Goethe’s Faust, an 1831 dramatization based on a traditional theme, explores that restless intellectual and emotional urge that was expressed most fully during the European Romantic movement, to which Goethe was a major contributor.
In Part I of the work, Faust states a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, and tells the tragedy of Gretchen, whom Faust seduces.
The second part of Goethe’s work, written over a long period of his later life, reflects his own transition from a predominantly Romantic to a wider world-view and touches upon more extensive themes, including the values of Classical times, as it moves towards a resolution.
You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.
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Table of Contents
Plot Summary Part 1
A German scholar who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power, violates God’s trust in him, but nonetheless goes to heaven.
The poet Goethe seeks inspiration from his deceased friends as he once again takes up work on the Faust poem after having put it away for several years.
He begins with a “Prelude in the Theater,” a dialogue between three characters: a Director, who wants to put on an action-filled play that will draw large audiences; a Poet (playwright), who argues for a play that presents lofty ideas rather than cheap thrills; and a Comedian (actor), who claims that both goals can be achieved if there is good writing and convincing direction.
Prologue in Heaven
The Devil, Mephistopheles (called Mephisto), goes to heaven for a visit with the Lord, who is surrounded by his archangels, Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel. The three angels rejoice in God’s perfection, but Mephisto argues that despite this perfection, humankind is unhappy.
Human misery, according to Mephisto, comes from one’s “Reason” (i.e., intelligence), which serves only to make people see that they are little more than animals.
When Mephisto asserts that humans are in despair because they do not understand the secrets of the universe, the Lord mentions the elderly scholar Dr. Heinrich Faust as a model of humanity whose restless desire to understand will eventually lead him to the truth.
Seeing an opportunity to destroy a human being, the Devil bets that he can tempt Faust away from the path of righteousness, thereby dragging Faust down into hell with him. The Lord accepts Mephisto’s wager, but predicts Faust will resist the Devil’s temptation.
It is the 16th century and Faust, a 50-year-old doctor of philosophy, medicine, law, and theology, sits alone in his cluttered Gothic study at night, frustrated by his inability to understand the universe. In a desperate attempt to uncover answers about life, Faust decides to take up black magic.
But his thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of his assistant, Wagner, who believes that knowledge is an end in itself, and thinks that if he were able to memorize the encyclopedia, he would become a wise man.
Faust, however, knows that knowledge is useless unless it helps people understand the meaning of life; for him, it has no inherent value of its own. When Wagner departs, Faust contemplates suicide as a means to end his despair, but gives up the idea when the early morning ringing of church bells reminds him that it is Easter.
In the afternoon, Faust and Wagner stroll outside the city gate, enjoying the crowds of people on Easter Sunday. Faust says he would gladly exchange his material pleasures for magical powers. A black poodle that follows them home to Faust’s study turns out to be Mephisto in the form of a dog.
The Devil, satisfied that Faust will now resort to magic in order to find answers to his questions, defines himself as a “spirit of negation” who revels in bringing about sin and downfall. As a force of evil, he is a part of the overall divine system in which good cannot exist without evil.
The next day, Mephisto offers Faust a lifetime of endless wealth and pleasure. Faust refuses, having already discovered that such earthly joys do not satisfy him. Taking another approach, the Devil provokes Faust to reject traditional Christian virtues, and soon afterward the two of them agree to a highly unusual pact: Mephisto will serve as Faust’s servant on earth, but if ever
Faust experiences a moment so enjoyable that he wishes time would stand still, then Faust will die and become Mephisto’s servant in hell. Faust is confident that such a moment will never occur, and so signs his name in his own blood.
Faust and Mephisto fly through the air to Auerbach’s Cellar, a tavern in Leipzig where Faust is able to observe four ordinary men enjoying a carefree life. They then journey to a witch’s kitchen, an ugly lair where monkeys watch over a boiling cauldron.
In a mirror, Faust sees the image of a beautiful young woman, and instantly falls in love with her. After drinking a magic potion prepared by the witch, Faust looks many years younger, and Mephisto promises to lead him to the woman in the mirror.
While walking in the street, Faust sees the young maiden he saw in the mirror. Her name is Margaret, but she is known as Gretchen. When she refuses Faust’s advances, he agitatedly orders Mephisto to take her a gift of jewels.
Alone in her room, Gretchen sings an innocent and charming song about a king in Thule who was faithful in love. That evening, when Faust and Mephisto finally visit Gretchen in the garden of her neighbor, Martha Schwertlein, Gretchen confesses that she loves Faust deeply but cannot imagine what he sees in her.
