Goethe's Faust

Goethe's Faust Summary

The narrative of Faust begins in Heaven. While angels worship The Lord for his creation, Mephistopheles, the Devil, complains about the state of affairs in the world. Mankind is corrupt, he claims, and he revels in the evil and disaster that he is able to cause. Mephistopheles makes a bet with The Lord that he will be able to turn one of his servants, Dr. Faust, over to sin and evil. The Lord agrees, claiming that Faust will remain a loyal follower.

The play introduces Faust while he sits in his study in despair over his life. He has been a scholar and an alchemist, and he feels as though he has come to the end of all knowledge. Books and chemistry can no longer define his life for him, and he longs to live a life in harmony with Nature and with the universe. He summons a Spirit to come and be with him, but this only reinforces the fact that he is human and not spirit and therefore cannot share the Spirit’s higher knowledge. In his despair, Faust brews a poison to commit suicide. Just as he is about to take the poison, a chorus of angels appears announcing Easter day and stops him from completing the act.

Faust walks outside his town with Wagner, a fellow scholar. Faust describes his passion for nature and for a higher mode of life, but Wagner cannot fathom it. The townspeople celebrate Easter, and although Faust feels that he should be with them, he cannot shake his despair at his current situation. The townspeople crowd around Faust, cheering him because as a young man he and his father helped the people with medicine during a time of plague. Faust, however, feels that he probably did more harm than good with his crude medicines. As Wagner and Faust return home to their studies, they meet a black dog on the road that follows Faust back to his room.

In his study, Faust attempts to find new inspiration by reading the Gospel of John. He begins his own translation of the work, but the barking dog interrupts him. Soon, the dog transforms, and Mephistopheles appears where the dog once was. Faust and Mephistopheles begin a conversation about Faust's work and despair at his current situation in life. To show Faust a taste of his power, Mephistopheles summons a group of spirits that take Faust on a hallucinatory journey while Faust falls asleep. Mephistopheles leaves the study with a promise to return and show Faust more.

When Faust awakens, Mephistopheles returns, this time with a wager. Faust continues discussing his inability to find a satisfying higher power, and Mephistopheles makes him an offer. The Devil promises to serve Faust and to give Faust a moment of transcendence, a moment in which he hopes to stay forever. If Mephistopheles succeeds, Faust must then be his servant for the rest of eternity in hell. Faust takes the wager, believing that the Devil can never give him such a moment. Mephistopheles tells Faust to prepare for their journey, and while Faust does so, the Devil poses as the doctor as one of Faust’s new students arrives for a lesson. The Devil and the Student talk of the student's future learning endeavors, and Mephistopheles tempts him into a more libertine lifestyle. The Student leaves, preparing to abandon his study to pursue women.

Mephistopheles takes Faust first to Auerbach's Cellar, a drinking tavern. He tries to convince Faust that the men there have found their true pleasure; they are men who enjoy their lives in the tavern. Faust is unconvinced, however, by their crude cares and simple lives. Mephistopheles plays tricks on the men. He drills holes in the side of one of the tables and pours wine out of the holes. As soon as one of the men spills his wine, however, flames jump out from the spilled liquid. As they try to come after Mephistopheles and kill him, the Devil transports them into an alternate reality while he and Faust make their escape.

Faust and the Devil then travel to a witch's cave where they encounter two apes brewing a potion in a cauldron. The beasts begin to have fun with Mephistopheles and pretend that he is a king while they are his servants. When the witch returns, she initially does not recognize the Devil but soon sees that he is her master. Mephistopheles makes the witch give a small bit of her potion to Faust, who drinks it. Outside on a street, Faust meets a young girl with whom he immediately falls in love. Margaret, or Gretchen for short, avoids his advances but cannot help and think about the older, noble stranger she met on the road that day.

Faust and Mephistopheles sneak into Gretchen’s room. In her room, Faust realizes that the feelings he has for the girl go beyond simple sexual desire. His feelings are complex, and he longs to be near her. At seeing her bed, he reveres nature for creating such a beautiful creature. When Gretchen returns, they quickly exit, but Mephistopheles leaves behind a box of jewels. When Gretchen finds the jewels, she cannot believe that they are for her, yet she also cannot help but put them on and admire them. Faust orders Mephistopheles to have the two of them meet.

