Theme of Faust

Categories: Doctor Faustus

From the start it is evident that the career and destiny of Faust are to be endowed with universal significance. The whole meaning of human life is to be involved in the process of the tragedy. The position is stated by Goethe in little more than a hundred concise lines, but they suffice to describe the relationship of God and man, good and evil, and the peculiar character of the principal figure in terms necessary to the grand theme of the poem.

Faust is, to be sure, a special case, despite his symbolical value.

He is an exceptional person; that is why he is chosen by the Lord as an illustration of his contention. Faust from the beginning is recognized as having something of the superman about him, something that lifts him out of the ordinary mundane sphere. His tragedy is the tragedy of an extraordinary person, possessing qualities which imperil as well as elevate. Not all mankind can, or should be, like him, though he displays some attributes which mankind should foster and respect, and some which it should overcome (Peacock 58).

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Faust has titanic urge to understand what transcends the comprehension of celestial beings. All the four university faculties cannot achieve what they accept as impossible. It is, to be sure, God’s purpose that man should learn to know his true place in the universe, and this means not only the acquisition of understanding but also the recognition of its limits. The cause of man’s misery is the power of reason, ‘Vernunft, der Schein des Himmelslichts’, God’s own gift that distinguishes man from the animals.

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This attribute lifts man’s gaze towards Heaven and causes him to seek the meaning of its mysteries; it is that which gives him self-consciousness, the power of discrimination, freedom of will.

Faust, we find, is in despair, not because he uses his power of reason, but because he has neglected his other powers and has in fact to learn their use (Smeed 45). God’s gift to him has been a source of torment because it has prevented him from being of this earth. He must manifest his earthly and heavenly character together. Man is a hybrid being. That is his glory and his tragedy.

There is a much greater significance in the Lord’s selection of Faust as an instance with which to refute Mephistopheles’ criticism than at first sight appears (Gillies 92). The latter believes that he is a classic example of his own point of view, and indeed there is much to make him appear so. Yet the Lord chooses him. He thus becomes a symbol – a symbol, though an unusual individual. Mephistopheles, debating about him with the Lord, as Satan did about Job, declares that he is not only crazy, but half-conscious that he is. Not all men, the Lord implies, are as Mephistopheles alleges. Faust is an exception.

His extreme nature, in fact, brings out the point which Mephistopheles makes negatively and the Lord positively concerning man’s dual character, combined of the animal, existing on the physical and instinctive level, and the angelic, with its home in Heaven, so that he is filled with the urge to grasp and enjoy the infinite, while being limited by the finite. Life, that is no problem to the angels or the animals, is a problem to man. Faust’s career typifies this more distinctly than that of an ordinary human being.

The Lord knows that this endeavour to experience the entirety of human existence is merely a preliminary to the final exaltation of life in the hereafter (Leppmann 15). It is as natural a preliminary as the trees’ putting forth of the leaves that give promise of future years’ blossom and fruit (Brown 241). Man and nature are both manifestations of the same universal growth; there is no causality that is peculiar to man alone.

Mephistopheles is astonished that the Lord should choose Faust, of all people. ‘Den Doktor?’ he asks incredulously. Surely a more saintly example could have been mentioned! But the Lord’s description of Faust as his servant puts the doubter in his place:

Agreed! But ’tis a short probation.
About my bet I feel no trepidation.
If I fulfill my expectation,
You’ll let me triumph with a swelling breast:
Dust shall he eat, and with a zest,
As did a certain snake, my near relation (Jarrell 32).

 Imperfect or confused though he may be, he is none the less part of the glory of Creation, a servant of the Lord. That, and not, as Mephistopheles believes, his self-torment, is the essential thing in Faust.

Mephistopheles offers a bet. ‘Allow me to take over the management of his existence, and you will lose him’, he declares. Faust, then, is worth tempting, in his opinion, unlike the general run of mankind, who, as he has just said, merely excite his pity.

The fact that Mephistopheles is among the Lord’s retinue implies that evil is part of God’s system. Error, imperfection, conflict are bound to occur in human life and effort, as the archangels had indicated and the Lord repeats. Mephistopheles asks permission of the Lord to assume control of Faust’s life, and is given it, so long as Faust lives on earth. If he cannot win Faust during his earthly life, his chance has gone (Hamlin 45).

