The scene opens in a small, tidy bedroom. In another room, Gretchen braids her hair and thinks of the “gallant figure” that she met on the street that day. She is sure he was of noble family and is impressed that he would be so bold with her.
Mephistopheles and Faust enter the girl’s bedroom while she is not there. Faust wants Mephistopheles to leave him alone, so the latter exits. Faust, collapsing in a chair next to the girl’s bed, begins to wax poetic about his love and lust for the girl. He tells his image of the girl that he feels “the whisper of your spirit.” The entire cottage, because she is in it, is “doglike” to him. He lifts the curtain over the bed and becomes even more enraptured. The bed, he imagines, is where Nature shaped the girl and “wrought the semblance of divinity.” Faust is critical of himself and his own motives. He admits to himself that he came “to seize the crassest pleasure” but now he is overcome by “dreams of love!”
Mephistopheles reenters and tells Faust that he sees the girl returning to her room. As they leave, the Devil gives Faust a small gift box. The gift was supposed to be for someone else, he tells Faust, but “a child’s a child and a game is a game.” Faust puts the small box in Margaret’s closet, and they begin to leave. Mephistopheles notes that Faust looks sad, “like a student entering the lecture hall.”
When Margaret enters her bedroom, she notes that it feels “sultry” in the room, although it is cold outside. She feels a chill go down her spine. She sings a rhyme to herself while she undresses. The rhyme is about a “king in Thule” who received a golden goblet from his dying wife. When the king came to die, he prepared to give away all his land and possessions except for the goblet. At his final dinner, the king drank his last cup of red wine and tossed the goblet into the sea, yet he did not realize the sadness that would overcome him as he saw the goblet drift away and sink.
Margaret opens her closet and sees the small gift box. She thinks it is perhaps some trinket from a neighbor, but when she opens it, she sees that it is a box of expensive jewels. She is shocked and amazed by the gift and wishes that she could keep it. She laments that the poor, like her, will never have such things because youth and beauty are wasted on them.
An upset Mephistopheles rejoins Faust, who asks him what is the matter. The Devil tells Faust that the jewelry that they gave to Gretchen (short for Margaret) now belongs to a priest. After Gretchen showed the jewels to her mother, her mother immediately knew that “their presence was not wholly blessed.” She forced Gretchen to take the jewels to the priest and to offer them as a gift to the blessed Virgin. When the priest looked at the jewels, he told them that they had done the right thing: “Who conquers self will be rewarded in the end. / The church has always had an iron belly, / has swallowed states and countries now and then, / and yet it never overate.” The priest tells the women that only the church can take in such cursed possessions.
Faust asks about Gretchen, and Mephistopheles tells him that she now “sits and frets,” thinking about the man who might have left the jewels for her. The news troubles and saddens Faust, who tells the Devil to obtain a new gift for his love. Mephistopheles agrees but complains that Faust, in his lovesickness, would “blow away / the sun and moon and all the stars, / as a pastime for his sweetheart.”
The Neighbor’s House
Gretchen’s neighbor, Martha, wails alone over her lost husband because he wanders and roams the earth while leaving her and her children alone in poverty. She worries that he might be dead.
Gretchen enters and exclaims to Martha that she found another box of jewels in her wardrobe. Martha tells her that this time she must not tell her mother or else lose them to the priest again. Gretchen tries on the jewelry and admires herself. She laments that she cannot wear it outside, but Martha tells her that she can begin slowly to wear it to special occasions, and either her mother will notice or they will think up a lie to tell her.
After hearing a knock, Martha opens the door to see Mephistopheles. She believes him to be a “foreign gentleman.” Mephistopheles flatters both of the women to win their trust but then tells them that he brings bad news. He tells Martha that her husband has died. Martha is upset but wants to know of his last hours. He tells her that he was buried in the city of St. Anthony in Padua and that he asked for three hundred masses for his soul. However, he left no gift or riches for his family because he “did not squander money.”
