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Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary: (Selections)

Houdon: Voltaire, National Gallery, Photo by Paul Brians
Houdon: Voltaire, National Gallery, Photo by Paul Brians


The most commonly taught book by Voltaire is his amusing satire on philosophical optimism, Candide. It was even made into a delightful musical by Leonard Bernstein. However, it does not represent Voltaire at his most influential. Philosophical optimism is pretty much dead and has to be explained to students today so that they can grasp the point of his satire. Voltaire’s thought ranged much more widely than this, however. In a very long life of tireless intellectual campaigning he was the most widely-read of the Enlightenment spokesmen known as philosophes.

These writers prized clarity and wit, and Voltaire’s writing abounds in both. However, these qualities are somewhat dimmed for many contemporary readers who don’t have the background to appreciate his jokes or grasp his points without assistance. These notes try to provide some assistance in this regard, and draw the reader’s attention to the most important issues.

It has been said that “Voltaire criticized the Bible, but now everyone reads the Bible and no one reads Voltaire.” Besides being wildly overstated, this jibe misses the point: we no longer read most of Voltaire’s writings because the ideas he fearlessly promoted have mostly become commonplaces which we take for granted. The agenda of the Enlightenment is a familiar one to anyone studying classic American values: freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and opposition to the cruel caprices of unenlightened monarchs, to militarism and to slavery.

It is crucial to understand that at his time, organized religion in France (and elsewhere) ranged itself on the opposite side of every one of these issues, censoring the press and speech, opposing religious toleration, supporting the doctrine of the divine right of kings to rule and often endorsing slavery as well. Voltaire railed against the Catholic Church not because he was a wicked man who wanted freedom to sin, but because he viewed it as a fountainhead and bulwark of evil. He felt that no change of the kind he wanted was possible without undermining the power of the Church; that is why he devoted so much of his attention to ridiculing and discrediting it.

Unlike his arch-rival philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he was not a democrat. ( A comparison of the two.) Despite the stereotype of the Enlightenment as a movement of facile optimism, Voltaire was deeply pessimistic about the human nature. He never dreamed of creating a perfect world (despite the utopia depicted in Candide). He only argued that the world could be less bad than it is if we replaced ignorance and superstition with knowledge and rational thought.

His influence (along with Rousseau) on the French Revolution is well-known, but Voltaire would have been appalled by the irrational, violent excesses done in the name of enlightenment. Critics ever since have been arguing that the 18th-century crusade against faith has fatally wounded the Western World, promoting all sorts of social ills. Whether one sees the world as better or worse after Voltaire, there is no question that the issues which obsessed him are still important today. There are few of the questions treated below which are not still being hotly debated in contemporary America, and few of his arguments have lost their point in the ensuing centuries.

As you read this book, ask yourself to what extent are his views the very foundation stones of our culture and to what extent do they challenge it? Voltaire’s great ambition was to make his contemporaries think, and it is a tribute to his wit and his intellect that his writings can still accomplish that goal.

The following notes refer to the Penguin edition of the Philosophical Dictionary, but there is a different, older translation available on the Web.


Why does Voltaire think it is ironic that priests are called “father?” What does he think is the main fault of modern priests as opposed to ancient ones? What does the threat in the last line of this article mean?

Ame: Soul

In this article Voltaire ironically examines the concept of the soul, which had been finely subdivided as he describes by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose definitions were adapted by the thirteenth century Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas, and which became the basis of Roman Catholic teaching on the subject (see p. 24). Much of this article is spent mocking these teachings. Focus instead on Voltaire’s attitude toward knowledge. Some of his comments in this article are aimed at particular points in their philosophy and are of mainly historical interest. Focus on the points addressed in the following questions. Voltaire does not believe it is possible to observe what is usually called the “soul.” Notice how he ridicules the idea that there is a spiritual entity separate from the body by discussing the nature of flowers and dogs. Voltaire, like most modern scientists, sees humans as being part of a natural continuum with animals and plants. In the last sentence on p. 21, Voltaire introduces the rest of his discussion by suggesting that religious teachers (by “supernatural help”) are the sole source of the notion of the soul: reason alone does not suggest it. On p. 22, he uses the newly-announced theory of gravitation (developed by Newton and much admired by Voltaire) to argue that the fact that human beings are alive does not imply the existence of a soul separate from the body. Rocks do not have heaviness in them as something distinguishable from the rest of their nature: rocks are heavy. Similarly, living beings live not because they have souls which animate them; they are simply physical beings one of whose characteristics is life. What do you think of this argument? Voltaire repeatedly argues that the soul cannot be known without “revelation” or “faith;” is he therefore arguing in favor of the concept of an inspired Bible? How can you tell? On p. 23 he rejects the Greek concept of the animal soul. On p. 24, how can you tell that the sentence which begins “Saint Thomas wrote two thousand pages” is sarcastic? “Schoolmen” are the traditional theologians known as “scholastics.” What examples does he use to ridicule the concept of the existence of a soul existing after death? What does he say was the attitude toward the ancient Jewish people about the soul and immortality? “Decalogue” means the Ten Commandments. What kind of portrait does he give of Jewish law in his paraphrase of laws from Deuteronomy on p. 25? Why does he single out the passage on false prophets? What relationship does the last full paragraph on p. 25 have to the question of whether the Jews believed in immortality? Throughout his discussion of Deuteronomy Voltaire follows the common interpretation of his time that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible, though he elsewhere rejects this notion. He states on p. 26 that “several illustrious commentators” argue that when Jacob, mourning Joseph, said he would descend in infernum (orig. sheol) it is thereby proven that the ancient Jews believed in an afterlife; but he does not bother to answer this argument. Why is it an embarrassing argument even for those who use it? Since the Sadducees were the most conservative, traditional branch of Judaism, it is particularly significant that they did not accept the concept of immortality. According to Voltaire, Josephus says that the Pharisees believed in “metempsychosis” (reincarnation), while the Sadducees rejected life after death altogether. The Essenes were the least orthodox of all, yet their beliefs best match those of later Jews and Christians. On p. 27, “He who alone was to teach all men” is of course Christ. Why does Voltaire say that we’ve only been certain of the existence of the soul for 1,700 years? Note how Voltaire slips in a sarcastic comment on the Bible’s inconsistency in stating in one place that Moses saw God face to face and in another that he saw him only from the rear. What, for Voltaire, is the purpose of the mind, or “understanding?” On p. 28 he rejects the accusation that he supports belief in a material soul by repeating that knowledge of any kind of soul is impossible. How does he use the arguments of religious people in favor of divine revelation against them? How does he contrast the attitude of Philosophy (Enlightenment philosophy, of course) with that of religious thinkers in the last sentence of this essay?

Amour: Love

For Voltaire love equals sex. What quality of sexuality does he say is unique to human beings, denied to the lower animals? What do you think of his argument? What is the point of the quotation from the Earl of Rochester (a notorious skeptic) on p. 30? How does he argue on p. 31 that syphilis is not the result of God’s displeasure with human immorality, as many priests had argued? Can you apply this argument to the AIDS epidemic? Phryne, Lais, Flora and Messalina were all women notorious for their sexual excesses. “The pox” is syphilis.

Amour-propre: Self-love

What Christian traditions might Voltaire have had in mind in telling the story of the Indian fakir on p. 35? What is his position on self-love and self-sacrifice?

Athée, athéisme: Atheist, atheism

You can skim most of this article up to p. 55. Voltaire begins his discussion of atheism with a long list of distinguished people from the past who have been unjustly accused of atheism. On p. 50, why does Voltaire call the Romans wiser than the Greeks? Note how he calls modern Europeans “the barbarian peoples which succeeded the Roman empire.” Voltaire cites Vannini as a predecessor of the Enlightenment figures like himself who argued in favor of deism but who were attacked for atheism. How does he argue on pp. 54 and 55 that a whole society can exist composed of atheists? “Gentiles” are non-Jews–in this case ancient Greeks and Romans, many of whom he argues were in essence atheists. This was a strong argument since the French of his time particularly admired Classical thought. Which, on p. 56, does he argue is more dangerous: atheism or fanaticism? Do you agree or disagree with him? Why? What is the point of his reference to the “ massacres of Saint Bartholomew?” Despite his arguments than one can have a just society composed of atheists, why does he argue on p. 57 that belief in God is desirable in a monarchy? What is the sole reason he puts forward that learned men should not be atheists? Can you see any problems with this argument? The final sentence in the last full paragraph on p. 57 is a subtle rejection of Christian belief in creation ex nihilo (from nothing), considered disproved by 18th-century science, and leading perhaps to belief in an orderly Deistic universe but not to a conventionally God-dominated one. Something is said to have had a final cause if it has been called into being for some purpose. What is Voltaire’s opinion of final causes? In section II, what does Voltaire say are the main causes of atheism? What are your own reactions to his argument here? Atheism is common in France and most of Western Europe, rare in the U.S. Why do you suppose so few Americans are atheists?

