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The story of Faust begins in Heaven. Mephistopheles, the Devil, is visiting the Lord, complaining, as usual, about the Lord's creation, man. When the Lord asks him whether he knows Faust, Mephistopheles, saying he does, seizes the opportunity to bet with the Lord that he can lead Faust astray. The Lord is quite confident that Faust knows the right way; he's also tolerant of Mephistopheles, whose role is to keep prodding man into action.
Faust is a very learned professor, who, however, is dissatisfied with human knowledge, which by its nature is limited. Using magic, he conjures up the Earth Spirit in his darkened study. Regarding himself as more than mortal, he tries to claim the Earth Spirit as a colleague, but the Spirit rejects him scornfully and disappears. Despairing, Faust contemplates suicide. He is saved by the sound of the bells welcoming Easter morning. He and his research assistant, Wagner, go out into the sunlight and enjoy the greetings of the crowd, which remembers the medical attention given to the people by Faust and his father. Faust is still depressed, denying the value of medicine and feeling torn between the two souls in him, one longing for earthly pleasures, the other seeking the highest spiritual knowledge. A dog follows Faust and Wagner home.
Back in his study, Faust tries to translate the Gospel of St. John, while the dog becomes restless. Eventually, the animal changes shape so monstrously that Faust realizes he is dealing with the Devil. Presto! There is Mephistopheles!
At this first meeting, Mephistopheles introduces himself and his powers to Faust; then he tricks Faust into sleeping so that he can leave. When he returns, magnificently dressed, Mephistopheles makes a bet with Faust. He agrees to do anything Faust wants, but if Faust ever says that he is totally satisfied, that the moment is so perfect he wants time to stop, then he will die and Mephistopheles will have his soul. They sign their pact in blood.
Mephistopheles tries to please his "master." He takes him to a Witch's Kitchen, where Faust is magically transformed into a young man. When Faust meets Margarete- called Gretchen, the shortened version of her name- walking in the street, he is consumed with passion for her and orders Mephistopheles to arrange for him to possess her immediately.
Mephistopheles, who has more sense than his master about how to conduct love affairs, takes Faust into Gretchen's room while she is absent. They leave a casket of jewels, but Gretchen's mother, when it is found, insists that it be given to the Church. Mephistopheles then leaves a second present of jewelry, which Gretchen this time conceals at a neighbor's house.
From that point Gretchen is doomed. Faust seduces her and makes her pregnant. When Gretchen's brother, Valentine, intervenes, cursing her as a whore, Mephistopheles, with Faust at his side, kills Valentine.
Mephistopheles takes Faust off to a witches' celebration, Walpurgis Night, on top of a mountain, where at first Faust is fascinated by the fantastic whirl of magical apparitions but then is disturbed by reminders of Gretchen. By the time he returns to the real world, Gretchen has been condemned to death for the murder of her illegitimate baby and has gone mad in her prison cell. As Mephistopheles drags Faust away, a heavenly voice calls out that Gretchen's soul is saved.
Part II of Faust begins in a natural setting with Faust recovering from his horror. Mephistopheles is preparing to introduce Faust to the great world of politics and power. They appear at the Emperor's court, where Mephistopheles solves economic problems by suggesting that the court issue paper money against the value of gold hidden underground.
Using his magic, Mephistopheles stages for the court a magnificent masque, a pageant of symbolic figures, in which Faust appears dressed as the god of wealth. The Emperor himself arrives, dressed as the Greek god Pan. The entire pageant dissolves in magic fire, which impresses the Emperor so much that he asks for more. He wants to see the famous beauty of Greek mythology, Helen of Troy, and her Trojan lover, Paris.
Mephistopheles tells Faust that such a request will strain their powers, for Faust must go down to seek the help of the Mothers, mysterious beings who control the underworld. Mephistopheles assembles the court to witness Faust's evocation of Paris and Helen, in the form of visions. Faust is so overcome with Helen's beauty, and with the desire to possess her, that he faints as the visions fade.
He is transported back into his study, which he had left years before and has not revisited since. Wagner, who has become a doctor, is trying to produce human life. Mephistopheles' presence adds the final spark. A tiny man, Homunculus, appears like a bright light in a test tube. Homunculus leads the way to the plains of the Peneios river in Greece, where the Walpurgis Night will take place.