Though tormented by an uneasy feeling that he may bring harm to Gretchen, Faust determines to pursue her, no matter what the cost.
Alone in her room, Gretchen sings the melancholy “Spinning Wheel” song in which she reveals that her peace of mind has vanished and that she longs for Faust’s caresses. When she meets with Faust again in Martha’s garden, Gretchen quizzes him about his religious beliefs, and he replies that he cannot say for sure what he believes.
Gretchen fears that Faust does not believe in Christ and that Faust’s companion, Mephisto, is evil. Faust gives Gretchen a sleeping potion for her mother so that he and Gretchen can spend the night together, undisturbed by the mother.
The next morning, Faust cruelly abandons Gretchen so that he and Mephisto can pursue other adventures, and several months later Gretchen finds that she is pregnant. Valentine, her brother, attacks Faust and Mephisto and is killed by them.
With his dying words, Valentine curses his sister for being a whore and predicts a shameful future for her. Gretchen’s mother dies from shock after taking the sleeping potion, and since Gretchen is now responsible for the death of both her brother and her mother, she goes to Mass in an effort to repent, but faints when an Evil Spirit torments her with guilt.
It is April 30, the eve of May Day, a year later. Known as the “Walpurgis Night,” it is a time when witches and devils gather on the Brocken (i.e., the Harz Mountains in central Germany) for their annual witches’ Sabbath celebration.
Mephisto conducts Faust through the orgy of grotesque, eerie creatures, and Faust enjoys the revelry until he sees a phantom that reminds him of Gretchen, with a red line around her neck (“thin as the blade of a knife”).
When Faust learns that Gretchen is in prison for drowning her newborn child and for indirectly causing the deaths of her mother and brother, he angrily denounces Mephisto and prays to God.
Then he insists that Mephisto lead him to Gretchen, whom he intends to free. On magic black horses, Faust and Mephisto fly past the gallows that have been readied for Gretchen’s hanging. Faust finds Gretchen insane in her jail cell; she suddenly recognizes Faust and greets him with joy, but recoils in horror when Mephisto enters her cell.
Faust tries to persuade Gretchen to flee with him, but she resists. Mephisto argues that Gretchen is a condemned woman and that Faust should leave. As Faust and Mephisto take flight, Gretchen is hanged and an angel’s voice calls out that Gretchen’s soul has been saved.
Plot Summary Part 2
Faust and Mephisto arrive at the imperial palace of the Emperor, though Goethe does not explain why they are there, or how they got there. The Lord Chancellor reports that there is injustice in the land; the Military Commander says that his soldiers are resisting the Emperor; the Treasurer proclaims that the country is almost bankrupt.
Mephisto, in his newly appointed role as court jester, suggests that since there is unmined gold buried in the ground, the Emperor should issue paper money that would be guaranteed by the gold.
The Emperor announces the beginning of a carnival celebrating Ash Wednesday and Lent. Figures from Greek mythology are on hand to perform a Masquerade, and Pan, the god of shepherds, creates the illusion of gold rushing from the earth. The next morning, the Emperor—thinking Faust a magician—asks him to summon Helen of Troy and her lover, Paris, to the imperial court.
Mephisto tells Faust that the only way to make contact with the gods is by going through the mysterious Mothers, who live at the earth’s center. Alarmed, Faust departs with a magic key that Mephisto gives him for protection, and soon returns with the two spirits, having fallen in love with the beautiful Helen.
When Faust sees Paris embrace Helen, he jealously strikes Paris with the key. There is an explosion, the spirits vanish, and Mephisto carries away the unconscious Faust.
Back in his study, Faust lies on his bed, still unconscious from the explosion, while Wagner puts the final touches on his newest scientific experiment: he has created an artificial little man-shaped spirit, Homunculus, who lives in a glass vial.
From the moment of his birth, Homunculus speaks like an adult. He floats in his glass bottle over to Faust’s bedside and peers into Faust’s dreams. Claiming that Faust is dreaming of the ancient world and will die if he awakes in his present condition, Homunculus urges Mephisto to transport Faust to the “Classical Walpurgis Night,” a friendly gathering of Classical spirits in ancient Greece.
Traveling across time and space, Mephisto, Faust, and Homunculus arrive at the Pharsalian Fields, a plain in Greece. Faust goes off alone in search of Helen; Mephisto flirts with some erotic spirits; and Homunculus listens to mythical figures who debate the origin of life.
One of the figures tells Homunculus that if he wants to become human, he must look to the sea for the source of life. Homunculus, anxious to become truly “alive,” leaps into the sea and disappears among the nymphs. There he becomes a life spirit who one day may evolve into a real human being.