The Lord avoids the bet as such. He offers to retire in favour of his interlocutor from the guidance of Faust’s existence. He removes his help from Faust. He does so because he has confidence that mankind can gain salvation by its own efforts without divine aid and in spite of the intervention of evil, even though, as in Faust’s case, it may take a long time. In contrast to Mephistopheles who desires to prove that humanity is of little value, the Lord puts forward the pelagian theory that human nature is innately good, despite its liability to error.

As part of the ‘hohe Werke’ of Creation, it can scarcely be otherwise. Mephistopheles seems to represent the Augustinian standpoint that without God’s help, man will fall victim to evil and be lost. On this basis he offers his bet. It is true, we may remark in passing, that the way to Paradise is made easier for those, like Gretchen, whom God does help (Butler 69).

The Lord is, however, certain that, though he may be confused and in obscurity in all his efforts, a good man is none the less conscious of the right way. This is shown when Faust makes his defiant bet with Mephistopheles; his confusion and despair could not have been greater than at that moment, but his action justifies the Lord’s confidence in relying upon his innate instinctive urge towards something higher than earthly enjoyment, “Then how shall we begin?” asks Faust. Mephistopheles wishes to prove that God’s creation is not the glorious thing that the archangels asserted, and hopes to win Faust’s soul in the process.

For clearly, in the system which Goethe described, a soul that is deflected from its divine source and made to relax its higher endeavours cannot qualify for entrance into Paradise. Those who do not fulfil their human destiny are not saved. Salvation, the Lord implies, involves effort and consciousness of the right way, not merely one or the other but both together. Faust justifies him on both scores. The Lord thus relies fundamentally upon the divine element which is implanted in human nature and which hallows and transmutes all effort. It is this divine element rather than mere striving by itself, as has been so often asserted, that is supreme in earning immortality.

Gretchen is saved, so are three famous sinners of antiquity, not because of any Faustian striving, but because of selfless faith which commands the sacrifice of life itself. Faust has to battle his way across mountains of error and crime before he reaches a vision of the true value of life. But in the end he proves the Lord to be right. Grace comes down to meet him and he is led into Paradise in the company of new-born babes. It is not striving, not learning, titanism or power that saves him; it is childlike humility and self-denying faith; not what is called Faustianism, but the abandonment of Faustianism.

He who attempted the impossible, in straining beyond the prescribed limits of humanity, comes to realize the futility of such endeavour; only when ‘no longer confused’–in Gretchen’s words, ‘der nicht mehr Getrübte’- can he enter Heaven. It is necessary for this to be made clear since so much has been made of the sanctity of striving that Faustianism has come to be surrounded with an aura of holiness and, contrary to Goethe’s intention, to be regarded as the sole vehicle of salvation. We should not seek God if God were not in us. Our difficulty, Faust’s difficulty, is to discover God in ourselves and reverence Him.

The Lord proceeds to give his reason for allowing Mephistopheles to tempt mankind. It is in order that men should be stirred from their sloth. The divine in man might succumb to earthly inertia, were it not for evil. Mephistopheles’ temptation is thus a guarantee of his own success.

That which governs all universal life is Love, in the widest sense, not only God’s love, but love manifesting itself in earthly form, the earthly being a symbol of the heavenly. The Lord’s parting injunction is that the living beauty of the universe must be enjoyed and allowed to envelop its beholders with a sense of communion with it, so that life may be lived as an understanding part of the greater life. The manifestation of the cosmos is through love, whose sweet bonds are God’s way of leading man towards the light. Hence he can confidently leave Faust to Mephistopheles, knowing that the power of love is inescapable and in its effects inevitable.

By its means it is possible for man to see the transitory as a symbol, to discern permanence in change, the infinite in the finite, the One in the Many. It is not striving, but loving self-surrender that gives mankind a claim upon salvation, Faust’s claim resting upon his altruistic efforts at the conclusion of his life. That is why he can join the company of Gretchen, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Mary Magdalene, and the Woman of Samaria, sinners yet saved with the aid of the angelic hosts, and the Blessed Boys cut off at birth, all of them animated by or embodying the power of love (Enright 125). And Love in the shape of intercession plays a decisive part at the end.

Goethe called his play a tragedy. It is the tragedy of titanism, of egotism. To regard Faust only as a symbol of human dissatisfaction, restlessness, striving, Weltschmerz, leads in the end to misconceptions. It is not the triumph but the disavowal of Faustianism that Goethe finally represents for us. If we strive to grasp the infinite, we must do so within the bounds of our earthly existence, we learn, or be destroyed. It is a stroke of supreme irony that at the moment when Faust understands this, his life comes to an end. Yet life which does not understand it, is not life at all.