Beau, Beauté: Beautiful, beauty

What is the main point of this article? Do you agree with it?

Bien (tout est) All is good

Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, satirizes the arguments of Leibnitz [here spelled Leibniz] and Pope that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” On the bottom of p. 68, what basic element of Christianity does he say Leibnitz has fatally weakened by adopting his thesis? He summarizes Lactantius’ devastating statement of the classic “problem of evil” on p. 69, delighting in drawing his arguments from an unimpeachably Catholic source.

To help you work through the “Problem of Evil” which he is here exploring, I’ve created a Web site that considers various options. Visit it now by clicking here. This should make clearer the philosophical context in which Voltaire is making his argument. See whether you can come up with additional arguments or replies to these arguments, and post them online.

What is his basic point here? What is the point of his argument about a Lucullus (a famously wealthy Roman)who can easily believe that all is for the best? He goes on to recount mockingly the attempts of various faiths to deal with the problem of evil, none of which works for Christians or Jews. What is the point of his fanciful tale of a supposed Syrian creation story? He says that “all is good” simply means “everything is as it has to be.” How does the central paragraph on p. 72 seek to refute the argument that the orderliness of the universe is evidence of a divine, benevolent will? Note his sarcasm at the end. How does he argue against Pope’s statement that particular evils form the common good? On p. 73, how does he react to those who find this theory consoling? What kind of a God does he say the theory implies? What is his final statement as to the problem of evil? What are your personal reactions to these arguments?

Bornes de l’esprit humain: Limits of the human mind

As elsewhere in Voltaire, “doctor” means “theologian.” In what way is the subject of this article related to the last paragraph of the previous one? What is his attitude toward those who claim to have absolute knowledge? Why is he so opposed to such attitudes?

Catéchisme chinois: Chinese catechism

Like most of Voltaire’s writings on Asian religions, this bears slight relation to real Asian thought. It is instead a vehicle for the expression of some of his more daring criticisms of Christian theology. By using the dialogue format, he can offer two disputants, one more skeptical than the other. What is his attitude toward the concept of Heaven on p. 79? Does he reject the concept that Earth is unique in the universe? In ridiculing the myth of Fo he is of course mocking the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ. With what objection does Koo meet the traditional argument that the marvel of the eye implies a creator? What attitude toward belief in God does his story of the crickets imply? Why does he quote Confucius on p. 81? What is he trying to imply about the ethics of Christianity? (Confucius lived several centuries before Christ.) Notice that Koo argues that humanity is more diligent in suppressing evil than is God. What do you think of this argument? What attitude toward immortality does Ku-Su express at the end of the Second Conversation? The Third Conversation offers familiar arguments against the existence of the soul (see Ame, Soul above). with some original twists. One of the most important passages occurs on p. 83, where Koo says “What impression do you want to give me of the architect of so many millions of worlds were he obliged to carry out so many repairs to keep his creation going?” What is the point of this question? Notice that on p. 85 he argues that at least half of the Ten Commandments (the laws of the Sinoos) are necessarily universal, thus implying that morality need not be based on any particular religious revelation. What arguments does he bring against the idea of divine judgment after death on p. 86? Koo seems to give in to faith grudgingly on p. 86: why does he do so? What are his arguments against prayer and sacrifice in the Fourth Conversation? What does Koo claim are the real motives of the bonzes (priests) in preaching as they do? What does Ku-Su argue on p. 88 is natural law? Why does Voltaire like King Daon? In the Fifth Conversation, what sorts of virtues are admired in a king? The king being ridiculed on p. 90 in Koo’s statement about those with 300 wives, etc. is Solomon. What relationship does the last paragraph on p. 90 have to the article Abbé, which you read earlier? Why does Ku-Su argue that friendship should not be made a religious teaching? Why does he claim that Confucius recommends to his followers to love their enemies? (In fact he does not.) On p. 92, the “impertinent peoples” referred to are of course the Europeans (see footnote). Voltaire’s criticisms of “taverns” reflect the low state of commercial hospitality in his day. Commodious hotels and restaurants were founded only after the French Revolution, when the wealthy could no longer automatically stay as guests in aristocratic mansions. Voltaire himself was a perennial house guest for many years. What criticisms does he make of the Christian concept of humility on p. 94? What do you think of these criticisms? What are the basic religious beliefs that Koo endorses at the end of the essay?

Certain, certitude: Certain, certainty

What is Voltaire’s basic attitude toward human certainty? What does he argue are the only kinds of “immutable and eternal” certainty? What Christian belief is he satirizing in his example about the Marshal of Saxe on p. 107? Why do you think this question of certainty and uncertainty is so important to Voltaire? How is it reflected in other articles in the Dictionary?

Chaîne des événements: Chain of events

Voltaire takes it as given that all events have causes, that the world operates like an “immense machine” (p. 110), but argues that not all actions have results. It may seem strange that someone so passionately attached to freedom should argue for determinism (the belief that everything happens by necessity). Why do you think this argument attracted Voltaire?


Voltaire begins this declaration of his personal theology with a joke in which Mlle Duclos is so ignorant of her religion that she has the Credo confused with the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer). The point of the paragraph at the bottom of p. 159 and the top of p. 160 is that the Christian Credo probably evolved some time after Jesus, and does not reflect the beliefs of his early followers. The paragraph about the belief that Christ descended into Hell is based on a now-obscure doctrine called in English “ the Harrowing of Hell,” which at one time was very prominent and is often depicted in Medieval art and literature. The so-called “Credo of Saint-Pierre” is, of course, Voltaire’s own composition. What does its strong insistence on monotheism imply about Christianity? What is the point of the long third paragraph of the “Credo,” and of the two paragraphs that follow? What is the evil that he most strenuously attacks? How does he say priests should be treated?

Égalité: Equality

What, according to Voltaire, is humanity’s greatest divine gift? And what is the result of not using this gift properly? He is echoing Rousseau’s famous statement that “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains,” and to some degree replying to the latter philosopher’s theories of human equality in The Social Contract. What does he argue is the cause of inequality on p. 182? What common human characteristics lead to inequality (p. 183)? Note his sly dig at the rivalries of theologians in the middle of the page. What does he say is the implied meaning of laws which forbid people to leave a country (as he was forbidden to leave Prussia by his former friend and supporter Frederick the Great)? To what basic principle does he reduce human equality? When Voltaire says that anyone who feels unjustly treated in a particular state should leave, he is not speaking lightly. He lived in exile from France for much of his life. Note that his attitudes are far removed from the extreme egalitarianism during the French Revolution.

Enthousiasme: Enthusiasm

Why does Voltaire label enthusiasm a disease? (Note that the 18th-century French use of this term is not identical with contemporary English usage.) His story about the young man so carried away by a tragedy that he decides to write one himself is a self-mocking comment: he wrote many tragedies. Ovid’s The Art of Love and The Loves are cynical observations on love affairs, whereas Sappho’s poetry is filled with passion. She was said in ancient times to have committed suicide for love. How does he contrast reason with religion? What sort of people are said to unite reason with enthusiasm?

États, gouvernements: quel est le meilleur? States, governments: which is the best?

Voltaire begins this article by mocking those who claim to be able to reform government based on an imperfect understanding of the world. The article really begins on p. 192 when he raises the question of what sort of government a “wise man, free, of modest wealth, and without prejudices” would prefer to live in. Typically, he sets this dangerous debate (remember that Voltaire lived in an absolute monarchy endorsed by the Church) by placing it in the mouths of two Indians. He begins by satirizing the republic of ancient Israel (on the top of p. 193). What does he say is the reason there are so few republics (states in which the citizens govern themselves)? The republic discussed by the councilor which lasted more than 500 years is the ancient Roman republic. What moral advantage is it argued a republic has over a monarchy? Voltaire amusedly alludes to Montesquieu’s theory that different laws are caused by different climactic conditions, but excludes religion from this variability. What does it mean to say that the best government is that “in which only the laws are obeyed?” (Hint: there is a common phrase in American constitutional law that states “We are a government of laws, not of men,” which means the same thing.) What does this last sentence of the article mean? Why do you think self-government has been so rare in human history?

Fanatisme: Fanaticism

What do Voltaire’s examples of detestable fanaticism have in common? What is the remedy he suggests on p. 203? What does he dislike about the stories from the Old Testament to which he alludes? What does he say is the basic problem with people who appeal to a higher divine law when they behave violently? By the way, he is quite wrong in his description of Confucianism as being free from fanaticism; Buddhism comes closer. Although Confucianism is based on rational principles, Confucianists could be quite fanatical in their opposition to Buddhism.