This act takes place in ancient Greece, immediately after the Trojan War. Helen’s lover, Paris, has been killed, and Helen has returned to Sparta to live in the palace of her husband, Menelaus. Mephisto, disguised as the ugly spirit Phorkyas, frightens Helen and her maids by telling them that Menelaus intends to kill them.
He persuades Helen to seek refuge in the castle of a nearby lord, who turns out to be Faust. The time and place switch from ancient Greece to the Europe of the Middle Ages as Mephisto leads Helen to an enormous Gothic castle.
After arriving, Helen falls in love with Faust, who teaches her to speak in rhyme. They become lovers, and several months later she gives birth to their son, Euphorion, who can walk and talk from the moment he is born.
A few years later, when the energetic youth has grown older, he does not want to remain earth-bound, so he climbs up a cliff and rashly tries to fly, but falls and dies. Helen, saddened by Euphorion’s death, kisses Faust good-bye and vanishes, leaving Faust in despair.
Having lost his lover, Faust now determines to do something worthwhile for humankind: he wants to reclaim land from the sea so it can be used productively. Mephisto believes the Emperor will give them some land if they aid him in his war with a rival.
They help the Emperor win, but the Archbishop claims that the large part of the spoils must go to the Church, not to “that devilish man” (Faust). The Emperor “rewards” Faust by giving him some apparently worthless coastal land that lies submerged underwater.
Faust is now 100 years old. He has reclaimed land from the sea and has converted it into useful property. But he is still dissatisfied. An old couple, Philemon and Baucis, will not sell him their land, and it is the only land Faust does not own in the area.
Faust asks Mephisto to move the couple from the house, so Mephisto burns their house and kills them. Four ancient hags—Want, Guilt, Care, and Need—come to Faust from the smoking ruins. Care warns Faust that Death is coming for him, but Faust remains unafraid, claiming that he has learned much during his life and that the experience of life is more important than understanding eternal mysteries.
She blinds Faust after telling him that mortals remain blind throughout their lives. But though he is now blind, Faust knows that God’s word is all that matters. He indicates that he is happy with his present life and wants to linger awhile with this activity (i.e., the reclaiming of land).
But he had vowed, in his pact with Mephisto, that he would never want to linger on one activity; he thus violates the pact. But Faust, though weary, is also content, and as he utters his final words, he dies. Mephisto is happy that he now possesses Faust’s soul, but while Mephisto is not watching, angels quickly carry Faust’s soul to heaven, thereby defeating Mephisto.
Gretchen, now called Una Poenitentium (the Penitent One), is overjoyed that Faust’s soul has been entrusted to her care, and Mater Gloriosa, the spirit of Eternal Womanhood, invites her and Faust to raise themselves to a “higher sphere” (Paradise). A chorus sings that Eternal Womanhood draws humans ever closer to perfection.
Faust: German scholar disillusioned with life. At the play’s beginning, he is restless, bored, near despair, and feels alienated. Faust symbolizes all of humankind. He sees learning as vain and useless. He has reached a point in life where he will try anything to discover the secrets of life, to be like God. He does not find satisfaction in the world of spirits or in love affairs with Gretchen and Helen of Troy because he always wants more than he possesses. (Scholars give the name “Faustian” to this character trait of an insatiable striving for the unattainable, the perfect, the infinite.) By the end of Part 2, Faust discovers that human growth occurs only when one gives up one’s selfish desires and devotes oneself to others. This awareness redeems Faust and makes him worthy of Heaven’s grace. (Note: Goethe’s Faust is fictitious but is inspired by an actual historical figure, the German magician Johann Faust, c. 1480–c. 1540.)
Mephistopheles (Mephisto): Sophisticated, intelligent, witty, urbane devil who has made a bet with God that he can lure Faust into evil. He claims he is part of a negative force that seeks evil but creates good. Whenever he tempts Faust with evil, Faust reacts by choosing good, and as a result, Mephisto unwittingly becomes an “agent of good” who makes possible Faust’s salvation. He is a firm believer in materialism and skeptical of human values like love, peace, and hope. He is not always cynical or destructive, and he tries to modify Faust’s determined pursuit of Gretchen because he feels pity for her.
Gretchen (Margaret): Beautiful young woman with whom Faust falls in love. She is good-natured, honest, naive, pious, and dutiful. She gives in to Faust’s sophistication, hoping that he truly loves her as she loves him. Crushed by guilt after the deaths of her mother and brother, she becomes insane and drowns her illegitimate baby. Her instinctive horror of Mephisto reflects her aversion to evil. She enters Heaven as a penitent after being executed.