As they meet mythological figures from literature, Faust discovers a way to reach Helen in the underworld. Mephistopheles finds a disguise as one of the Phorcyads (three female monsters who share one eye and one tooth). And Homunculus discovers a way to realize his being by uniting with a sea goddess. He smashes his test tube against the chariot of Galatea (a goddess of beauty) in a blaze of light, symbolizing creation.
Helen has come back from the underworld at the point where she is returning to her original home in Sparta, after spending ten years in Troy. She is frightened of the revenge that her husband, King Menelaus, is planning against her. Mephistopheles, in the shape of Phorcyas, points out that she can be rescued by walking to a medieval castle. There, Faust, dressed as a medieval knight, greets her. They unite to produce a son, Euphorion, who is the spirit of poetry (and a symbol for the English poet, Lord Byron, whose "unsatisfied nature" and striving for a heroic form of existence, as Goethe told Eckermann, epitomized the contemporary Romantic poet).
Euphorion has a brilliant, though short, career but when he tries to fly he crashes to the ground. Helen returns to the underworld, broken by the tragedy that her beauty seems always to bring about. Faust is left only with her garments.
Again, Faust must reconcile himself to being a failure. He plunges into a scheme to reclaim land from the sea and control it. In order to gain the land, he and Mephistopheles must help the Emperor suppress a rebellion. They bring to the battle the Three Mighty Men who fought with King David. They win the battle through magic, but barely.
With Mephistopheles' help, Faust reclaims the land. He builds a magnificent palace overlooking the shore but is irritated because he has allowed an old couple, Baucis and Philemon, to keep their tiny cottage and a chapel on the land. He asks Mephistopheles to remove the couple to a small farm he has promised them. Mephistopheles takes the Three Mighty Men to do the job; they burn down the cottage and the chapel, killing the old couple and a traveler who was visiting them.
Although Faust has failed again, he does not stop striving and planning. He is struck blind by Care, who tries to make him worry about his coming death. He dies reflecting that he has never found any moment so beautiful, so pleasant, that he wanted it to linger. So Mephistopheles loses his bet. The Devil cannot claim Faust's soul, but he tries to snatch it by trickery. He is outmaneuvered, however, by a chorus of angels, who are so sexually alluring that Mephistopheles becomes distracted by their charms and doesn't notice they are stealing away Faust's soul.
Faust's soul is carried to Heaven by the angels and by the souls of children who have died young. The three penitent women of Christianity pray to the Virgin Mary to save Faust's soul. When Gretchen adds her voice to theirs, the Virgin Mary allows her to lead Faust's soul upward. His journey is completed and he is at rest in Heaven.
The following is a discussion of the major characters in Faust. There are in addition many other interesting, if less developed, characters, and they are discussed at the appropriate places in The Play section of this guide.
Faust is a verse drama in two parts. Part I has three preliminary sections (Dedication, Prelude in the Theater, and Prologue in Heaven) and twenty-five scenes, each with a name, usually describing the setting. Part II, like many conventional plays, is divided into five acts, and each act contains scenes with descriptive names. The total length of Faust I and II is 12,110 lines of poetry. It would take some twenty hours for the play to be performed uncut!
Because the play does not have the usual act and scene structure throughout, the lines are numbered consecutively from beginning to end, like those in a poem.
There are three major questions regarding the structure of Faust: Is it one play or two? Is it a play at all? Is it a tragedy?
IS FAUST ONE PLAY OR TWO?
You'll want to make up your own mind about the unity of Faust. Some readers argue that the two parts are separate and should be treated as such. It's true that the story of Part I is better known than anything in Part II, perhaps because of Gounod's opera, Faust, which is based on Part I.
Other readers believe that the two parts form an essential unity. The parts are divided artificially, because they were composed at different times in Goethe's life. These readers believe that if you separate one part from the other, you'll miss major themes.
The original Faust story had a fairly simple structure. Faust, or Faustus, as he was originally called- the Latin word faustus means "lucky"- made a bargain with the Devil and signed it in blood. The Devil takes Faust to a student tavern- where the two fool the students with magically produced wine- and then to the Emperor's court, where Faust magically calls Helen of Troy from the dead and falls in love with her. At the end of twenty-four years, Faust vainly calls on God's mercy as Mephistopheles drags him away to Hell.
