Faust By Goethe (1749 - 1832) Essay

by Goethe (1749 – 1832)
Type of Work:
Allegorical poetic drama
Germany; eighteenth century
Principal Characters
Faust, a scholar who is offered knowledge
by the Devil
Mephistopheles (Mephisto, the Devil),
the great Satanic tempter
Gretche (Margaret), a young woman who
falls in love with Faust
Martha, Gretchen’s neighbor and friend
Play Overveiw
In heaven, while angels sang praises to
God and his grand creations, heaven and earth, Mephistopheles entered and
began to complain about the lot of man on earth. The sinister Mephisto
chided God for having given man just enough reason to make him “more brutish
than any brute.” God asked his adversary if there wasn’t anything worthwhile
about His creation. “No, Lord,” answered Mephistopheles. “I find it still
a sorry sight.” They argued for some time, until they finally agreed to
a wager: with God’s permission, Mephisto would attempt to lure the soul
of a certain scholar-alchemist named Faust (“who serves you most peculiarly”)
down with him to hell; God maintained that Faust would and could be saved,
despite his proud reliance on reason and sorcery rather than faith.

Meanwhile, on earth, Faust sat at the desk
in his dusky den and lamented all of his learning: “I have studied philosophy,
jurisprudence and medicine, and worst of all theology, and here I am, for
all my lore, the wretched fool I was before. Hence I have yielded to magic
to see whether the spirit’s mouth and might would bring some mysteries
to light.” Little by little his melancholy grew. How horribly idle his
life had been; reading and thinking were all he had, never knowing the
joy of doing.

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One Easter morning, Wagner, one of Faust’s
students, convinced the professor to travel with him to the city to join
in the festivities. As Faust and Wagner walked and talked, Faust expressed
his indescribable discontent: “Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast,
and one is striving to forsake his brother.” Faust wept openly, begging
in prayer that a spirit to be sent to lead him to “distant lands.” Then,
even as Wagner cautioned his mentor not to call upon evil spirits, Faust
noticed a black dog following them. He picked up the skinny stray poodle
and carried it home.

Alone at his desk, Faust opened his Bible
and began his studies. The dog, however, would not stop darting about the
house, barking and growling . Eventually the poodle scurried behind the
stove, and when he emerged, he had taken the form of Mephistopheles.

The sly Mephisto would answer the scholar’s
inquiries only through riddles, explaining that he was part of that force
which would do evil evermore, and yet creates the good; I am the spirit
that negates.” Faust, though, finally divined that he was speaking with
the Devil. The two bantered back and forth until Faust could stay awake
no longer. As he drifted into sleep, the Devil left, promising to return
the following day.

The tempter arrived at dawn, dressed as
a nobleman. He implored Faust to don the same attire so that he too could”feel released and free,/ and you would find what life could be.” But Faust
was too world-weary to even imagine happiness. “Death is desirable, and
life I hate,” he groaned.

In an attempt to release Faust from this
melancholy, Mephisto now offered to be his slave. Faust was wary: “And
for my part, what is it you require? … Not safely is such servant taken
on.” Mephisto then presented a proposition: “. .. You shall be the Master,
and I Bond,/ and at your nod I’ll work incessantly;/ but when we meet beyond,/
then you shall do the same for me.” Faust, whose “two souls” had finally
torn completely asunder, agreed to the bargain: .,Beyond to me makes little
matter … It is from out this earth my pleasures spring. . .”
Off they flew on the evil one’s magic cloak.

Their first stop was a tavern, where Mephisto intended to teach his new
Master “how to live.” He performed miracles for the drinking men (causing
wine to flow from the barroom tables) – miracles that ultimately turned
to torment them (the sweet wine turned to a fiery, “hellish brew.”) But
old Faust was unmoved: “Will this absurd swill-cookery / Charm thirty winters
off my back?”
Their next stop was a witch’s kitchen,
where Faust caught sight of the image of a comely woman in a mirror. “Is
so much beauty found on earth?” he raved. Mephisto, pouncing on this first
spark of energy and interest, promised Faust that the woman would soon
become his wife. He ordered the mischievious hag of the house to mix up
a potion; then, while she recited incantations, Faust downed the brew.

From that moment, he knew he would never escape the love he felt for the
woman in the mirror.

The next day, while wandering the streets,
Faust encountered Gretchen, the very beauty whose mirror image had enslaved
him. “Get me that girl!” he commanded Mephisto. And, as promised, the servant-Devil
arranged for Faust to win Gretchen’s virtuous heart with the gift of a
luxurious necklace. Soon thereafter, the trusting girl found that she was
pregnant with Faust’s child.

Now, Gretchen’s brother, a soldier named
Valentine, vowed revenge against the lover who had dishonored his sister.

