Note: This study guide is based on the translation of Walter Kaufmann titled Goethe’s Faust (Anchor Books) which omits most of Part II.
This work is rich in wonderful contradictions and conflicts. Faust: A Tragedy is the title given his masterpiece by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Yet it might almost as easily be described as a musical comedy, in that it has many comic passages, features many songs, and lacks a tragic ending. Faust himself is not a classic tragic figure either. In fact, his characteristic yearning for experience and knowledge created a type for the romantic age still known as the Faustian hero, though he can easily seem more of a villain than a hero; and the purported villain–Mephistopheles–is one of the most likable characters in the play. His yearnings draw him toward the heavens, yet he is also powerfully attracted to the physical world. The book was designed to be read rather than performed, yet many scenes are wonderfully designed for effective stage presentation.
It is useless to try to figure out what the “real” point of Faust is, or which of the many views of life it presents is the correct one. It is par excellence the Romantic masterwork precisely because it explores a wide variety of polar opposites without resolving them. Goethe has created a microcosm of life, trying to preserve its complexity, its tensions, and its dynamism. Appreciating the work’s complexity and enjoying it should be your goal.
One the most important tensions expressed in this work is between learning and experience. Faust himself rejects scholarship for life, but it would be a mistake to suppose that Goethe unequivocally endorses this view. Mephistopheles, who is usually both truthful and wise, warns him against this enthusiasm for raw experience; and Goethe himself was a scholar and bureaucrat who greatly valued the learning of the past and aimed at joining the pantheon of classic writers. Faust is a part of Goethe, but so is Mephistopheles.
This is a work that can be hugely entertaining, but only if one understands its references and ideas. These notes are meant to help you enjoy the work by pointing you to significant passages that need careful thought and providing crucial information on some difficult references. They are meant not to hand you a simple interpretation, but to stimulate thought about the work that can lead to an interpretation.
There are several passages in the Bible which must be read in connection with specific lines in the play.
None of them will take more than a few minutes to read.
Prologue in Heaven
In this overture to his drama Goethe creates a quaint and slightly comic Heaven in which the encounter between Goethe and Mephistopheles is planned. What signs can you find that Goethe does not intend this scene seriously to portray an orthodox Christian Heaven? To “intone” an “air” is to sing a song. A “tourney” is a tournament or conflict.
Raphael is describing a traditional concept called “the harmony of the spheres” in which each planetary sphere in the solar system emits a tone which blend together into a sort of heavenly music. In what way does the concept of a “tourney” conflict with this concept? What astronomical system is represented by Raphael’s description of the sun and its “brother spheres” moving around the earth? How does this system relate to that described by Gabriel, who describes the earth as revolving and fleeing through space? What references to motion can you find in the speeches of the three archangels? Can you find any pattern in the order in which they describe various kinds of motion? (Hint: look at the scale of things.) What contradiction is contained in the last line of Michael’s speech?
Mephistopheles’ witty, ironic tone in addressing God is quite different from that of the sober debate in the book of Job (be sure to read today’s brief assignment in Job; any translation of the Bible will do). But what are the basic similarities between the story in the Bible and this scene? After the angels have been praising God for his unfathomable splendor, how does Mephistopheles criticize God? Why is the Devil represented as being more interested in humanity than is God? What criticism does he make of humanity’s gift of reason?
How effectively does The Lord answer Mephistopheles? What are the chief characteristics of Faust that Mephistopheles describes? The Lord seems to agree with Mephistopheles’ description of Faust’s greatest fault when he says “Man errs as long as he will strive.” But he seems to value striving when he says “man’s activity can easily abate,/He soon prefers uninterrupted rest;/To give him this companion hence seems best/Who roils and must as Devil help create.” What reasons do you think Goethe might have had for having the Lord express two such opposite views of the roles of striving and activity? In what way does he say the Devil actually helps him to carry out his will?
Faust has studied all of the major subjects in which a Renaissance scholar could receive a degree, so can be understood to have exhausted traditional learning. What is his attitude toward his education? In what way does he feel he is smarter than others? What activity has he turned to after rejecting formal education? At line 386, where is he looking? At line 398? What contrast does he draw between these two sights? Worms and dust traditionally symbolize death; look for this symbolism to reappear. What do the images of imprisonment and escape here convey about Faust’s mood?
Nostradamus was a Renaissance prophet and astrologer; which of his roles is relevant in this context (line 420)?
