By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
Revised in 2010.©
Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).Publication and Performances
.......A section of Part 1, called a fragment, was published in 1790. Part 1 was published in its entirety in 1808. A section of Part 2, also called a fragment, was published in 1827. Part 2 was published in its entirety in 1832.
Influence of the Book of Job
Plot Summary, Part 1
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
........In heaven the archangels Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael1exalt the Lord and all creation. But Satan, called Mephistopheles, decries the works of the Lord—in particular humankind—as he always does.
........Then the Lord asks, “Do you know Faust?”
........“The doctor?” Mephistopheles says.
........Faust is a scholar and wizard whose good works as a university teacher and as a physician to the downtrodden have earned him heaven. He is proof that the world hasworthy men. But Mephistopheles mocks Faust for his dedication to God and suggests that his ceaseless thirst for knowledge is a weakness that could cost him his eternal soul. The Lord concedes that Faust is in turmoil over his attempts to understand the deepest mysteries of the universe. But, the Lord says, “I will one day lead him to the place of heavenly light.” Taking that statement as a challenge, Mephistopheles wagers that he can bend the will of Faust away from God—presumably by providing him the knowledge he seeks—and thereby win his soul for all eternity.
........It’s a bet. The Lord grants Mephistopheles permission to tempt Faust, saying that even in his darkest moment Faust will be conscious of the righteous path.
........The scene switches to earth—to Faust’s study. Faust laments that though he has studied philosophy, medicine, law, and theology he really knows nothing about the inner workings of the universe. Even his magic—powerful as it is—fails to lift the veil of mystery. On the brink of despair, he considers suicide. However, it is Easter morning, a time of hope and renewal, and the hubbub of strollers passing a window distracts him and tempers his gloom. With his assistant, Wagner, he takes a walk in the invigorating spring air. An ominous black poodle circles them warily, then follows them home. In his study, Faust reads from a Bible—In the beginning was the Word (John 1.1)—causing the dog to bark and howl. Realizing it is possessed, he recites magical words that force the supernatural presence to manifest itself. It is Mephistopheles, who appears in the garb of a scholar. Although Mephistopheles does not immediately reveal himself, Faust guesses his identity. They talk philosophy and, as the visit concludes, Faust invites him to return. Spirits conjured by Mephistopheles then sing Faust to sleep and make him dream of earthly pleasures.
........The following day, Mephistopheles offers to show Faust the secrets of the world and let him experience the profoundest pleasures. In return, when Faust dies, he must surrender his immortal soul to Mephistopheles. Faust agrees on one condition: The adventure must culminate in a moment when he experiences the highest, most exquisite pleasure attainable by man. After Mephistopheles accepts the condition, they sign a pact in blood. Faust believes he has struck a bargain, for he doubts that human souls live eternally. Moreover, because his present life is miserable, what does he have to lose?
........Off they go, traveling through the air. They first visit Auerbach’s Cellar, a tavern in Leipzig,2where four men are drinking and singing. Taking a gimlet from the landlord’s toolbox, Mephistopheles bores holes in a table and makes wines flow from them into the glasses of the revelers. They are delighted at first. But when they spill the wine, it turns to fire. Consequently, they accuse him of sorcery and attack him with knives. Mephistopheles parries with a spell that transfixes the men; they believe they are in a vineyard. After lifting the spell, he disappears with Faust, leaving the men dumbfounded. But the experience only disgusts Faust; playing tricks on drunkards is not his idea of ennobling activity.
........Mephistopheles decides it is time to shock Faust with a genuinely extraordinary experience: regaining his youth. After they materialize in the kitchen of a witch, where four monkeys sit at a bubbling cauldron, Faust—gloomy and downcast in the eerie surroundings—suddenly quickens with excitement when he stares into a looking-glass. Gazing back at him is a wondrously beautiful woman. Oh, to be young again! Oh, to experience and fulfill youthful longings.
