Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Title, and Genre
Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).
Title of the Entire Work:
Title of Part 1:
Tragödie erster Teil (Faust: the First Part of the Tragedy).
Title of Part 2:
Tragödie zweiter Teil (Faust: the Second Part of the Tragedy).
is a both a play and an epic. Although Goethe classes the first and second
parts as tragedies, the work ends happily after Faust dies and goes to
Writing Format: Goethe
wrote most of Faust in verse, but some passages are in prose. The
verse uses various metric patterns and rhyme schemes.
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.
1 of Faust was first performed in 1829, and Part 2 was first performed
in 1854. The complete work was first performed in 1875 at Weimar.
action takes place in Heaven, on earth on the European continent, and in
Raphael, Michael, Gabriel:
Faust: Scholar, medical
doctor, and magician.
Wagner: Faust's assistant.
Called Gretchen): Young woman who attracts Faust.
man created by Wagner.
Emperor: Ruler of
a domain saved by Mephistopheles and Faust.
Helen of Troy: Mythological
figure of extraordinary beauty.
Euphorion: Son of
Faust and Helen of Troy.
Numerous Other Mythological
Witches, Spirits, Soldiers,
of the Book of Job
one of his sources, Goethe used the Book of Job in the Old Testament of
the Bible. In Chapter I of that book, Satan challenges the Lord, boasting
that he can make Job—an upright, pious, and
prosperous servant of God—reject the Lord.
The Lord then allows Satan to interfere in Job’s life in an attempt to
envenom him against the Lord. Over time, Job loses his possessions, his
children die, and he suffers ill health. However, he remains faithful to
the Lord (Yahweh). Eventually the Lord restores his possessions twofold
and gives him ten more children--seven sons and three daughters. Job lives
to a very old age.
of the Faust of History and Legend
based his work in part on the life of Johann Georg Faust (1480-1540), a
magician,astrologer, and fortuneteller. Legends about him flourished, often
depicting him as evil. According to the Faustbuch, published in
1587, he traded his immortal soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge
and twenty-four years of pleasure. English playwright Christopher Marlowe
based a play, The Tragicall [Tragical] History of Dr. Faustus,
on the Faust legend. French composer Hector Berlioz wrote an opera, La
Damnation de Faust (The Damnation of Faust, based on it. Many
other literary and musical works also derived from the Faust legend.
of Homer and Other Writers
only as writing models for Faust but also as sources of information
about mythological figures. In particular, the quest of Odysseus (Roman
name Ulysses) for knowledge and experience on his journey home parallels
Faust’s quest on his journey to heaven. Goethe also based various scenes
and characters on Shakespearean models and also drew inspiration from such
epics as Virgil's Aeneid
Summary, Part 1
Michael J. Cummings...©
heaven the archangels Raphael,
exalt the Lord and all creation. But Satan, called Mephistopheles, decries
the works of the Lord—in particular humankind—as
he always does.
the Lord asks, “Do you know Faust?”
doctor?” Mephistopheles says.
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 has worthy
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.
a bet. The Lord grants Mephistopheles permission to tempt Faust, saying
that even in his darkest moment Faust will be conscious of the righteous
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
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?
they go, traveling through the air. They first visit Auerbach’s Cellar,
a tavern in Leipzig,2
where 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.
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.
the cauldron boils over, flames shoot up the chimney and scorch the witch3
as 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
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.
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.
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.
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,
in the Harz mountain chain of Germany between the Weser and Elbe Rivers.
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
Summary, Part 2
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
meets Chiron the centaur, a creature that is half-man
and half-horse. Chiron is wiser than most humans and was a tutor
and 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.
Mephistopheles romps with witches, and Homonculus travels
in search of the secret to becoming fully human.10
Two ancient sages—Anaxagoras11
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
and Mephistopheles travel to Sparta,14
home of King Menelaus,15
who 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.
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 Icarus16
of 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
in Leipzig: Goethe frequented a Leipzig
tavern called Auerbach's.