In this context the macrocosm is the universe at large, depicted in the Renaissance as a series of concentric circles surrounding the earth marking the orbits of the moon, sun, planets, and stars. How does viewing it make Faust feel? In lines 446-453 he envisions a dynamic version of the traditional Renaissance image of the “Great Chain of Being,” seemingly influenced by Jacob’s vision in Genesis 28:11-12). What is his reaction to it? Notice how Mephistopheles’ preference for the Earth in the Prologue in Heaven foreshadowed Faust’s preference for the Earth Spirit over the image of the macrocosm. Faust imperiously conjures the Earth Spirit to appear before him: what is his reaction when it actually appears? How does Faust react to its taunts? What does the Spirit mean when it says to him that he is a “Peer of the spirit that you comprehend/Not mine!”? Why does Faust call himself “image of the godhead?” (See Genesis 1:27)
Why is Faust so irritated when Wagner, his student, thinks that he has been reading classical literature and practicing rhetoric? What are the main points of the two sides of the debate between Faust and Wagner? What is Faust’s attitude toward classical study? What does this classical proverb (variously attributed to Seneca, Horace, and Hippocrates), quoted by Wagner, mean: “art is forever,/and our life is brief?” When Wagner claims that study of ancient writings is valuable because it helps us enter into the spirit of the time, how does Faust answer him? Why is Wagner’s final speech probably intensely irritating to Faust? How does it relate to what they have been discussing earlier? Which of the two do you agree more with? Why?
In line 808 Faust expresses his gratitude toward Wagner for having rescued him from the despair into which the Earth Spirit’s taunts had cast him; but he almost immediately plunges back into depression. He speaks to the absent Spirit, expressing his humiliation. The contrast he makes between fantasy and realism starting in line 640 is a typical romantic complaint about the rationalist period from which he was emerging. He is looking back with nostalgia to the Middle Ages, when the imagination was allowed freer rein and is repelled by the narrow rationalism of the eighteenth century. How does Faust again use the imagery of worms and dust in lines 652-659? The skull he sees on his shelf acts as a traditional memento mori: a reminder of death which some devout monks kept by their beside in the Middle Ages to remind them that they were mortal; but why might he realistically have a skull on his shelf? The bottle which is the next object to catch his eye almost certainly contains laudanum: opium dissolved in alcohol. It was an extremely common drug and relatively cheap. Though it could not cure diseases, it made people feel better–unless they took too large a dose, in which case they would pleasantly drop off to sleep and die. This quality made it not only the renaissance equivalent of aspirin but the drug of choice for suicide. How does he propose to prove “that mortals/Have as much dignity as any god”? In lines 712-719 Faust is contrasting himself with Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 1 of the play (ll. 55-88). Note the Choir of Women. A similar group of women are going to appear at the end of the play, linked to the theme of salvation. Why doesn’t he drink? Does the song of the angels bring him to religious faith? What effect does it have on him?
Before the City Gate
What kinds of activities are people engaging in on this Easter morning? Are any of them religious? What is the attitude of “Another Citizen” toward war? Can you compare the attitudes of the young women toward love with those of the soldiers? What does Faust seem to feel is the meaning of the Easter holiday? What is Wagner’s reaction to Faust’s enjoyment of the scene? The song sung by the peasants has the typical folk theme of a young girl seduced and abandoned, and strongly foreshadows the plot of the play. Why does Faust, who is normally completely skeptical about religion, tell the peasants who praise him for his medical services that they should thank God instead? Faust rather hysterically compares the medical efforts of his father and himself to the plague (“pest”), not because they really intended to murder anyone but because–as Goethe knew well– renaissance medicine was more harmful than helpful to patients. In using the image of flight to symbolize his longing for transcendence and escape he imagines himself pursuing the setting sun, personified as a god, as by the ancient Greeks and Romans. As the sun sinks into the west, he pursues it out over the billows (waves) of the Atlantic Ocean. This image of eternal vain pursuit is central to Faust’s ideas about himself, which will be reflected throughout the play in many forms. What is the basic contradiction in human nature that Faust describes in the last part of this speech? What is Wagner’s reaction to it? In what two directions does Faust then say his soul is torn?
When the black dog appears (a large, shaggy animal, not a French toy poodle), what does Faust see that Wagner cannot?
Note that at the beginning of this scene Faust seems to be in a more nearly religious mood than at any other point in the play. Night, which was celebrated by romantic writers (in self-conscious contrast with the enlightenment), inspires in him a “holy dread.” What effect does the poodle have on this mood? When we learn that the poodle is really Mephistopheles, what do we realize he has accomplished in disturbing Faust?
When Faust “translates” the first verse of the Gospel of John, how does his vocabulary choice reflect his character? Based on what you read later, why do the spirits in the corridor say “One has been caught inside” in line 1259? During the Renaissance the salamander was thought to live in fire, the undene in water, and the sylph in air, while the kobold is a Germanic spirit associated with the earth. Thus each represents one of the traditional four elements of the natural world. Having exhausted the natural world, Faust will have to the demonic (“Hell’s progeny”). What is an incubus? (Look it up.)
Mephistopheles sets the tone for their whole relationship by greeting Faust sarcastically, belittling his prowess; but according to the traditions of the conjuring of spirits he is in real danger of being controlled if his intended victim can only identify his name. How does he distract him from that question? When Faust calls Mephistopheles “God of Flies” he is alluding to another traditional Jewish name for the Devil: Beelzebub. This passage is the source of the title of William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies. How does Mephistopheles’ definition of himself in lines 1336-1337 relate to what The Lord has to say about his role in the Prologue in Heaven? How does Mephistopheles argue that darkness is superior to light in lines 1348-1368? In what sense did darkness give birth to light? (See Genesis 1:1-5.) Why does Mephistopheles say that his favorite element is fire? Rather than portraying Mephistopheles as a force for evil against good, Faust understands him as sterility against creativity. Which of these two forces do both of them seem to feel is the stronger?