Foi: Faith

The story with which this article begins is loosely based on historical fact and allows Voltaire to remind his readers of some of the more unsavory aspects of the history of the papacy. What is his definition of faith? What criticisms does he make of it? Can you provide a different definition of faith which is not open to these criticisms? Why does he say faith brings no merit? He is parodying in the statement of the bonze toward the bottom of p. 209 the Christian doctrine that one can receive the grace to believe what one does not readily accept through prayer.

Guerre: War

In one of his most bitterly sarcastic passages, Voltaire “praises” war as a divine gift which unites all the worst evils, causing those who create it to be adored as gods on earth. The whole article drips with irony. When he comments on p. 232 that people today do not fight wars for such stupid causes as the ancient Romans, he is being ironic. What does he say on p. 232 is a common cause for princes going to war (hint: see Shakespeare’s Henry V)? What does he say should happen before a king should be allowed to become the ruler over a people? What relationship does he say the Church has to war (p. 233)? What distinction does he make between natural and artificial religion? When he contrasts “love” with war, he of course means sex. Does he believe war can be abolished?

Liberté de pensée: Freedom of thought

Voltaire places the debate over freedom of thought in the mouths of representatives of England (which he admired) and Portugal (which he detested). Medroso (the name means “fearful”) is a religious fanatic, ignorant of the most famous names from antiquity. What does he say at the top of p. 280 is the main danger of freedom of thought? The “holy office” referred to here is the Inquisition run by the Dominican Order which imprisoned, tortured, and executed those who failed to conform to Catholic orthodoxy. Banned from France, it still flourished in Spain and Portugal in Voltaire’s time. Why does he argue Christians should support freedom of thought? Hidden in the paragraph beginning “When some business matter . . .” is his answer to Pascal’s famous wager which argued that it makes sense to believe in God since if there is one, one will avoid going to Hell for disbelieving, and if there is none, one will have nevertheless led a good life. What is Voltaire’s objection to this logic? What is your own reaction to this argument? What are the respective virtues of the English and the Portuguese, stated on p. 281?

Note: Readers attracted by the nearby article on Free Will should be cautious in connecting it with this article. Voltaire argues against the Catholic doctrine of free will and in favor of a form of determinism. The reader should not assume that because Voltaire advocates freedom he accepts the philosophical concept called “free will.”

Préjugés: Prejudices

Under this heading Voltaire groups a wide variety of ideas–all of them various sorts of irrational opinions. What are good prejudices, according to him? (Compare with “natural law.”) What common European attitudes is he satirizing in the paragraph that begins at the bottom of p. 343? “Prejudices of the Senses” are simply sensory illusions, and “physical prejudices” are irrational beliefs handed on by tradition. He debunks a pious story about how Clovis converted to Christianity by pointing out that it is not natural to pray to a God in whom one does not yet believe. Note that most of his examples of religion avoid Christianity but can easily be paralleled with it. What does he say should be the final result of overcoming religious prejudices?

Secte: Sect

Why does Voltaire argue that the very existence of disputing sects within a religion disproves its truth? How does he contrast science with religion? Scientists also disagree among themselves; does this make them the same as religious people? Explain. What distinctions does he make between religious beliefs that everyone shares and those which are unique (and therefore false)? Pascal was not the only one to argue that there is special merit in believing difficult-to-believe Christian dogmas.

Théiste: Theist

Voltaire consistently uses the term “theist” where we would use “ Deist:” a believer in a minimal religion which reveres a creator but omits most of the elements of traditional religion: prayers of petition, miracles, divine revelation, incarnation, salvation, damnation, etc. What are the main characteristics of the theist, according to Voltaire?

Tolérance: Toleration

What does Voltaire say is the first law of nature? Voltaire is intent on showing that the Romans were unusually tolerant of foreign religions because the usual stereotype of their culture is that it was intolerant in its attitude toward Christianity. According to him, why did the Romans finally become hostile to Christianity? What does he say was the attitude of various groups within original Christianity? On p. 389 he engages in one of his periodic assaults on Jewish belief, but with the aim of maintaining that they were at least more open-minded than Christians. What seem at first to be antisemetic passages in his work are often simply ruses to attack Christianity. He depicts the religious conversion of leaders in Europe as having produced a series of catastrophes. In section II, what does he say is the attitude of Christianity toward other religions? The second paragraph, assuming a detailed familiarity with the Bible, is designed to demonstrate that Christians did not at first distinguish themselves from Jews, and that their subsequent intolerance was an unfortunate late development. On p. 391 he refers to the numerous sects into which Christianity has always been divided to refute the claims of the Catholic Church to universal authority. What does he say is the remedy for religious dissension? How does the argument on p. 292 relate to the article entitled “Secte: Sect?” What religious sect does he most admire and compare to the beliefs of the earliest Christians? What arguments does he give to show that Jesus was not a Christian? What is the point of the parable of the reed at the end of the article? Americans, like Voltaire, value toleration, particularly in religious matters, very highly; but they also tend to value faith, which he rejects. How do you reconcile these two values? Is it possible to believe profoundly in a religious faith without being tempted to coerce others into accepting it? Explain.

Tyrannie: Tyranny

Voltaire is of course being sarcastic when he says “there are no such tyrants in Europe.” What does he say is the advantage of living under one tyrant rather than under many?

More study guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics


Goethe’s Faust

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)?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.

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.)

Witch’s Kitchen

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?

Gretchen’s Room

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.

Martha’s Garden

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?

City Wall

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?]

Walpurgis Night

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?

Dismal Day

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?

Charming Landscape

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?

Open Country

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.

Deep Night

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)


Related Links

There is also an edition of Christopher Marlowe’s much easier play on the same subject, Doctor Faustus.

The libretto of Gounod’s opera based on Faust, in French and English.
An essay on alchemy in Faust

Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

First published June 14, 1995.

Last revised April 15, 2015.

Realism and Naturalism

In Music and Art

As intellectual and artistic movements 19th-Century Realism and Naturalism are both responses to Romanticism but are not really comparable to it in scope or influence.

For one thing, “realism” is not a term strictly applicable to music. There are verismo (realistic) operas like Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier created in the last decade of the 19th century in Italy, but it is their plots rather than their music which can be said to participate in the movement toward realism. Since “pure” untexted music is not usually representational (with the controversial exception of “program” music), it cannot be said to be more or less realistic.

In contrast, art may be said to have had many realistic aspects before this time. The still lifes and domestic art of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin1 (1699-1779) anticipate many of the concerns of the 19th-Century Realists, and he in turn owes a debt to the Netherland school of still-life painting of the century before him, and one can find similar detailed renderings of everyday objects even on the walls of 1st-century Pompeii. Realism is a recurrent theme in art which becomes a coherent movement only after 1850; and even then it struggles against the overwhelming popularity of Romanticism.

In mid-19th century France, Gustave Courbet2 set forth a program of realistic painting as a self-conscious alternative to the dominant Romantic style, building on earlier work by the painters of the Barbizon School (of which the most famous member was Jean-François Millet), which had attempted to reproduce landscapes and village life as directly and accurately as possible. Impressionism can be seen as a development which grew out of Realism, but in its turn still had to battle the more popular Romanticism. Realism has never entirely displaced the popular taste for Romantic art, as any number of hotel-room paintings, paperback book covers and calendars testify. It became just one more style among others.

In Fiction

Realism’s most important influences have been on fiction and the theater. It is perhaps unsurprising that its origins can be traced to France, where the dominant official neoclassicism had put up a long struggle against Romanticism. Since the 18th century the French have traditionally viewed themselves as rationalists, and this prevailing attitude in intellectual circles meant that Romanticism led an uneasy existence in France even when allied with the major revolutionary movements of 1789 and 1830.


Novelist Honoré de Balzac3 is generally hailed as the grandfather of literary Realism in the long series of novels and stories he titled La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), and which attempted systematically to render a portrait of all aspects of the France of his time from the lowest thief or prostitute to the highest aristocrat or political leader. The title of the series was chosen to contrast with Dante’s Divine Comedy, which had portrayed everything except the earthly human realm.

His attention to detail was obsessive, with long passages of description of settings being a characteristic feature of his work. Today readers resist such descriptive writing, but before films and television were invented, it had a magical effect on people, causing the world depicted to explode from the page in an almost tangible fashion. It is important to remember in reading all 19th-century fiction that those people who had the time and inclination to read novels at all generally had a lot of time to kill, and none of the cinematic and electronic distractions which have largely replaced recreational reading in our time. They welcomed lengthy novels (often published serially, over a series of weeks or even months) in the same way we greet a satisfying television series which becomes a staple of our lives.