Helen of Troy: The most beautiful woman of all time. She was married to Menelaus (king of Sparta), who was the brother of Agamemnon (king of Achaea). The Trojan War began when Paris, the son of the king of Troy, seduced Helen and took her to Troy as his wife. Agamemnon led the Greek forces to Troy to recover her. (Helen was the face that launched a thousand ships.) After 10 years of war, the Greeks defeated the Trojans by hiding inside the Trojan Horse and entering the walls of Troy. Helen returned to Sparta to live with Menelaus, and this is the period of her life when Faust meets her.
Themes & Ideas
1. Urge for Knowledge
The major theme of Faust is humankind’s driving need to understand the universe and the role of human beings within it. Goethe, who did not believe in orthodox or established religion, shows the Lord’s patience with Faust’s restless inquiries.
Goethe felt that the Church was an unnecessary institution since human salvation depended on one’s individual actions and personal relationship with God. The Lord tells Mephisto that a good human being will always be aware of the right road to travel on his or her journey through life.
For Goethe, human errors are redeemed, and the meaning of life is made clear when one moves from self-indulgence to an awareness of one’s proper place on earth. Humans are free to act, and Goethe argues that even wrong or inconsistent actions (such as Faust’s pact with the Devil) are better than inaction since at least they help to expand one’s knowledge and awareness. Faust, representing all humankind, is able to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, but must make errors before he can learn and grow.
Faust comes to realize that freedom in life belongs only to those who struggle and work for it daily. “Freedom” means being able to act without the often frustrating and hampering limitations imposed by any creed, but it also means the ability to go beyond one’s self and truly grow. Faust discovers that freedom lies in surrendering the self so that one can more fully share in all that life has to offer.
On his quest for spiritual knowledge, Faust has two unexpected encounters with love: a passionate, frantic affair with Gretchen and a calm, relaxed, more mature love affair with Helen of Troy. His relationship with Gretchen is that of a vigorous young man attracted sexually to a young woman.
After abandoning Gretchen to her fate, he feels guilty and makes a belated, unsuccessful attempt to save her. He later develops a passion for Helen of Troy, but his relationship with her ends on a melancholy note with the death of their son and Helen’s withdrawal to the spirit world.
For Goethe, Faust’s final redemption expresses the Lord’s love for humanity, a love that forgives one’s association with evil so long as one ultimately chooses the path to truth. Faust’s soul is received in heaven and entrusted to Gretchen, who truly loves Faust and who will grow with him in the other world.
In Part 1, Faust is frustrated with the mysteries of God’s creation and agrees with Mephisto that human intellect makes one miserable, but by the end of Part 2, Faust agrees with the archangels of the Prologue, who believe in admiring and accepting the Lord’s work without attempting to understand it.
Goethe’s Faust is a challenging but ultimately rewarding read, with its themes of science, religion, and the complexities of human nature.
Reading a play can be difficult, but the notes and footnotes in this edition help to provide historical context and highlight the novel ideas presented in the work.
The sequel, Faust 2, builds upon the themes of the first book and takes readers on a journey through history, philosophy, and the supernatural.
While there are many questions and ambiguities that arise throughout the two books, they offer a unique perspective on the human experience and the search for knowledge and meaning.
Despite the challenging nature of the works, they remain a classic tale that is worth exploring for anyone interested in literature, history, and philosophy.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer born in Frankfurt am Main in 1749. At the age of 16, he started studying law at the University of Leipzig but had to return to Frankfurt due to illness.
During his recovery, Goethe contemplated the meaning of life and read books on astrology and the occult. He resumed his legal studies in Strasbourg in 1770 and graduated in 1771. This marked the beginning of a productive literary period from 1771 to 1775, during which he wrote his famous novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Goethe was part of the literary movement Sturm und Drang, which emerged in the late 1700s, and was considered one of its leaders. This movement emphasized intense emotions and the rebellion of the individual against society. Alongside the poet Friedrich von Schiller, Goethe wrote works that reflected these themes.
In 1775, Goethe joined the court of Duke Karl August in Weimar and held many significant civic and cultural positions. In 1786, during a trip to Italy, he came into contact with the Neoclassicists, who were inspired by the ancient Greeks. This encounter led him to write Part 2 of Faust in a Classical style, which featured pagan and mythological characters, ancient Greek settings, and a serene sense of beauty and order.
Goethe’s other notable works include the novels Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796) and Wilhelm Meister’s Journey (1829), as well as the dramas Iphigenia in Tauris (1787) and Egmont (1788).
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