It seems to me that the beauty and particular flavour of the first scene of Faust are best appreciated by seeing it as a great invocation to Nature and Creation achieved by means of a dramatic monologue, which is expanded into ‘dialogue’ with a ‘spirit’ (Boyle 51). The initial motive is that here is a man weary and surfeited with the ordinary knowledge piled up by learned men within the limits of human effort; a man on whom learning and mere intellectual or rational insights have laid a dead hand, and he revolts. The old theme of magical powers is at a stroke transformed into the theme of the creative power of the universe, of living nature. The ‘magic’ this Faust wants is that of being at one with the living cosmos; he wants to escape from his ‘gothic chamber’, from the dead dust and mould of the cramped study and the stultifying analysis of the laboratories.

The second variation of the theme is a transposition into the Promethean key under the sign of the Erdgeist. It is still eminently a question of feelings. But the first variation concerned a vision of the divine operations in the universe, whilst now it is the possibility of superhuman action that is brought to the fore. It is expressed as Faust’s ambition, as his heroic, Promethean attempt to equal gods and spirits.

The passage includes the magic invocation and appearance of the Erdgeist, which Goethe himself later described as Welt- und Tatengenius; and it shows an ambivalent relationship between Faust and this Geist. On the one hand the Geist pours scorn on Faust as far beneath itself. But on the other there is expressed here the motive of ambition that has come to belong essentially to the figure of Faust, and is embodied in the whole idea of the ‘ Faustian’ striving (Pascal 45).

And here is expressed Faust’s defiance and pride, his sense that he is the equal of the Spirit, and even the image of divinity itself. This, too, is significant for Goethe’s transformation of the traditional Faust. The old Faust did not conceive himself as an ‘Ich, Ebenbild der Gottheit’; it was precisely because he was not a god that he took to magic. Goethe’s Faust has only the trappings of magic; he is really Goethe’s image of a human aspiration to participate, consciously and ecstatically, in Universal Creation.

On this first scene follows Faust’s conversation with Wagner, his Famulus, who interrupts his communing with spirits. Wagner is a pedant of limited gifts, full of short-sighted and pious respect for the learning and outlook against which Faust himself is desperately in revolt. He provides the foil, satirically lighted, to Faust’s heroic discontent.

The play opens, as we saw, with Faust in despair. The deepest depression follows his sense of failure when face to face with the Erdgeist; life seems to him to be made of nothing but illusion and human ineffectiveness. In this mood he contemplates suicide. He then goes for a walk ‘outside the gate’, with Wagner, and he remarks on the coming of spring. The townspeople and country people are amusing themselves on their holiday, singing and dancing, the young flirting, the older ones drinking and talking politics. Faust mingles with them; they greet him and pay their respects.

Faust feels embarrassed at this when he recalls the havoc he and his father wrought with their attempts at quack medicines and cures. Surveying the serene sunset he then falls into a mood of longing; he dreams of wings to follow the sun in its eternal day. He speaks of two souls in his heart, the one dragging him to earthly passion, the other striving towards the higher spheres; and he cries out for some spirits that would carry him away to a new life. Faust and Wagner then return to the town, followed by a poodle.

In his room again, the poodle having followed him, Faust’s discontent returns. He turns to the Bible and tries to translate the New Testament. The poodle barks angrily, grows bigger and bigger, Faust resorts to magic for protection against it, and Mephistopheles enters in the habit of a wandering scholar. Faust questions him about his identity. Mephistopheles offers Faust sensuous delights, spirits lull him to sleep, and Mephistopheles escapes again.

Mephistopheles offers to show Faust what life is. Faust reacts with skepticism and scorn. Again he utters his despair and weariness of life, because it always disappoints. He utters a violent curse against all life’s illusions -pleasure, fame, mind, possessions, wealth, wife, children, wine, love, hope, faith, and, ‘above all’, patience. Mephistopheles tells him to stop playing with his sorrow and let him lead him through life. Faust then, despising Mephistopheles, makes his wager; it is that he will willingly die if Mephistopheles can satiate him with pleasures and make him feel contented.