Gretchen visits her neighbor, Martha, to fret over her mother's actions. Her mother, upon seeing Gretchen’s jewels, promptly took them to a priest, who could tell that they were from an evil source. Later, Gretchen found another box of jewels, and Martha encourages her not to tell her mother this time. They answer a knock at the door and discover Mephistopheles disguised as a traveler. He weaves a story for Martha, telling her that her husband has died on his long travels. Martha is both heartbroken and angry at the stories of her husband's licentious life. To put the matter to rest, Martha asks Mephistopheles and another witness to come and legally attest to her husband’s death. The Devil agrees to bring someone, as long as Gretchen will also be present.

That evening in Martha's garden, Gretchen and Faust meet formally for the first time. Faust charms her and courts her. She tells him of her hard life and of how she nursed her sick infant sister until her sister died. Gretchen has no other family except her brother, who is away at war, and her mother. Mephistopheles and Martha also flirt, with the Devil playing a coy game of seduction with her. Meanwhile, when Faust professes his love for Gretchen, she plays a game of “He loves me/He loves me not” with a flower. She lands on “he loves me” and runs to her room. Faust follows her to a summer cabin, where they say goodbye.

Faust, fearing that he will corrupt the girl with his feelings, runs away to the forest, where he lives for a time in a cave. He thanks the Spirit of Nature for giving him such feelings, for now he has a moment and an understanding of life that he does not want to lose. Mephistopheles finds Faust and derides his foolish behavior, hiding from the woman that he loves. He tells Faust that Faust must find this girl, for she pines away for him day and night. Faust, his passion overtaking him, agrees that he must go.

Faust returns to Gretchen, and one night in her room, they discuss his feelings on religion. Gretchen is a faithful Christian, and she knows that neither she nor her mother could accept a man that does not believe the same. Faust tries to convince the girl that he also believes and worships God, but she does not quite believe him. Faust convinces her to allow him to give her mother a sleeping potion, and they consummate their relationship. Soon, Gretchen learns that she is pregnant by Faust. One day, while drawing water from the town well, she hears the girls’ gossip about another girl who had sexual relations and became pregnant. The girl was forced to kill her baby and now lives as a beggar and outcast. Gretchen fears that she will share the girl’s fate. Gretchen prays to the Virgin Mary that the Lord will have mercy upon her.

Faust comes to Gretchen's house to see her and meets Gretchen's brother, Valentine. Valentine has heard of her sister's licentious behavior and has come to exact revenge on the man who impregnated her. He and Faust begin to argue and fight, and Faust plunges a dagger into Valentine’s heart. As he lies dying, Gretchen comes to comfort her brother, but he accosts her as a whore and tells her that she will be damned for her actions. Gretchen runs to the Cathedral to pray, and an Evil Spirit visits her, securing her damnation.

Faust leaves Gretchen to attend Walpurgis Night with the Devil. Walpurgis Night is the one night of the year when all the witches, evil beings, and magic creatures of the world gather on Brocken Mountain. Faust witnesses the revelry of the creatures and begins to dance with one of the witches. Over a fire, Mephistopheles and Faust converse with a group of artists and politicians about the state of the world. Faust sees a vision of Lilith, the mythical first wife of Adam, who threatens to enchant him. He also sees a vision of Medusa, who Mephistopheles warns will seduce Faust and bring no good. As the night ends, Faust sees a small stage set up on the mountain and goes to attend the show.

The play is entitled “Walpurgis Night's Dream” and is a take on Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” The play tells the story of the golden wedding between King Oberon and his wife Titania. Attend the wedding is a panoply of characters, including politicians, artists, figures from mythology, philosophers, and even objects that have come to life. They represent different strains of thought, philosophies, or artistic viewpoints on life. The entire play-within-a-play reflects on the varied academic and intellectual interests of Modernism.

In a gloomy field, Faust learns of Gretchen’s fate. She killed their infant child and was as a result arrested. He falls into a new kind of despair and curses Mephistopheles for creating this unhappy and unholy affair. Mephistopheles reminds him that it was he, Faust, who made the pact. Faust orders the Devil to take him to Gretchen's jail so that he can free her. Mephistopheles brings horses, and they ride towards the village, although the Devil warns Faust that both the authorities and avenging spirits are in the town, ready to take their vengeance on Faust for murdering Valentine.

Faust sneaks into the jail and finds Gretchen. She has devolved into insanity, and she does not recognize Faust, instead mistaking him for her executioner. Faust pleads for her to escape with him, but her own sense of guilt and shame, as well as the prospect of the despairing life that she will live outside of the jail, prevents her from escape. As Gretchen surrenders her soul to the judgment of God, Mephistopheles enters to tell Faust that they must leave or be caught by the authorities and suffer the same fate of execution. Faust and Mephistopheles flee from Gretchen's cell as she cries out his name.