knew that throughout Western cultural history, woman has been the most tangible, understandable symbol of love. Think, for example, of the centrality of the "earth mother" or "mother goddess" to ancient cult religions. Or of the importance of the Virgin Mary to Christianity. And don't forget that Dante, in his Divine Comedy, is admitted into Paradise by his model of pure love, Beatrice. In Faust, Helen of Troy is the symbol of pure love and beauty, while Gretchen is actually Faust's savior. Even the mysterious, primal forces of the earth are called the Earth Mothers. Woman Eternal, then, seems to be the symbol of divine love and forgiveness and of the principle of creation. The symbol of Woman Eternal triumphantly leads man not to strive for the world beyond its reach, but toward creation, beauty, joy, and love.


    You may often wonder why Goethe called Faust a tragedy. Much of it is hilariously funny, especially when Mephistopheles is around, but also in the interludes like the Walpurgis Night's Dream and the carnival masque at the Emperor's court. Wagner and the Student / Baccalaureus are clearly figures of fun. Homunculus's wit sparkles like the light he sends out from his test tube. The comic spirit is an essential part of life and therefore of Faust. By making so much of Faust comic, Goethe is making a statement about his picture of human life. It is not tragic exclusively, any more than it is Romantic exclusively. It is comic even while it is tragic.


    Faust expresses a mystical connection between humans and the natural world. The Earth Spirit is Faust's ideal. Some readers believe that Mephistopheles was sent by the Earth Spirit, so that he is an essential element of the natural world. Look at the settings of Faust's monologues in Part II- a landscape, a mountain top. Faust is carried up to heaven over mountain gorges. The Classical Walpurgis Night, with its earthquakes, meteor, and procession across the Aegean Sea, is a celebration of nature as the origin of human life and its continual refreshment.


    Although Faust does not convey a traditional Christian message, it does express Goethe's view of God's place in the universe. The Lord is a thoroughly tolerant "old gent," in Mephistopheles' words, who has set man in the right direction and knows he can't be lured from it. In this universe, the Devil is part of the scheme. He has an essential role- he keeps man from getting too "lax and mellow." This theology is directly opposed to the Christian view, which sees the Devil as a force dedicated to destroying God's good works.

    Because God is infinitely tolerant, man is saved so long as he strives. Gretchen is saved by God (it is a voice from above that cries "Redeemed!"), no matter how much she is condemned by her peers and by the law. Mephistopheles cannot touch her, just as he can't touch Faust's soul. He will always lose, but he will always keep on trying. That is the Devil's job. It is also important to remember here that, unlike in the traditional Faust legend, Goethe's Faust is saved.


The great variety of styles in Faust reflects the range of the poem's characters and settings. Some readers have said that Faust contains more poetic meters (measured, patterned arrangement of syllables) and forms than any other single work. Others think that it is stylistically too exuberant, that its large number of styles sometimes interferes with communicating a clear message.

The styles include a sixteenth-century German form called Knuttelvers or Knittelvers (doggerel), which is irregular, though rhymed; ballads and songs, often as simple as folk songs; the trimeter (a line of verse with three measured feet) of classical tragedy, as well as the strophes (stanzas of the chorus as it moves to the right or the left of the stage) of the choruses; Shakespeare's blank verse; the Alexandrines (iambic line of twelve syllables) used by the seventeenth-century French playwright Jean-Baptiste Racine; and prose (for one memorable scene). Gretchen expresses her feelings in a series of ballads and lyrics, which convey the folk simplicity of her character.

Faust contains numerous references to the Bible and ancient literature. It may be difficult for you as a modern student to follow these allusions, since the Bible and Greek and Roman literature no longer occupy the central place in school that they occupied in Goethe's time. Nevertheless, you may find yourself amazed at how modern a play Faust is. Respond to it as you would to a new work by a contemporary playwright- for, in spirit, Goethe is one of us.

The translation of Faust used for this Study Guide is by Walter Arndt (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976). It was chosen because it tries to faithfully reproduce the different rhythms and verse forms of the original. Of course, a translation that tries to reproduce the original poetry must lead to compromises, because a translator must at times use words with slightly different meaning than the original. Also, expressions used to fit a meter may sometimes seem artificial and strange. Some readers, indeed, think that a verse translation is simply too difficult to do well, and they prefer a prose translation that conveys the meaning accurately.

If you do not read German, the best way for you to get close to the meaning is to compare several translations. There are some fifty translations of Faust in English, the vast majority of them translations of Part I alone. Comparing three or four of them is time-consuming, so you shouldn't do it with every line; but some crucial lines need the perspective of at least two or more versions. All translation is also to some degree interpretation, because the word chosen in English is rarely exactly equivalent to the German. The choice of a word is influenced by the translator's view of the poet's meaning.

