FAUST – An analysis of the play by Goethe

faust_0This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 11. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 41-49.

The principal contrast between the popular play and Goethe’s Faust is that, in the former, love and enjoyment bring the hero to ruin, while, in the latter, love and activity are his salvation. All the essential elements of the composition are provided by the popular drama; the main difference made by Goethe is that he represents Faust as being at once inflamed by the sight of Helena at the imperial court, for the whole episode of Helena needed to be more compressed; and again, that Helena, instead of being put forward as a temptation of the Devil, is rather represented by Goethe as one of the objects which Faust, in his restless desires, demands from his evil companion. Mephisto chiefly shows himself as a tempter in the fourth act, when he offers the doctor a crown. In the popular drama Faust refuses it; with Goethe he accepts it, but this incident is charged with a fine moral import; Faust accepts the crown, not for the mere sake of possessing it, but to provide himself with a sphere of activity, and in the end his kingdom is his salvation.

The inner connection in the second part is not always quite clear, but we do not notice this when we see all the marvels spread before us. The effect of this second part is that of a phantasmagoria, and, as in an opera or fairy tale, the incredible and magic element makes us less strict in our demands for careful connection and development of the various parts. Each act and scene is most dramatically conceived, and it only needs abridgment to meet the requirements of the stage. While the first part is not divided into acts and scenes, in the second each division has its peculiar tone, and its definite close. We see here the hand of the stage-manager who knows how the multitude must be satisfied, charmed and held in suspense. The poet moves in a motley, fantastic world, in which figures of Classical and Christian religion, creatures of southern and northern superstition, are all mingled together.

Goethe’s Faust savors throughout of the popular sphere in which the story first originated. Yet, in the third act, when Helena appears, the poet realizes somewhat of the grandeur of Greek tragedy. A prose scene in the first part, in which Faust has just heard of Gretchen’s misery, and breaks into bitter execrations of Mephisto, shows the same forcible style as a Shakespearean drama, and sounds as if it might be from Schiller’s Robbers. Passion is arrayed against passion, and the anger of the one side and the scorn of the other wax intense, with no sparing of coarse, strong language. The same overwhelming effect is produced by the scene in the cathedral, where Gretchen succumbs under the feeling of her guilt, and the horrible babel which stuns her. Very noticeable is the contrast offered by this scene to the earlier and more tender one, in which she prays to the Mater Dolorosa.

A few scenes of the first part are marked by a too close attention to detail, by coarseness, comicality, hostility toward clergy and church; in others we are reminded of poems like Prometheus or Ganymede, and are transported to higher spheres, above the level of earthly joys and earthly struggles. In one part a gentle naturalism holds sway; in another we breathe the idealism of Iphigenie. Sometimes naturalism and idealism are mingled or represented in the same scene in different persons.

The two elements are united in the pathetic character of Gretchen, which is essentially a creation of Goethe’s earlier manner, dating from the Frankfurt period of his life. He has never created anything more sublime than this ideal picture of innocence, simplicity, warmth and depth of affection; her maidenly reserve at the outset, the spirit of noble purity which breathes around her, her little world of domestic duties, the truly feminine instinct with which she tends her little sister, the natural grace with which she reveals her feelings, the naïve love of ornament natural to a girl of the people; then, the first shadows which fall on this transparent soul, the misgivings roused by Faust’s bold address, the presentiment of danger and involuntary shudder felt at Mephisto’s presence, her pious anxiety about the spiritual welfare of her lover, her devotion and utter self-surrender to him, her inability to refuse him anything, and, finally, all the fell consequence of her weakness–madness, prison, and death–a fearful transition from the idyllic to the tragical.

Still the charm of innocence clings to Gretchen in the midst of her guilt, and herein the poet shows his wonderful skill; for he does not try to veil or excuse her offense, and yet he fills us with that love of the heroine which purity alone can inspire. The halo of human forgiveness rests on the head of this good soul–as she is called in the second part–who only once erred, and hardly knew that she was erring. In Shakespeare’s Ophelia we have the germ of Gretchen’s character; only Gretchen rises above Ophelia. Most of the Gretchen scenes are somewhat ritualistic in treatment, not so forcible as the scene in the cathedral, and not so tender and affecting as her monologue. The mad scene in the prison is based upon an extravagant youthful sketch, which was toned down by the poet’s maturer art.

Gretchen’s female companions, her neighbor, Frau Marthe, and her contemporary Lieschen, are creations of Goethe’s naturalistic period. So, too, is the famulus Wagner, the philistine counterpart of Faust, and akin to the old Hanswurst. But the first part was completed as far as possible in the style of Goethe’s cultured realism, and in accordance with the typical method of his ripest art, as we find it in Hermann and Dorothea.

The “Prelude on the Stage” contrasts in a typical manner the poet’s vocation and the actor’s. The songs of the three archangels, which open the “Prologue in Heaven,” are an attempt to picture to us the world under its eternal aspects. The suicide scene and the walk on Easter morning afford us typical pictures of human life. The fit of industry which follows, and the affair of the poodle are almost symbolically treated, and Mephisto’s character is developed in accordance with the first outlines of it given in the prologue. The poet now aims at closer connection, more exact determination of time, and greater conciseness. Thus the scene in which Gretchen’s brother appears and falls by Faust’s hand is made to link directly to the Walpurgis-night. The latter was not completed, and the continuation of it afterward suggested by literary satire somewhat lowered this scene in the public estimation.

