A Street (II)
Back on the street, Mephistopheles tells Faust of their plan to meet Gretchen in the garden that evening. Faust finds the plan exciting, but the Devil tells him, “Something of a quid pro quo will be required.” He tells Faust that all they have to do is tell the widow Martha that her husband is dead and buried in Padua. Faust thinks this should be easy enough and tells Mephistopheles that they should hurry and make the journey to see the body for themselves. Mephistopheles curses, “Sancta Simplicitas!” and tells him just to say it and not make “a fuss.”
Faust tells the Devil that if they do not make the journey, their plan is worthless because he cannot lie about such an important matter. Mephistopheles taunts him, calling him a holy man and the “image of a saint.” He asks Faust, “Is this the only instance in your life / that you have borne false witness?” He reminds Faust that just a little while ago, Faust dared God and the world with his “brazen face and swollen chest.” Faust calls Mephistopheles a “sophist and a liar.” Mephistopheles reminds him of his great love for Gretchen, about how he will express his undying “faith and love eternal” to her in the garden, and about his burning “ardor” for the young girl. Faust admits the truth of his companion’s words and says that such love cannot be a “devil’s game of lies.” He decides he must lie to the widow in order to achieve a higher cause.
That evening, Faust and Mephistopheles enter Martha’s garden to testify to her husband’s death. The scene opens with Gretchen holding Faust’s arm and Mephistopheles and Martha walking and talking together. Martha puts on an attitude of humility with Mephistopheles. Traveling gentlemen, she tells him, become accustomed to whatever women they can find on the road, so she does not feel that his advances towards her are real. She laments that the life of a traveling bachelor is one of dismay and despair. Mephistopheles agrees with her and compliments her on the warm hospitality she has shown towards the men. Warming to Mephistopheles, Martha admits, “A bachelor is hard to sway,” while the Devil assures her, “A hearth, a goodly woman of / one’s own, / are worth their weight in pearls and gold.” Martha makes more forward advances, asking him if he had known women in the past and if his “intentions” were ever serious. Mephistopheles admits that he is “sincerely / pained” and that Martha is “very good” to him.
Meanwhile, Faust and Gretchen walk and talk quietly to each other. Faust lavishes her with praise and talk of love. She tells him that she is unworthy of such praise because she is nothing more than a peasant girl with rough hands and a dim wit. He tells her that no learning and beauty in the world compares with her humility and “loving, bounteous Nature.” Gretchen recounts how her household is very lonely, as her father is dead and her brother is a soldier away at war. She had a small sickly baby sister at one time whom Gretchen attempted to nurse back to health, but death eventually overcame the child. Now her household only consists of her and her mother.
Gretchen picks a daisy from the garden and begins to pluck the petals, playing a game in which each petal represents either “he loves me” or “he loves me not.” The last petal is “he loves me,” and Faust is elated. He tells her to “let this flower’s word / be the pronouncement of the gods.” Margaret trembles at the prospect and Faust offers to give himself completely to her until eternity. They clasp hands, and Gretchen runs off. The sky begins to darken, and Mephistopheles tells Faust that they must go.
A Summer Cabin
Gretchen runs into Martha’s house and hides behind a door. Faust runs into the house after her and catches her hiding. Playfully, he grabs her and kisses her deeply. She returns the kiss and tells him that she loves him “with all my heart.” Mephistopheles knocks as the door and tells Faust that it is time to go. Gretchen agrees that she must get home, and Faust offers to walk with her but she declines. They bid each other farewell. When Gretchen is again alone, she marvels at how intelligent Faust is and how “all I can do is stand abased / and nod my ‘yes’ to everything.” She cannot understand what a man like him would see in a lowly girl such as her.
Forest and Cabin
Faust sits alone in the wilderness and pines for Gretchen. He speaks to the “Sublime Spirit,” telling it that it gave him everything he ever desired: “glorious Nature for my kingdom / the strength to feel and to enjoy Her.” Even when things go very badly in the world, the Spirit gives him a cave in which to take shelter. Faust admits that he now knows “that nothing perfect ever can accrue to Man.” He knows that the gods gave him his current companion, Mephistopheles, who “busily fans within my bosom / a seething fire for that radiant image.”
Mephistopheles enters and wants to know if Faust has finished with “this kind of life” in the wilderness. He wants Faust to try something new. Faust is tired of Mephistopheles and wants him to leave. Mephistopheles almost wants to abide by Faust’s wishes, and he says, “The loss of such a mad and hostile fellow / is but a trifling business for me,” for he has other business elsewhere. Mephistopheles reminds Faust that he cured the doctor of his depression and that without Mephistopheles Faust would have killed himself.
