Faust Summary

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


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Faust Summary

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Goethe’s Faust is a tragic play in two parts, based on a classic German legend, in which Faust is a discontented scholar who makes a deal with the devil in order to attain worldly knowledge, pleasure, and power at the expense of his soul. At the end of a 24-year period Faust is eternally damned for his preference of secular achievement over divine knowledge and piety. While the legend may have biblical roots in the story of Simon Magus, the magician, the story was popularized in English by the playwright Christopher Marlowe in the mid-16th century. However, Goethe’s version diverges from this basic framework in order to explore themes of alienation, personal fulfillment and societal expectation rather than the high-Christian moralizing of Marlowe’s version.

Part I, published in 1808 after a series of fragments and preliminary versions, begins in Heaven where the devil, convinced of mankind’s ultimate corruption, makes a wager with The Lord that he will be able to lure Faust from righteousness over to evil. Though a brilliant scholar, Faust is frustrated and disillusioned with having reached the limit of contemporary scholarship’s knowledge. He cannot, with ‘modern’ modes of thought, discern any rational framework that explains the purpose of all of nature, and it is this inability that not only prompts him to deal with the devil (here, known as Mephistopheles,) but forms the thematic basis for the entirety of both segments of the play. He summons a spirit, but is unable to share in the spirit’s higher knowledge because of his humanity, which prompt Faust to despair and contemplate suicide. He stops short as a chorus of angels announces the onset of Easter celebrations which Faust and fellow scholar Wagner leave to attend. On the way home Faust is followed by a black dog who later reveals himself to be Mephistopheles.

The pair have a conversation about Faust’s feelings of alienation and his desire to experience a higher form of life, and the devil demonstrates his power by summoning a group of spirits as Faust falls asleep. The following day the devil returns with an offer: that he will serve Faust in order to help him achieve his transcendent life so long as Faust serves the devil in Hell for eternity. Faust, thinking that the devil will never be able to achieve this, agrees to the wager.

To this end, Mephistopheles take Faust on a series of journeys, to various destinations and realities. Faust meets a girl out of the street, Gretchen (alternatively, Margarete) with whom he immediately falls in love. Leaving gifts of conjured jewels and deceiving both Gretchen and her neighbor Martha, Mephistopheles orchestrates a meeting between Faust and Gretchen in order for him to court her. Faust realizes that his feeling for Gretchen is love and initially flees from her so as not to corrupt her, as he has finally attained a feeling of transcendence and a deeper understanding of life. However, Mephistopheles finds him and persuades him to go back to Gretchen who is pining away for him. They begin a sexual relationship and Gretchen soon realizes that she is pregnant with Faust’s child. Her brother, Valentine, curses her behavior and attempts to revenge her honor, but is instead killed by Faust. Gretchen, fearing for her life and soul flees to the cathedral to pray, but the presence of evil spirits confirms that she is already damned.

Mephistopheles then takes Faust to witness the Walpurgis Night reveries, where all magical and evil being gather. Here, he meets many mythical characters as well as philosophers, artists and politicians all representing different philosophies on morality. While he is gone, Faust learns that Gretchen has killed their child and has been arrested. He demands the devil aid him in attempting to rescue her from the jail, but she has already devolved into insanity, does not recognize him and will not leave. Mephistopheles insists that he and Faust must go before they too are capture by the authorities and set to be executed, they flee and the play ends.

The second part of Goethe’s Faust wasn’t published until 1832 and focuses less on the real world in favor of five independent episodes that are heavily influences by classical figures and psychological themes. Although the acts are episodic and largely independent of one another they are joined by a framework of characters from Greek antiquity, most importantly Faust is seeking Helen of Troy who he has fallen in love with. In the final act, which takes place in indeterminable amount of time after its predecessor, but sees Faust old and powerful, he finally dies and the devil attempts to claim his soul, believing that he has won the wager. Angels intercede and claim Faust’s soul instead, and he is reborn and lead into heaven.