Goethe’s Faust: an Interpretation - Alexander Gillies

Faust's tragedy is that of titanism. He is a man in search of life's meaning who steps beyond the natural limitations of humanity, a superman who seeks for more than it is given to mankind to know or experience. His career is accordingly a long succession of crimes and illusions. Only at its close is he brought to see the true value of his life. He who demands dissatisfaction as being the characteristic feature of human existence is given more of it than he really wants or can tolerate and looks forward longingly to a future moment when he might be content; but from this death cuts him off. In the strictest sense he is thus dissatisfied until the end, but he has risen above the cult of merely negative dissatisfaction, such as he thought to be the only thing that life might offer. Dissatisfaction comes to acquire a higher meaning. It is a spur to further effort, a dynamic force which, if it operates as it should, is of the greatest value in life. It is something which should urge us, not to overstep our natural limits, but to work fruitfully within them.

Goethe's doctrine is one of tireless endeavor, but it must be purposeful and positive endeavor, pursuing its course in the full consciousness of man's place within the grand context of the universe. In this sense Faust is a poem of supreme optimism, even though its hero's career is profoundly tragic.



The Prologue in Heaven makes it evident from the start that the career and destiny of Faust are to be endowed with universal significance. The whole meaning of human life is to be involved in the process of the tragedy.

Goethe called his play a tragedy. It is the tragedy of titanism, of egotism. To regard Faust only as a symbol of human dissatisfaction, restlessness, striving, Weltschmerz, leads in the end to misconceptions. It is not the triumph but the disavowal of Faustianism that Goethe finally represents for us. If we strive to grasp the infinite, we must do so within the bounds of our earthly existence, we learn, or be destroyed. It is a stroke of supreme irony that at the moment when Faust understands this, his life comes to an end. Yet life which does not understand it is not life at all.

Faust's despair

The Earth Spirit is not a perfect and satisfying vision. It stands for change and movement, disharmony and conflict, birth and death, exactly as the archangels had testified. Faust is crushed by the very thing he thought he wanted. His earthly side, which had prevented his enjoying the vision of the universe a few moments earlier, is itself now cast down. He is unable to join in the processes of the world, despite his desire to do so, because his addiction to academic learning has rendered him incapable of this. He is caught in the remorseless vortex of his unnatural existence. He is unfitted by scholarship for life, and scholarship, his refuge from life, is itself no substitute for it and is a failure as an approach to universal truth. He who has flattered himself that he can speak on equal terms with the spirits of nature and now tries to do so with the Earth Spirit, is annihilated. Faust invites the famous self-definition of the Earth Spirit, in which every word is chosen to express activity, development and growth and is a biting reflection upon his withdrawal into barren contemplation.

Life, Faust feels, that is constantly concerned to protect itself against common daily fears and preoccupations, is worthless. His books and instruments, which he has inherited and no longer uses, are as millstones round his neck and limit his freedom, for inheritance too is a shackle. Only that which is immediately useful is of value. And in any case mechanical contrivances can never bring us nearer to the secrets of nature, which can only be revealed to the heart that is humbly opened to receive her message.

Faust's famous assertion that mankind possesses a dual nature, an earthly, physical or material side and a heavenly, spiritual or immaterial side.

Two souls, alas! Reside within my breast,
and each is eager for a separation:
in throes of coarse desire, one grips
the earth with all its senses;
the other struggles from the dust
to rise to high ancestral spheres.

The people around him have avoided the problem of human existence by giving themselves over to their animal nature; Faust has tried to solve it by escaping from his animal side. Both are wrong. Avoidance is not the answer.

The concept of the duality of human nature, which is fundamental in the whole outlook of German Classical literature, was clarified for Goethe largely by the philosophical writings of Schiller, although it was one which he had himself grasped in an indistinctly defined manner in his own Sturm und Drang days. The problem of personality occupied him from the beginning to the end of his life. He was deeply troubled concerning the ways and means of achieving a harmonious individual development. It was an urge that manifested itself in him in many guises and caused him to run into and to run away from many problems. To possess and to cultivate individuality and to transcend its limits - and both were his desire -- were incompatible processes. The impulse to exist as an individual caused him instinctively to withdraw from anything that would impair his individuality; for example, in his love affairs. At the same time he was assailed by the longing to allow nature to speak through him without hindrance. He had not then comprehended as systematically as he did later on that, being more than nature, we cannot be completely natural, and that at the same time only by contact with what is exterior to ourselves are we able to grow into fully developed personalities. That is what Faust has not yet learned either. He seeks to merge and yearns to withdraw, longs for what would involve self-obliteration and at the same time shuns the critical step, desires to break down the limitations of life and yet to retain life and with it its limitations, wishes to escape from himself and yet to remain himself, and thus persists in that state of ‘confusion', which has rightly been alluded to by the Lord in the ‘Prologue in Heaven'.

The pact

Faust's all-embracing condemnation of life's values is an indispensable preliminary to the pact. It is clear that he will not enter into any contract to seek enjoyment or respite from despair. He will enter into it believing that nothing can give worth to human existence, that all life is an illusion and happiness impossible. He has cursed in advance anything that Mephistopheles can offer. The titanic yearning in his heart finds human life too frail to contain it.

