The scene opens in the Harz Mountains with Mephistopheles and Faust climbing on a narrow road. Mephistopheles offers a magic broom to help Faust climb, but Faust says he would rather walk. Faust says he feels the power of Spring filling him, but Mephistopheles says he feels nothing but winter in his belly. Mephistopheles calls out to a Will-’o-the-Wisp and tells it to keep straight. It tells him that it is used to a “zigzag way of life” and that with all the “magic-mad” commotion of the mountain on this night, it may not be able to keep the Devil’s command. The three then sing a song of the glory of nature below them in the valley. They sing the praises of the forest, the cliffs, and the animals. The song takes a dark turn, telling of snakes and curling roots, and sets the foreboding scene.
Mephistopheles tells Faust to hold on to him as they reach a central peak where they can observe the madness of the night. Faust observes the light of the fires and the spectacle of the crowds. He marvels, “The mountain wall from top to bottom / ignites and seems on fire.” Mephistopheles boasts, “Has not Sir Mammon lighted splendidly / the palace for this great occasion?” Faust sees witches race through the air, and the blast from their flight almost knocks him down. The Devil tells him to hold on to the mountain’s rocks in order not to fall. The entire mountain comes alive with the voices of witches and wizards.
They sing songs and rhymes of the night and of magic. One of the witches is caught in a ravine because she is only a half-witch without the magic to fly. The other witches tell her that if she does not fly tonight, she will be caught in the ravine forever. Mephistopheles finds the witches’ songs delightful and prepares for his own grand entrance to the festivities. They climb into a hidden brush to observe the scene again, and Faust tells the Devil that he would prefer to be on a higher peak with the “crowds advancing to the Evil One,” so that he will know the answers to many riddles. Mephistopheles tells him they will stay where they are and admire all the fires.
Faust asks him if they will join the festivities and whether the Devil will go as a wizard or witch. Mephistopheles tells him that on this night he will enter as himself. The two run into a group of professional men: a general, a minister, a parvenu, and an author. They lament, remembering the world of old when men were noble and governed the world in a better way. A Peddler-Witch greets them trying to sell novelties: a dagger that has killed a man, a cup filled with poison, a gem that tempted a young woman, and a sword used in battle. Mephistopheles tells the witch that they only want new things because “What’s done is past! What’s past is done!”
Faust then sees visions of spirits. He sees a beautiful woman in the distance, and Mephistopheles tells him that she is Lilith, Adam’s first wife. He tells Faust to be careful of her hair because once it has ensnared a man, it will not easily let go. A Proctophantasmist appears and mocks the “shameless mob” who dances around with spirits. He is enlightened and cannot pity such foolishness. Faust dances with a witch and tells her that the Proctophantasmist could appear anywhere to censure the fun of spirits and witches. They tell the Proctophantasmist to go away because he bores them. Mephistopheles also makes fun of the man, saying that he will now go “squat upon the nearest puddle -- / in this manner he relieves his trouble; / and when the leeches gorge themselves on his / behind / he will be cured of spirits and of mind.”
Faust suddenly sees a “pale and lovely child” coming towards him. She has the body and face of Gretchen, and he feels a rush of ecstasy. Mephistopheles warns him that this is Medusa and that any man that looks upon her will turn to stone, but Faust cannot avert his gaze. Mephistopheles finally diverts his attention by showing him a small stage and curtain. Servibilis appears and tells them that an amateur theater company will begin a play in a moment and that he will be “an amateurish curtain-raiser” for them. Mephistopheles is pleased to see Servibilis and his theater company.
This scene reenacts the play that Faust and Mephistopheles leave the fray of Walpurgis Night to view. Goethe calls it an “Intermezzo.” The scene opens with the Theater Manager (Servibilis from the previous scene) opening the play and calling all to rest; the “‘Ancient hill and greening vale’ / is all the scenery required.” The Herald announces a Golden Wedding Feast for King Oberon and Queen Titania, who have been married for fifty years. Puck and Ariel arrive to celebrate. The King and Queen have a tenuous relationship, however, for he pouts and she is cross. An Inquisitive Traveler cannot believe that Oberon is here before his eyes.