Like such a television series, his works also incorporated a device for maintaining his audience: the continual reappearance of certain characters from one work to the next–now as protagonists, now as secondary figures. The idea is an old one, going back to classic bodies of work such as the Homeric epics and the Medieval Arthurian romances; but it had a different effect in Balzac’s work: readers could recognize a slightly altered version of the world they themselves inhabited as they moved from story to story.

What is not realistic about Balzac’s fiction is his plots, filled with sensational conspiracies and crimes and wildly improbable coincidences. Balzac’s works are still essentially Romantic creations with a Realistic veneer.

Gustave Flaubert

It was Gustave Flaubert who in 1857 produced the seminal work from which later literary Realism was to flow: Madame Bovary.4 Flaubert had begun his writing career as most young authors in his time did, as a Romantic, laboring on a tale of Medieval mysticism which was eventually published as La Tentation de Saint Antoine (The Temptation of Saint Anthony). When he read an early draft of this work to some friends, they urged him to attempt something more down to earth. He chose the story of an adulterous woman married to an unimaginative country physician unable to respond to–or even comprehend–her romantic longings. Drawing on the real-life stories of two women–Delphine Delamare and Louise Pradier–whose experiences he was intimately familiar with, Flaubert labored to turn journalism into art while avoiding the romantic clichés he associated with his heroine’s fevered imagination.

Like Balzac, he engaged in systematic research, modeling the village in his novel on an actual country town and even drawing a map of it detailed enough to allow scholars to catch him when he has Emma Bovary turn in the wrong direction on one of her walks. Unlike Balzac, he avoided the sensational sort of plot lines characteristic of Romantic novels. To modern readers a married woman carrying on two adulterous affairs and then committing suicide may seem fairly sensational, but it is important to note that there was a long tradition of tales of female adultery in French literature stretching back as far as the Middle Ages. What Flaubert did with the theme was give adultery the shocking impact of the tabloids by stripping his tale of the high romantic idealism that usually justified adultery; instead he systematically satirized his heroine’s bourgeois taste for exotic art and sensational stories. The novel is almost an anti-romantic tract.

Despite the fact that it is generally agreed to be one of the most finely crafted works to be created in the 19th century, it would probably never have had the impact it did if Madame Bovary had not also been the subject of a sensational obscenity trial. So restrained were the standards of polite fiction in mid-19th-century France that many modern readers go right past the big “sex scenes” which got Flaubert into trouble without noticing them (hints: look for Rodolphe to smoke while working on his harness just after making love with Emma for the first time while she experiences the afterglow, and for Emma to toss torn-up pieces of a note out of her carriage during her lovemaking with Léon). However, they were enough to outrage the defenders of middle-class morality. The prosecution was particularly indignant that Emma did not seem to suffer for her sins. Flaubert’s clever lawyer successfully argued that her grotesquely described death made the novel into a moral tale; but the fact is that she dies not because she is an adultress but because she is a shopaholic.

It is not only the literary style of Madame Bovary that is anti-Romantic, it is its subject as well. The narrative clearly portrays Emma as deluded for trying to model her life after the Romantic fiction she loves. The novel is a sort of anti-Romantic manifesto, and its notoriety spread its message far and wide. It is worth noting, however, that Flaubert returned to Romanticism from time to time in his career, for instance in Salammbo, a colorful historical novel set in ancient Carthage.

Influence of Realism

Realism had profound effects on fiction from places as far-flung as Russia and the Americas. The novel, which had been born out of the romance as a more or less fantastic narrative, settled into a realistic mode which is still dominant today. Aside from genre fiction such as fantasy and horror, we expect the ordinary novel today to be based in our own world, with recognizably familiar types of characters endowed with no supernatural powers, doing the sorts of things that ordinary people do every day. It is easy to forget that this expectation is only a century and a half old, and that the great bulk of the world’s fiction before departed in a wide variety of ways from this standard, which has been applied to film and television as well. Even comic strips now usually reflect daily life. Repeated revolts against this standard by various postmodernist and magical realist varieties of fiction have not dislodged the dominance of realism in fiction.


The emergence of Naturalism does not mark a radical break with Realism, rather the new style is a logical extension of the old. The term was invented by Émile Zola partly because he was seeking for a striking platform from which to convince the reading public that it was getting something new and modern in his fiction. In fact, he inherited a good deal from his predecessors. Like Balzac and Flaubert, he created detailed settings meticulously researched, but tended to integrate them better into his narrative, avoiding the long set-piece descriptions so characteristic of earlier fiction. Again, like Balzac, he created a series of novels with linked characters and settings (“Les Rougon-Macquart: Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le second Empire”–“The Rougon-Macquart: Natural and Social History of a Family During the Second Empire”) which stretched to twenty novels. He tried to create a portrait of France in the 1880s to parallel the portrait Balzac had made of his own times in the Comédie humaine. Like Flaubert, he focused on ordinary people with often debased motives.

He argued that his special contribution to the art of fiction was the application to the creation of characters and plot of the scientific method. The new “scientific novel” would be created by placing characters with known inherited characteristics into a carefully defined environment and observing the resulting behavior. No novelist can actually work like this, of course, since both characters and setting are created in the distinctly nonobjective mind of the writer; but Zola’s novels do place special stress on the importance of heredity and environment in determining character. They are anti-Romantic in their rejection of the self-defining hero who transcends his background. History shapes his protagonists rather than being shaped by them. This leads to an overwhelming sense of doom in most of his novels, culminating in a final catastrophe.

Zola further tends to create his principal characters as representative types rather than striking individuals. He also places great emphasis on people acting in groups, and is one of the few great writers of mob scenes. Humanity in the mass is one of his chief subjects, and his individuals are selected to illustrate aspects of society.

Zola can be said to have created in Germinal the disaster narrative exemplified in the 20th century by Arthur Hailey’s novels (Airport) and movies like The Towering Inferno and Titanic. The formula is a classic one: assemble a varied group of representative characters together in some institution or space and subject them to a catastrophe and watch how they individually cope with it.

Zola also took frankness about sexual functions much further than the early Realists had dared; and it is this, combined with a pervasive pessimism about humanity, which chiefly characterizes the Naturalist novel.

Unlike Flaubert, Zola was not a meticulous craftsman of beautiful prose. At times it seems as if he is writing with a meat ax; but he undeniably infused French fiction with a refreshing vigor, giving it a tough, powerful edge far removed from the vaporings of high romanticism.

If Zola often startled the French with his frankness, he shocked readers in other lands, where his works were often banned, regarded as little more than pornography (an assessment which is quite unfair, but unsurprising given the temper of the times).

Zola has had an enormous impact on the American novel. Americans with their preference for action over thought and for gritty realism were strongly drawn to his style of writing. Early 20th-century writers like Theodore Dreiser applied his approaches to American themes successfully, and Frank Norris practically stole large chunks of Zola’s novels in some of his own works. The mainstream American novel is preponderantly naturalistic, and gives rise to another genre which still lives on: the hard-boiled detective story.

For all these reasons, Zola strikes us as far more “modern” than Balzac, or even Flaubert. It can be argued that the “default” style of modern narrative is Realist, with the various forms of fantastic narratives which dominated the writing of earlier ages relegated to the margins; and even fantasy is often judged as to its plausibility. Without altogether banishing Romanticism, Realism and Naturalism have had considerable success.

More Study Guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics



1 For a brief survey of Chardin’s work with examples, see this exhibition at The MET
2 For more on Courbet’s life and works, look here.
3 For more information about Balzac, see this online literature.
4 For more information about Madame Bovary, see here.


Created by Paul Brians March 13, 1998.

The Influence of Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was notoriously unread and uninfluential during his own lifetime, and his works suffered considerable distortion in the hands of his sister Elisabeth, who managed his literary estate and twisted his philosophy into a set of ideas supporting Hitler and Nazism (Hitler had Thus Spoke Zarathustra issued to every soldier in the German army). By far his most often quoted utterance–seldom understood–is “God is dead,” which placed his thought beyond the pale for many readers.

But Nietzsche’s influence has been much richer and varied than these simple stereotypes suggest. It is not surprising that an author who embraced such contradictions should have influenced thinkers of an extraordinary variety.


The only philosopher to feel his influence while he could be aware of it was the Danish critic and philosopher Georg Brandes (1842-1927), who in the late 1880s developed a philosophy which he called “aristocratic radicalism” inspired by Nietzsche’s notion of the “overman.” Nietzsche’s insistence that the decay of religion (the “death of God”) requires that humanity take responsibility for setting its own moral standards inspired existentialists from Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) to Albert Camus (1913-1960).

