Martha’s Garden (II)
Faust and Gretchen sit in Martha’s garden and talk. Gretchen asks about Faust’s belief in religion, and he attempts to convince her that he is a religious man who believes in God, but Gretchen is not sure if he tells the truth. Faust goes into a long poetic discussion on God, declaring that He is “The All-Enfolding, / All Sustaining” being who keeps everyone in his arms. After hearing his words, which Gretchen says sound like that of a priest, “though he says it differently,” Gretchen says that what Faust says seems right but that she believes he still has no “proper Christian faith.”
She tells Faust that she is concerned about his companion. Faust asks her why, and she says, “His presence makes my blood run cold / and yet I usually like everyone.” She tells Faust that she feels a “nameless terror” when she is in Mephistopheles’ presence. Faust attempts to reassure her that the man she fears is not dangerous, and he moves the conversation to intimate pleasures. Faust begs to “hang upon your bosom / pressing breast on breast, my soul into your soul.” Gretchen tells him that she cannot do so because her mother is a light sleeper and would hear them. Faust gives Gretchen a vial of sleeping potion and tells her to put a few drops into her mother’s cup. She relents, telling him that something drives her to him and that little else remains for her to give to him. She leaves and Mephistopheles enters, having spied on their conversation. He notes that the girl is quite perceptive to “physiognomy.” Mephistopheles feels “the keenest pleasure” that the girl feels terror when she is around him.
At the Well
Gretchen and her friend Lieschen are fetching water from the well and gossiping. Lieschen relates the latest news on Barbara, a mutual friend. She tells Gretchen that Barbara has become pregnant by a boy that once fawned over her and gave her many presents. Lieschen believes that Barbara acted immorally by strutting around and reveling in her beauty, and “now her flower has been plucked.” Gretchen pities the girl because she has just consummated her own affair, but Lieschen does not: “While girls like us were spinning at the wheel, / and our mothers never let us out at night, / she was cooing with her lover.” Now Barbara atones for her sins by bearing a child while her lover finds another woman. When Lieschen leaves, Gretchen laments that at one time she would have felt the same indignation over Barbara’s sins, but now her own virginity has been taken, and she knows she is now “steeped in sin.” She nonetheless feels heartened by the knowledge that she would not trade anything for the goodness of Faust’s love.
By the Ramparts
Gretchen sits in a niche in the city wall in front of a picture of Mater Dolorosa. She puts fresh flowers in front of the picture and says a poetic prayer, asking for mercy and forgiveness for all her sins. She relates her pain and suffering under the weight of what she has done, for she now knows that she is with child. She longs to be in God’s good graces again and knows that only God will heal her pain. She asks to be saved “from my shame and death!”
Valentine, Gretchen’s brother, has returned from war and stands before the door of his house. He remembers a time when, away at war, the men would drink in bars and toast all of the beautiful women they had seen. Valentine would only raise a glass to his sister and remind all the men that no one could “hold a candle to that girl,” and all of the other soldiers would agree and toast her. Now, upon returning, Valentine has heard the gossip about Gretchen’s affair with another man. He thinks, “I could tear my hair / and dash my head against the wall!” He hears some movement in the alley and sees Faust and Mephistopheles approaching.
Faust tells Mephistopheles that upon seeing the light of his lover’s room, he feels “the flickering flame of the eternal light.” Mephistopheles tells him that he only feels “like a lonesome cat / that prowls about the fire ladders,” and he feels “a little thievish, somewhat lecherous to boot” because Walpurgis Night is only two nights away. Faust asks Mephistopheles if he has seen any jewels that he might steal to give to Gretchen, and the Devil says that he has. Mephistopheles takes out a zither and sings a song that he has written, which depicts a young maid that enters the room of her lover and leaves as “a maid no more.” The song relates the fact that her lover’s “love is brief” and that only “with a ring on your finger” will the man stay.
Valentine approaches the men and smashes the Devil’s zither. He tells Mephistopheles that he will now split the Devil’s head open. Mephistopheles tells Faust to strike at Valentine, and he uses his power to make Valentine go limp. Faust strikes the man and deals him a fatal blow. Mephistopheles tells him that they should disappear and that Mephistopheles can usually handle the authorities but perhaps not a “blood-ban” on Faust because that “is quite a different matter.”