In writing the witch scene, Goethe drew inspiration from Shakespeare's
in which witches tempt Macbeth to commit murder
of Troy: In Greek mythology, the incomparably beautiful wife of Menelaus,
a Greek king. Her abduction by a Trojan named Paris started the Trojan
War. For additional information on the Trojan War, see Homer's Iliad.
Walpurgis Night. According to German folklore, Walpurgis-nacht occurred
on April 30 on Brocken Mountain, a 3,747-foot granite mountain in the Harz
chain. Walpurgis derives from the name of a Roman Catholic saint,
Walburga, an English-born Benedictine nun who ministered in Germany in
the Eighth Century. After she died, some Germans mistakenly identified
her with Waldborg, a goddess of fertility.
and Helen: See number 4.
Site where Caesar defeated Pompey in 48 B.C. in a decisive battle
during the Roman Civil War
Mythological hero known for his feats of strength. He was the son of Zeus,
the king of the Olympian gods, and Alcmene, a human.
In Greek mythology, the world's greatest warrior. In the Trojan War, he
fought on the Greek side.
. . . human: Homunculus's search appears to symbolize the efforts of
alchemists to change common metals into gold, develop an elixir that confers
perpetual youth, and alter the substance of other ordinary things into
Philosopher who taught in ancient Athens.
Ancient Greek philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician.
. . . forms: This is an interesting foreshadowing
of Darwin's Theory of Evolution.
Ancient Greek city state known for its military prowess.
In Greek mythology, son of the inventor Daedalus. When escaping captivity
with wax wings made by his father, he flies too close to the sun and his
wings melt. He dies when he falls into the sea.
Salvation Through Striving
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
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
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.
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
is worth living even though moments of despair can make it seem otherwise.
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.
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.
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.
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
Turn off this spirit from
To trap him, let thy snares
And him, with thee, be downward
Then stand abashed, when
thou art forced to say:
A good man, through obscurest
Has still an instinct of
the one true way.
Quoted from a public-domain
translation of Faust by Bayard Taylor (1825-1878),
an American poet and critic.
The translation was published in Cleveland by the World Publishing Company.
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.
Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines Faustian as follows: "of, relating
to, resembling, or suggesting Faust; especially: made or done for present
gain without regard for future cost or consequences."
Wolfgang von Goethe (approximate English pronunciation: YO hahn VOLF gahng
fon GER tuh) was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1749 and studied
law in Leipzig before turning to literature. He was the greatest German
writer of his age and is viewed today by many scholars as the greatest
German writer of all time. His output was enormous: He wrote poetry, novels,
plays, critical commentaries, and science works on optics and anatomy.
He studied law, philosophy, art, architecture, and the Greek myths. He
was a major figure in the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) literary movement
characterized by a rejection of many classical literary conventions (in
particular the three classical unities adhered to strictly by French writers
but often ignored by William Shakespeare), by great passion and enthusiasm,
by disquiet and impatience, and by an exposition of folk themes. He deeply
admired the works of Shakespeare. Faust is Goethe's most famous
and most widely read work.
Questions and Essay Topics
1. Why does Goethe's Faust
remain timely and relevant in the modern world?
2. Why does God allow Mephistopheles
to tempt Faust?
3. Faust shares in common
with the rest of humankind an inborn desire to know as much as possible
about the material and spiritual worlds. When pursuing such knowledge,
does a person ever encounter boundaries that he or she must not cross?
In other words, are.there ethical and moral
considerations that limit the scope of a person's quest for knowledge?
4. Does Faust's remorse
at having wronged Margaret foreshadow any event Part II?
5. In Homer's Odyssey,
the central character, Odysseus (Roman name, Ulysses) is an archetype of
the wandering man seeking knowledge. In an essay, compare and contrast
the journeys of Odysseus and Faust, their curiosity, the temptations they
encounter, and the most important lesson they learn during their travels.