Nietzsche’s relativism has had a powerful influence on two of the most important modern French Deconstructionist philosophers, Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984). (Summary of a 1971 Foucault essay relating to Nietzsche).

Oddly enough, he has also been a powerful influence on certain theologians, notably Paul Tillich (1886-1965), who developed an Existentialist, human-centered theology which tried to salvage elements of traditional faith while drawing on rationalism. Thomas Altizer (b.1927) created a sensation (and found himself on the cover of Time) in the 1960s by helping to create the oxymoronically named “death of God theology” together with a number of other theologians who argued for religion without God. Their constant use of Nietzsche’s catch phrase is a reminder of their indebtedness to him. Although the direct influence of this school hardly lasted out the decade, other theologians used Nietzsche’s thought as well, notably embracing his idea that human values should be based not on denial (“thou shalt not”) but on affirmation (“thou shalt”). The Jewish theologian Martin Buber (1878-1965)–also a great influence on Christian theology–translated part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra into Polish. He read Nietzsche’s works very early, beginning in 1892. His emphasis on process in theology resembles some of Nietzsche’s ideas.

Although he did not draw directly on Nietzsche’s work, the notions of “creative evolution” espoused by Henri Bergson (1859-1941) had a powerful influence on the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis (1885-1957), who combined his studies under Bergson with his reading of Nietzsche to produce a version of what is known as “process theology” which is most readily studied in the little book The Saviors of God and is also expressed in his most popular novel, Zorba the Greek. According to Kazantzakis, God is the result of whatever the most energetic and heroic people value and create. This is clearly very similar to Nietzsche’s ideas about the sources of religion. Nietzsche’s notion of heroes as creators is at the heart of Kazantzakis’ philosophy.


The two grandfathers of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875-1961), both had a deep admiration for Nietzsche and credited him with many insights into the human character.

Alfred Adler (1870-1937) developed an “individual psychology” which argues that each individual strives for what he called “superiority,” but is more commonly referred to today as “self-realization” or “self-actualization,” and which was profoundly influenced by Nietzsche’s notions of striving and self-creation. The entire “human potential movement” and humanistic psychology (Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, etc.) owes a great debt to this line of thought. Even pop psychologists of “self-esteem” preach a gospel little different from that of Zarathustra. The ruthless, self-assertive “objectivism” of Ayn Rand (1905-1982) is difficult to imagine without the influence of Nietzsche.


Besides Kanzantzakis, many novelists have drawn on Nietzsche. Thomas Mann (1875-1955) wrote repeatedly about him and his characters are often engaged in struggles to define their ideas in a world in which old philosophies are decaying, like Nietzsche, torn between romanticism and rationalism (notably in The Magic Mountain). Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) similarly explored the necessity for the individuals to overcome their social training and traditional ideas to seek their own way (Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game).

Many other famous writers influenced by Nietzsche include André Malraux (1901-1976), André Gide (1869-1951), and Knut Hamsun (1859-1952).


Given the poetic style in which he wrote, it is not surprising that numerous poets have been drawn to Nietzsche, including Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). He, like many writers influenced by Nietzsche, rejected the kind of traditional Christian dualism which sorts existence into good and evil with the physical and earthly being regarded as a source of evil and goodness identified with pure spirit and the life after death. His celebration of mortal life as a sort of religion is extremely Nietzschean. He was also became lover of Lou Andreas-Salomé, a woman who ten years earlier Nietzsche loved unrequitedly.

Among many others, one can find strong Nietzschean themes in the works of Beat Generation poets such as Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Gary Snyder (b. 1930), who were drawn to the vitalistic, anti-dualistic themes also earlier expressed in the English and American traditions by William Blake and Walt Whitman. Blake, Whitman and Nietzsche form a sort of triumvirate whose influence runs through large swaths of modern literature in their rejection of dualism and embrace of the body as good. Like many other poets, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) combined an admiration for Blake with interest in Nietzsche.


George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) expressed his version of Nietzsche’s struggle for power in his play Man and Superman, and more than one character in the plays of Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) is under Nietzsche’s spell.

Influential ideas

If there are few names from the second half of the 20th century cited above it is not because Nietzsche’s influence has dwindled. Rather it so pervades modern culture that many who have never read him are influenced by his thought indirectly. Consider the following ideas circulating in American culture today, all of them traceable at least in part to Nietzsche, although many of them are much simpler than similar ideas held by him:


  • The goal of life should be to find yourself. True maturity means discovering or creating an identity for yourself.
  • The highest virtue is to be true to yourself (consider these song titles from a generation ago: “I Gotta Be Me,” “I Did It My Way”).
  • When you fall ill, your body is trying to tell you something; listen to the wisdom of your body.
  • People who hate their bodies or are in tension with them need to learn how to accept and integrate their physical selves with their minds instead of seeing them as in tension with each other. The mind and body make up a single whole.
  • Athletes, musicians, etc. especially need to become so attuned to their bodies that their skills proceed spontaneously from the knowledge stored in their muscles and are not frustrated by an excess of conscious rational thought. (The influence of Zen Buddhism on this sort of thinking is also very strong.)
  • Sexuality is not the opposite of virtue, but a natural gift that needs to be developed and integrated into a healthy, rounded life.
  • Many people suffer from impaired self-esteem; they need to work on being proud of themselves.
  • Knowledge and strength are greater virtues than humility and submission.
  • Overcoming feelings of guilt is an important step to mental health.
  • You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself.
  • Life is short; experience it as intensely as you can or it is wasted.
  • People’s values are shaped by the cultures they live in; as society changes we need changed values.
  • Challenge yourself; don’t live passively.It is notable that none of these ideas flows from the traditional Judeo-Christian culture which dominated Europe for a thousand years. Many of them have their roots in Romanticism, with Nietzsche merely articulating impulses that others shared; but he is a major transmitter of them to the modern world.

More Study Guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics

The USC Nietzsche Page Warning: this page downloads the opening to Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra to your computer, which can take a while; but at least it stops when it’s played through once.

Gallery of Nietzsche images

Created by Paul Brians, April 1, 1998


Marx and Engels The Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto, first published in 1848 for the Communist League, had little influence in its own day. Only after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ other writings had made their views on socialism widely known did it become a standard text. For about a century it was one of the most widely read (and some would argue misread) documents in the world.

But why study it today? Most of the communist world has collapsed. Nominally communist countries like Vietnam and China are busily building market economies in defiance of everything Marx advocated, and Korea and Cuba are barely surviving, serving as models for no one. Has not Marxism been relegated to the ash-heap of history?

There are several reasons why The Communist Manifesto is still an important document. As a historically significant work, it has a certain intrinsic interest. It is good to know what the great ideas are which have shaped history. Some people would argue that Marxists so thoroughly betrayed Marxism that the document can be used to show why attempts at building communist states failed: they were never truly Marxist at all. If true Marxism has never been tried, then it might be worth reconsidering afresh. Or if, as others argue, Marxism has intrinsic flaws that doomed it from the beginning, we might hope to discover traces of them here which might teach us why Marxism should be shunned. The goal here is not to convert you, but to help you explore Marx’s writing from his point of view, so that you can understand his actual meaning while still maintaining a stance that can allow you to think critically about the subject and form your own opinions.

It is important to understand that Marx played two important roles in world history: as a critic of capitalism and as an advocate of socialism. He actually wrote very little on the latter subject. Although a strong believer in the importance of building socialism, he spent most of his time and energy on a subtle and complex critique of the capitalist system. This critique is still very influential on many historians, art and literature scholars, sociologists and others. There have been many neo-Marxisms which have been based more or less loosely on the original ideas of Marx and which are widely discussed today. Whether you want to explore such ideas or combat them, it’s good to have some notion of the subject.

A manifesto is a document which proclaims publicly–or makes manifest– the central ideas of a group or individual. Although the organization for which this one was written was underground (for the simple reason that it was illegal) Marx always envisioned the socialist movement as open. He rejected secret conspiracies because his ideal of building socialism was envisioned as a majority enterprise which could only accumulate the necessary momentum through an open, broadly-based campaign of education and exhortation.

Engels was Marx’s close collaborator and an important thinker and writer in his own right. He outlived Marx by many years, and produced several volumes which are still influential. Marx was clearly the more powerful thinker of the two, but Engels was the better stylist. Although Engels may have been responsible for much of the eloquent writing in the Manifesto, because it incorporates Marx’s ideas and embodies some central concepts of what came to be known as Marxism the following questions will refer to the authors simply as “Marx.”