........When the cauldron boils over, flames shoot up the chimney and scorch the witch3as she descends from above. After scolding a female monkey tending the cauldron, she notices her visitors and is overjoyed to learn that one of them is her master, the devil himself. Eager to do his bidding, she concocts a magical liquor that will erase thirty years from Faust’s life. When he drinks it, he instantly becomes a handsome young nobleman, and Mephistopheles says that henceforth every woman whom he meets will look to him like Helen of Troy.4
........Out on a street, Faust becomes infatuated with a passerby, Margaret, who is nicknamed Gretchen. When he confronts her, she demurely turns away and walks on even though Faust intrigues her. Faust vows to seduce this comely maiden. When she visits her neighbor Martha, he steals into Gretchen's room and leaves her a casket of jewelry provided by Mephistopheles. Later, when she returns and discovers the casket, its contents—a chain, gems, and earrings—dazzle her, but her mother regards them as suspect and donates them to a priest to adorn a shrine of the Virgin Mary. Mephistopheles curses this turn of events and ridicules the church as a devourer of wealth. Meanwhile, Margaret wonders about the gift-giver. Who was he, an admirer? Faust asks for more jewels, and Mephistopheles provides them.
........After Margaret receives them, she keeps them a secret from her mother. Thanks to the machinations of Mephistopheles, Faust meets Margaret and woos her in a garden at her house. Margaret is overcome with joy that a young nobleman finds her attractive. Faust, meanwhile, is torn between love and lust, but Mephistopheles sees to it that lust conquers. Soon, Faust and Margaret lie together, and she becomes pregnant. Faust, however, has disappeared, and Margaret—though pining for him—regrets her sinful behavior. She prays for forgiveness to the Mother of Sorrows, the Virgin Mary.
........Eventually, Faust yearns anew for Margaret's body. When he and Mephistopheles return to her home, Margaret’s brother, Valentine—angry over the theft of her sister’s virginity—confronts them. In a sword fight, Faust kills Valentine. But the commotion has attracted neighbors, and Faust and Mephistopheles flee.
........A year passes. Faust—still eager for knowledge and experience—descends to a new low when he attends an annual nocturnal gathering of sorcerers and evil spirits, called Walpurgis-nacht,5in the Harz mountain chain of Germany between the Weser and Elbe Rivers.
........But a fraction of his former self surfaces when he thinks of poor Margaret (Gretchen) and has a vision that she has been imprisoned. Guilt-ridden, he persuades Mephistopheles to help him rescue her. After riding magic steeds to the prison in darkest night, they gain entry to a dungeon—thanks to Mephistopheles’ wiles—and Faust enters her cell. Sitting in a bed of straw in a corner, she awaits execution for drowning the baby that Faust fathered, an act that has driven her insane with guilt. But she regains her sanity upon recognizing Faust’s voice. When she rises, her chains miraculously fall off. Dawn creeps toward the horizon, and Faust urges her to flee with him. However, though fearing death, she refuses to leave, realizing that she must pay for her crime. When Mephistopheles appears, she perceives him as an evil spirit and throws herself on the mercy of God, begging angels to descend from heaven to protect her. A voice from above says, “She is redeemed.” Mephistopheles and Faust disappear.
Plot Summary, Part 2
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
........Faust reclines at twilight in a verdant field. Spirits of the air circle about him, singing and playing harps. For a moment, he knows peace and tranquillity.
........In the morning, he awakens with renewed vigor and the will to carry on—but at a measured, less impassioned pace. Meanwhile, Mephistopheles masquerades as the new court jester of an emperor in deep financial distress that threatens to undo him. Mephistopheles points out that the country is rich in unmined gold. But further details about the country’s buried wealth are interrupted by an entertainment.
........In the morning, while the emperor basks in his sun garden with members of his court, a marshal reports that the financial crisis has ended. When Faust and Mephistopheles—no longer disguised as a jester—present themselves to the emperor moments later, the emperor’s treasurer credits them for the miraculous financial turnaround. It seems that paper money, backed by the gold reserves in the ground, has appeared all over the country. Everyone rejoices.
........Later, in a dark walkway, Faust tells Mephistopheles that the emperor wants him to conjure the spirits of Paris and Helen of Troy.6“We made the emperor rich,” Faust says, “and now we must amuse him.” Mephistopheles says Faust can acquire the power to work such a wonder from the Eternal Mothers, who live deep within the earth. He gives Faust a magic key that transports him to their abode.