Faust is not concerned except with what life cannot give. ‘I do not want satisfaction, I want dissatisfaction', he rages. ‘I do not ask you to give me pleasure and contentment, but the reverse. I desire your gifts to be illusions because I cannot believe that the world is other than illusory. I do not seek repose, for repose is something in which I believe so little that if ever it came my way I should wish that day to be my last. I do not seek happiness, for I cannot accept it as an end in life and wish to die if ever I attain it.' This is what Faust says, in effect, in the next speeches, in lines charged with savage mockery and challenge. Mephistopheles takes him on. Each is sure that he can prove the other wrong. Mephistopheles is ready to provide illusion easily enough, as Faust really knows, but of course, as we remember from the Prologue in Heaven, his real purpose is to break down Faust's restless striving, which the Lord had commended, and bring him to a bed of ease. This is what Faust defies him to do. Two diametrically opposed outlooks are face to face, the one convinced that satisfaction can be induced, the other that it cannot. In opposing Mephistopheles, Faust now comes clearly though unwittingly to the point of view of the Lord.

We are still dealing with the proposition: ‘I will serve you here and you will serve me when (or if) we meet in the hereafter'. Faust objects to it on two scores: that he is indifferent to the next life and that in any case Mephistopheles cannot serve him in this as he would wish to be served. So full is he of the mal du siècle that he believes it cannot be dissipated and erects out of his belief a philosophy of the utter insufficiency of life itself. Upon life's brow is branded, and doomed for ever to be branded, the mark of dissatisfaction.

‘You talk to me about ease and comfort', he cries. ‘If ever a moment comes when I shall lie upon a bed of ease, let that moment be my last! If ever you give me pleasure in life or lull me with enjoyment, then may I die! You completely misunderstand me.' Faust is so convinced that ease and happiness are outside the scope of human life that he is prepared to stake his earthly existence as proof. He will not deserve to live if he seeks repose. (Put slightly differently, his words could mean that he is so depressed by a sense of the futility of life that for one moment of unattainable tranquility, life itself would be worth sacrificing.)

‘If I should ever say to any moment: Tarry, remain!--you are so fair! then you may lay your fetters on me, then I will gladly be destroyed! Then they can toll the passing bell, your obligations then be ended--the clock may stop, its hand may fall, and time at last for me be over!' Faust is thus prepared for his life to end if either of the two conditions is fulfilled, if he shall lie upon a bed of ease or if he bids the passing moment tarry. His demands for dissatisfaction thus lead to his imposing a stipulation from which all else follows. The bet amplifies the pact proposed by Mephistopheles. The latter's service is to terminate if Faust gives up, even for a moment, his belief in dissatisfaction. That belief, Faust declares, is to be as long as his life. He may thus die unsatisfied. But, if satisfied, he is willing to die immediately. That he should go on living until he is satisfied and pronounces the fatal words is, of course, not meant. In a way, Faust both fears and desires the supreme moment. He knows that when it comes it will contain the ultimate meaning of life. He basically desires it to have a positive content in spite of his curse, but realizes that it will be the end of all his effort too, and life without effort can have no significance, and he will need it no more. The way in which Faust formulates his condition is a direct incentive to the devil to do his worst.


Overcome by the sense of completeness, harmony and contentment which she engenders, Faust experiences for the first time in his existence that oneness with nature which he had known of academically but had never achieved, except as a vision in his momentary contemplation of the macrocosm-sign. What he now feels confirms that which had been previously theoretical and doubtless the subject of many a lecture. Gretchen thus symbolizes for him--indeed, his own theories predisposed him to regard her as so doing--the orderliness and fullness of the universe. She is a part of nature. All her actions in her everyday life reflect naturalness and purity.

Gretchen's presence had restored to Faust that sense of spiritual exaltation which he had first felt and expressed in his contemplations in her room, only now it arises within him in a much more intense degree. Now it has impelled him to go away, to seek solitary communion with nature in order to sort out his emotions, revealing yet confusing as they are. He flees not only from Gretchen but from Mephistopheles as well. He knows there will be no hindrances to his love. His is the responsibility for everything that will happen, a responsibility that will be all the heavier because of his contemplative pause. We find him, as the ‘Wald und Höhle' scene opens, uttering a long speech of mingled gratitude and dissatisfaction to an ‘erhabner Geist'. In spite of all the difficulties that have arisen concerning the identity of this Spirit, there can be little real doubt that it must be the Earth Spirit. This Spirit, it will be recalled, had spurned and humiliated Faust when he conjured it up in his study. In the meantime, however, the latter has changed. He has been transformed by his love for Gretchen. He has learned that nature will not allow herself to be at the beck and call of a man armed with magic symbols but responds only to an approach that is in spiritual accord with her. The words which he now speaks mean, in effect: ‘You do not appear to me in vain, as I at one time thought. I have learned the error of my way of approach to you. You have given me, through life and particularly through love, that which I wanted, a sense of communion with the universe. I realize that earthly life, suitably approached, can afford me the power of grasping the infinite.' This change in Faust, this new understanding which has been vouchsafed to him by the love of Gretchen, has enabled him to look upon the creatures of nature, of which he knows himself to be a part, as friends and brothers. Earthly existence has gained a new significance: it is now a reality, not a subject of academic theory. The Spirit has enabled Faust to gain consciousness of himself and his place in the scheme of things, leading him to a sense of the immortal as well as of the mortal world. But, while revealing fresh values, life has also disclosed its evil aspect. Faust's feeling of oneness with something greater than himself is marred by his having Mephistopheles as a companion. When he describes the latter as an emissary of the Earth Spirit, he is without doubt speaking in the general symbolical sense that evil is a part of human life.