Some of the problems in Goethe's Faust are caused by the different structures of the two parts, as well as by the change in subject matter from Part I to Part II. Part I has no act divisions and the scenes are differentiated by names, not scene numbers. In it, Faust makes a bet with the Devil- the Devil will be his servant, and he will possess his soul at death unless Faust is never able to say he is satisfied. The rest of Part I concerns the seduction and ruin of Gretchen by Faust. In the end, Gretchen is saved.
The atmosphere of Part I is gloomy. The action takes place in and around the German university town where Faust lives, except for the scenes in the Witch's Kitchen and on the mountain, where the Walpurgis Night celebrations are held. It is also unified by the characters' preoccupation with their relationship to God. Faust explains his religious faith in his Credo, and attempts to translate the Gospel of St. John. Mephistopheles has to admit that he is part of God's scheme, with a duty to stir up mankind. Gretchen has a conventional, simple faith that increases the pathos of her suffering.
Part I, therefore, seems basically to consist of one piece. The impression of unity is even stronger if you interpret the last few lines to mean that Mephistopheles is taking Faust away to Hell as Gretchen is executed. Part I also was a product of the "Sturm und Drang" phase of Goethe's writing and is full of emotion, a sign of Romanticism.
Part II has a different structure and much more varied subject matter. It has the conventional five acts divided into scenes, but, again, these have names instead of numbers. In it, Faust serves an Emperor, marries Helen of Troy, becomes a successful man, and, in the end, gains redemption. The work for the Emperor and the appearance of Helen of Troy are from the original Faust story. But the union of Classical and Romantic, in the marriage of Faust and Helen and the birth of their son; the story of Homunculus; the Carnival masque and the making of paper money at the Emperor's court; the Classical Walpurgis Night; Faust's land-reclamation project; the tragedy of Baucis and Philemon; and the salvation of Faust, are Goethe's own inventions.
Some elements are clearly intended to produce unity. For example, the two Walpurgis Nights are balanced against one another. In addition, Gretchen and Helen are placed in contrast- the simple German maiden and the legendary Greek beauty. The Prologue has its counterpart in the final scene, where Faust's soul is carried off to Heaven.
There is no doubt that if you read the two parts separately you will have a different experience from what you would have if you read Parts I and II together. The question is, what kind of unity does the work have? You may find yourself on the fence, believing in a weak unity of the two parts but convinced that some sections are more successful than others.
IS FAUST A PLAY?
Faust doesn't have the structure you probably expect in a play- a rising action that reaches a climax, and then a falling action during which the plot is resolved. It has been called a "cosmic vision or dream," and readers have thought of it as a series of episodes in dramatic form- somewhat like an epic.
An epic is a poem or narrative on the largest scale, dealing with national origins and heroes (as do Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid) or man's relation to God (as do Dante's Divine Comedy and Milton's Paradise Lost). Epics can have the structure of a journey (for example, the Odyssey is a journey). Faust is a journey through the life of a hero who is meant to symbolize Western man. Its episodic structure reflects the succession of events in Faust's life. Although Faust may seem to lack a governing form, certain features give it internal structure. The diagram shows a structure that some readers perceive as holding the whole drama together.
Faust begins on the left side in despair. His spirits rise with his love for Gretchen but are dashed when she dies. He moves from the sphere of personal, subjective action to intellectual action as he achieves union with Helen. Again, he loses his love, but this time on a higher level- he is less overwhelmed than he was by Gretchen's death. Finally, his immortal part is taken to Heaven in a mystical ceremony of salvation.
Notice that the diagram indicates no connection between Faust and Heaven at the beginning: Faust attains Heaven through the jagged upward progress of his life. You will realize, as you read the drama, that it isn't quite as neat as this diagram suggests. The intellectual and political actions overlap, and Faust's enjoyment of his reclaimed land occupies only a part of Act V. But the diagram will help guide you in the unfamiliar territory of Goethe's creation.
IS FAUST A TRAGEDY?
Goethe subtitled Faust "A Tragedy," thereby presenting his readers with a puzzle. In what sense is Faust a tragedy? To the Greeks, who developed the literary form called tragedy, as well as to the Elizabethans (Shakespeare and his contemporaries), tragedy meant a play dealing with the fall of a great man as a result of a fatal flaw in his character. But Faust is saved at the end.