To give you an idea of the variation in translations, here are versions by four translators of the Lord's important words in the Prologue in Heaven.

Walter Arndt: Man ever errs the while he strives.

Philip Wayne: For man must strive, and striving he must err.

Carlyle F. MacIntyre: Man is doomed to err as long as he strives.

Randall Jarrell: A man must make mistakes, as long as he keeps trying.

The differences between one English translation and another can be more a matter of style than of meaning. The feeling of one translation may be very different from another. Take, for example, lines 338-39:

Of all the spirits of negation
The rogue has been least onerous to my mind.


Of all the spirits of negation
The rogue is least of burdens to be borne.


Of all the spirits of denial
The joker is the last that I eschew.

(Louis MacNeice)

Of all the spirits that deny
The mischief-maker weighs upon me least.


All the translators refer to Mephistopheles as the spirit of negation or denial, and the basic meaning of the passage is the same in each translation, but the images of the Devil as a "rogue" and as a "joker" are very different. Your image of Mephistopheles as a "rogue" or as a "joker" can influence your interpretations of the play.

Because translations differ from the original you should be careful not to attribute to Goethe what may, in fact, be the translator's interpretation. Similarly, be careful not to overemphasize a few words or phrases as you interpret Faust, because you may be dealing more with the translator than with Goethe. The larger patterns of the drama, rather than the small details of language, will most likely give you a better idea of the original German text.


The Faust legends stem from the life of a real Faust- Johannes Faustus, a German student of dubious reputation who lived from 1480 to 1540. Some of his contemporaries spoke of him as a faker, or medieval con man, who lived by his wits. Others, however, thought him a magician in league with evil spirits. He was reputed to travel about with a little dog that was really a devil.

Soon after his death, the real Dr. Faustus disappeared into the realm of legend. He became the scholar who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for universal knowledge and magical power. Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, was, for example, one of those who believed Faustus had been in league with the Devil. The story was popular for its Christian moral: Faustus was damned for pursuing worldly knowledge instead of studying the Scriptures.

By 1587 a Faustbuch (Faust Book) had appeared, a collection of the various tales being told about the wicked magician. The book was enormously popular, both in Germany and elsewhere. Later, Faust became a popular character in puppet shows filled with slapstick comedy. But, despite the comedy, the Faust plays always ended with Faust being dragged off by the Devil, damned because he sought forbidden knowledge. In addition, numerous handbooks of magic appeared, bearing Faust's name. Of course, they always had instructions on how to avoid the pact with the Devil.

The German poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was the first to make Faust a hero who was saved rather than damned. The redemption was completed by Goethe, in whose great work Faust represents the virtue of human aspiration. In Goethe's play, the longing for knowledge that had once led to Faust's damnation leads to Faust's salvation.

Goethe probably saw Faust puppet plays during his childhood and may have produced one of his own in a puppet theater that his grandmother had given him. Faust plays were a popular folk entertainment. They were not high art, not the kinds of plays to be found in court theaters. They owed their popularity to hell-fire scenes and magic tricks performed by the devils. The literary source- that is, written text- for these Faust plays was The History of Dr. Johann Faustus, published in Frankfurt in 1587, but it is unlikely that Goethe was familiar with it. He probably did know Christopher Marlowe's play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, written about 1590, in which Dr. Faustus is dragged off to Hell.

In these stories, Faust is a learned scholar who uses the arts of black magic to raise the Devil. He makes a bargain with the Devil, signing his name in his own blood. The Devil will have Faust's soul after a certain number of years, but during those years the Devil will do whatever Faust commands. The story was a moral tale for Christians, for it warned them against trying to have more than earthly power. In its frightening climax, it depicted Faust being dragged into the fiery mouth of Hell. Yet the story was also a great audience pleaser, because it offered opportunities for magic tricks at the expense of authority figures like the Emperor.

The Gretchen story, which Goethe added from his own experience, is not part of the original Faust plays. But the Helen story does appear in the Faust legend. In some versions, Dr. Faustus raises the spirit of Helen and lives with her for twenty years. The Emperor, too, is part of the original story. Almost everything else comes from Goethe's extensive reading. The figures of the Walpurgis Night come from his study of alchemy, witchcraft, and magic. Those in the Classical Walpurgis Night come from Greek and Roman literature, as do Baucis and Philemon. The Three Mighty Men are found in the Old Testament, and the figures that conduct Faust's soul upward are from Christian tradition.

Goethe derived not only his characters but also his style from his reading. You will find echoes of Shakespeare (the character Ariel is borrowed from The Tempest), Dante, and Byron, as well as a direct imitation of the Greek playwright Euripides.

[The Faust Legend]



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ECC [Faust: Parts I and II Contents] []

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