Why could the magic pentagram (the witch’s foot) in the doorway let Mephistopheles in though it now will not let him out? Notice that it is Faust who first raises the possibility of signing a contract with the Devil. Goethe repeatedly emphasizes that Faust is not seduced into evil by Mephistopheles: he is already drawn to it, and tries to make the Devil his tool. Why do you think Mephistopheles is so anxious to leave instead of immediately negotiating the contract? How does Mephistopheles manage to escape?
Faust has to invite Mephistopheles into his study three times to symbolize his willingness to become involved in the evil the spirit represents. Why reasons does Faust give for saying there is nothing Mephistopheles can give him that he wants? How does Mephistopheles humiliate him when he declares that he wants to die in line 1571? Faust is like a patient who approaches a doctor, saying “I want to avoid heart disease, but don’t tell me to change my diet, exercise, or take drugs.” Perhaps because he is a bit nervous about the direction in which he is headed he is effectively ruling out just about everything that Mephistopheles could conceivably give him. When Faust gets into one of these melodramatic moods, Mephistopheles usually combats him with humor. Here it is his companion spirits who mock his words by saying he has “shattered the world” with his curses. Their song means, in essence, “Hey, relax, enjoy life!”
Faust has clearly read stories of other people who have signed contracts with the Devil and experienced disaster, and Mephistopheles tells the doctor that he will be Mephistopheles’ servant in hell, so why does Faust proceed with the negotiation? What examples does Faust give of the deceptive and transitory gifts the Devil has been known to provide? Why does Faust say that he is willing to die if he ever experiences a moment of complete satisfaction? Note these words: “If to the moment I should say:/Abide, you are so fair;” they are important at the end of the play. Mephistopheles insists on the signature being in blood to force Faust into taking a stereotypically self-damning step. He can hardly claim he didn’t know what he was getting into, since signing a contract with the Devil in blood is notoriously a damnable thing to do. Again and again Faust will seek to gloss over the true nature of his relationship to evil, and again and again Mephistopheles will rub his nose in it. Of the two longings Faust has spoken of before, which one does he say he now wants to pursue? Does he seek happiness? What warnings does Mephistopheles make about the probable outcome of their contract? Which of the two longings does Mephistopheles urge Faust to pursue? Notice the last two lines before the entry of the student mean in which Mephistopheles confirms that it is not he who is making Faust evil; Faust is evil already. Mephistopheles may in fact be seen in this play as the embodiment of the evil impulses within Faust. The fact that he is a lively and vivid character with a personality strikingly different from Faust’s own may obscure this symbolism, but Goethe repeatedly underlines it. Encheiresin naturae (l. 1940) is a technical term in alchemy having to do with the supposed way in which the spirit joints the soul to the body. Alchemists hoped to find an analogue to such a force in nature and use it produce to the magical “philosopher’s stone.” Mephistopheles here mocks their pretentious to knowledge. What career does Mephistopheles finally advise the student to take up, and what typically devilish reason does he give for doing so? People often wrote short poems or quotations in each other’s autograph books in Goethe’s time. What is the meaning of Mephistopheles’ inscription (“You shall be like God, knowing good and evil.”)? (See Genesis 3:1-5.)
What is Faust’s attitude toward witchcraft? As when he forced him to sign in blood, Mephistopheles is maneuvering Faust into participating in obviously Satanic rituals so that he is forced to confront the evil nature of what he is doing. What alternative to drinking the magic potion does Mephistopheles offer Faust? Lines 2441-2442 sarcastically allude to the fact that in the Biblical account of creation God looks at each day’s work and sees that it is good (see Genesis 1). What does Mephistopheles suggest Faust should do with a beautiful woman should he find one? Compare this with what he actually does. In what ways does Mephistopheles say he has modernized his appearance? Line 2509 reflects the state of European civilization in the wake of the enlightenment, shorn of its religious superstitions, but no closer to virtue. It is important to keep reminding yourself that neither Goethe nor most of his readers believed in the traditional Devil. Mephistopheles is a symbol of evil–a very lively and vivid one–but still ultimately a symbol. In lines 2526-2527 he says that Faust can safely drink the potion because the latter is no novice at evil; he is sufficiently corrupted already to be “inoculated” against its dangerous effects. When Mephistopheles says that “Three in One and One in Three” is “illusion and not truth” he is of course mocking the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The belief that God can be simultaneously one and three persons is one of the most controversial aspects of Christian belief, giving theologians much exercise to explain this paradox in logical terms. Mephistopheles delights in pointing out such sore spots in conventional religion. Besides making him thirty years younger, what other effect does the magic potion have on Faust?