Mephistopheles goads the woman, telling her that she should marry immediately or at least take a lover, but she resists the call. Mephistopheles continues his story, saying that her husband died on a bed of decaying straw and that he “left a number of unsettled scores.” The Devil tells her that her husband cried out that he craved his wife’s pardon for his transgressions. Martha begins to think fondly of her husband, but Mephistopheles adds her husband’s final dying words: “And yet, God knows, she was much more to / blame than I [for his transgressions].”
These words incense Martha. Mephistopheles continues to tell her how her husband raved madly about not having time for recreation and about how he could never eat in peace. He also received a great fortune from a Sultan and spent it all on a lover he took in Malta, making Martha livid at her husband’s indiscretions. However, although Mephistopheles urges her to start looking for a new husband and even offers his own hand in marriage, she declines his advances. As an aside, Mephistopheles whispers that he should probably go or else the woman might agree to his offer.
As Mephistopheles leaves, Martha asks him to bring another witness to her husband’s death so that everything will be legal and official. Mephistopheles says he will return with such a gentleman and asks if Gretchen would also be willing to attend. Martha agrees, and they plan to meet that evening in the garden.
The scene allows the reader to glimpse the character of Gretchen, with whom Faust will fall madly in love. The reader sees a girl of peace and harmony, who represents goodness and purity, as well as the balance between such goodness and the peasant girl position that her life has given her. When she first sees Faust’s gift of jewels, she does not even question whether they are hers or whether she should take them. Goethe creates a character that is above reproach.
The portrayal of Gretchen contrasts with that of the newly transformed Faust, who is a character in inner conflict. One part of him has become the libertine, free from all moral restrictions. He sneaks into Gretchen’s room in order to sleep with her, but once there, he discovers something sacred about his desire and the girl that he has come to see. He repeatedly describes her room in religious terms, while acknowledging the Spirit of Nature. This Spirit once did nothing but confound him, but now he worships it for providing such a beautiful creature. For the first time, Faust sees a world (a limited world) where he might find fulfillment as a human being.
Gretchen and Mephistopheles have a deep distrust and dislike for each other. Gretchen can sense his evil presence, and he finds her cleanliness and aura of morality to be disgusting. Gretchen sings a song of the King of Thule, in which the King remains steadfast to his lover by drinking from a jeweled goblet that she gave to him at her death. At his death, he drinks from it once more and throws it into the sea. The song evokes the kind of constant, lifelong love that a man has for a woman, even if that woman is not his wife. Ironically, Gretchen sings such a song just as she discovers the jewels left for her by the Devil. Gretchen, as per stage direction, is also undressing in this scene, which adds an extra layer of sexual tension. As she finds the jewels while undressed, the audience sees the irony of a girl finding corruption while also displaying an ideal of love and commitment through her song.
The scene at the promenade is a short comic scene meant to show that no character in Goethe’s play, even the pure Gretchen, is immune from the Devil’s temptations. Her mother and the priest are comic representations of religious stereotypes, that of the holy widow and the corrupt church. Gretchen’s mother wants solely to avoid any hint of temptation of pretension or wealth. The priest, who should have the same pretensions, subtly hints that the church will better use the wealth of the jewelry. These characters would have been familiar to an audience familiar with the details of the birth of the Protestant Reformation.
The scene that follows in Martha’s house has a comic sensibility that only cursorily hides the devil’s malice. Intent only on finding a way to bring Faust and Gretchen together, Mephistopheles shows up in the guise of a worldly traveler. The tale that he weaves of the death of Martha’s husband is comical because it is merely an elaborate lie meant to evoke the emotions, first of sadness and then of outrage, from Martha.
This scene contrasts Faust’s life with that of Gretchen and Martha. The backdrop of each scene is important here, as both Gretchen and Martha have their main scenes in the domestic backdrop of their homes. Faust, on the other hand, usually appears in a street or a promenade, an open place of passage in nature or in the city. In previous scenes, Faust has sworn off the constrictions of domestic life, yet in Martha’s deep and forgiving love of her husband, the audience sees the domestic world for which Faust searches, which he can only glimpse in Gretchen’s cramped room. This common domestic world that produces such love is the world that Faust refuses to believe in and has rejected for so many years.