The terms “socialist” and “communist” have been defined in a bewildering variety of ways. When reading them it is always important to know what the writer means by them. Marx seems to have used the terms interchangeably, though later Marxists influenced by Lenin often considered socialism the more comprehensive term, communism being an advanced stage of socialism. Early stages of communism (according to Marx) or socialism (according to Lenin) would prepare the way by nationalizing the “means of production” (factories, farms, mines, transportation, etc.) and putting them under the control of those he viewed as the sole producers of wealth: the workers. Marx viewed political equality and freedom as incomplete (or even illusory) without economic equality. Therefore this redistribution of economic power was aimed at extending democracy far beyond the limits envisioned by earlier democratic revolutions. Social services like health, education, and housing would be provided free, but people would still be paid wages according to their work.

When all nations had developed communist economies, they would begin to evolve into an international communist society. The vision of communism was very similar to that of anarchism: a stateless society in which central government had “withered away,” local, ground-up control of all affairs by strictly democratic processes based at the place of work, abolition of the market system (no money, no buying and selling) and its replacement by a system according to which people would voluntarily work for the common good to the extent they were able under the understanding that they could receive whatever they needed for free (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”). National boundaries and governments having been eliminated, war would cease.

Marx rejected the belief that such a society could be set up immediately as utopian. People would need a long period of reeducation to condition them away from the selfish orientation produced by capitalism and toward the wider perspective necessary to create communism. Many of his socialist and anarchist adversaries argued that it was impossible to achieve communism by passing through a stage which retained and even strengthened the centralized state government. Marx replied that it was impossible to leap directly into communism from capitalism. What’s your opinion on this question?

The most common reply is that both are impossible because “you can’t change human nature.” What Marx set out to prove was that not only had “human nature” changed many times in the past: there is no such thing as a static human nature. We are products of our environment, particularly of the economic system in which we live. People living under feudalism are motivated by feudal motives and think them natural and fixed, just as people living under capitalism are motivated by capitalist motives and think those natural and fixed. Occasionally in history people undergo what is now called a “paradigm shift” in values, based on an economic transformation. It is this process that he attempts to sketch in the first section of the Manifesto. If people’s values have changed radically in the past, he implies, they are certain to change again radically in the future. In a socialist society it would be nonsense to say that people will always naturally tend to become owners of factories because such owners would be as impossible, and such desires would be as irrational as the desire to own the Moon. Engels spent a good deal of energy studying so-called “primitive communist” societies to show that sharing could be as natural and widespread an attitude toward wealth as acquisition. What do you know about pre-capitalist cultures that might support or undermine this argument?

Although he does not address the question in the Manifesto, it is important to understand why Marx believed an armed revolution would be necessary to establish socialism. He was convinced that the democratic revolutions which swept Europe in 1848 had merely substituted one tyrant for another. The bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) had replaced the old aristocracy as the rulers in law as well as in fact. Their slogans of freedom and equality for all, he felt, concealed a determination to remain supreme over the proletariat (industrial laborers) which made up the vast majority of society. He did not reject bourgeois democracy because it was democratic, only because he felt it was limited to the bourgeoisie. Economic power, not the vote, was the ultimate guarantee of political power. He was in favor of using elections as an organizing tool, but he was certain that in most countries the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) would forcibly prevent any democratically-elected socialist government from taking power.

He once commented that in only two industrialized nations were democratic institutions so firmly entrenched that a transition to socialism might be peacefully achieved: the Netherlands and the United States. Why do you think this transition did not happen? He also felt that communism could be built only in highly industrialized countries. Why do you think communist revolutions happened first in nations with very little industry, like Russia and China? What effects did this fact have on the course socialism took in these countries?

The manifesto is meant to achieve two major goals: to convert the proletarians and their allies to Marx’s version of socialism (there were many other versions, much more influential than his) and to put the ruling class on notice as to the revolutionaries’ intentions. So it expresses both hopes and threats. Its central themes are well summed up in the long central paragraph on p. 6 of Engels’ introduction. Read it carefully. Note how he goes on to compare his theory of class struggle with Darwin’s theory of evolution, just as Étienne did in Germinal.


The opening words of the Manifesto are famous. Marx taunts his adversaries, saying they are terrified of communism without understanding in the slightest what it is. Since communism is such a threat, it must be important, and worth understanding. Hence the Manifesto.

I: Bourgeois and Proletarians

Marx felt that the revolutions of 1848 marked a major turning point, as is now undisputed. He sets out to trace the patterns which have run through all of preceding history. Unsurprisingly, he considers exclusively European societies, beginning with the classical world. What does he say is the main source of conflict throughout history? How does he say the bourgeoisie has differed in the way it has affected this pattern of conflict? He explains how the bourgeoisie (literally dwellers in towns) originated out of the old medieval peasant class, in opposition to the medieval titled aristocracy (kings, dukes, knights, etc.).

These people derived their wealth from trade rather than agriculture. Why was the age of exploration and colonization important to them? What caused the old guild system to collapse? What have the major effects of the ensuing industrial revolution been? What are the major achievements caused by the extension (expansion) of industry? As the bourgeoisie grew in power, what happened to the other old feudal classes like the aristocracy and the peasants? Did the bourgeoisie create capitalism or did capitalism create the bourgeoisie, according to Marx?

What does this famous phrase mean: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie?” Do you agree? Why? Note that he praises the bourgeoisie for having abolished the feudal system and prepared the way for socialism; but he does so ironically. What does he imply have been the main harmful effects of destroying feudalism? How has capitalism’s emergence changed ” human nature?” “Exchange value” is a typical Marxist term which does not exactly mean “price,” but in this context that is close enough. What does he say is the limit of bourgeois freedom? Do you think he is right in saying that occupations are only respected according to how much they are paid? Can you think of examples to illustrate his point about the reduction of “the family relation to a mere money relation” from Germinal? Keep in mind that he is speaking here mainly of the effects of capitalism on workers, not on the bourgeoisie. He uses the term “reactionaries” from time to time. What does it mean? (Look it up in a dictionary.) It is commonly misused to mean merely “those who react to something.”

To what cause does he attribute the bourgeoisie’s energy in creating railways, factories, etc.? Why do owners need constantly to create new ways of manufacturing and processing goods? How does competition drive this process? Can you think of modern examples, or counter-examples? How does the very essence of bourgeois production (capitalism, used interchangeably with “bourgeois society” below) make it by definition a revolutionary force? Why does capitalism have to spread worldwide? What tendencies undermine the independence of nation-states? Can you think of examples today of this sort of international economic interdependence? What forces generate expanded markets for capitalism? Can you think of examples of “new wants being created?

What effects does he say international trade has on “intellectual production” such as literature, philosophy, music, etc.? Is literature more or less international now than in the Middle Ages? Has nationalism been weakened as a force in the last hundred years, as Marx expected? Why or why not? He argues that all societies tend to become civilized (drawn into the social patterns of European civilization). To what extent is this true? What is the process by which he says the bourgeois society creates a world after its own image? How has capitalism altered the relationship between cities and the countryside? Has that process continued since Marx’s time? What does he mean by the “idiocy of rural life?” Farmers a hundred years ago were considered much less sophisticated than city dwellers. Is that still true? What analogy is he drawing between the city/country relationship and the “civilized”/”barbarian” relationship? According to Marx, how evenly is wealth distributed under capitalism? How has capitalism tended to create large countries with uniform laws?

What have been the main creations of capitalism during the preceding 100 years? Having described how the emergence of capitalism from mercantilism destroyed the old feudal system, Marx proclaims that a similar transformation is now taking place. How has capitalism created forces which work against its continued existence? A “commercial crisis” would more likely be called a depression or recession today. What pattern does he feel there is in these crises?

Why does capitalism tend to over-produce goods, unlike any previous form of economy? How does an over-abundance of goods produce an apparent “famine” (depression)? Is it possible to produce too much? How do economists today relate manufacturers’ inventories to the health of the economy? How could such over-production be prevented? Marx shows his Enlightenment heritage by objecting to such a result as absurd, irrational. What are some of the irrational contradictions that he sees in capitalism? What three methods does the bourgeoisie use to solve such a crisis? Why do these methods not really solve the ultimate problem? How have the bourgeoisie created the force which will destroy them? Why are laborers forced to sell their services for the lowest possible wages? What ” law” did we study in Germinal which states this proposition? In fact, in the century after the writing of the Manifesto the wages of workers tended generally to rise (though with many fluctuations and crises), until most workers under capitalism were much too prosperous to be enemies of the system which produced their wages. What forces do you think caused this result, contradicting Marx’s expectation?

Besides low wages, what other evils does Marx trace to modern industrialism? How could these evils be avoided? What is the relationship between the “repulsiveness” of labor and pay? To what extent is hard work not rewarded with more wealth? How is work made harder? Why has industrialism resulted in the entry into the workplace of more and more women and children? What effects does Marx thinks this has had on society? Can you illustrate this point from Germinal?