It is Mephistopheles' purpose to bring his companion down from his lofty contemplations of life to a low level of sensuality. The victory which he gains ironically makes Faust more dissatisfied than ever. Faust therefore struggles against Mephistopheles' attempt to debase his love. He does not do so for Gretchen's sake but for his own. It is his own new-found emotion which he cherishes and which Mephistopheles rapidly changes into something more appropriate to his purpose. For all his discovery that the fundamental verities of life are taught by life itself, Faust has not yet attained the necessary stature to act upon these. He is as clay in his adversary's hands.

Faust has by now (after the Walpurgisnacht) learned everything about Gretchen, her long wanderings after her brother's death and her public ostracism, the birth and death of her child, her trial on a charge of infanticide and the imposition of the death sentence. His eyes are fully opened to the evil effects of his association with Mephistopheles. The deaths of Gretchen's mother, brother and child, and now her own imminent execution have been brought about by him.

He still believes that Mephistopheles, so far from being avoided, must be accepted as an indispensable part of the earth's attributes. His outlook is still that of the Wald und Höhle scene. His complaint about Mephistopheles to the great Spirit that ‘knew his heart so well' is still the same. His odd theological assumption concerning Mephistopheles is really at the basis of his attempt to saddle the latter with the responsibility for his own guilty behavior. To view evil as a necessary part of earthly life, and to regard all existence, as Faust had said in the second Garden scene, as manifesting the divine, is to expose oneself to the illusion that personal ethical responsibility can be evaded. Horrified though he is at Gretchen's doom, filled, as his better feelings are stirred, with an overwhelming desire to save her from it, and knowing that his actions have brought it about, Faust none the less lays the responsibility at Mephistopheles' door and ultimately at that of the Earth Spirit as well. Despair, rage, resentment, human sympathy are all represented in his words, but no repentance. His dubious theological and ethical system is finally crowned by a vague belief in ‘der ewig Verzeihende', who is now called upon in this moment of hopelessness. Never was the bankruptcy of an imprecise religious structure basing itself on ill-defined half-truths so tragically laid bare. The erudite professor who could discourse obscenely with a dancing witch could not apprehend and integrate the central truths that govern human existence.

Faust is far from having learned the full lesson of responsibility. His whole character is in danger at his adversary's dehumanizing hands. His desire for the maximum of human experience threatens to conclude in the loss of his own spiritual existence. It is true that he is now in open rebellion against Mephistopheles. But he had been in rebellion once before, in the Wald und Höhle scene, and to little purpose. He has not completely succumbed to his adversary, but, despite his revulsion, he has no thought of dispensing with him. He demands his aid in the liberation of Gretchen. He still cannot grasp as a reality that the devil can do nothing but evil. He is still the victim of illusion.

Beside his squalid behavior, Gretchen is endowed with celestial glory. By refusing to accompany him from her prison, she had cast aside all thought of personal safety, dubious though it might well have been, and accepted death. Her fate thus partakes of the nature of self-sacrifice. Her determination is the means of preserving him from the utter submission to Mephistopheles' authority that flight, with the inevitable consequences of evasion of the law, would have involved. If the lovers had departed together they would have surrendered their individual fates to the devil. This Gretchen has prevented and in so doing has taken a vital step in preparing the way towards the final situation when she can intervene yet again in Faust's destiny.


Faust's recovery

After the ‘kleine Welt' which formed the backcloth of the Gretchen story and which he had made to revolve around himself, Faust enters the ‘große Welt', a world in which he must learn to be a social being, a member of the human community. Not only does he enter a new world but the poem does so too. It is a world which, despite all the evil and corruption that are depicted, seems none the less to have shed the gnarled and narrow vulgarity and pettiness of the kind which we have seen so far. In it Faust himself is no longer a slave to sense and passion. There is a change of tone, an elevation on to a broader, more serene, less passionate plane.

The recovery of Faust is wrought not by any process of ethical self-conquest but by the delivery of his spirit through nature's agency from the burden that crushes it. There is no word of repentance. Remorse is a thing of the past. Goethe believed that to harp upon remorse, to dwell upon the memory of sorrow and sin was to hamper the purpose of life. He was opposed to living either in the past or in the future to the detriment of the present. Faust, therefore, must be liberated from the shackles of what has gone before if he is not to lapse into that state of inaction which the Lord had condemned and which in any case is so foreign to his character. His recovery, it is true, also makes him accessible to further temptations at the hands of Mephistopheles. No moral change, then, takes place in Faust's character. He is merely healed, reborn, not redirected or purified. The recovery is brought about by nature's gift, oblivion, Mephistopheles having no part in it.

The remainder of the scene consists of Faust's reflections upon observing the sunrise. They are set out in one of the decisive monologues of the poem. Mephistopheles significantly is not present. Faust's thoughts are his alone and are undisturbed. He feels the reawakening within him, the restoration that physical repose, the undying power of earthly life, has achieved, and with it the immediately ensuing revival or continuation of his spiritual endeavor, his striving after more than earthly things. His spiritual strength has returned. There is to be no inertia, no cessation of his efforts. As he watches the light tinting the mountain-tops and gradually filling the valleys, Faust sees a symbolic message concerning human life embodied in the dawn. His eye is drawn higher and higher, but the sun, appearing above the summits, dazzles him, and he turns away. We cannot attain what we desire, he complains. Total experience of the light is too much for our human limitations. That life is doomed to be incomplete and to bring dissatisfaction is what he had said so often before, and was the basis on which the wager with Mephistopheles had been concluded. But instead of rebellious anger, a new note is now sounded, that of renunciation, albeit regretful renunciation. This utterance of resignation without despair is new in Faust. Human experience, many-sided and many-colored, which he had once demanded in his mood of the bitterest pessimism in order to prove that frustration is life's portion, is now to be the means of grasping indirectly what is beyond direct comprehension by limited human powers. A more positive note is now struck, therefore. Heaven is to be approached by way of the earth. In the transitory may be grasped the eternal, and wisdom consists in accepting this fact, viewing the evanescent and circumscribed nature of human existence not as a reason for burning accusation but as a gift in which the meaning of the cosmos may be discerned. The purpose of life is life itself. To live in the consciousness of life's relationship to the universe, to achieve all the completeness for which Heaven has made provision, is to manifest this purpose. An impossible effort to get beyond life is its negation, just as to live in an atmosphere of obsession with the hereafter is its negation also. He has gained a new valuation of life, a realization that imperfection embodies perfection, change permanence, the moment eternity.

