Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Faust, Part One

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Faust Summary and Study Guide

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Faust, Part One is the first part of a two-part dramatic poem written by 18th-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Based loosely on the 16th-century legend of Faust, Faust, Part One was first published in 1808 and first performed onstage in its entirety in 1829. (Faust, Part Two was later published in 1832.) It is largely told in rhyming verse, except for Scene 26, which is written in prose. This study guide is based on the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the dramatic poem, which was translated from German by David Luke.

Plot Summary

Faust, Part One begins with a series of three prologues, starting with a dedication to those Goethe used to know and followed by a “Prelude on the Stage,” in which a Director, Clown, and Poet argue over what the play should be. In the third prologue, the “Prologue in Heaven,” The Lord and Mephistopheles, the Devil, speak of Faust, a restless doctor who is currently conflicted and confused. The Lord and Mephistopheles place a bet on Faust’s soul, with Mephistopheles predicting that he can guide Faust to be like him, while The Lord predicts Faust is too good to go down Mephistopheles’ evil path.

The action then officially begins in Faust’s study, where he laments having devoted his career to scholarly pursuits; he feels unfulfilled and that books cannot give him the meaning he desires. Faust decides to turn to magic to get the answers he wants about the world and summons an Earth Spirit for help, who rejects him and goes away. Faust’s academic servant, Wagner, visits him, and the two men argue about knowledge, as Wagner believes in the scholarship and value of reading that Faust now detests.

Faust, still feeling miserable and unfulfilled, attempts to die by drinking poison but is interrupted by a singing chorus of angels who restore his faith in the world and change his mind. He goes out on an Easter morning walk with Wagner and sees a black poodle, which he thinks could be a spirit in disguise. The black poodle follows him home and eventually turns into Mephistopheles, who introduces himself to Faust. 

Mephistopheles returns the next day and strikes a bargain with Faust: He will lead Faust and devote himself to helping him in his journey for passion and meaning, but if Faust stagnates in his quest and becomes slothful, Mephistopheles and hell will get his immortal soul. Faust tells Mephistopheles that he wants to use Mephistopheles’ powers to experience passion, sin, and a range of emotions from the greatest joys to suffering. After Mephistopheles briefly disguises himself as Faust to speak with a student while Faust packs, the two set off, using their cloaks to fly. They first go to a tavern in Auerbach, where Mephistopheles uses magic to trick the men drinking there, and then to a witch who gives Faust a special potion to drink and performs a ceremony. While there, Faust sees the image of a woman in a mirror, and Mephistopheles promises to get Faust a girl for himself. 

Faust passes a woman, Gretchen (also referred to by her full name, Margareta, in the text) on the street and offers to escort her home, but she rejects him. He is overcome by her beauty and tells Mephistopheles that he must have her, but Mephistopheles says she is very innocent and religious, and he can’t control her. Nevertheless, Mephistopheles takes Faust to Gretchen’s room while she is out, and they deliver her a large box of jewelry. While Gretchen is delighted by the jewelry, her mother sees it and gives it to the church; Mephistopheles and Faust then bring her more jewels, which she stores at her neighbor Martha’s house.

Mephistopheles visits Martha and Gretchen at Martha’s house and tells Martha her husband is dead as a way to get Faust and Gretchen to meet. Faust at first objects to the trickery involved with the plan, as he must bear false witness to a judge about the husband’s death, but he soon relents and quickly falls in love with Gretchen. Mephistopheles, however, suggests that their love could suffer a bleak fate, and Faust worries that he’s ruined her and made her a victim.

Nevertheless, Faust persuades Gretchen to sleep with him, and he gives her a potion to get her mother to sleep so she won’t disturb them, which kills her. Faust and Gretchen’s night together causes Gretchen’s downfall, as she is shamed in the town and gives birth to a son, whom she drowns. Her brother Valentine comes to see her after learning of her sin, but Faust stabs him; before he dies, Valentine curses Gretchen, calls her a whore, and tells her that her premarital relations will cause her nothing but disgrace. Gretchen is ruined and filled with despair and regret, and is taunted by evil spirits who shame her.

Meanwhile, Faust and Mephistopheles go off to a Walpurgis Night with witches and warlocks, where they dance and see a play loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When they’re there, Faust sees an image of Gretchen with chains around her feet, which Mephistopheles says is just an illusion. Faust quickly learns, however, that Gretchen is imprisoned, and he is furious with Mephistopheles for not telling him sooner and not caring about Gretchen’s fate. Faust makes Mephistopheles take him to Gretchen and help her escape, but when he breaks into her cell, she refuses to go with him. Faust and Mephistopheles eventually leave Gretchen alone in her cell as she cries out for Faust, but in the final moments of the play, a voice from above announces that Gretchen is redeemed, suggesting that she has atoned for her sins and will go to heaven. Faust’s journey is then continued in Faust, Part Two, and he ascends into heaven as well, guided by Gretchen’s soul.

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