What happens to the “lower strata of the middle class” (what Marx elsewhere calls the “petit” [small] or “petty” bourgeoisie)? Can you think of an example from Germinal? What are the major stages in the class struggle as the proletariat develops? Can you illustrate these stages from Germinal? [Those who advocate destroying machinery to end its oppressive effects are called “Luddites” after a group of weavers who destroyed power looms in England inspired by a mythical figure named Ned Ludd in 1811-1816. ] How does Germinal illustrate the process by which workers begin to organize their opposition to the owners? As the conflict develops, most of its victims are not the large capitalists, but their small competitors (like Deneulin); thus Marx says ” every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie.” The struggle is becoming sharpened. What forces continually strengthen the proletariat?

What unstable forces inherent in capitalism cause the workers to seek organizations which will help them stabilize their wages? Since most strikes and riots are failures, what is the “real fruit” of these struggles? Why can modern workers organize so much more easily than their medieval predecessors? What is the next step after the proletarians have become conscious of themselves as a class rather than as isolated individuals, and become organized? As Engels’ footnote points out, one of the early successes of labor organizations was the passing of a law restricting the normal work day to ten hours (as is the case in Germinal ), though overtime remained common. In earlier industrialism it was common to keep a factory or mine going around the clock with two shifts of twelve hours each.

How does the need of the bourgeoisie to seek allies among the proletariat help to strengthen the latter? Which of these two classes–bourgeoisie and proletariat–tends to grow the most? According to Marx’ s definitions, which class does your family belong to: bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production who live off of profits) or proletariat (people who work for a salary), or would you define their status in some other way? When Marx says that “a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class” he is thinking primarily of intellectuals like himself and Engels, who allied themselves with the workers despite their bourgeois background. The relationship of such idealistic Marxists to working class movements has been a troubled one. Can you think of any examples? What problems might these two groups have in relating to one another? Why does he call peasants reactionaries? Was Marx right? Can you think of an important modern Communist revolution which was created primarily among and for peasants?

Professional criminals, prostitutes, beggars, etc. make up what Marx calls the Lumpenproletariat.They too are not likely to be revolutionary, according to him. When Marx says that the proletarian is without property he doesn’t mean workers don’t own their clothes and toothbrushes. To what extent are the workers in Germinal “without property?” It is this narrow definition of “property” that Marx uses throughout his writings. He had no objection to people owning personal belongings. To what extent has modern capitalism stripped workers of their national character? Are proletarians less nationalistic than the bourgeoisie? Why does he believe that proletarians will be motivated to destroy the whole system of individual private property? What fact makes the proletarian movement different from all previous movements? Does Marx believe that the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie can be carried out internationally, all at once? What might be the weaknesses of carrying it out country by country?

Why does Marx say the bourgeoisie is unfit to rule? The final paragraph of this chapter summarizes the argument of the whole. Read it carefully. He believes that capitalism inevitably creates its own destruction. What do you think of this thesis?

II: Proletarians and Communists

What does Marx say the relationship of the Communists to the proletarians as a whole is? In what ways are they different from other working-class parties? What are their immediate aims?

Marx argues that his theories are not mere intellectual inventions but scientifically provable facts. What effect might it have on political debate if one believes that one’s arguments are irrefutable fact? Marx now sets himself to answer many of the most common accusations against the Communists. What does he say is the usual argument in favor of the right of personally acquiring property (land, factories, mines, etc.)? What do you think of these arguments? What are his answers? Do you find them convincing?

What does he mean when he says that capital (the money and goods which make capitalism possible) is a social creation? Again he discusses the “iron law of wages.” He says that under capitalism living labor (the work of the workers) is but a means to increase accumulated labor (the wealth of the owners). What does he say is the aim of labor under communism? Does Marx want to abolish all individuality and freedom? Read the last paragraph carefully. What is he saying?

Some Communists have denounced all individuality and most individual liberty. Do you think Marx would have agreed with them? What does he mean by saying that the bourgeoisie has done away with private property for nine-tenths of the population? The fact that most Americans own no part of the means of production doesn’t seem to make them opposed to private property as such. Why not? Can you identify factors that Marx overlooked? When he says that the middle-class owner must be made impossible, he simply means that society must be reorganized so that no one is allowed to own large masses of productive property. Do you think he would have agreed with attempts to kill capitalists? What is his answer to the argument that the ambition to acquire property (become a business owner) is necessary to prevent “universal laziness?” (His answer continues on the next page.)

Marx says that the bourgeoisie fears that a proletarian revolution will destroy all culture because bourgeois culture will no longer be produced. What does he imply about the continued existence of culture? Why does he argue it is pointless to use arguments based on freedom, culture, and law against communism? The earliest Western theoretician of communism, Plato, had argued for a lottery rotating the matings of men and women to create a sense of solidarity in which all citizens would view themselves as part of one big family. Some other communists had argued for similar arrangements, like group marriage or ” free love,” but Marx did not. He did feel that people should be free to form their own unions without any role being played by the state. He was also opposed to the idea of “illegitimacy.” Here he sarcastically attacks his critics without making his own position explicit. Remembering Germinal, why do you think he says the family is “practically absent” among the proletarians?

He foretells the vanishing of the bourgeois family (though not necessarily the family in general). What evils does he say the bourgeois family causes? He answers those who argue that education will be destroyed and replaced by propaganda by saying that supposedly neutral bourgeois education is in fact filled with more or less hidden propaganda for capitalist values: there is no neutrality possible. The workers have to change the values taught to ones that support rather than undermine them. What do you think of this argument? Is it possible to have a truly unbiased form of education? Is it desirable? Do we have one now? What evidence does he offer that the bourgeoisie does not really value the family for its own sake? He then returns to the most sensational charge: the community (sharing) of women. Marx rejects this. A ccording to Marx, why do the bourgeoisie suppose that this is an essential part of communism? How does he argue that it is the bourgeoisie which has really promoted the “community of women?”

How does he say the abolition of the present system of production would change this situation? He agrees that the Communists do want to abolish countries and nationality. What are his arguments in saying that working people are not attached to their countries? Clearly this is not generally true. Even Stalin had to resort to patriotism to muster the support of Russians behind him during World War II. Why has nationalism proven so persistent and powerful? Does this fact undermine Marxism? What does the passage which begins in the last paragraphs on this page and continues on the next mean? (Hint: the point is discussed above, in the introduction to these questions.) This argument is one of the most widespread and powerful still being debated in academic and intellectual circles today, and it is important to understand it.

As Engels points out, the ten-point program outlined here is very conservative and preliminary, and would have been much more developed had the Manifesto been written later. Which of the points seem radical, which conservative? Which have been in fact commonly adopted in countries like the U.S.? Which do you agree with? Disagree with? Explain this ideal: ” the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Does this sound like communism as you understand it? As it developed in the Soviet Union?

III: Socialist and Communist Literature

In this chapter, which you are not required to read, Marx presents a now very dated summary of other socialist theories and tries to show how his is uniquely effective, scientific and rational.

IV: Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties

Much of this section can be summarized by simply saying that the Communists allied themselves with whatever groups they thought were moving in the right direction (“progressive”).

As Marx predicted, Germany developed one of the largest and most powerful socialist movements in the world; but the international socialist movement almost collapsed when Germany launched World War I and the socialist party supported the government. However, socialism remained popular enough so that Adolph Hitler thought he had to call his movement “National Socialism” to gain widespread acceptance, even though once in power he vigorously exterminated socialists. What does Marx say are the special aims worked for by the communists within the various reform movements? Most people misquote the ending of the Manifesto with the slightly more catchy “Workingmen of all countries, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” What weaknesses can you find in this call to revolution?

Do you think communism as Marx describes it is a desirable ideal, a foolish dream, a undesirable ideal, or something else? Why? Some people argue that true Marxism has never been attempted, and that if his original ideas were followed it might be more successful. Marxism, they say, has been discredited by people who betrayed Marx. What do you think of this argument?

More Study Guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics

Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

Version of June 14, 1995.

Revised June 8,2016


Study Guides

Study Guides to Various Works and Other Course Materials

Grouped here are study guides prepared by Professor Paul Brians of Washington State University for the use of students in his classes. Nonprofit users are welcome to use and reproduce them for educational purposes so long as full credit is given to the author and the URL of the original is included, though online “mirrors” are not allowed. Please link to these pages rather than cloning them on your own site. Feel free to make corrections and/or additions by writing Prof. Brians at

Science Fiction Film
Science Fiction
18th and 19th Century European Classics (Humanities 303)
Love in the Arts
World Literature in English of India, Africa, and the Caribbean
World Civilizations
Helpful Hints for Writing Class Papers
Science Fiction Film
Science Fiction
18th and 19th Century European Classics (Humanities 303)
Love in the Arts
World Literature in English of India, Africa, and the Caribbean
The Bible as Literature

The Magic of Christmas

Commonly Misinterpreted Passages from the Bible
Part 1:

Commonly Misinterpreted Passages from the Bible
Part 2:

Commonly Misinterpreted Passages from the Bible
Part 3:




World Civilizations
Helpful Hints for Writing Class Papers

About these Study Guides

I created these study guides to help my students prepare for literature classes. They are meant to serve several functions.