The scene introduces an entire cast of characters as participants in the play. Each character represents a particular social class, a school of thought, a section of the contemporary literature scene, religious zealots, or philosophical opponents of Goethe. Each speaks four lines that sums up their position or caricatures their beliefs and social status. A group of philosophers, for example, joins the King and Queen. Their ranks include a Dogmatist, an Idealist, a Realist, and a Supernaturalist. A group representing Goethe’s literary rivals joins in the festivities, and their dialogue makes fun of and caricatures their work. Memberss of the working and common classes join the ranks as commentators on the politics of the day. The play closes with Ariel calling all to follow her and join her on the Hill of Roses while “all that was has gone away.”
Faust cries in despair. He has learned that his love, Gretchen, is in prison for her indiscretions. Faust curses Mephistopheles. He cannot believe that the Devil would let such hardship come on a girl who is “given over to evil spirits and to the unfeeling who presume to dispense justice!” He is angry that Mephistopheles has hidden her suffering from him. Mephistopheles only answers, “She is not the first.”
Faust cries out to the “Infinite Spirit” to change the Devil back into a dog or a snake and “make him crawl on his belly before me.” Faust is angry with God for not letting Satan, the first one cast into the “bottomless wretchedness,” take enough of the blame for the guilt of everyone who has committed evil. He curses God for doing nothing but grinning complacently “at the fate of thousands.”
Mephistopheles becomes angry at Faust’s rant. He tells Faust that the weakness of mortal men is that they “wish to fly and yet are prone to vertigo.” He points out that it was Faust who wagered with the Devil. Faust again cries to the Spirit to rid him of this evil monster that is always with him. He begs Mephistopheles to save the girl, but Mephistopheles warns him that he can neither “undo the bonds of the Avenger, nor draw back the bolts,” for Faust and not he had damned her. Faust asks Mephistopheles to take him to the prison so that he may free her. The Devil warns him that the “blood-guilt” still reigns in the city and that spirits guard the place while waiting for the murderer’s return, but he agrees to take Faust. He also agrees to “befog the jailer’s senses” while Faust grabs the keys and releases her. Then, magic horses will whisk them both away.
Faust and Mephistopheles ride horses through an open field. Faust spies a coven of witches performing some act on the Raven’s Stone, where executions normally take place. They are “sprinkling and murmuring spells,” but Mephistopheles tells Faust to pay no attention to them.
Faust enters Gretchen’s prison cell with keys and a lantern. He feels “all the misery of Man” at being in a place where his love is captive. He comes close to her door and hears her singing a song about a mother who put her daughter to death, a father who “fed” on the flesh of his daughter, and the girl’s little sister who buried her. The girl then became a bird and flew away. Faust unbolts the prison door and walks in. Gretchen yells because she believes he is the hangman who has come to execute her.
Faust tries to convince her that he has come to set her free, but she is delusional and continues to believe he is the hangman. She pleads with him, showing him how young she is. Faust is in misery at hearing his love in such pain. Gretchen asks to nurse her baby once more and says the guards told her that she killed it. Faust falls to his knees, exclaiming, “Your lover, kneeling at your feet, / has come to free you from your chains.” Gretchen agrees that they both should kneel and pray to the saints. Faust yells her name.
Gretchen hears Faust’s voice and, calling for him, finally believes that he has come for her. She now believes that she is safe, but she still resists running out of the dungeon cell with Faust. She asks him if he has forgotten how to kiss since he has been away. She tries to kiss him but feels his cold, clenched lips.
They continue speaking. Gretchen tells Faust, “I killed my mother / drowned my child; / was it not a gift for you and me?” Faust begs her to “Let the past be past. / You are killing me!” but she begs him to stay amongst the living so that he can bury her. After continuing to argue, she tells him that she cannot leave because she has no more life. “It’s misery to go begging, / and with a guilty conscience too.” She begs him to save their child, giving him directions to the pond where she threw it in the water. Faust decides to carry her out of the cell, but she commands him to put her down. The day begins to break, and she remembers how the day “was meant to be my wedding day!” She compares the day of her wedding with this impending day of her death, describing the crowds that would gather and carry her through the streets. Now, all the crowds will be there for a different purpose.