A properly brought up young woman of this time would never allow herself to be picked up on the street. She is correct in saying she is not a “lady” (a term reserved for the nobility at this time): she belongs to the lower middle class. She is, however, naive in thinking that she is not “fair” (beautiful); her difficult life has not exposed her to public admiration before and is genuinely unaware of her beauty until she catches sight of herself bedecked in jewels later, in a mirror. What is Faust’s reaction to her virtuous rejection of him? Why does Mephistopheles say he cannot deliver her to him immediately? What devilish reason does he give to justify the delay?
How could Gretchen–the nickname for Margaret by which she is known in the play–recognize that Faust belonged to the upper classes (besides the shape of his forehead)? Faust is so moved by Gretchen’s obvious innocence that he wants to abandon the planned seduction. How does Mephistopheles shame him into proceeding with the seduction? Note how cleverly he provides a virtuous motive for doing evil. Gretchen is made both innocent and erotic at the same time as she slowly removes her clothes while singing a romantic song about the king of Thule (a mythical far-northern kingdom)? The audience becomes voyeurs while Gretchen remains an innocent young girl getting ready for bed. What effect does putting on the jewels have on Gretchen?
How does Mephistopheles satirize the Church at the beginning of this scene?
The Neighbor’s House
How can you tell that Martha is not genuinely grieving for her missing husband? Why is she so eager for news of him? Mephistopheles’ clever compliments echo Faust’s addresses to her earlier. Whereas she had then denied being either a lady or beautiful, now she can deny only the former. Notice how cleverly Mephistopheles works Martha up into a rage against her missing husband by alternately telling her things that make her eager to be reunited with him and others that make her furious with him. She is angry that he left behind a request to have three hundred masses sung for the repose of his soul because such masses were very expensive. Supposedly he has spent all his wealth on another woman and then tried to impose an enormous debt on his wife.” How does Gretchen respond to Mephistopheles’ suggestion that she should get married? What is improper about the manner of mourning suggested by Mephistopheles in lines 2990-2991? How do you think Mephistopheles’ question on line 3006 affects her? Does her answer reveal blissful innocence or a guilty conscience? Watch for a speech by Gretchen later that implies the latter is the truth. Why is Martha so eager to meet the magistrate Mephistopheles says he will bring to her?
Faust is eager to seduce Gretchen, which will ruin her; but he is reluctant to tell a lie. What argument does Mephistopheles use to demonstrate that this is an absurd distinction? Again we see that he is cleverly maneuvering Faust into doing something obviously evil and distasteful in order to gain his ends. What argument does Faust use to maintain that his promises of eternal love for Gretchen will not be a lie? What is the logical flaw in his argument? What attitude toward his situation does Faust express in his last line in this scene, and is it justified?
How does Faust kissing Gretchen’s hand remind her of her poverty? What does Martha seem to be aiming at in her conversation with Mephistopheles? Gretchen suffers from an acute case of low self-esteem. In what ways does this make her more vulnerable to Faust’s seduction? What hint is there in Gretchen’s long speech about her family that she is not entirely pleased with her mother? Can you describe how the relationship between them has developed between this passage and line 2163, when Faust and Gretchen reappear together as they stroll around the garden? The technique used here is not unlike a scene change in a film, where matters have progressed much farther than one would have expected in the brief moments they have been out of earshot, but because we could not hear what they were saying, we are not bothered by this fact. What does Gretchen say her reaction was when Faust first spoke to her? Against whom was her anger ultimately directed? Why? Have you ever encountered this sort of emotional reaction in real life? Gretchen’s sound moral instincts make her shudder when Faust first clasps her hands. Watch for that reaction to return later in the play. Notice how Faust’s inelegant but passionate “No, no end! No end! seems to be less directed toward Gretchen than toward the mocking voice of Mephistopheles within him pointing out that by swearing eternal life he is lying. Faust had insisted he would be sincere, and now he is trying to whip himself up into a frenzied passion that will make his declarations sincere; but Mephistopheles’ intervention has prevented this self-delusion from working. The very next words (uttered by Martha) ominously foreshadow the very “end” which Faust is trying to deny.
A Garden Bower
Gretchen says “I love you;” but the closest Faust comes to saying it is during the daisy-petal-plucking scene when he says “he loves you.” What does this difference reveal about each of them? Gretchen is mystified as to what Faust sees in her. She is a classic victim of sexual aggression: too young and naive to realize that the erotic attractions of her body more than compensate for her lack of sophistication. She is still so impressed by Faust’s social superiority that she cannot grasp that he is drawn to her for purely sexual reasons.