........When he returns to the court, Faust performs the task, causing the images of Paris, Helen, and a Greek temple to appear. Helen’s beauty overwhelms Faust. When he tries to enter the scene, an explosion knocks him unconscious and the images disappear. So, too, does the emperor and his court, for Faust—still unconscious—now lies on a couch at his home.
........Meanwhile, Wagner has been working magic of his own. While conducting laboratory experiments, he has created a tiny man—small enough to fit into a phial—named Homunculus. When the creature hovers over Faust, he sees into his dreams of Greece and Helen and warns Mephistopheles not to awaken him; the shock of finding himself in his mundane surroundings could kill him. Instead, Faust must be taken to Greece for participation in a festival celebrated by the spirits of Greek myth. There will be sensuous witches to entertain Mephistopheles. All but Wagner then ride the wind to Greece. Their destination is the plain of Pharsalus.7 Erichtho, a witch of Thessaly, roams the fields. There, the phantoms of ancient times have pitched tents and kindled fires under a rising moon. Erichtho sees a strange light in the sky, heralding the arrival of Faust and his companions, who go their separate ways.
........Faust meets Chiron the centaur, a creature that is half-man and half-horse. Chiron is wiser than most humans and was a tutor of Hercules,8Achilles,9and Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Faust rides on the centaur's back while Chiron tells stories of ancient Greece. When Faust describes his adoration of Helen and bids Chiron speak of her, the centaur says he once carried her on his back, like Faust. The centuries have not dimmed her beauty, he says; she remains young, her figure beyond compare.
........Meanwhile, Mephistopheles romps with witches, and Homonculus travels in search of the secret to becoming fully human.10Two ancient sages—Anaxagoras11and Thales12—advise him, and they further consult with creatures of myth. Homunculus learns that there is only one way for him to achieve his goal: Let time and nature do it for him. So he hurls himself into the sea, there to evolve as did primordial life forms.13
........Faust and Mephistopheles travel to Sparta,14home of King Menelaus,15who has returned from the Trojan War with Helen. While he celebrates the Greek conquest of Troy, Helen and a chorus of captive Trojan women fret about what will be done with them. Mephistopheles, in the guise of a hag, tells them Menelaus means to kill them. However, he says, they can save themselves if they submit to the protection of a great lord of the north, who is Faust. Terrified, they flee with Mephistopheles to Faust’s castle. There, over time, Faust woos and wins Helen.
........When Mephistopheles warns that Greek soldiers are marching on the castle, Faust sends his own army against them while he and Helen flee to Arcadia, a pastoral region in southern Greece. There, they live peacefully in seclusion and raise a son, Euphorion, who is gifted with intelligence and good looks. But because he inherits Faust’s restless curiosity, he yearns to explore beyond the woods and thickets and cliffs that confine him all around. One day, he begins to climb a rock face. Although his parents caution him lest he fall, he continues on, attracted by the roar of the unseen ocean. At the top of the precipice, overcome with the ecstasy of the moment, he hurls himself into the air and, like Icarus16of old, achieves momentary flight, then falls to his death. Soon afterward, Euphorion’s voice calls out to Helen from the depths of Hades; he fears abiding the afterlife alone. A mother cannot let the plaints of a child go unanswered, and so she bids farewell to Faust, embracing him for the last time. If Persephone, queen of the Underworld (Hades), must have Euphorion, she must also have Helen.
........While Faust grieves, Mephistopheles importunes him to embark on another adventure, one filled with earthly pleasure. But Faust has changed; he seeks a challenge to test him, and he can think of none better than to reclaim land from the sea and put it to productive use. It so happens, Mephistopheles says, that the same emperor whom they saved from a financial crisis owns such land and needs help in a war. After Mephistopheles and Faust bring him victory, the emperor grants Faust land for his project.
........All goes well and Faust wishes to acquire more property on which an impoverished elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, live in a cottage. But they refuse to leave even though Faust promises to relocate them to a grand estate. Without Faust’s knowledge, Mephistopheles and his henchmen kill the old couple and burn their property. Faust is deeply remorseful. Four Gray Women born of the smoke and fire visit Faust at midnight. They are Want, Blame, Need, and Care. Three of them warn Faust that he will soon die. Faust tells Care that he now realizes that man cannot know everything about life; he must content himself with limited knowledge. Care then blinds him. But Faust, undaunted, carries on with his project.