At the emperor's court

At the Carnival, Faust, aided by Mephistopheles, forms a small procession of his own, and interrupts or adds himself to the conventional groups that file past, attracting, with the aid of various magic devices, all the attention of the public to himself. He produces an element of great excitement and confusion, in the midst of which the Emperor, his head turned by what he sees, is induced, after Mephistopheles' preparation of the ground in the previous scene, to give his signature inaugurating an issue of paper money. Faust is dissatisfied with the new surroundings which Mephistopheles has induced him to enter, and is in no immediate danger of being corrupted by them. He could have attempted to mould them into something worthwhile, but instead he proceeds to play the charlatan, doubtless upon instructions. Once again, as so often, his behavior is out of keeping with his higher thoughts. By allying himself with Mephistopheles' plan, Faust has sanctioned it. The whole affair has been stage-managed by the devil, as the Gretchen tragedy was, and there is no sign of revulsion on Faust's part. The welfare of the state is not his care. The disgruntled scholar, seducer and murderer is now a criminally irresponsible political charlatan. To seek life, even when knowing that it is a reflection of the eternal, does not exempt the seeker from sin.

The vision of Helen

Faust knows nothing yet of Helen. He determines to discharge the task imposed by the Emperor and to dare unknown dangers in so doing, not for a mighty ideal of which he has no knowledge, but simply because it is yet another of those adventures of the human spirit which he has not yet experienced. He has no thought of the great aesthetic power that she might exercise. Ideal beauty is an experience that has not yet come his way. When it does, it has decisive effects. Mephistopheles' attempt to restrict him to the sphere of actuality is here dealt a mortal blow. Faust cannot be turned away from the impalpable forces of the spirit, and he hopes to compel them to do his will. He has risen from the level of charlatanry to that of searching for timeless human ideals, even though in his quest for them he is still content to employ magic aid.

A mere image cannot, however, be imperiously turned into reality as Faust wishes, simply by his laying hold upon it. Other means are required if he is to gain Helen. Egotistic impetuosity will need to be replaced by devotion, reverence, discipline and understanding of her whole environment and historical context, from which she must not be disengaged, as she is disengaged here. Faust, in whom the phantom has opened a new sphere of desire, is the victim of illusion both in behaving as he does and in not understanding that he is henceforth the prisoner of myth, legend and history and is thus escaping into an unreal realm away from the problems of actuality. However, he cannot even hold on to his dream. It eludes him, yet henceforth he deserts all human commitments in order to pursue it, an ideal but still a dream. He fails to see that the past cannot in any case be retained as a complete reality. It is only fruitful when it becomes of value to actual life. Its unnatural evocation is bound to be disastrous, and even a more reverent approach to it is fraught with the danger of neglect of the present.


Wagner's latest experiment, the production of a homunculus, a little man in a bottle, is on the point of completion. He bends over his furnace, the retort glows with a bright white light, it emits a musical note and the manikin is born inside it. Mephistopheles' arrival seems to have exercised a catalytic effect that brings the experiment to a successful conclusion. The product of the Enlightenment is thus brought forth in the devil's presence. Even rationalism, with its desire to dispense with what it regards as human weakness, cannot avoid the power of evil. Homunculus, the creature of mind only, without any physical existence, is accompanied from birth by evil, for evil is a spiritual not a bodily force. Nature cannot be evil, but man's mind can be, we infer.

Homunculus' first words are addressed to Wagner; they are a comment upon himself and by extension upon the whole poem:

That is the way that things are apt to take:
the cosmos scarce will compass Nature's kind,
but man's creations need to be confined

An artificial creature is provided with an artificially limited space in which to exist, in the same way as Wagner, intellectually circumscribed, lives in his circumscribed world. Natural creatures, on the other hand, can scarcely be content with the whole of infinity. Such a one is Faust. From the first moment of his existence Homunculus is aware that he is an imperfect being and he spends his little life seeking to become a living object in the full sense. He is pure intellect, with all the powers, insights and shortcomings of pure intellect. The homunculi were traditionally supposed to be all-knowing, and Wagner's is well aware that his disembodied existence must somehow attain a higher state of fulfillment. As Mephistopheles brushes aside Wagner's philosophical question about the relationship of soul and body, Homunculus declares: ‘What's here to do?' and is shown the unconscious figure of Faust. Life, it appears, cannot be gained without the exercise of activity which is its essential characteristic. Even Mephistopheles seems to understand that. We shall see also that it cannot be gained without the aid of self-sacrificing love, which Homunculus needs in order to become a living being, just as much as Faust needs it in order to enter Paradise. Life is not won by theorizing about it, but by practical living. Wagner and his speculations are thus henceforth ignored, and Homunculus and Mephistopheles take complete charge of events.

