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Goethe's Faust Summary and Analysis

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Faust's Study

Summary

With the fields and meadows of the town gate behind him, Faust returns with the black poodle to his study at night. He is ebullient from his day in nature and feels that “the love of mankind is astir, / the love of God is all about us.” The poodle is also frisky, and it runs and barks through the study, annoying Faust. He tells it to be still and that it will be his welcome guest because it entertained him while out in the fields.

As the night grows darker outside, Faust’s heart grows darker inside. The poodle growls a “brutish snarl,” and Faust tells him to stop. He tells the dog that he is familiar with people who “mutter at the Good and Beautiful / because it is often too much trouble.” Faust is distraught that his soul has run dry of inspiration so soon. He turns to the Book of John in the New Testament and begins to translate its lines into his native German tongue. He reads, “In the beginning was the Word!” but feels that it is not the correct translation for himself. He feels inspired by the spirit and instead writes, “In the beginning was the Mind,” and then, “In the beginning there was Power!” before finally settling on “In the beginning was the Deed.”

Faust begins to tell the dog to stop growling and barking, and he begins to show the dog out the door, when he suddenly sees it begin to change shape and form. “What specter did I bring into my house!” Faust exclaims. In the room’s corridor, a group of spirits speaks. Faust believes that he must first use the “Spell of Four” to confront the thing inside of the dog. Yet, when he uses that spell, he finds that none of those four spirits are in the dog. He then tries “stronger conjurations.” Calling the thing a “refugee from Hell,” he makes the sign of the cross and watches the thing swell and puff.

This holy spell holds the thing at bay behind the stove in his study. Faust continues to invoke the name of Christ to hold the evil spirit at bay and to make it reveal itself to him. A mist descends on the room and when it clears, Mephistopheles steps out from behind the stove dressed as a traveling scholar. Faust is surprised to see one of his own as the spirit within the dog and laughs at the confusion. Mephistopheles salutes Faust, yet will not give his name “for one so scornful of the word, / for one removed from every outward show / who always reaches for the inmost core.” Faust says that for such a spirit, “The essence of the like of you / is usually inherent in the name.”

Mephistopheles then begins to describe himself. He is a “portion of that power / which always works for Evil and effect the Good,” he is the “proper element” of deadly sin and Evil, and he is “a portion of that part which once was everything, / a part of darkness which gave birth to Light, / that haughty Light which now disputes the rank / and ancient sway of Mother Night.” Mephistopheles tells him that his work on earth never ceases because “new blood” always exists to tempt and bury.

Faust tells him that his work is in vain and that Faust will never fall to the forces of darkness. Mephistopheles tells him they should give the matter further thought in future conversation. He asks if he may leave but finds that he cannot. Mephistopheles admits that because a broken pentagram sits half drawn on the sill, he cannot leave. Faust is amused because “the devil’s caught and cannot leave the house.” Mephistopheles tells him that hell’s law is that a spirit can only leave a room in the same way that it entered it. “So Hell itself has its legalities?” Faust asks.

Faust, knowing that he has the upper hand in the situation, tells him to stay and perform some “handsome tricks and conjurations.” Mephistopheles agrees and calls in the Spirits so that Faust will be “bathed in ecstasy.” The Spirits sing a song, making the “High-vaulting arches” of the study vanish and replaced with “Mellower suns,” “foaming wines,” and “Radiant isles.” In a moment, Faust is asleep.

Seeing his way to escape, Mephistopheles calls on a scurrying rat to come and chew the edge of the broken pentagram. Using a daub of oil, he completes the broken pentagram and exits Faust’s study. Faust awakens to find that he has “been cheated once again.” He cannot tell if the whole scene was real, or if it was a dream and the poodle had simply run away from him.

Analysis

This scene is both a microcosm of the entire Faustian myth as well as a metaphor for the transformation of humanity from the bounds of Christendom into the Age of Enlightenment. As a microcosm of the entire play, the scene works by first introducing Faust in his study, reading the great wisdom of the ages, which ultimately leaves him unsatisfied. He then encounters the supernatural, with whom he makes a pact. The scene then ends with Faust’s ultimate continued discontentment and the feeling that he has been tricked into a great loss. The entirety of the play follows a narrative arc encapsulated in this scene.

As a symbol for the transformation of humanity, the scene works on several levels. Most notably, the scene opens with Faust turning away from the collected wisdom of humanity to find a more satisfying reality in the pages of scripture. However, although Faust remains a Christian (albeit a Christian marked by the art and knowledge of the Renaissance), he cannot pull his mind out of the dissatisfaction of his pursuits, and he tries to reformulate the opening words of the Book of John into a formula that would be more appropriate for his intellectual situation. Goethe thus suggests that the trajectory of Modernism, with regard to Christianity, is an attempt to remake the religion in modern humanity’s own image. Where one particular idea of religion was unsatisfying, the great minds of the age found a way to make it relevant. By making it relevant, however, something is always lost, just as the meaning of a text is inherently lost in the process of translation. Goethe may be making an explicit reference to the new discipline of Biblical criticism that was introduced in the German intellectual culture of his day. Goethe had previously satirized the discipline in earlier works.

The Devil interrupts Faust’s attempts to remake the scriptures into his own formulation. Figuratively, Goethe implies that humanity’s own progression has been a kind of pact with the Devil as well. Just as Faust will wager his own soul for progress and contentment, so too has the Devil interrupted and made a bet for the soul of humanity.

Notably, Faust’s intellectual quests are always interrupted in some way by the appearance of spirits that propose to open new doors of experience and learning for him. This occurrence echoes a theme running through several famous works of German philosophy of the time. G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit is perhaps the best known example of this. While the philosophers often used the term “spirit” interchangeably with terms for human consciousness, Goethe’s use of the spirit world is more overt. A literal spirit (in this scene, the Devil) is necessary for Faust to gain a greater understanding of the world.

Mephistopheles, now introduced in the human world, transforms from a black dog into human form. He is the Christian Devil when he shrinks away from the form of the crucifix. Again, the play in many ways critiques the decline of European Christendom. The song that Mephistopheles weaves with spirits shows the power of the Spirit of Nature. Just as the beauty of the song hypnotizes Faust, so too does the verse transfix the audience of the play. While Faust sees this Spirit to be of the highest order, the audience now sees that the Spirit of Nature and the Devil are intricately connected. One cannot worship this Spirit without also entering into a pact with Hell. Consequently, Goethe pokes at his own audience, who probably shared many of Faust’s interests and passions.

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