Wood and Cave
The “exalted spirit” to whom Faust is addressing his remarks is clearly not Mephistopheles since he alludes to the latter in ll. 3243-3245 as someone distinctly separate, so the spirit addressed has to be the Earth Spirit which Faust conjured up earlier in the play. This may seem inconsistent since we have no reason to think that Faust has maintained any relationship with this spirit, and in fact it is partly a remnant of a plan by Goethe to have the Earth Spirit play a much larger role in the story than he finally did. However, we may also interpret this as a typical piece of self-delusion on Faust’s part: he declines to accept that Gretchen is a gift of the Devil and instead tries to credit a less obviously evil source. What is he trying to achieve out here in the wilderness? Why does he say he has not succeeded? In ll. 3282-3292 Faust’s romantic claims to be “communing with nature” are crudely dismissed by Mephistopheles as a form of masturbation, one of many instances of sexual frankness that would be avoided by writers later in the nineteenth century. How does he tempt Faust to continue his affair with Gretchen? What clues are there in their dialogue that Faust has already made love with her repeatedly? In lines 3334-3335 Faust blasphemously proclaims that he is jealous when Gretchen goes to Mass and consumes the wafer which Catholics believe is transformed into the body of Christ. Mephistopheles answers him with a clever erotic blasphemy of his own, based on Song of Songs (known in some translations as “The Song of Solomon”) 7:3 in which breasts are compared to twin deer. Mephistopheles is saying that he is jealous of Faust when the latter enjoys Gretchen with her blouse off. Readers who don’t know their Bible thoroughly will miss this clear statement that Gretchen and Faust have already been making love. In fact, she is almost certainly pregnant at this point, as we will discover later. Faust is reduced to spluttering protests by this sly remark, which Mephistophles answers with yet another sexually-toned blasphemy, arguing that since God made women to be the partners of men, he was the first pimp. What evidence is there in Faust’s last speech in this scene that he knows perfectly well that he is destroying Gretchen? How does he rationalize completing her destruction?
What feelings does Gretchen express in her spinning wheel song? This song has been set to music several times, most famously by Franz Schubert, as “Gretchen am Spinnrad.” Compare her feelings to what Mephistopheles said she was feeling in the previous scene.
How does Faust respond to Gretchen’s pointed questions about his religious beliefs? How does he manage to change this troublesome subject back to his love for her? What important error does Gretchen make in this debate which prevents her from understanding that Faust is evil? Why should the audience become alarmed when Faust suggests using a sleeping potion to drug Gretchen’s mother, based what we have seen earlier in the play? Why, although it is made clear a little later that Gretchen is no longer a virgin and is in fact probably pregnant at this point, does Goethe seem to evade that point by using ambiguous language here which could be misread to mean that they have never had sex together when in fact it is only that they have never slept in her bedroom all night before? How would you feel about a real girl who was willing to give her mother a dangerous drug so that she could have sex with her lover in the same bedroom? What is there about the portrait of Gretchen that tends to make us more forgiving of her than of her real-life equivalent? What effect does it have on our feelings about Gretchen that her mother never appears on stage? What cynical reason does Mephistopheles offer for Gretchen’s curiosity about Faust’s religious beliefs? Mephistopheles does not really take pleasure in sexual desire for its own sake–only for the evil it may lead to. He anticipates in his last line the disasters to come.
At the Well
What is your reaction to the character of Lieschen? How does she cause us to side emotionally with Gretchen? What techniques does Goethe use in this scene and elsewhere to avoid presenting Gretchen as a wicked sinner? How does this scene indirectly make us aware that Gretchen is pregnant?
The Mater Dolorosa is the image of the Virgin Mary grieving for the sufferings of her son Jesus. Is Gretchen’s prayer to her a prayer of repentance? Explain.
Night. Street in Front of Gretchen’s Door
What is ironic about the name of Gretchen’s brother? What are his feelings about her? Does he really care about her for her own sake? How many days away is Walpurgis Night (April 30)? What is the subject of Mephistopheles’ serenade? Why does Mephistopheles insist on parrying Valentine’s thrusts while Faust thrusts at him? How does Valentine’s dying speech make us more sympathetic with Gretchen? Martha is correct in calling his self-righteous words blasphemous since he is presuming to be more judgmental than God, whereas it can be argued that Jesus taught that humans should be more forgiving than God, who is the only one who can send sinners to eternal damnation without hope of forgiveness (see Matthew 18:22-35).
Gretchen is at the funeral of her mother, killed by the sleeping potion, and of Valentine, killed by Faust. She is crazed with guilt and terror for her role in this catastrophe. When the evil spirit which acts as her guilty conscience refers to a foreboding presence which frightens her (“underneath your heart”), what is he talking about? The choir sings the famous opening lines from theDies Irae, the traditional chant describing the Day of Judgment which is sung during the mass for the dead. How are their words related to Gretchen? [Dies iræ, dies illa,/Solvet sæclum in favila; Day of wrath, on that day when the world shall dissolve in ashes; Judex ergo cum sedebit,/Quidquid latet adparebit,/Nil inultum remanebit; So when the judge takes his seat, whatever has been hidden will appear, nothing shall remain unpunished; Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?/Quem patronum rogaturus?/Cum vix justus sit securus; What shall I, a wretch, say? Who shall I ask to plead for me, when scarcely the righteous shall be safe?]