The Classical Walpurgisnacht

Only by sympathetic absorption into the whole of Classical antiquity can the way to Helen be learnt. Classical antiquity itself is, moreover, placed in the grand context of world development. From the battlefield where freedom was overcome by autocracy and the destiny of the ancient world decided, we are taken backwards through the epoch of the primitive mythological origins of Greece, with their mysterious affiliations in Egypt and Asia, into the age of geological upheaval and oceanic protoplasm; we move from the conflict of human weapons and ambition, through eras of tireless growth and change, to the prime sources of life in the fire of Eros, from uncontrolled egotism back to an ecstatic love-feast, from deadly self-assertion to life-giving self-sacrifice. Faust's problem is provided with the whole of human history for its backcloth. In a way, indeed, the "Classical Walpurgisnacht" is a kind of indirect commentary upon the poem's entire meaning. It is more than a mere spiritual journey into the distant recesses of the past. At the same time, in deliberately creating a Classical Walpurgisnacht as opposed to the German or Northern Walpurgisnacht, Goethe wished to make it clear that the modern age is no more than a passing mutation, an aberration almost, in the course of human history. Lacking the healthy naïveté of ancient times, it gave birth to one-sided intellectualism or one-sided materialism, and these could only find their cure if the completeness and naturalness of existence, as it was in the ancient world, could be recaptured, if the fundamental truths of universal being could be understood and be lived again. Not only Faust in his confusion, but Homunculus, the intellectual, and Mephistopheles, the bestial, gain from their adventures in Greece. The apotheosis of Eros at the end of the scene by the Aegean tells us in a sense that self-surrender, while gaining Helen for Faust, procures life's beginnings for Homunculus. Even for Mephistopheles a novel shape is provided. The doctrine of transformation as being vital to development, of dying in order to become, of self-obliteration in the interest of something higher, is fundamental to the poem.

The adventures of Homunculus have no value in advancing the actual dramatic action of Goethe's poem. As providing a commentary upon its significance, however, they are of the highest importance. Homunculus is in search of life. The dissatisfaction that fills all the people in the poem is very strongly developed in him, and for good reason. An imperfect creature, a product of the mind, he is aware that life is both a spiritual and a physical affair and that the intellect requires a body in which it can function. His story is therefore a symbolical statement of the origin and purpose of being. Proteus' advice is that Homunculus should accompany him down to the sea and make a proper beginning in that element, taking part in the gradual organic processes of life in its aqueous origins and rising slowly through its various higher forms. If he will live, Homunculus must accommodate himself to nature's norms. Existence that is ignorant of them or fails to comply with them is imperfect. The further the ‘Classical Walpurgisnacht' takes us, the more profoundly does it comment upon the poem's basic meaning. Homunculus must obey nature's laws and not attempt to get beyond the sphere that she appoints. For nature that lives in accordance with itself is without conflict and human life alone is full of disharmony because it attempts to be more than what it is. He dashes himself against the shell of Galatea and pours himself into the water. Homunculus' quest has become one with the purpose of the love festival. He has learned that only through complete self-surrender may life be gained, and he has manifested his willingness to give up everything in order that this goal may be reached. Through self-destruction he wins the way to existence on a higher plane. By death he is liberated from one form in order to be able to enter upon another that is more real. The ecstatic self-sacrifice of Homunculus, the overcoming of self in the consuming fire of love, is the example which Faust must follow if he is to be accorded the key to the mystery of life and attain its fulfillment. Homunculus is wedded to nature. He leaves one incarnation to gain another. He, who has had no contact at all with love in his artificial creation, discovers its omnipotence which can unite fire and water, the seemingly incompatible, into fertile harmony. Galatea could only stay for a moment, but that moment, in all its symbolical significance, was grasped by him. He apprehended its eternally valid message and dashed forward to realize it in himself. He saw in it an embodiment of the very basis of the universe and was prepared to go back to the very beginning, to pass through many transformations or incarnations in order in the end to gain what his spiritual self needed for its completion. This is the lesson which Faust, too, must learn.

Helen of Troy

In a drama of this kind time and space are easily molded to the poet's purpose. If God and the devil and spirits of various sorts and mythological creatures can appear, there is no incongruity in embodying Helen in the action. This Helen is not the dream Helen of the Imperial palace. She is real, real in the sense that she takes part in the dramatic action, just as any other character does.

Helen and Mephistopheles represent two incompatible planes of life. Helen is the incarnation of beauty, but Mephistopheles is the incarnation both of ugliness and of evil, and he proceeds to speak not in terms of beauty and ugliness, which Helen and the chorus can understand, but in terms of good and evil, which they cannot. Helen is outside the sphere of moral considerations. They are foreign to her being. She will, therefore, not bring them to Faust, and he would be wrong to expect from her what it is not in her power to give. As soon as the moral point of view is introduced, she is confused and overcome. Ethics have a disturbing effect upon aesthetic matters. Beauty carries its own justification within itself; its repose and equilibrium can only be disturbed if other factors intervene. In speaking as he does--hypocritically--from an ethical standpoint, Mephistopheles does violence to Greek antiquity which, being unable to withstand moral criticism, founders. That is the only way in which Mephistopheles can gain power over it. From his own point of view he is wise to attempt this because he fears for his own influence if he permits Faust to fall wholly under the spell of Helen. It is because of this violation that the Greek world fails to satisfy. It is no longer itself. Assuming that Faust could have merged with a foreign and distant civilization and thereby ceased to be himself, he would in fact have been merging himself with a civilization whose integrity had been undermined. The ironical thing is that, in thus assailing Helen, Mephistopheles makes sure in advance that she can never bring contentment to Faust. By taking control of the situation, he is excluding any chance of Faust's succumbing permanently to her attractions and declaring himself satisfied. It is certain even at the beginning of the action that Helen will be just one more illusion.