Since Faust represents mankind, is Goethe saying that man's life is tragic because man must always strive and err without satisfaction? If so, why is Faust carried off to Heaven at the end? Perhaps Goethe merely meant by "tragedy" a drama of serious and lofty subject because he wanted Faust to be treated as the highest form of art. Tragedy, like epic, has traditionally been regarded as the most demanding form for both writer and audience, dealing with the deepest philosophical and moral questions.
If you're asked where the action of Faust takes place, you're justified in answering "Everywhere!" The action takes place in Heaven; in Germany and the Greek Islands; in the air above the earth; in mountains, forests, caves, rivers and river valleys, and the sea. Its settings are those required by the story as it moves, episode by episode, through the epic tale of Faust's life.
As with space, so also with time. Faust is a Renaissance scholar, and the first few scenes retain a rough sense of that historical period. But the Walpurgis Night is timeless, especially in its relationship to Gretchen's story. The Emperor's court seems roughly contemporary with Goethe's time, for the introduction of paper money is discussed. But with Faust's journey down to the Mothers and the subsequent raising of the ghosts of Helen and Paris, things become hazy.
Time has no meaning in the Helen act, where Faust, who belongs in the sixteenth century, becomes a medieval knight from a period three hundred years earlier in order to meet a mythological queen from the times of classical Greek literature. Between them they produce a son, who resembles the poet Byron, Goethe's contemporary- all without any break in the action!
After this, nothing surprises the reader, not even the onstage transporting of Faust's soul to Heaven. The final scene has no possible historical time, for it combines the fathers of the Church, biblical characters, and Gretchen from Part I.
Goethe felt free to place the story of Faust's life in such a vast setting because Faust represents all mankind. He has all the vices and virtues of mankind on a grand scale. He is supposed to be larger than life and you need to see him in a setting of cosmic scale. He is constantly striving to reach beyond the limits of the physical world and humanity, constantly striving for understanding and fulfillment- and he never gives up.
Faust has a general overarching theme- man's life on earth and quest for knowledge and power. Naturally, such an ambitious theme must include many subthemes. Some of these are listed below, and you will be able to add to the list as you read the play.
The great variety of styles in Faust reflects the range of the poem's characters and settings. Some readers have said that Faust contains more poetic meters (measured, patterned arrangement of syllables) and forms than any other single work. Others think that it is stylistically too exuberant, that its large number of styles sometimes interferes with communicating a clear message.
The styles include a sixteenth-century German form called Knuttelvers or Knittelvers (doggerel), which is irregular, though rhymed; ballads and songs, often as simple as folk songs; the trimeter (a line of verse with three measured feet) of classical tragedy, as well as the strophes (stanzas of the chorus as it moves to the right or the left of the stage) of the choruses; Shakespeare's blank verse; the Alexandrines (iambic line of twelve syllables) used by the seventeenth-century French playwright Jean-Baptiste Racine; and prose (for one memorable scene). Gretchen expresses her feelings in a series of ballads and lyrics, which convey the folk simplicity of her character.
Faust contains numerous references to the Bible and ancient literature. It may be difficult for you as a modern student to follow these allusions, since the Bible and Greek and Roman literature no longer occupy the central place in school that they occupied in Goethe's time. Nevertheless, you may find yourself amazed at how modern a play Faust is. Respond to it as you would to a new work by a contemporary playwright- for, in spirit, Goethe is one of us.
The translation of Faust used for this Study Guide is by Walter Arndt (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976). It was chosen because it tries to faithfully reproduce the different rhythms and verse forms of the original. Of course, a translation that tries to reproduce the original poetry must lead to compromises, because a translator must at times use words with slightly different meaning than the original. Also, expressions used to fit a meter may sometimes seem artificial and strange. Some readers, indeed, think that a verse translation is simply too difficult to do well, and they prefer a prose translation that conveys the meaning accurately.
If you do not read German, the best way for you to get close to the meaning is to compare several translations. There are some fifty translations of Faust in English, the vast majority of them translations of Part I alone. Comparing three or four of them is time-consuming, so you shouldn't do it with every line; but some crucial lines need the perspective of at least two or more versions. All translation is also to some degree interpretation, because the word chosen in English is rarely exactly equivalent to the German. The choice of a word is influenced by the translator's view of the poet's meaning.