There follows Mephistopheles’ first temptation, to join the company of tippling students in Auerbach’s Keller. Then Mephistopheles takes him to the witch’s kitchen, where he has a vision of a beautiful woman, and with magic ceremonies is rejuvenated.

This brings the action to the point where Gretchen enters it, and with two brief interruptions the rest of Part I consists of the Faust-Gretchen tragedy. Faust sees Gretchen in the street, greets her, and immediately requires Mephistopheles to procure her. Mephistopheles arranges for Faust to enter her room, and to meet her at a neighbour’s house. She is flattered with presents.

To secure a lovers’ meeting with Faust she gives her mother a sleeping draught from which she dies. Gretchen becomes pregnant, kills her child, is committed to prison and condemned to execution. In the meantime her brother Valentine, attempting to avenge himself for the dishonour Gretchen has brought, is killed by Faust. Finally Faust, with Mephistopheles’ help, tries to rescue Gretchen from prison, but she resists. Mephistopheles drags him away, and the play ends (Steinhauer 10).

The second interruption is the Walpurgisnacht. Faust participates in the witches’ revels on the Brocken, dances with a young witch, sees Lilith, and has a vision of Gretchen which foretells her execution. The next mood is the more social and hopeful one of the Easter walk. Here again the prime purpose is to elaborate the portrait of Faust in his crisis. It can scarcely be called dramatic, until the black poodle appears; Goethe displays here the fine pictorial style, adapted to the stage, of his classical manner, in which the sense of type or generic character in its simple natural truth produces a spaciously descriptive and rather grand poetic canvas.

Its three elements are a genre picture of the people, burghers and countrymen, with interspersed songs, a ‘dialogue’ (Gespräch) with Wagner, and Faust’s philosophical musings on the scene with the associations and memories it evokes in his mind, as he moves about conscious of being a man amongst men, sharing common feelings, and especially the sense of the awakening to new life that the spring brings (Kuzniar 90). Gradually, however, the minor key reasserts itself and another variation on Faust’s discontent, his vague unease, and his undefined but deeplyfelt urges after a different life follows, expressed as always in the poetic imagery of nature.

The final phase of mood before the wager is made finds expression in Faust’s diatribe against Entbehren, and in the tremendous curse that follows it, hurled at life from the depths of human frustration but with a superhuman, Promethean energy. This is the deepest point of Faust’s despair, and the moment leads directly to the making of the bond. The protracted crisis, of which the symptoms have been displayed in the long sequence of Faust’s monologues and fragments of talk with others, reaches its climax in the sudden dramatic exchange with Mephistopheles; first the taunts of the latter, then the challenge of Faust, the opportunity offered in return, and finally the making of the wager.

The Second Part of Faust says about Faust turning from the pleasures of the senses to the joys of the spirit, where he searches aesthetic beauty and human meaning. Helen of Troy is given to Faust. Their son, Euphorion, symbolizes at first the union of the classical and the romantic; then, more generally, the urge of mankind toward beauty. Both Euphorion and Helen, however, soar off into flaming air: beauty cannot be kept; ambition must hold its roots in earth. Faust then helps his fellow-men; he wears through years of service until finally, old and blind, he declares himself content. He has lost his wager, but he has found his way: and his soul moved to Heaven.



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Butler E. M. (1952). The Fortunes of Faust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Enright D. J. (1949). Faust. A Commentary. New York.

Gillies, Alexander. (1957). Goethe’s Faust: An Interpretation. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Hamlin, Cyrus. (1976). “Reading Faust”. In Norton Critical Edition of Goethe’s Faust. Cyrus Hamlin, ed. New York: W. W. Norton.

Jarrell, Randall. (1976). Goethe’s Faust Part I. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Kuzniar, Alice A. (1996). Outing Goethe & His Age. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA.

Leppmann, Wolfgang. (1961). The German Image of Goethe. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Pascal R. (1949).”Faust” in Essays on Goethe, ed. W. Rose, pp. 98-120. London.

Passage, Charles. (1980). Goethe’s Plays. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.

Peacock, Ronald. (1959). Goethe’s Major Plays. Manchester University Press: Manchester, England.

Smeed J. W. (1975). Faust in Literature. London: Oxford University Press.

Steinhauer H. (1956). “Faust’s pact with the devil”, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. lxx.

Ugrinsky, Alexej. (1987). Goethe in the Twentieth Century. Greenwood Press: New York.


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