The way to Classical antiquity should not be trodden deceitfully if the gain is to be permanent and satisfying. The past cannot be understood any more successfully than the present if it is approached without candor. A spiritual experience will come to naught if it is entered upon without integrity.

The union is achieved so naturally and un-self-consciously that it takes place, as the chorus informs us, in public. Helen seizes the opportunity of the moment just as much as Faust does. It is a union which brings both of them together in the present, from which there is no desire to escape either into the past or into the future. Faust feels lifted above all consideration of time and reality. He has learned that the moment contains eternity, that human existence is not to be measured in any other terms but its own, that to live in the present with a consciousness of its value, and not in any form of shelter away from it, is the real function of life.


Faust has obtained his desire. He has destroyed his enemies and possesses Helen. Unfortunately he cannot retain her. His character is transmitted to his and Helen's son, Euphorion, whose self-destruction puts an end to this new existence. Faust does not achieve happiness, even momentarily. The ration with Helen turns out to be an illusion for Faust. This world cannot be ignored for another. He who had declared and was to declare again that obsession with the after-life must not impair the living of our life on earth has to learn that obsession with a dream, with an ideal or with the past, must not detach us from actuality and can only be of value if it assists fruitfully the pursuit of our real existence. A dream-life cannot satisfy unless we live in dreams, and Faust was too much a part of the earth and too anxious to enjoy all the experiences of which earthly life is capable to do that.

It may be that, as he reflects in silence, Faust feels something of what he acknowledges at the close of his career, namely, that the individual life has no real existence except as part of the whole pattern of humanity. Helen is inseparable from her Greek surroundings and history. When he gained her and caused her to live in a sphere that was alien to her, Faust deprived her of her reality. His tremendous venture into Hades, in spite of its superhuman courage, was therefore futile. Does he already understand, in some indistinct and imperfect way, that his own life can only achieve reality and permanence if it becomes as integral a part of the context of human growth as Helen's had been and that he must labor to bring this about? Does it strike him, as mingled thoughts of Helen and Euphorion assail him, that this can only be achieved through service and not through the superman's detachment in the realm of diabolical magic?

The underlying philosophy of the poem has caught hold of the chorus. Faust's consorting with Ancient Greece has caused that part of it permanently to cease to be Greek. Euphorion's self-sacrifice, unbalanced though it was, has been all example to the chorus. It is prepared to die in order to gain new life. Its ancient attitude to things has gone. It has become infected with pantheistic sentiments. It is sheer existence, existence in unspoiled and useful harmony with nature, that appeals; personality may well come afterwards. Existence in useful harmony with nature is, after all, at the basis of the poem's teaching. Part of the chorus will mingle with the branches and leaves of trees, draw up life from the roots and, when the fruit falls, give food for men and beasts. Another part will mingle with the rocks and echo nature's sounds. Another will merge with the brooks, gain experience in their courses and irrigate fields and gardens. A fourth part will enter the hills, become part of the vineyards, watch the care of the vintners and in the wine take part in the worship of Dionysus. All will in some measure find a purposeful perpetuation of life as part of the endless vitality of nature. The message of self-obliteration and service has not been lost upon the chorus. What it has learned and what Gretchen learned and taught is still far off for Faust, however.

Faust's return to actuality

Faust returns to reality after his dream-venture into Greek antiquity. His efforts to enter that sphere had ended in illusion, though they were misguided rather than criminal. He has not, therefore, incurred moral guilt. Moreover, he has learned certain things, such as the value moderation and of self-sacrifice, though in so far as others were concerned rather than himself. He himself is still the titanic egotist, unable to apply to his own conduct what he discovers to be significant in others. He is far from feeling a man among other men. He has lived with a dream, but human life is of the waking world, not of dreams, and must be lived and not deserted. Ideas, however great, aesthetic interests, however noble, are insufficient as substitutes for life itself. We must learn from the present, and live for the present, not the past. The poem has indicated in the course of the Helen story that value in life which is of ultimate significance in its origin and conduct; not Homunculus' intellect nor Helen's beauty nor Euphorion's titanism, but fearless self-sacrifice that won bodily existence for Homunculus and immortality for Euphorion. We have been taken beyond the sphere of good and evil and shown what it is that in the end will gain Paradise for Faust himself.

His experience of Helen has brought Gretchen's memory back to Faust. She now takes priority over Helen. Greece has brought her fundamental significance for Faust into the clearest relief. Helen exercises no guiding force over his life. Gretchen, on the other hand, who embodies self-surrender, represents that power which had impelled him to dare the unknown in search of Helen and impels him to march forward in the future towards the service of his fellow men and thus towards Paradise. She is the standard by which Faust is measured and hitherto has been found wanting.

