Faust hears a knock at his door while in his study. He tells the visitor to come in, and he hears the voice of Mephistopheles. Faust urges him to enter, but Mephistopheles tells him he must say “Come In” three times before he may enter. Once inside, Mephistopheles tells Faust that he will drive his sorrows away. He tells Faust to dress in his nicest clothes so that they may go out into the world for some pleasure. Faust, however, is reluctant because he knows that even in such pleasure, he will feel the pain of his doldrums. He tells Mephistopheles, “I am too old for mere amusement / and still too young to be without desire.” Faust tells him that he wakes with a horror in the morning and lives with it all day. The horror is that he cannot fulfill a “single wish” of his soul. He seeks vainly for rest and for God, but he finds neither. Even Death is not welcome, for Mephistopheles reminds him that he did not drink the poison that he concocted for his suicide. Faust tells him that a “sweet familiar note / drew me from my fearful bog / and deceived the remnants of my childlike faith / with allusions to a gladder day” but that now knowing he will never see that gladder day, he has sunk into a deep depression. Faust curses all things of life and faith, and most of all he curses Patience.
The Chorus of Spirits, invisible to Faust, begins to sing a song of woe. They tell him that they carry the fragments of his shattered world “into the Void” and goad him to “build a brighter world.” Mephistopheles tells Faust that these are his spirits, and that Faust should listen to their advice. Mephistopheles then tells Faust that he has another way out of his depression. He tells Faust that if Faust will “travel at my side / and make your way through life with me,” then Faust will be his servant and slave, allowing him to glimpse all the secrets of the world that he now does not know. Faust asks what Mephistopheles will gain in return for his years of servitude, but Mephistopheles tries to avoid that question. Faust tells him that he knows he is dealing with a devil and that such hellish creatures do not often “do what is useful for another.” Mephistopheles tells him that he pledges to be his servant and slave “here and now” if Faust will then do the same for him in the world beyond.
Faust, without hesitation, tells him that the “beyond” he speaks of does not bother him at all. He wants to “smash this world to bits,” and he does not care what happens to the other world. He takes all his joy from the earth he now inhabits and wants to know all of its secrets, and whatever happens in the next world “is of no concern.” Mephistopheles is pleased with this answer and encourages him to “take the risk” and to commit his life to him. He promises to give to Faust “what no man has ever seen before.”
Faust tempers his expectations, however. He doubts that the Devil can show him anything of real importance. Faust conjectures that he will offer him “food which does not satisfy” and riches that do not stay. He will offer him sport with no winner and false love. He will offer him honors that do not last. Mephistopheles contradicts these accusations, telling him that such treasures will be easy to produce but that there will come a time when both will want to revel in the leisure that such comforts bring.
Faust is now ready to make the wager. He tells Mephistopheles that he will never take such leisure. He knows there are too many mysteries to be solved and too much wonder to behold and that if he ever finds “satisfaction in myself / if you bamboozle me with pleasure, / then let this be my final day! / This bet I offer you!” Mephistopheles eagerly agrees to the wager, and they shake on it. Mephistopheles, however, is not content with a simple handshake. He desires a legal, signed document to seal their fate. Faust finds it amusing that the devil would want a binding document and he is reluctant to give it at first, saying that he is a man who keeps his word. Mephistopheles wonders why Faust is so “hot” and angry and tells him “any scrap” of paper will do. All Faust has to do is sign it with a drop of his blood. Faust agrees and tells him that he should not be afraid that he will break his pact because he desires the knowledge of the spirits too much. He desires too much to see the miracles of the world and to experience “the lot of humankind” that he desires to “taste within my deepest self. / I want to seize the highest and the lowest / to load its woe and bliss upon my breast / and thus expand my single self titanically.”
Mephistopheles tells him that he has never quite met a man with such passions and that he might be disappointed at what he finds. Faust assures him that he wants to take the journey nonetheless. Mephistopheles then has a brief change of heart, telling Faust that perhaps he should find a “poet” to help guide him through the world. The passions of the poet are very similar to his own and if he were to find such a man, he might call him “Mr. Microcosm.” Faust assures him that he has “hoarded all the treasures, / the wealth of human intellect, in vain” and that he knows for sure that his only salvation will come through supernatural means. Mephistopheles relents and tells him that he will see and feel all the pleasures he desires. Faust asks how they must begin, and Mephistopheles tells him that they must leave because there is nothing left for him in this study.
However, he must first deal with his student who has come prepared for a lesson. The Devil tells him that he will deal with the boy, and, donning the scholar’s cap and gown, he tells Faust that he will dispense with the student in “fifteen minutes’ time.” Faust leaves. Mephistopheles, speaking only to himself, divulges his secret plan. He says that he will “drag” Faust “through the wasteland of mediocrity. / Let him wriggle, stiffen, wade through slime, let food and drink by dangled by his lips / to bait his hot, insatiate appetite.” In the end, Faust will tell the Devil that he has been satisfied, and he will then “perish miserably.”