Faust tells Mephistopheles that the latter cannot even imagine the “vital power” that Faust receives from living in the wilderness. Mephistopheles, mocking him, recounts how heavenly it must be to live in a world in which “the son of earth is canceled out.” Mephistopheles tells Faust that he cannot keep up the pretensions of his love of nature and that soon a thirst will return to his soul for the things that he cannot have. He reminds Faust of his “sweetheart” sitting alone at home, thinking of him. He reminds him of the love that he felt for Gretchen and says that she is now in utter sadness over his departure. Mephistopheles tells Faust, “I think, instead of playing king in forest groves, / the gentleman might well see fit / to give the squirming little creature / a gift in gratitude for living him.” Faust is upset by Mephistopheles’ words, and he tells the Devil that he even grudges “the Body of the Lord / when her lips approach to touch the Host.” Faust remembers, “In her arms, I need no joys of Heaven,” and that her beauty and simplicity drove out his desires for nature and heaven. Mephistopheles is happy to see Faust long for his love, and he encourages Faust to leave and go find her.
Gretchen sits and spins thread in a wheel while singing a song of loneliness. The refrain of the song laments, “My peace is gone, / My heart is sore; / I’ll find it never / And nevermore.” She uses imagery of the grave to relate how Faust’s absence is like her own death. She longs for his return and knows that even being in his arms is a kind of death.
In the street scene, Faust begins to recognize the cost of his wager with the Devil. His insistence on going to the place where Martha’s husband died is funny to Mephistopheles and ironic to the audience, for a person of integrity has no need to make a deal with the Devil. This scene reminds the audience of Faust’s dismissal of Mephistopheles’ insistence that he seal their wager in a document with his blood. At the time, Faust argued that simple words mean nothing and that his character would seal his fate, but here, Faust has the predicament of his words meaning everything. If he is true to his character and does not lie, then he will never have Gretchen. If he does lie, betraying himself, he will have what he desires. Faust is forced to make a decision about which good is greater, and he chooses Gretchen.
Gretchen’s tale of caring for her dying infant sister foreshadows Gretchen’s own future demise. Again, Goethe contrasts Faust’s disgust with domestic life and the constrictions that it brings with Gretchen’s eternal love within such a realm. Gretchen’s truest expression of love toward her dying infant sister occurs within this domestic picture. Because Faust will not enter such a life, he cannot gain her truest love. Faust’s spirit and his heart are thus at tension, as each instinct leads him in a different direction. The scene is also heartrending because Gretchen’s fate is ultimately that of infanticide, indicating that Faust’s wager will also corrupt her love.
In Gretchen’s simple game of “Love me/Love me not” with the flower, the changes occurring in the characters of both Faust and Gretchen become clear. Because of the impetus of love, both find that they must step outside of their previous bounds of culture, society, or self-imposed despair. Gretchen takes the first steps outside of her sphere of morality and purity, while Faust steps outside of the depression and dissatisfaction that his intellectual pursuits had left with him. He is, for the first time, being led by his heart. The scene is bittersweet for Faust because the very moment that he professes his love and that the world holds an infinite moment from which he would never like to leave is also the moment that he loses his wager with the devil.
The meeting between Faust and Gretchen that takes place in the summer cabin represents a meeting of two worlds. Just as a summer cabin, in Goethe’s culture, is a place of retreat in which the world and nature meet, so too in this scene does Faust’s world meet with the domestic and natural world of Gretchen. In their exchange of love, Faust for the first time sees a meaning in life beyond that of his own selfishness. However, as soon as Faust attains the moment, Mephistopheles appears to break it up. Although Faust has now seen the moment in which he would be able to live eternally and happily, he cannot reach it.
The scene of “Forest and Cavern” is a turning point in the play. Just as the scene in the Witch’s Cavern turns the play towards Faust’s love for Gretchen, now Faust’s introspective reflections in his cavern set up the action for the rest of the play, in which we see each character begin to unravel. In this scene, Faust has retreated because he knows that the wager he has made with the Devil will bring nothing but destruction to Gretchen. Nevertheless, he has found a world beyond his own subjectivity. Love, he now knows, is a feeling of reciprocation between him, another person, and the entire world. Through the gift of love, he sees what it means to take part in the life of the world. He thanks the Spirit of Earth for this gift, a reminder of his original spiritual desire, but he is conflicted about how to move forward. When Mephistopheles appears and reminds Faust of his love, Faust attempts to refute such arguments, saying that he has found his passion here in nature. The statement is false, for what he truly desires is to fulfill his love for Gretchen. Faust’s own conscience torments him because of his voluntary pact with the devil. In this way, the scene reinforces the problems of consciousness from earlier scenes. Faust is caught between living within his own mind and his conception of nature and living in the bounds of a simpler and more domestic life of love and giving. Faust says he begrudges the fact that the body and blood of Jesus is more present for her in the Eucharist than he is, but his words also foreshadow the way in which Gretchen will become a sacrifice for Faust at the play’s end.
The scene of Gretchen spinning at her wheel and singing a song of lost love is a musical scene in the play, and it depicts the beginning of Gretchen’s decline. Just as she sings of lost love being like a venture into death, her song foreshadows her own decline into death and despair. Her song reflects Faust’s speech in the wilderness. His speech is a crisis of conscience for causing her demise, while her song is a desire for a love she knows will doom her.