Opening Passage: The work has a dedication and two prologues, but the story proper, of course, has to begin with Faust:
FAUST. I've studied all Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
Also, to my grief, Theology,
With fervent efforts through and through;
Yet here I stand, poor fool! what's more
Not one whit wiser than before!
I'm Master, Doctor, and I've found
For ten long years, that as I chose
I've led my students by the nose,
First up, then down, then all around,
To see that nothing can be known!
Summary: Faust is a highly episodic work. Rather than attempting to build a clear continuity, Goethe's method is to build carefully wrought scenes, each one in some ways sharply divided from the others, whose unity of characters and themes makes it possible for them to suggest by juxtaposition, rather than fully state, the course of the story. In addition, the story as we have it is layered. We start with a prologue scene in which the theatrical troupe discuss how they should handle the play, ending with our first definite indication of the story:
Thus in our narrow booth to-day,
Creation's ample scope display,
And wander swiftly, yet observing well,
From Heaven through the world to Hell.
And, indeed, the very next scene is another prologue scene taking place in Heaven. The sons of God are gathered in joy before the Almighty, and Mephistopheles comes among them. Mephistopheles is beginning to be bored of the earth, so the Almighty points out Faust, and a wager is struck up between them for Faust's soul:
Divert this spirit from its primal source,
And, if you can attract him, drag him where
You go upon your downward course;
Then stand ashamed, forced to admit, contrite,
That Man, through all his obscure, striving urge,
Is ever conscious of the path to right.
And in a parting comment the Almighty gives a crucial indication of why he's striking up wagers with devils in the first place:
Too quickly stilled is man's activity,
Too soon he longs for unconditioned rest;
Hence I bestowed this comrade willingly,
Who goads, and as a devil, creates best.
This will be perhaps the fundamental moral theme of the work: Human beings naturally tend toward the good if thy strive to act; our great temptation is never evil as such, nor even error (since we err as long as we strive), but stagnation. Those who struggle forward are being drawn upward to Heaven; the ones who sink to Hell are those who rest too soon. And in this light it becomes clear that Goethe manages to accomplish something that many fail to do: he has made his God more clever than his Devil. The Almighty is not just betting Mephistopheles that Faust tends toward good; He is using Mephistopheles to guarantee that he does.
From Heaven we descend to earth and discover Heinrich Faust on the Eve of Easter (the time is not arbitrary), sitting in his chambers in full academic angst, fretting and restless. He's studied and studied and taught and taught, and it doesn't seem to be worth much. He is not satisfied with the limits of human knowledge and does not find much good resulting from what he does know. Thus Mephistopheles is able to tempt him with an offer of a life of experiences beyond what he had ever experienced. They strike up a bargain: Mephistopheles will serve Faust and do what he wills, but if Faust ever has a moment that stills his restlessness, he will die and serve the devil forever. The devil, of course, is a lying spirit, and it has been noted that, with the possible exception of returning to Faust his youth, Mephistopheles never actually does anything for Faust that Faust himself could not have done. The devil repeatedly insists throughout the work that he cannot do this or that, and thus while never technically breaking the bargain, provides only a useless service.
With the introduction of the character of the beautiful and innocent Margarete, or Gretchen, we are done with the preliminaries and begin the main action of the story. Faust, having been made youthful, sees her on the street and demands to have her; Mephistopheles merely sets up a situation in which he can exercise his own charms. Gretchen falls in love with him. Throughout Faust is ruled by two impulses: his primary attitude to Gretchen is one of lust, but he is really falling in love with her. They have sex and Gretchen becomes pregnant, but Faust, goaded by Mephistopheles into killing a man who happens to be Gretchen's brother, is convinced by Mephistopheles to flee.
In particular, Mephistopheles is drawing Faust on to the climax of Walpurgisnacht (the evening before May 1), when the witches have their sabbath. Thus Faust, and we who have been following him, have completed the trip to Hell. Walpurgisnacht reminds me a great deal of Vanity Fair in Pilgrim's Progress, and they have, functionally, a number of similarities, although Vanity Fair shows the fair side of things, whereas we get a truer representation here. What we are actually seeing is an account of Faust's soul, since a number of things that happen at Walpurgisnacht suggest, by a kind of nightmare symbolism, what has already happened in the story. As Walpurgisnacht unfolds, however, Faust finds himself unable to forget Gretchen, and thus begins to pull back from Hell. Soon after Faust discovers that Gretchen is in prison, and demands that Mephistopheles rescue her. The devil refuses, and when Faust keeps insisting, begs him to remember that he cannot go back to the town because avenging spirits await the murderer of Gretchen's brother. Faust, however, in the first definite sign of his improvement (but it is a natural improvement, a correction of error, not a moral redemption -- Goethe, unlike Hollywood, understands that much more is required for the latter), no longer cares about himself, and so they go.
They find Gretchen insane in prison, having drowned her baby. Her mind becomes clear enough to recognize Faust, but when he tries to rescue her, she refuses, accepting the consequences of her action. When Mephistopheles enters the cell, she recognizes him as the devil, and terrified that he has come for her soul, throws herself on the mercy of God. The devil dismisses her as condemned -- a Voice from above insists that she is redeemed -- and Mephistopheles manages, again, to get Faust to abandon her, showing once more that Faust himself is not yet redeemed. The play ends with her calling his name. Faust still has a long way to go.
FAUST. Mephisto do you see...there--
Far off stands a child alone, so pale, so sweet!
She drags herself quite slowly from the place,
As if--as if she walked with fettered feet.
I must confess I seem to see
A likeness to my little Gretchen's face.
Recommendation: It is Goethe's masterpiece; of course you have to read it. But it can be recommended as well for being a rather heart-rending story, wrought well and moving with a crisp, dramatic pace.