  1. Some of them provide background to help readers understand what they are reading and why they are reading it (the historical status of the works).
  2. They provide useful information, explaining allusions, obscure terms, etc. in the texts and provide translations of passages written in languages other than English.
  3. They try to focus students’ attention on issues that we will discuss in class.


One of the most common student complaints in literature classes is that they can’t figure out what the teacher expects them to get out of the assignments. Homework turns into a massive guessing game, failing which, students wait for the teacher to clarify things in class. This makes for sluggish or nonexistent discussions. Students using these guides can read with more purpose. They know what issues I am going to want to them to deal with in class and can prepare much better.

I require my students to prepare written answers to the questions in these guides and come to class prepared to answer any one of them. At the beginning of class I collect the notes along with the quizzes. Not every question must be answered in the notes but they must show a diligent effort at preparation. Since I began using these guides, few students come to class without having both read and thought about the assignment, and discussions have improved enormously. Plagiarism of someone else’s notes is grounds for failure in the class, like any other kind of plagiarism.

Questions & Answers about Using the Study Guides

Isn’t this a lot of work?
For the more serious students, the guides simplify homework because they know what to concentrate on. Many things which would have to be puzzled out or looked up and simply explained. However, one of my goals is to encourage students to work harder and more productively.
But it’ll take forever to answer all these questions!
But you don’t have to write answers to all the questions. Many are simply ways of drawing your attention to features of the text I want you to notice. Others have simple answers you can easily recall if you have done the reading. Yet others are opinion-based or open-ended: you can easily answer them without notes. I expect substantial notes, at least a page or so of detail, for each assignment, to document that you are indeed preparing for class. Notes which cover only the first part of the assigned reading will be considered unsatisfactory.
But I have a great memory! Isn’t this note-taking a waste of time?
Writing something down makes you think about it in a different sort of way. It makes you focus and define your thoughts. These notes can also provide a great basis for papers you write later. I don’t require very many or very long papers in my classes. Instead, these notes and quizzes make up the bulk of the writing you will do. Think of them as a massive take-home final exam that you’re writing a bit at a time: all open book!
Won’t these guides inhibit discussion? They seem to foreclose some interpretations and privilege others.
To some degree this is true. While I hope fewer off-the-wall misreadings will occur, original readings are not required in the same way as in traditional classes. However, original thinkers seem to find it possible to offer their own readings, especially when they have mine to bounce them off of.
But what if I think some of what the guides say is just wrong?
No problem. Disagree. I change the contents of the guides in response to student comments all the time. These are not meant to be authoritative. They’re just one professor’s take based on his experience teaching these texts over the years. I not only welcome correction; I encourage it. Send corrections or suggestions to
But won’t students be inhibited about disagreeing with you if they know your opinion ahead of time?
Not in my experience. In fact, students are able to ponder my opinions ahead of time, plot out their disagreements, and prepare to disagree. We have cut way down on the incidence of students being surprised and embarrassed in class when I disagree with them. By exposing my views first, I lower the risk for students rather than raising it. Discussions are far more lively now than before I started using the guides, and I’ve changed my own readings several times on the basis of student insights.
Aren’t these a kind of amateur Cliff’s Notes or Masterplots that students can use as substitutes for really reading the texts?
Judge for yourself. I don’t think so. I try to provide information that isn’t obvious; but to do well on the quizzes, you have to do your own reading.
I’m not one of your students. How can I use these guides?
Actually, it’s people like you who I hope will become the main users for this Web version of my study guides. Use them as a set of notes to help you understand what you are reading. Ignore any parts you find uninteresting or unhelpful. But non-WSU students need to be aware that if you copy these notes and turn them in it will be quite easy for any teacher to track down the source of your plagiarism, thanks to the excellent searching tools of the Web.
I’m a teacher. Can I reproduce these for my students?
Sure, so long as you aren’t printing them in a published book. Edit them, excerpt them, so long as you cite me as the source on your copies. Permission is granted for such use to nonprofit users only. If you have handouts of your own that you think are useful or interesting, send me a copy, or put them on the Web and send me the URL. I’d like to see a clearing house of classroom handouts where we could all share the fruits of each others’ labors. Why do we all have to reinvent the wheel?

Paul Brians’ Study Guides FAQs

I originally created these study guides for the use of my students at Washington State University, but I am happy that they have become popular with thousands of others. However, because they have become so popular, I cannot deal with all of the e-mail that comes my way concerning them. If you are about to write me about a study guide, please read through the following first.

May I have permission to reprint one of your study guides?
I routinely grant permission for such reproduction if it is done for a nonprofit educational purpose, but I like to be notified. Drop me an e-mail if you do this, please. Reproductions should include the URL of the original (omitting the outdated “:8080” string that many people are still using, please) and cite me as author. Commercial publishers should write me to negotiate reprint rights.
May I create a mirror of one of your study guides?
I rarely grant permission for mirrors. A Chinese group in Taiwan created a Chinese-language version of one of my guides with my permission, and a federal agency mirrored another of my resources for the exclusive use of employees on its intranet, behind a firewall which made the original inaccessible to them. More ordinary requests to mirror my pages are usually denied, for several reasons. 1) I like to retain control over my work, updating it whenever I need to. 2) I like people to be able to browse from one of my pages to another, exploring my site at will. 3) The only recompense I get for this work comes from “hits” showing on my counters–and visitors to mirrors don’t trip my counters.

Feel free to link to my pages, but I do like to know about it when you do.

Can you send me the answers to the questions in your study guide?
The study guides are designed to prompt careful, thoughtful readers to work out their own answers as they read through the texts discussed. I do not have a file of answers to send out. I’m occasionally willing to give advice to a student or teacher who has made an honest effort to work out an answer and wants to check with me to see whether they’ve hit on what I was thinking of; but I don’t run an answering service for the study guides.
Where can I find more study guides?
You’ll find a list of all my study guides on this page in the above right list, as well as in the site navigation on the left. For serious research in the humanities, see The Voice of the Shuttle and the eServer. But often you’ll turn up more useful material about literary and philosophical topics in a quick visit to a moderate-sized library. A librarian can often show you valuable resources in a few minutes that you could search for in vain for hours on the Internet.
I was just wondering, what do you think the principal motivations of each of the characters is and how does the conclusion relate to the introduction? (Or other obviously teacher-assigned questions).
Your teacher wants you to do these assignments yourself. I am not in the business of undermining the work of my colleagues at other schools.
an u help me write my paper its due tommorow im desperate!!!!
Please spare me this sort of thing. In the first place, you’re writing an English professor–this is not the time to use sloppy Internet-speak. I won’t nit-pick your prose, but at least take the trouble to hit the shift key to create proper capitals, and punctuate your sentences. In the second place, I’m a teacher, and I frown on my own students getting someone else to do their work. If you were my student I’d report you to the authorities and try to have you kicked out of school, so I’m not likely to do the homework of a total stranger. “Desperate” almost always means the writer didn’t care enough about the assignment to get started early–another of my pet peeves.
I don’t have time to read the book. Can you give me a plot summary?
My goal in creating these guides to encourage readers to engage closely with texts than I care about. The last thing I want to do is help somebody avoid reading them. The only study guide which contains a plot summary is the one on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, for reasons which are explained there. Good assignments should not be doable by merely reading my guides and ignoring the assigned texts. If you’re able to get a passing grade out of your teacher by using my work alone you’re not only cheating the teacher, you’re cheating yourself of some wonderful experiences.
Why do you write about so many different topics?
Although my title is “Professor of English,” my degrees are in Comparative Literature; and I have always been interested in comparative arts and humanities topics. Most of my courses include some music, art, or philosophy, along with traditional literary texts. I consider my field to be the history of ideas. You’ll find very few traditional English and American literary works discussed here–my colleagues at WSU take care of that sort of thing.
I want more information about using these study guides.
Try reading the above section, About These Study Guides.
Can I take a course from you online?
Sorry, I’m retired now, and no longer offering online courses.
What’s your e-mail address?
Keep it clear, short, polite, and observe the above warnings, and I may well write back to you. But be aware that I sometimes travel and am not answering my e-mail.