Mephistopheles enters and tells them that they must leave, or else they will both be caught and killed. Gretchen sees the Devil and cries in terror because she believes the Devil has come for her. She surrenders herself to the judgment of God. Mephistopheles tells them that they must come or he will abandon them both, but Gretchen has fallen into holy delusions, calling for Angels to gather about her and save her. Mephistopheles pronounces, “She is condemned!” but a Voice from above answers, “Is saved!” Mephistopheles vanishes with Faust, and a last voice from the dungeon cries out Faust’s name: “Heinrich! Heinrich!”
Faust’s transformation completes in these closing scenes. Throughout the play, Faust is a man who has to make difficult choices. He has chosen between life and death, as well as between morality and immorality, and now he chooses between the good of love and evil. In “Walpurgis Night,” Faust chooses evil. Instead of staying with his love and suffering his punishment for her salvation, he goes away with Mephistopheles to participate in the Devil’s world.
“Walpurgis Night” is a complicated scene for modern readers because it works on several different levels, one of which must be understood in the cultural and intellectual context of Goethe’s day. On the first level, the scene switches between motifs of comedy and tragedy. Mephistopheles’s and Faust’s journey up the Brocken Mountain contains many comical elements that become apparent in the play’s staging. The playfulness and dancing of the witches entertains as much as it terrifies. The scene is also tragic, however, because both Faust and the play’s audience see the dark, evil world without redemption into which his wager has thrown him. Faust gives himself up completely to Mephistopheles’ sideshows. Faust dances with a witch, he marvels at Lilith and Medusa, and he talks with a group of men who are also damned.
On a deeper level, the scene is also a satire of the intellectual culture of Goethe’s day. Faust interacts with several groups of characters who participate in the Walpurgis Night festivities. Each portrays and caricatures particular political or intellectual sectors of Faust’s post-Christian world. Many of these encounters criticize the French Revolution, which Goethe saw as the greatest evil of the modern age. The Revolution was the result of an idealism that was rational thought taken to its extreme end.
The end of “Walpurgis Night” marks a stark transition. Faust sees a stage set up in the middle of the festivities, and he and Mephistopheles are invited to come and watch a play. What ensues takes the play’s audience further away from the reality of the preceding story. Goethe models his play within a play on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the play uses similar structure and themes. Using quatrain poetic lines, an ensemble of characters appears and exits, each using terse language to describe particular ideas. Philosophers, theologians, politicians, and even inanimate objects all appear to state their opinion or their viewpoint of the world. Both the array of characters and the ideas that they represent confuse the reader while simulating the insanity and commotion of the eighteenth-century intellectual world. No one, Goethe suggests, has the whole truth because no one seems to understand what others are saying.
The end of the play returns to the Faust and Gretchen narrative. Faust awakens from his Walpurgis Night’s Dream to realize that he has committed a terrible sin. By choosing to accompany Mephistopheles, he has damned his love to her death. Faust’s cursing of God reminds the reader that God’s nature has been in question since the beginning of the play. Faust has made his own determination of God’s goodness, and the audience is left with a theological question: either God is cruel and has allowed Faust’s wager to damn both him and Gretchen, or else God is not all-powerful and could not stop the chain of events. In Faust’s post-Christian world, the latter option is a possibility. Months have passed since Faust fell into his hellish dream, and in the meantime, Gretchen has borne their illegitimate child, killed the child to avoid becoming a societal outcast, and been arrested and sentenced to death. Faust rushes back, with Mephistopheles’ help, to her jail cell in order to rescue her.
Gretchen’s fate is the great tragedy of the play, as the day of her execution was to be her wedding day. Instead of living a happy, full life, she becomes the sacrifice for Faust’s chance at enlightenment. What seemed to be Faust’s salvation, his realization that the world holds the means of grace through love of another, instead causes Gretchen to be condemned. The play reveals an ending that the reader might not expect. Although the reader knows the play will be a tragedy, Faust is not immediately condemned to a physical hell, unlike in the popular Faust legends. Instead, in a development that remains consistent with the philosophical themes of the play, Faust is until his death condemned to a personal hell as the result of his wager with the Devil. He has experienced grace through Gretchen’s love, and he knows that it exists, yet he is condemned never to experience it again. He will live with the knowledge that he caused the death of his love and that he will never again have his blissful moment of union with Nature and the world.