To give you an idea of the variation in translations, here are versions by four translators of the Lord's important words in the Prologue in Heaven.
The differences between one English translation and another can be more a matter of style than of meaning. The feeling of one translation may be very different from another. Take, for example, lines 338-39:
All the translators refer to Mephistopheles as the spirit of negation or denial, and the basic meaning of the passage is the same in each translation, but the images of the Devil as a "rogue" and as a "joker" are very different. Your image of Mephistopheles as a "rogue" or as a "joker" can influence your interpretations of the play.
Because translations differ from the original you should be careful not to attribute to Goethe what may, in fact, be the translator's interpretation. Similarly, be careful not to overemphasize a few words or phrases as you interpret Faust, because you may be dealing more with the translator than with Goethe. The larger patterns of the drama, rather than the small details of language, will most likely give you a better idea of the original German text.
The Faust legends stem from the life of a real Faust- Johannes Faustus, a German student of dubious reputation who lived from 1480 to 1540. Some of his contemporaries spoke of him as a faker, or medieval con man, who lived by his wits. Others, however, thought him a magician in league with evil spirits. He was reputed to travel about with a little dog that was really a devil.
Soon after his death, the real Dr. Faustus disappeared into the realm of legend. He became the scholar who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for universal knowledge and magical power. Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, was, for example, one of those who believed Faustus had been in league with the Devil. The story was popular for its Christian moral: Faustus was damned for pursuing worldly knowledge instead of studying the Scriptures.
By 1587 a Faustbuch (Faust Book) had appeared, a collection of the various tales being told about the wicked magician. The book was enormously popular, both in Germany and elsewhere. Later, Faust became a popular character in puppet shows filled with slapstick comedy. But, despite the comedy, the Faust plays always ended with Faust being dragged off by the Devil, damned because he sought forbidden knowledge. In addition, numerous handbooks of magic appeared, bearing Faust's name. Of course, they always had instructions on how to avoid the pact with the Devil.
The German poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was the first to make Faust a hero who was saved rather than damned. The redemption was completed by Goethe, in whose great work Faust represents the virtue of human aspiration. In Goethe's play, the longing for knowledge that had once led to Faust's damnation leads to Faust's salvation.
Goethe probably saw Faust puppet plays during his childhood and may have produced one of his own in a puppet theater that his grandmother had given him. Faust plays were a popular folk entertainment. They were not high art, not the kinds of plays to be found in court theaters. They owed their popularity to hell-fire scenes and magic tricks performed by the devils. The literary source- that is, written text- for these Faust plays was The History of Dr. Johann Faustus, published in Frankfurt in 1587, but it is unlikely that Goethe was familiar with it. He probably did know Christopher Marlowe's play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, written about 1590, in which Dr. Faustus is dragged off to Hell.
In these stories, Faust is a learned scholar who uses the arts of black magic to raise the Devil. He makes a bargain with the Devil, signing his name in his own blood. The Devil will have Faust's soul after a certain number of years, but during those years the Devil will do whatever Faust commands. The story was a moral tale for Christians, for it warned them against trying to have more than earthly power. In its frightening climax, it depicted Faust being dragged into the fiery mouth of Hell. Yet the story was also a great audience pleaser, because it offered opportunities for magic tricks at the expense of authority figures like the Emperor.
The Gretchen story, which Goethe added from his own experience, is not part of the original Faust plays. But the Helen story does appear in the Faust legend. In some versions, Dr. Faustus raises the spirit of Helen and lives with her for twenty years. The Emperor, too, is part of the original story. Almost everything else comes from Goethe's extensive reading. The figures of the Walpurgis Night come from his study of alchemy, witchcraft, and magic. Those in the Classical Walpurgis Night come from Greek and Roman literature, as do Baucis and Philemon. The Three Mighty Men are found in the Old Testament, and the figures that conduct Faust's soul upward are from Christian tradition.
Goethe derived not only his characters but also his style from his reading. You will find echoes of Shakespeare (the character Ariel is borrowed from The Tempest), Dante, and Byron, as well as a direct imitation of the Greek playwright Euripides.
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