Inside Gretchen’s doorway he waited for the rogue to appear. When Faust
arrived and began once again to woo Gretchen, Valentine stepped from the
shadows and challeged him with a sword. Only with Mephisto’s aid did Faust’s
sword hit home. Valentine dropped, mortally wounded. “Do not cry for me,”
were his last words to his anguished sister. “When you threw honor overboard,
/ you pierced my heart more than the sword.”
Months passed. While Faust and Mephisto
partook of wild ribaldry and pleasurably summoned up wicked spirits with
their sorcery, Gretchen was suffering scorn, ridicule, and imprisonment.

But when Faust came to the knowledge that his beloved had been locked up
in a dungeon, to be judged by mere mortals, he cursed his devilish companion:
“Treacherous, despicable Spirit! Dog! Abominable monster! Save her! …

Take me there! She shall be freed!”
The two easily gained entrance into Gretchen’s
cell, but she refused to leave with them. She confessed that the prison
guards had taken her baby from her, “to give me pain.” “My peace is gone
I/ My heart is sore;/ Can find it never/ And never more,” she cried, and
threw herself on the mercy and justice of God.

Soon the prison authorities arrived. Mephisto
and Faust were forced to flee to avoid capture. As they did, they heard
a voice from heaven declare that Gretchen’s enduring faith had saved her.

The years went by. Faust was now a great
lord, with vast and rich land-holdings, which land he had himself “redeemed
from the sea” by building a system of dikes. Nearing the end of his life,
he gazed out from his huge palace at the gardens and orchards spreading
far into the distance – only to find that he was yet discontent. Even when
Mephisto returned from a voyage with much new wealth for Faust, he could
not smile. “You spurn good fortune without joy . . . ” the Devil observed.

“The whole world is in your embrace.” No, Faust told his servant; one cottage
remained that he did not own – a small lot, within sight of the castle,
that belonged to an elderly couple. “Go then, get them out of the way!”
he ordered Mephisto.

That night, the Devil and his cohorts returned
with the news that the deed was done. “Forgive,” they told Faust, “but
we had to use force. It burns, you see, a pretty pyre.” Faust, now twisting
against the pangs of his own guilt, angrily shifted the blame: “Did you
not hear me that I bade not robbery but simple trade?” He retired to his
garden. There he was seized upon by something hovering above him in the
air. Then, out of the midnight blackness came four elderly women – Want,
Debt, Care, and Need. Their brother, Death, was also nearby, they explained.

Faust inquired of Care what it was she wanted. “Is Care a force you never
faced?” she taunted. Haughtily, Faust replied, “Whatever I might crave,
I laid my hands on …. I stormed through life.” But still he had to admit
that some inexplicable inner hunger had never been satisfied; and thus
Care alone, of the four sister spirits, was able to gain entry into his
soul. “The human being is, his life long, blind,” she said. “Thus, Faustus,
you shall meet your end.”
But as precious sight was being drawn from
his dying eyes, suddenly it was as though Faust could finally truly see.

He called in excitement to his laborers to set forth and complete the work
of draining the remaining tidal swamps, so that he might give all the reclaimed
lands to his people. “This is the highest wisdom that I own, / the best
that mankind ever knew,” he cried, as he raced about blindly.

Yes – this I hold to with devout insistence,
Wisdom’s last verdict goes to say:
He only earns both freedom and existence
Who must reconquer them each day.

Then, in joy, Faust died.

Mephisto rose up, and gloated at his former
master’s ultimate, inevitable defeat – and at the wretched fate that awaited
all men: “Why have eternal creation, / when all is subject to annihilation?/
Now it is over. What meaning can one see?…”
But just as Mephisto reached to take the
prize he had won, a host of angels descended and distracted him while Faust’s
soul escaped; it was the Devil who would taste defeat. Though Faust had
sinned, even so he had struggled towards growth, knowledge, and transcendence.

“Whoever strives in ceaseless toil/ Him we may grant redemption. the seraphs

Then, with the Devil still raging, the
angelic chorus flew into heaven, “bearing off Faust’s immortal part.”
The legend of Faust is older than Goethe’s
version, dating back to the early years of Christianity. The English poet
Christopher Marlowe wrote his own version of the play several centuries
before Goethe’s “Faust” appeared. Later, Wagner would use Goethe’s lengthy
yet brilliantly written poetic production as the text for an opera.

One idea animates Goethe’s “Faust. ” All
human souls are called to exist and struggle within a constant state of”becoming,” a lifelong striving towards greater and greater realms of knowledge,
action and feeling; and those who stay true to this call, even when they
stumble into excesses and error will not go unrewarded by God. In fact,
it is by right the Devil’s place to blind man, to the end that man might
come unto God:
Man all too easily grows lax and mellow,
He soon elects repose at any price,
And so I like to pair him with a fellow
To play the Deuce, to stir, and to


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