A crowd gathers around Valentine and Gretchen approaches. They tell her that her brother is dying. She comes close to him to give him comfort, but he begins to berate her. He calls her a “whore” and tells her that now that she has given away her virginity to a strange man, she will soon be the whore of the entire town. She will end her days with the lepers and beggars, and even if God can forgive her, she will remain an outcast during her time on Earth. Martha tries to stop his blasphemy, but Valentine calls her a “pimping woman” and tells her that she has dealt his heart “a heavy blow.” He dies.
Gretchen is in the Cathedral at Mass, and the Evil Spirit is behind her, whispering to her. The Evil Spirit asks her, “What has happened to you? / What misdeed / is lodged in your heart?” The Spirit tells her that her mother has died from the shame of her actions and the grief of the loss of her son. Gretchen begs for forgiveness from God and for freedom from the awful dark thoughts that engulf her. The choir in the Church sings a Latin chant telling of the Day of Judgment that all must face before God. The Evil Spirit tells her that her heart will rise “to fiery torture,” and Gretchen pleads for escape. She feels as though she is being crushed under the weight of the Church, and the Spirit tells her that “the blessed turn their faces” from her.
Scholars often term Faust’s speech to Gretchen regarding her inquiries into his religious beliefs “Faust’s Credo,” or his confession of faith. The structure of the poetic language plays an important part in this scene. Goethe switches to a free form verse, which in a sense replicates the varied and unstructured thoughts that Faust attempts to address concerning his faith.
This scene deals with one of the most important philosophical themes in Faust, the tension between the signifier and the signified. Goethe uses this literary and philosophical debate in a theological way, as Faust questions how one can properly name God and the spiritual, as well as whether such words can ever properly signify what they attempt to name. For her part, Gretchen implicitly understands this conundrum, for she resists Faust’s declarations of his spirituality not because it differs from her own orthodox beliefs but because she cannot grasp that which Faust attempts to signify. Gretchen, therefore, represents the disconnect between signifier and signified, as well as the inability of words to rightly name the relation between philosophy, rhetoric, and the natural spiritual world. Although Gretchen is doubtful of Faust’s religious devotion, this scene deepens the intimacy between the two characters, as represented by Gretchen’s use of Faust’s first name, Heinrich.
Significantly, even Faust and Gretchen’s consummation of their affair takes place through Faust’s own deceit. Although he attempts to be honest with her about his religious inclinations, he cannot fully convey the truth because of the barriers of language. In this way, Faust leads Gretchen away from her social and religious sphere into a relationship of which neither she nor her family and friends can approve. She is also complicit in such a move, as she understands that his faith is partly a lie yet offers no real resistance to Faust’s advances. The couple also engages in material deceit, as Faust drugs Gretchen’s mother so that she does not hear their lovemaking. After his temptation by Mephistopheles, Faust takes on the devil’s function as tempter. Mephistopheles approves of their consummation as something he might have engineered himself.
The scene “At the Well” shows Gretchen’s final break with the social world that previously defined her. She cannot decide between the world that Faust offers to her, a post-Christian world without structure or morality in which God and the Spirit cannot be rightly named, and the world of her peasant upbringing. She is pregnant, a physical mark of her separation from morality and the structures of her upbringing. The gossip she hears from her friend at the well only foreshadows Gretchen’s ultimate punishment. Gretchen’s turning point occurs in her prayers in front of the Mater Dolorosa, or Our Lady of Sorrows. Unlike Faust, Gretchen does not reject the world and its religion but instead turns towards it for comfort and the hope of salvation.
Faust kills Gretchen’s brother and thus seals his own fate. The “blood ban” that Faust faces in the city alludes to the mark that Cain received after killing his own brother Abel. This mark set Cain apart from God’s favor for the rest of his life. Faust’s act marks the final and total separation from his previous world. The following scenes show his exile and his decision to remove himself from the moral and religious world. Gretchen’s confession in the cathedral is her act of contrition, but the evil act has already been committed, and the child that is now inside her is her own physical mark of exile, as well as proof that she will soon face judgment.