In the second part typical realism predominates exclusively; only that the realism disappears more and more, and the typical element alone remains, along with a wealth of allegory and personification. The emperor’s court contains nothing but typical characters. Three strong men represent the army of spirits in the fourth act. Three penitent sinners from the New Testament stand by Gretchen’s side, in order to give a typical aspect to an otherwise individualized picture of erring innocence. The figures, drawn either from ancient mythology, or, as in the Walpurgis-night, from the storehouse of Goethe’s imagination, are made extraordinarily characteristic. A free, fine spirit of Romanticism breathes through the scene in the rocky caves of the Aegean sea, where the sirens repose on the cliffs in the moonshine, while Galatea appears in her shell-chariot, inflames the passion of Homunculus, and draws him to his death.

A vein of spurious symbolism may, however, be noticed in the second part, in many utterances which would be appropriate enough if they came from Goethe’s own lips, but are little consonant with the characters in whose mouth he puts them, and in which he either remains obscure or offends where his meaning is understood. The latter may be observed in the character of Euphorion, Faust and Helena’s son, and intended as an impersonation of Byron. Nevertheless, when placed on the stage, Euphorion’s graceful youth charms us, and his death affects us deeply.

There is a certain parallelism between the first and second parts. Notes struck in the one are repeated higher up the scale, as it were, in the other, as we should expect from a writer who sets himself to delineate types rather than particular people. Thus in the first part we have a German Walpurgis-night, in the second a classical one; Wagner, Faust’s former servant, appears afterward as an independent scholar; an inquisitive student of the first part becomes an arrogant bachelor of arts in the second; Gretchen’s wail of despair is turned into a prayer of joy.

This parallelism is most observable in the case of Helena, who occupies the same leading position in the second part which Gretchen does in the first. It is not quite clearly brought out in the drama, but must have been a part of the poet’s original plan, that the two sinning women should be Faust’s good geniuses, who purify and save him from the power of the evil one. Only in the second part we are left to divine for ourselves that the passion with which Helena, like Gretchen, inspires him at first sight, gives way ultimately, like his passion for Gretchen, to nobler feelings. In the drama as it stands there is also considerable abruptness in the sudden transition from Faust as Helena’s lover to Faust as the aspiring sovereign of lands wrested from the sea.

Helena stands in twofold contrast; first to the chorus and then to Phorkyas. Helena is the mistress, dignified in her bearing, self-possessed and calm, even in the presence of death; the chorus, on the other hand, is composed of serving women, whose demeanor is the exact opposite in everything. But though Helena can suffer death with placid dignity, the appearance of Phorkyas fills her with horror; for he represents the extreme of ugliness, as she of beauty. The two, in their opposition, are typical of the great contrast between the beautiful and the hideous which pervades creation. Beauty is everything with Helena; her beauty is her character and her faith. Phorkyas Mephisto, on the contrary, is physically and morally hideous, and delights in all malice and wickedness.

A third contrast may be noticed between Helena and Gretchen. The German burgher-maiden is all unconscious; the Greek goddess is throughout self-conscious; she knows her heart, and feels what is coming, and she acts not from impulse but with full reflection. We cannot believe that Goethe intended in Helena to show us beauty only from its evil side; he must also have meant to show us beauty as good, Helena proving a blessing to Faust. We may venture to surmise that the rousing of his creative activity was the legacy which Helena bequeathed to her northern friend.

Wilhelm Meister and Faust are two characters, who, from the emotional, speculative, critical or aesthetic life, pass, under the influence of denying spirits and ideal examples, to a life of useful labor. Both these figures accompanied the poet during the greater part of his life, and both are comparatively good pictures of himself. He was not able to give the last touches of his art to either of them, but Faust came nearer to perfection than Wilhelm Meister.

The former represents the scientific, the latter the aesthetic tendency of Goethe’s youth. Like Faust, Goethe had in vain sought satisfaction in all the departments of knowledge. Like Faust, he hoped for a short time to find a clue to the mysterious power which binds nature into one whole, in sciences which were of evil fame, in the writings of old chemists and alchemists. Like Faust, he harbored thoughts of suicide. Like Faust, he was not devoid of religious feelings, especially when engaged in contemplating nature as a whole. Like Faust, he had Mephistophelian friends–Merck and Herder, for instance–who made him conscious of his littleness, and thereby gave a stimulus to his efforts. Like Faust, he fell in love with a simple burgher-maiden, and as Gretchen was made miserable by Faust, so Friederike Brion was made miserable by Goethe, though not to such an extent. Like Faust, he always remained conscious of the right path, and though he often went astray, yet he always returned to it. Like Faust, he drew nigh to the Greek gods, and in communion with the immortal creations of Hellenic art and religion found the highest truths dawn upon him. Like Faust, he returned to his northern Fatherland, to a life of activity among his people.

Goethe’s contact with the ancient world bore fruit in Germany, though in another sense than with Faust; he no longer found his vocation in political and social activity, but in science and poetry alone. Then, when a friend of equal intellectual rank inspired him with new joy in creation, Faust was among the first tasks that engrossed him. The classical Walpurgis-night, Helena, and the final studies which underlay the last developments of the poem, date from the period in which he practised his hand in Greek rhythms and revived the Greek gods in poetry.

Faust is not intended to resemble Goethe in all points, but he represents Goethe’s views in all great questions–in the idea that man is meant to struggle, in the conviction of the salvation to be found in hard service, in the maxim which Faust utters when dying, as the last conclusion of wisdom: “He alone deserves liberty, like life, who daily must win it.” Herein he was also in harmony with Schiller, whose Tell declares: “I only really enjoy my life when I win it every day afresh.” Both in Wilhelm Meister and in Faust Goethe prizes activity for the common good more highly than the aesthetic and literary interests. Neither the poet, nor the actor, nor the speculative scholar, he seems to think, can attain in their own spheres to such lofty discernment and to such peace of conviction as the man of action. Thus Goethe recommended in poetry what he himself neglected to do in real life.


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