The eve of May Day is here observed as a kind of Halloween, filled with Devil worship in the Harz mountains, where Goethe had spent a memorable night after hiking up the famous site of this scene. Much of the opening is sung, and Goethe uses a variety of devices to create the illusion of climbing on a static stage. What references to motion of various kinds can you find in this part of the scene? Note how even the trees are brought to life. Will o’ the wisps were spirits (actually phosphorescent swamp gas) that were believed to lead the unwary traveler deeper and deeper into the wilderness until he or she was lost and destroyed. Why is such a guide chosen to lead them up the mountain? How is the theme of striving which pervades the play reflected in the Half-Witch? What is Mephistopheles’ reply to Goethe’s hope that he will finally achieve the answers to many riddles at the Walpurgis Night celebration? In traditional witchcraft, some ceremonies were performed nude. How does Goethe do a satirical variation on this theme? Why does Mephistopheles speak as if he were losing his power in lines 4092-4094? Is he really commenting on the impending Last Judgment or on the decline of religion in the age of Enlightenment? Keeping in mind the latter interpretation, notice how he ridicules the Huckster-Witch (a huckster is a sleazy, dishonest merchant). Lilith is rarely (and unclearly) alluded to in the Bible, but Jewish tradition makes her the first, rebellious wife of Adam, and later a symbol for everything evil about women. The impudently erotic song Faust sings as he dances with the young witch is modelled on the Song of Songs 7:7-8, in which a woman’s breasts are compared to fruit growing on a tree which man may climb up to gather. Note that Mephistopheles and the old witch use much more obviously obscene metaphors in the following exchange. What effect does the enlightenment rationalism of the Proktophantasmist have on the Walpurgis Night celebration? In mythology, Perseus rescued Andromeda by cutting off the head of Medusa, whose gaze could turn a person to stone. Goethe here blends that story with a traditional tale of a young woman who persisted in wearing a velvet band around her neck night and day. When her new husband removed it while she slept, her head fell off. She had earlier been executed, but kept alive by the witchcraft of the band. One theory has it that the story was inspired by the red thread which was tied around the necks of those intended for the guillotine during the French Revolution, to mark the place where the blade should fall. The American author Washington Irving retold a version of this story in “The Adventure of the German Student” (1824). This blending of northern European and Greco-Roman mythology is very typical of Goethe. This imagery also foreshadows the fact that Gretchen has been condemned to the executioner’s ax. How in this scene does Faust make it unequivocally clear that he had made love with Gretchen before this time?
This is the only scene in the play which Goethe left in the original prose. Perhaps he thought its depressing subject was better suited to prose than poetry. Faust, feeling at last some qualms of conscience, has fled Gretchen again to commune with nature in the countryside. Evidently quite a while has passed since Walpurgis Night, for Gretchen has despaired after the night in which her mother and brother both died, feeling that she is to blame. Abandoned, she has killed the infant fathered by Faust by drowning it in a forest pool; but she has been caught, tried, and condemned to death. Infanticide by guilt-ridden young mothers was quite common at this time, and is hardly unknown today, though it has always been strongly outlawed in Europe since the advent of Christianity. Mephistopheles has just informed Faust of all this as the scene begins, and we must infer what has happened from his reaction and from what follows. Faust again tries to appeal to the Earth Spirit (addressing him as “infinite spirit”) to try to undo his relationship to Mephistopheles. How does Mephistopheles answer his hysterical accusations and turn the blame back around onto Faust? Mephistopheles proposes to stand guard, but Faust must be the one to actually help her escape from prison, just as in the duel with her brother Mephistopheles parried while Faust was forced to strike. The decisions involving moral responsibility must be Faust’s alone, despite his constant efforts to shift responsibility to Mephistopheles.
The character of Gretchen was inspired in the first place by a real-life story Goethe had heard of a young woman who was seduced and abandoned, who killed her illegitimate child, was condemned to death, and whose repentant lover joined her in prison to share her fate. In what important way does this scene differ from the original incident? Having been either directly or indirectly responsible for the death of her mother, brother, and baby, Gretchen has gone insane with guilt. As she sings madly in her prison cell, she blends the classical myth of Tereus and Procne (which involves cannibalism and rape) with a similar Germanic tale in which the victim is turned into a bird. In whose voice is she singing?
Who does she think is coming when she hears Faust and Mephistopheles enter? How does she speak differently than she might have if her madness did not prevent her from recognizing Faust, and how does that create a powerful effect on him? What has she learned that she did not understand earlier that explains why he seduced her? European brides wear wreaths of flowers on their wedding day to symbolize their unbroken virginity, so the torn wreath symbolizes her fall from virtue. Gretchen imagines that someone else has stolen and killed her baby, and complains of the sensational street ballads that are being composed about her crime. What evidence is there that Gretchen, though mad, has recovered much of her sensitivity to evil? In what way does line 4490 say more than Gretchen intends? At what point does she seem to emerge from her madness into relative sanity? When she imagines that she can still see Valentine’s blood on Faust’s hand Goethe is of course alluding to the famous scene in which Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, guiltily sleepwalking, imagines that Duncan’s blood is still staining her hands (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 1, ll. 39-59). Why does she feel that she has to be buried “a little aside” from her mother and brother? How are you affected by her mad vision of seeing her baby still struggling in the pond? Although Faust never proposed to her, she has obviously been dreaming of wedlock since she fantasizes that the next day is to be her wedding day. The theme of the tragic young woman wed to death is a very old motif, going back at least to the ancient Greeks, with Sophocles’ Antigone being a classic example. Where the translation says “My veil!” (line 4583), she actually says “My [bridal] wreath!” The original has more directly sexual connotations.. As she imagines her own execution, she is finally saved–why? What is her final reaction toward Faust? What is the meaning of her last cry as she ascends into Heaven? How many different interpretations can you give it?