Faust's death

The lives of the old couple represent something which is out of accord with his titanic aggressiveness. Their pious attachment to the service of God stands in contrast with his own departure from it. Once before, at Easter time, the sound of a bell had recalled to him the memory of onetime innocence. It now does so again. It is an instrument of Heaven, not in any supernatural sense, but inasmuch as it induces him to reflect upon his unrighteous behavior and arouses remorse. Each time he hears it, it nourishes the inner struggle which he endures and has endured for a long time, and that is why he desires to remove Philemon and Baucis from their little piece of territory. The bell undermines his sense of power by implying its dubious foundations. His possessions are imperfect not just because he does not own the old couple's plot, but because their continued existence and the consequent nightly tolling of the bell ate a challenge to his conscience. Faust has not been so affected for a very long time, indeed not since the vision of Gretchen in the Walpurgisnacht scene had caused him to ascertain the consequences of his behavior towards her. He is well aware that criminal methods have been used in the achievement of his latest purpose and that they have caused suffering and horror to others, in spite of the reclamation, population and cultivation of the new territory. The idyllic existence of Philemon and Baucis, representing what once existed before he came, is a living reproach to his own impurity. He envies them their innocence, peacefulness and purity of life.

Faust is still unable to see his life clearly, still dissatisfied with himself, still without power of guiding his existence as he wishes. But now, under the pressure of his latest crime [of having his neighbors killed], he has cursed Mephistopheles' evil aid and longs to rid himself of it, to discard magic and to be a human being and nothing else. He has recognized that the association with Mephistopheles has placed him outside the normal limits of humanity. His unnatural life and unnatural surroundings have excluded him from what he had most desired, the experience of all mankind's emotions, joy and sorrow alike, and paralyzed him so that he can no longer behave as a normal member of the human community. He may know more than he did, and he has acquired wealth, but in the process he has not come nearer to fulfilling the purpose of life in general and his own existence in particular. He has known the horror of criminal sensuality in himself and observed the folly of materialism in others. He has recognized that this world is merely a reflection of a higher order of things. He has watched with misgivings the self-sacrifice of his son and he has regretted the barbarous extirpation of piety and contentment. He has, none the less, been unable to gain mastery over himself.

Care visits him in an effort to deflect him from his fast-growing repentance. Very subtly she has assumed the shape of destructive obsession concerning one's own destiny, the very thing that is busying Faust most of all, and has done so with ever-rising intensity since his contact with Philemon and Baucis began. Faust is face to face with himself. Care, though a menace, compels him to engage in self-scrutiny. So far he has run his course regardless of her, ignoring her paralyzing influence, reeling from one desire to the next, until he feels there is no earthly experience left for him. Equally there is no consolation to be gained, he knows, by absorption in the hereafter, into which humans cannot and should not try to probe, for to do so hinders the living of life upon earth. As before, Faust does not deny the existence of another world. He merely declares it foolish to be dominated by thoughts of it. This world, with its experiences, is our sphere as human beings. We must learn from it what we can and enjoy its sorrow and happiness, undeterred by thoughts of the supernatural, even though what we learn is incomplete and unsatisfying. Faust has never changed his view that life is imperfect. He has now merely ceased to rail against its imperfections, recognizing that there is none the less a value in it which we must seek. We cannot overstep its boundaries without disaster. Care cannot break him; Faust thrusts her aside in anger. As she departs defeated, Care breathes upon Faust, and he is blinded. He is victorious, but not unscathed. Having discarded magic, he is exposed to all the frailties of old age. These he accepts. He has turned from material to spiritual things, and the harm she does him is secondary. His body is weakened, but his authentic self is revealed. He has rejected obsessive concern with his own destiny and, in so doing, has found himself. He has gained his soul by abandoning the egotistical search for it. Faust is free. His long-cherished plan to drain the marshland must be carried out. There must be no postponement. It is a work of vital significance to others. The purification which had begun with his contact with and thoughts about Philemon and Baucis is complete. There is legitimate pride in his words. He knows that he is needed. Leadership alone can achieve the good of others, and he can supply it. Faust brooks no delay now that the goal of public service is clear before him. There is no instant of regret for his own physical weakness. Nothing can deflect him. The moment is seized with breathtaking imperiousness. He sweeps exultantly into action. Whether Faust speaks or does not speak the words he had wagered he could never utter is, to be sure, of no consequence now, for Mephistopheles, in spite of outward appearances, has failed to ruin his soul, as he had defiantly proclaimed to the Lord that he would. He has lost him. The message of life is that it must be conquered anew each day, and life means also the liberty to live it. In giving life and liberty to others, Faust removes the sting from death. He is completely self-reliant, just as he expects others to be. There is no hint of self-pity, no claim to be supported in his need. He has come to acknowledge something outside and beyond his own person. Thoughts of self-expansion have gone. His ideal for the future is free from any primary taint of private profit or aggrandizement; it is not hampered or diluted by the hesitations that Care had alluded to in her harangue a little earlier. He has seen that his life is not his to live for its own sake alone. He cannot ask time to stand still, for his ideal is yet to be realized, but in anticipation of its realization he can express satisfaction. He has set his foot upon the path of immortality. Gretchen, Euphorion and Philemon and Baucis have not died in vain. They have taught him the duty of self-surrender which, in their various ways, they all embodied. His final moment is one that contains within itself all future moments of endeavor and glory. The truth for which he had searched so long has come to him at last. He has transcended the limits of human existence and is now linked with all humanity and with the continuous activity of the universe as described by the archangels in the Prologue. The moment embodies eternity.