The Student enters and tells the Devil that he is newly arrived and, thinking that Mephistopheles is Faust, desires to study with the man “whose name all speak with veneration.” Mephistopheles tells him that this is the place for him. However, the Student says that already he is thinking of running away because of the coldness of the place and its lack of joy. Mephistopheles tells him that this is simply because he is not acclimated to the scholarly life and that if he puts all of his energies into his studies, he will soon find his place. The student tells him that he desires to study all of “the things of nature and of science” and Mephistopheles gives him a speech about the rigors of academic training. He must learn to “duly classify all things.” He tells him to first tackle logic and then metaphysics and that he must declare a discipline.
The student tells him that he is unsure about which course to follow. He says that he does not like law, and Mephistopheles agrees that the laws of man are nothing but a “pestilence.” The student suggests theology, but the Devil tells him that this is probably a “false direction.” Mephistopheles suggests the study of literature and words for “then you will securely pass the gate / into the temple-halls of certainty.” The student asks him if words do not harbor ideas, but Mephistopheles assures him that “where no thought is present / a word appears in proper time.” The student then suggests medicine, and Mephistopheles decides he is tired of playing the scholar.
He once again takes on the guise of the Devil and tells him that medicine is easy: “You study through the great and little world, / in order in the end to let things be / exactly as the Lord desires.” Medicine is vain, and the only way to be “the man of the hour” is to become familiar with women and to give them pleasure. The Student likes this train of thought and asks to “drink more deeply from your wisdom,” to which the devil obliges. He signs the Student’s autograph book “Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum” (You will be like God, knowing Good from Evil). The Devil tells him finally to “Follow the ancient words and also my cousin the / snake. / That godlike spark will have you quaking / soon enough.” Faust enters, and the scene ends with both leaving the room in a “fiery air” that takes them from the earth.
This is the most crucial scene of the play, as it enacts Faust’s bargain with the devil for his own soul. Faust makes the transition in this scene from the Christian man of the Renaissance to the post-Christian man of the Modern world. He thus encapsulates what Goethe sees as the condition of humanity during the Modern era.
It is important to note that Faust does not make a bargain with the Devil, implying that each will get something from each other, but instead makes a wager. The wager is that the Devil will accompany him through the world in order to produce for him a moment of bliss and contentment in which he will never want to leave. If Faust is able to experience such a moment, then Faust will have to become the Devil’s companion for the rest of eternity. If Faust does not experience such a moment, then he is free. Such a wager demonstrates the deepness of Faust’s despair. Faust considers his inability to fuse with the life of the universe to be his own personal hell. In a way, Faust is damned either way in the wager.
Faust’s wager with the Devil represents the break of Christendom with the secular world. Mephistopheles represents this world of Christendom, dating back to the Emperor Constantine and continuing into the Renaissance and the Protestant Church’s break with Catholicism in the sixteenth century. In this world, there are physical things that can provide pleasure and satisfaction to humanity. When such physical things occur in excess, confession and sacraments exist to bring people into right relationship with God. Faust, however, represents a newer world. Faust is entirely sure that physical pleasure will never be able to satisfy him. Faust’s life is subjective, and his inability to satisfy his mind represents the ultimate dead end of philosophy and of human endeavors of learning and comprehension.
The use of the number three is notable in this scene. Three is a number of religious import in the Christian tradition, often symbolizing the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Mephistopheles must ask three times if he can enter Faust’s study. In one part of the scene, Mephistopheles is also forced to ask Faust three times for his soul, an allusion to Peter’s betrayal of Jesus in the Gospel accounts. This use of numbers demonstrates the free flow of meanings and significance between the spirituality of Christianity and paganism, as well as an important fact about Faust’s medieval world. Such a world, while fully a part of Christendom, was not as orthodox as one might think. A free cultural exchange existed between religious and pagan ideals, and Faust’s character represents a break with this exchange for the more rigid culture of logic and dogmatism of the Modern era.
At issue in this scene is the central tension of the play, the conflict over the mind/body dualism of the Christian and the post-Christian age. Goethe asks his audience to consider whether one can pursue this life, free from the moral and sacrificial constraints of the Christian age, without it turning into a life of sin and debauchery. As the reader will see, the answer that Faust gives is mixed. On the one hand, we see the modern man, represented by Faust, as a supremely unhappy being. On the other hand, his wager with the Devil does not provide a resolution either, although it does illuminate the power and passion of love in Faust’s heart. One could argue that Faust’s position in the play ultimately represents one of nihilism and defeat.
The closing event of this scene, Mephistopheles’ conversation with the student, is the first of three successive scenes meant to provide comic relief after the intensity and despair of the play’s beginnings. On one level, this scene is a parody of academic culture in Goethe’s day. The student arrives, eager to learn from an intellectual superior, only to become gradually aware that the intellectual superior is unhappy in his own scholarly pursuits. The student feels this tension almost immediately. On another level, the scene shows how easy of a time the Devil has in the world of such intellectual pursuits. After only a brief conversation, the boy is ready to give up his study for more fleshly pleasures. The student, like all students and their teachers, is easily persuaded towards the less noble aspects of life. His world becomes relativistic, and if these academic disciplines have no ultimate meaning, then morality and social structure mean nothing either. The signature in the student’s book alludes to the Garden of Eden scene in the second and third chapters of the Book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible. The student reenacts this scene, choosing evil over nobler, though more unsatisfying, intellectual pursuits.