This scene’s setting in the Elysian Fields is similar to setting of the Prologue in Heaven, since both are antiquated, unbelievable versions of heaven used for their symbolic rather than their religious value. This part of the play was written under the powerful influence of Goethe’s conversion to classicism at the very time when many romantics were turning away from it. He divided Part II of Faust into five acts like a classical drama (Part I had been modeled on Shakespeare’s looser structure) and introduced into it many figures from Greek and Roman antiquity. What does it mean that both a Christian and a pagan heaven can exist in the same play? Accompanied by the mythical Aeolian harps of antiquity (carved stones which produced music when the wind blew through them), Ariel–a spirit from Shakespeare’s The Tempest–helps to revive Faust after his traumatic experience of Part I. Since he has done nothing to deserve this, such as repenting his evil deeds, why do you suppose it happens? What does it tell us about Goethe’s beliefs? His dramatic intentions? The river Lethe in classical mythology was the boundary between life and Hades, the land of the dead. Here its function is quite different, influenced by Dante Alighieri’s use of it in the opening of the Purgatorio, where saved souls wash away their sins in a sort of post-mortem baptism. The racketing sound of Phoebus Apollo’s chariot, drawing the sun over the horizon, is as old-fashioned, creaky, and implausible as the cosmological opening of the Prologue in Heaven. Rather than repenting, what does Faust vow to do when he reawakens? Compare the passage on the rising sun in lines 4695-4714 with the earlier passage on the setting sun in lines 1074-1099. What are the major differences? What are the similarities?
Our translation now skips a vast portion of Part II. Be sure to read the “Synopsis of omitted portions” on pp. 32-44. Much of this part of the play wanders far afield from the central narrative of the old Faust legend; and although it was highly thought of by German romantic scholars, it has seldom caught the imaginations of other readers. Faust has been given a seaside kingdom by the Emperor, which he has enlarged by diking and draining the swampland–a common practice from the Middle Ages onward in Holland and southwestern Germany. The wanderer who appears in this scene is playing the role played by the gods in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when they test the hospitality of villagers by appearing in the guise of wandering beggars. Only an old couple named Baucis (the woman) and Philemon (the man) are willing to open their houses and cupboards to them, and only they are preserved when the rest of the village is drowned in a flood. Goethe expects his readers to know their Ovid well enough to recognize the names and make the proper associations. The wanderer is amazed to find the former seacoast where he was washed up years ago has become part of Faust’s kingdom. How does Philemon’s attitude toward this fact differ from Baucis? What is Goethe implying about the relative moral sensitivities of men and women?
How does Faust’s reaction to the ringing of Baucis and Philemon’s chapel bell compare with his reaction to the bells of Easter Morning in Part I? What does the difference tell us about the development of his character? Lynceus, the palace lookout (another classical figure), sees Faust’s merchant fleet returning? What evidence is there that he is using illicit means to conduct this trade? In line 11188 Mephistopheles alludes ironically to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, discussed above. Why is Faust’s line “One would as soon no more be just” ironic? As you would find it you followed up the reference to I Kings 21, King Ahab envied the vineyard of his subject Naboth. His wicked wife arranged for Naboth to be killed so that Ahab could seize it. Thus Mephistopheles is clearly preparing us to expect the deaths of Baucis and Philemon as Faust plays the role of Ahab.
Faust rages at Mephistopheles for his killing of Baucis and Philemon; but why might one see him as responsible for their deaths anyway?
As in a Medieval morality play like Everyman, allegorical figures enter who symbolize the approach of death. They also parallel the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: death, war, famine, and plague (see Revelations 6:1-8). In this context “Want” and “Need” mean “poverty.” Why is Faust not threatened by them? What does it tell us that Guilt cannot reach Faust? “Care” is used here in the sense of “worries, troubles.” Why is she the only one of the sisters to reach Faust? Does Faust’s wish to abandon witchcraft in lines 11404-11407 mark a change from his earlier attitudes? What philosophical conclusions does Faust draw from his life experience in lines 11433-11452? In what ways are these different from his earlier attitudes? In what ways the same? How does Care’s next speech hint that Mephistopheles may not win his end of the bet with The Lord, though in line 11485 he says he will send Faust to Hell? Since it is pitch black and Faust can see nothing anyway (he never realizes he’s been blinded), and since the effect cannot possibly be shown in the play, what is the point of having Faust be blinded at the end of this scene?