........When spirits of the dead under the command of Mephistopheles dig Faust’s grave, Faust’s ears mistakenly tell him that the digging is actually the work of laborers continuing his reclamation project. Overjoyed, he says he is experiencing the great moment he has been looking for all along; it is his profoundest moment of happiness. Mephistopheles misinterprets Faust’s words, thinking he has made good on his promise to give Faust a moment of highest ecstasy. But Faust is happy because his project will benefit humankind, not himself. Faust dies at age 100 and the Lord claims him for heaven. After angels receive him and escort him to the Virgin Mary, Margaret appears and acts on his behalf. Mary allows him to ascend to the highest realm. Mephistopheles is defeated.
1....Raphael, Gabriel, Michael: The three archangels who are mentioned in the Bible. Archangels rank eighth in the hierarchy of angels, which is as follows: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Archangels, and Angels.
Salvation Through Striving
.......Although man is a fallen creature, redemption and salvation are his as long as he continues to strive and grow. Throughout the epic, Faust slowly progresses. His great thirst for knowledge begins to shift focus during the Margaret (Gretchen) episode from earthly and selfish desires to spiritual and selfless desires that ultimately attain for him the salvation of his immortal soul. When the angels meet him in heaven, they receive a man who never ceased to strive and, in so doing, found his way to God.
Quest for Knowledge
.......Like Homer’s Odysseus, Faust is willing to go on a perilous journey in pursuit of knowledge. But he discovers that man can never attain a full understanding of the mysteries of God and the universe. Man will always come up short of his goal. However, his quest for understanding will take him higher and higher on the ladder of truth and goodness.
Lack of Fulfillment
.......Earthly pleasures can never fully satisfy a human being. One of the condition's of Faust's pact with Mephistopheles is that the latter allow him to experience the deepest pleasures possible. But Faust's adventures into pleasure are insufficient to content him. Even the restoration of Faust's youth with the witch's magic fails in the end to bring Faust complete fulfillment. Only God can bring the complete happiness a person desires.
.......Evil wears many deceptive guises that make it appear desirable even though it is ultimately ruinous. For example, when a student comes to learn from Faust early in the play, Mephistophes--wearing the teacher's mantle--pretends to be Faust and tempts the student into debauchery.
Life Is Worth Living
.......Life is worth living even though moments of despair can make it seem otherwise.Climax
.......The climax of a literary work can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most important event in a series of events.
.......The climax of Faust occurs, according to the first definition, when the guilt-ridden Faust pities the imprisoned Margaret (Gretchen) and attempts to rescue her. This episode represents a major turning point in his life and foreshadows his ultimate salvation.
.......According to the second definition, the climax occurs when Faust finally realizes his highest moment of happiness—a moment that Mephistopheles promised to give him from the beginning in return for Faust's immortal soul—but Faust's moment of happiness comes when he does good on behalf of humankind, not evil on behalf of his own self-gratification. Consequently, the Lord accepts Faust into heaven.
.......In the "Prologue in Heaven," Part 1, the dialogue between the Lord and Mephistopheles foreshadows the ultimate redemption of Faust and his admission to heaven. The key passage occurs after Mephistopheles bets the Lord that he can win Faust's immortal soul. The Lord replies,
Enough! What thou hast asked is granted.
Quoted from a public-domain translation of Faust by Bayard Taylor (1825-1878),
.Selling One's Soul
.......The story of Faust has given English and other languages a metaphor to describe an agreement to engage in unethical or immoral activity in order to achieve a goal. For example, a newscaster who agrees to slant the news against a political candidate in return for a promotion from his boss "sells his soul to the
devil." He commits a Faustian act. A scientist who opposes human cloning on moral grounds but conducts human-cloning experiments for money also commits a Faustian act. A baseball player who takes steroids to enhance his performance likewise commits a Faustian act.
1. Why does Goethe's Faust remain timely and relevant in the modern world?