The story of Faust while inspiring a lot of modern forms of art and expression, also is known to have inspired a great deal of literature, music, and illustration as well as countless interpretations such as Jungian, Freudian, sociological, alchemical, literary, and classical.
Today, many of the classical and Central European themes may be hard for the modern readers to grasp, but the work is still considered as important not only in the field of science and scientific understanding but also in poetic terms as Goethe offers an involved, holistic approach to these areas of study unrelated to our modern view of science as a wholly analytic field but, in tune, however, with some modern thinking.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust is Goethe’s most famous work and considered by many to be one of the greatest plays of German literature is a tragic play and considered by many as the best-known version of the Faust story. It was published in two parts: Faust: The Tragedy Part One (in original Faust: der Tragödie erster Teil) and Faust: The Tragedy Part Two (in original der Tragödie zweiter Teil). However, it was deemed that the play is a closet drama meant to be read rather than performed.
Faust Part One focuses on the soul of Faust, which has been sold to the devil, and Faust Part Two on social phenomena such as psychology, history, and politics.
Faust Part One takes place in multiple settings, the first of which is heaven. Mephistopheles makes a bet with God: he says that he can deflect God’s favorite human being (Faust). This part is comparable to the temptation of Christ in the desert after he has taken 40-day fasting. However, in the play, Faust is striving to learn everything that can be known through questionable pursuits. Another scene takes place in Faust’s study where Faust, despairing at the vanity of scientific, humanitarian, and religious learning, turns to magic for the showering of infinite knowledge suspecting that his attempts are failing. He even attempted suicide but seems to have been enlightened after he hears the echo of nearby Easter celebrations.
Faust goes for a walk with his assistant Wagner and is followed home by a stray poodle that transforms into the devil where they made an arrangement: the devil will do everything that Faust wants while he is here on earth, and Faust will serve the devil in hell. During the time while Mephisto the devil is serving Faust, Faust is so pleased with anything the devil gives him that he wants that moment to remain forever.
Mephisto urges Faust to sign the argument with his own blood, and Faust obliged to sign the contract with a drop of his own blood. Faust then meets Margarete or Gretchen and lured her with jewelry while the devil draws Gretchen into Faust’s arms. They sleep together and in order to spend privacy with Faust, Gretchen poisons her own mother. When Gretchen discovers she is pregnant, her brother Valentin condemns Faust. They had a duel and Valentin falls dead at the hands of Faust and the devil. Then, Gretchen drowns her illegitimate child and was convicted of murder. Faust tried to save Gretchen from death by attempting to free her from prison but failed, and they heard voices from heaven that announced that Gretchen shall be saved.
In this instance, the Bible speaks of the ills that come to man after Adam and Eve committed the sin of disobedience. Prior to sin, the couple had lived in natural splendor although they started doubting the time Satan came and introduced them to the idea of being equal with God (Genesis 3, 1985).
From Cain to Job, and even the Kings of Jerusalem, there had been the struggle to win over men and lands, properties and enemies, as well as the search for spiritual content among the Bible characters. Likewise, men have struggled to be equal with God in the construction of the Tower of Babel, learning as much as they can (Genesis 11, 2007). David himself had to murder Bathsheba’s husband. Although David was condemned, he asked for God’s forgiveness and Bathsheba became his favorite wife (2 Samuel 11, 2005). So much like Gretchen and Faust, David committed sin prior to having relations with Bathsheba.
Faust Part Two is composed of classical allusion, where the romantic story of the first Faust is forgotten. Faust wakes in a field of fairies to initiate a new cycle of adventures and purpose. The piece consists of five acts which are relatively isolated episodes and each representing a different theme. In the end, Faust wins the bet and goes to heaven.
Schopenhauer praised Goethe’s portrayal of Gretchen and her suffering. In Schopenhauer’s discussion of salvation from the suffering of the world, he cited this section of Faust as exemplifying one of the ways to sanctity.
“The great Goethe has given us a distinct and visible description of this denial of the will, brought about by great misfortune and by the despair of all deliverance, in his immortal masterpiece Faust, in the story of the sufferings of Gretchen. I know of no other description in poetry. It is a perfect specimen of the second path, which leads to the denial of the will not, like the first, through the mere knowledge of the suffering of the whole world which one acquires voluntarily, but through the excessive pain felt in one’s own person.
It is true that many tragedies bring their violently willing heroes ultimately to this point of complete resignation, and then the will-to-live and its phenomenon usually end at the same time. But no description known to me brings to us the essential point of that conversion so distinctly and so free from everything extraneous as the one mentioned in Faust,” (Schopenhauer, 1819) The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, §68
Gretchen is like in many instances, the sinners in the Bible that have turned to Jesus later on. These include prostitutes, Mary Magdalene, Zaccheus the tax collector, among others.
It is acknowledged that Goethe has been inspired as well as inspired great bodies of arts and literature so that passages and parallels to Bible stories and accounts could not be avoided. The play has in itself full of struggles between a choice of good and evil and actual actions that depict evil among humans. The unquenchable longing, however for a filled spirit, remained the theme of the play all throughout making it similar to Biblical human accounts.
Genesis, Samuel. Bible (1985). New International Version.
Schopenhauer, Arthur (1819) The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, §68.