Large Outer Court of the Palace
As Mephistopheles has the Lemures (zombies patched together out of dead body parts) dig Faust’s grave, the former meditates on the absurdity of death, which is a frequent theme in his speeches. What does Faust think the digging outside is accomplishing? How does Mephistopheles sarcastically prophesy that all his hopes are in vain, and how does this comment connect with the Baucis and Philemon story in Ovid? Many readers have felt that Faust’s final speeches are meant to show a benign attitude that justifies his salvation; but has he actually changed? He does say, “Abide, you are so fair,” so why aren’t the terms of the contract fulfilled? What in Mephistopheles’ speech following his death hints that he realizes this fact?
As Kaufmann points out in the introduction, this was the last scene Goethe wrote, a wildly comic, blasphemous account of how Faust is saved, as if he wanted to underline that the final scene must not be taken seriously as a scene of orthodox redemption. It has utterly failed to achieve that goal with most scholarly readers, partly because they are too embarrassed by its obscenities even to discuss it. The Hell’s Mouth, like the heavens depicted earlier, is an obsolete bit of stage apparatus. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance such a prop was often used in religious dramas depicting Christ delivering the holy patriarchs from Limbo after his Crucifixion (there was such a prop listed in the inventory of Shakespeare’s theater). What in Mephistopheles’ speech indicates that it is not to be taken seriously? Psyche is the Greek mythological name for the human soul. How is the effort to capture the soul made grossly physical in this scene? Why does Mephistopheles call the angels “devils in disguise?” How is the Devil traditionally related to angels? What sight ultimately distracts Mephistopheles so that the angels are able to make off with the soul? Is he attracted by their virtue?
Mountain Gorges; Forest, Rock, and Desert
An “anchorite” is a religious hermit, usually living in the wilderness. They are given Latin names: Pater Ecstaticus, The Ecstatic Father; Pater Profundus, The Father of the Deeps; and Pater Seraphicus, The Seraphic (angelic) Father. How does Faust’s salvation in this Neoplatonic Heaven differ from that preached by conventional Christianity? In what ways is it similar to his rebirth at the opening of Part I? How does his journey through the levels of Heaven relate to the main themes of the play? According to the beliefs of Faust’s time, the souls of unbaptized infants went to Limbo in Hell. Here they are given the more Romantic role of guiding the soul to Heaven. Since The Lord said at the beginning of the play that “Man errs as long as he will strive” why do the angels here seem to quote him as stating that “Who ever strives with all his power,/We are allowed to save”? A “chrysalis” is the cocoon out of which a butterfly hatches. What seems to be the ultimate power that draws Faust into Heaven? The Doctor Marianus is a theologian (not a medical doctor) specializing in the veneration of the Virgin Mary, “heaven’s queen.” Why is he presented as being in the “highest, cleanest cell?” What is the significance of the Magna Peccatrix (woman who has sinned greatly)? See Luke 7: 36-50. She has been traditionally confused with Mary Magdalene, who is discussed elsewhere; and Goethe probably meant her to be identified as such; but which of her characteristics is particularly relevant here? What is relevant in the story of the Mulier Samaritana (Samaritan woman) in John 4:1-30? Maria Aegyptica , whose story of sin and repentance is told in the Medieval Acts of the Saints, is the third of these women. How does Gretchen (Una Poenitentium, A Penitent) fit in with them? Her role her is clearly modeled on that of Dante’s Beatrice in The Divine Comedy, in which the poet’s human beloved is transformed into an agent of salvation. In what way are the defeat of Mephistopheles and the salvation of Faust caused by the same force? The final lines of the play are mistranslated. They actually say, “Eternal womanhood draws us onward.” Considering the themes of the rest of the play, why is this a fitting ending? Since Goethe was clearly not a Christian, why do you suppose he wrote this scene in Heaven? Since Faust never repented his sins and did no notably virtuous deeds and never expressed any religious faith, why do you think he is saved?
18th and 19th Century European Classics (Humanities 303)
- Using these Guides
- Beethoven: Symphony no. 9
- Verdi: La Traviata
- The Enlightenment
- Voltaire: The Philosophical Dictionary
- The Problem of Evil
- Jacob Bronowski’s film, Knowledge or Certainty
- Women Artists Assignment
- Realism & Naturalism
- Zola: Germinal
- 19th-Century Russian Literature
- Dostoyevsky: Notes from Underground
- Foreign Words and Phrases translated from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
- The Influence of Nietzsche
- Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra
- Introduction to 19th-Century Socialism
- Misconceptions, Confusions, and Conflicts Concerning Socialism, Communism, and Capitalism
- Marx and Engels: The Communist Manifesto
- French Impressionist Painting
There is also an edition of Christopher Marlowe’s much easier play on the same subject, Doctor Faustus.
Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.
First published June 14, 1995.
Last revised April 15, 2015.