Goethe's Faust Summary and Analysis

Prologue in Heaven

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Summary

Faust opens with a conversation between The Lord and his four servants Raphael, Gabriel, Michael, and Mephistopheles. Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael are all angels of heaven and begin the play by praising The Lord’s creation. Raphael praises the sun, extolling the way it “intones (The Lord’s) ancient song.” Gabriel praises the “earth’s full splendor” and how the rivers and the sea reflect The Lord’s power. Michael speaks of the fury of creation, how storms and lightening tear across the face of the earth and, yet, “O Lord, your messengers revere / the gentle movement of your day.” The three angels then praise all The Lord’s creation as “glorious.”

Mephistopheles is introduced. He gives The Lord his own update on the state of earth, yet his does report not praise The Lord. He tells The Lord, “I waste no words on suns and planets, / I only see how men torment themselves.” Things would have been easier for humanity if they had not gotten a glimpse of “celestial light” and that now man only uses his gift of reason to be “more bestial than the beasts.” Mephistopheles calls humanity a “grasshopper” and he wishes man had never “left the grass / to rub his nose in imbecility!” The Lord does not understand why Mephistopheles only sees the wrong things of earth, and Mephistopheles assures him that he only finds the things that are “thoroughly / revolting.” It is so bad that he pities mankind’s plight.

The Lord then asks Mephistopheles if he knows of his servant Faust. Mephistopheles says he does and that he knows Faust serves The Lord in “peculiar ways.” The Lord assures him that even if Faust is not currently a dedicated servant, in the end he will be clear in his service to The Lord. Mephistopheles makes a bet with The Lord that the latter will “lose him in the end.” The Lord takes the bet and tells him that as long as Faust is alive, Mephistopheles can “lead him downward on your road.” The Lord is confident that in the end Faust will be a true servant of goodness and glory.

The Lord tells his servants that he is glad to give freedom to the rogue Mephistopheles because mankind becomes self-satisfied too easily. The Lord is “pleased to give (man) a companion / who must goad and prod and be a devil.” Mephistopheles ends the Prologue by saying to himself that it is good to see The Lord because he is very decent to “be so human with the devil.”

Analysis

Goethe’s Faust is based around two supernatural wagers. The first of these wagers occurs in the Prologue and sets up the overarching conflict of the narrative. The scene opens in heaven with two contrasting visions of the world below. The angels give God a report that his creation is beautiful. They paint scenes of the powerful forces of nature and the ways in which God’s magnificent creation reflects his benevolence and glory. Each angel represents a particular cyclical process of the earth: the sun, night and day, and the power and calm of weather. All of these connote the completeness of God’s creation and God himself. Mephistopheles, however, offers a different view. His viewpoint comes not from a view of nature but that of humanity. Mephistopheles does not look at the world and see beauty and goodness; instead, he looks at the world and sees the misery of humankind.

God’s argument with Mephistopheles comes from his divine belief that, in the end, humanity will transcend the evil of the world and be faithful to their creator. God brings Faust into the conversation as an example of such goodness. Mephistopheles is skeptical that Faust is that good of a servant to God, and the two make a wager for Faust’s soul. This scene in heaven is an alternate telling of the story from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Job. In the biblical story, Satan makes a wager with God over God’s servant Job. Satan is sure that he can make Job curse God, but God has faith that Job will remain loyal to him. Satan then destroys everything in Job’s life, taking his possessions, family, and health. Job, however, does not curse God and in the end receives God’s double blessings.

As in Job, the overarching theme of Faust is a reflection on the essential characteristics of human nature and the relation of human nature to the divine. The Prologue takes place out of the realm of human nature, suggesting that higher powers are ultimately responsible for the salvation or damnation of human souls. Nevertheless, throughout the play, Faust’s interior struggles between his desire for power and knowledge and that of his better self constitute a major tension in the narrative.

Goethe also raises the question of the humanness of God. In contradistinction to the omnipotent and omniscient God of Calvinism and the Protestant Reformation, Goethe’s God displays very human characteristics. God must have his own faith in humanity in order to make the wager with Mephistopheles, and the reader understands that the drama of the play depends on whether God’s gamble does or does not pay off. Even Mephistopheles notes that he enjoys conversing with God because of God’s humanness.

The Prologue also has some political symbolism. Scholars have noted that one should not take the scene as a theological statement of God’s relation to man, but rather as a political allegory. The feudal court, over which a benevolent God reigns, is a staple theme in Renaissance drama, and Goethe borrows from those themes here. By this reading, God is the king, and Mephistopheles, instead of playing the part of a powerful evil creature, is more of a court jester meant to entertain both the audience and the king.