The question as to whether or not Faust has won his wager with the devil has been much disputed, the more keenly because it has been held that the wager constituted the pact which he signed. That this is not really the case has already been shown. According to the terms of the document which Mephistopheles has in his possession, he is entitled to Faust's soul, if and when they meet in the hereafter. The wager was merely a gloss. Faust had affirmed the impossibility of ever laying himself upon a bed of ease. Nothing Mephistopheles had done had caused him to depart from this affirmation. He had added that he would perish if he ever were to find satisfaction in the moment and bid it tarry. He has not found that satisfaction. The moment that he would wish to stay is a future moment. Had he been satisfied, he would not have needed to look to the future. God's confidence in Faust is, therefore, justified. Mephistopheles has failed to win the bet which he offered in Heaven. He has not succeeded in dragging Faust down to his own nihilistic level and making him a party to his own philosophy of negation and destruction. The Lord accordingly intervenes, Mephistopheles influence ceasing, as he had been told, at Faust's death. Faust and Mephistopheles do not meet in the hereafter, and the contract is void. Faust's soul has become something different from what it had been at the time of the pact with Mephistopheles. It has seen a new vision. It is its tragedy that because of the frailty of life it cannot grasp what it sees. But its will has become its own. Faust has achieved a positive personality that will endure after death as the creator and commander of new life in others. ‘A material thing', wrote H. W. Carr (The Realist, November 1929, p. 187), ‘say a billiard-ball, is what it is in such a place at such a moment; it is altogether present whenever and wherever it is. A living thing, a germ or a seed, an animal or a person, is never all that it is in any place at any moment. Its reality is not its actuality, but its potentiality. At every moment it is more than it actually is at that moment.' That is what Faust has come to understand. He is a living being, and as such he has emerged from his own past and gained the power of determining his own future and of engendering future life out of his own. He cannot be complete within himself at any one moment. He had always affirmed that as being impossible, though in a confused and imprecise manner. That is why he had declared that he could never ask time to stand still. He does not do so now. He bids it march forward, with himself merged in its creative progression. He has turned himself into an instrument of God.

Faust's immortal soul

Faust's soul has put on immortality. Yet Mephistopheles believes the contrary. He has involved Faust in such enormities of crime that he is able to persuade himself of his own victory and looks forward to the final obliteration of all Faust's achievements. But he deludes himself. He is incapable of comprehending Faust's changed spiritual outlook, just as he was incapable in the Prologue of appreciating Faust's potentialities. Faust is laden with guilt but is not broken by guilt. But being laden with guilt, his soul cannot be received into Heaven until it is cleansed from all contact with the devil. The remaining scenes deal with this final process. They take us into the realm of imagery and symbolism. Without them the drama would be incomplete. Goethe makes it crystal clear that association with evil does not fit a man to enter Paradise unless it is abjured.

Angels gain possession of Faust's soul and bear it heavenwards. Mephistopheles discovers too late that he has been outmatched. He has relaxed at a critical moment and allowed himself to be deflected from his purpose, as he had formerly wished to deflect Faust from his. There is no help for him. His final effort has been wasted, because he failed to take account of that eternal power of love which the Lord praised at the beginning, and which manifests itself in the most curious ways.

Much has been written about the Catholic elements in the concluding scene. They were made use of by Goethe, not, however, to demonstrate his adhesion to Catholic or even necessarily Christian ideas concerning salvation and the hereafter, but because he saw in them a set of symbols which he could adapt as he wished in order to give plastic expression to his unorthodox beliefs.

Viscount Samuel once wrote (Belief and Action, Pan Books, 1953, p. 172): ‘All depends upon man's own action. It is right, therefore, to glorify action; but not any action, regardless of aim or method. Action for action's sake -- like art for art's sake or speed for speed's sake -- is a creed that reduces life to the level of a game. To move for the sake of moving, without asking whither; to move faster and faster without asking why; to hold that it is important to be vigorous and victorious, but not important to be right -- this is a gospel that leads some men to futilities, others to ambition, violence and war, with disaster as the outcome.' All this is made evident in the case of Faust. Action must be accompanied by direction, and striving by illumination if immortality is to be merited. Each without the other does not suffice. Faust had striven for long without a clearly conceived aim. He had also recognized that earthly life is a reflection of heavenly life, but had failed until the end to act accordingly. Purpose and existence needed to be matched; neither separately was enough. Faust's desire to pass beyond the boundaries of his individual life was fulfilled not because he stepped outside them and used superhuman aid, but because he re-entered them and discarded it, and in so doing transcended human limitations in a manner of which he had not dreamed. Faust's real character, confused though it was, existed before Mephistopheles approached him. The latter had failed to break it down. Evil accompanies our steps on earth, but we need not give ourselves over to it deliberately in order to gain admission to Paradise. We learn through contact with it, but we need not willfully court its society. To assume that is to assume that the greater the sinner the more certain will be salvation.

Transported with felicity, Gretchen nestles at the knees of the Virgin and speaks words that recall her petition when she prayed before the shrine in the town ramparts. Faust has come to her again. He is no longer darkened in his mind. He has attained clarity. With him beside her, her love can now reach its highest fulfillment. As at the end of her earthly life, so now again in Heaven, Gretchen intervenes decisively in Faust's destiny. By refusing to leave her prison and thereby, though on unthinkable terms, to save her life, she had prevented his absolute subjection to the devil's authority; now her sacrifice is crowned by the joy of guiding him forward to Heaven's central glory. Gretchen is to lead him forward. She will always be a little in advance of him. She will help by her example. She has become part of the sublime activity of Paradise because of her beloved's presence, and Faust, too, is now to be enrolled in Heaven's service. Faust is guided forward by the Eternal Womanly.

As the final Mystic Chorus puts it, all transitory things are symbols of the eternal. The earthly merely reflects the heavenly. In Paradise the unattainable becomes reality, the ineffable is accomplished. Heavenly endeavor is an extension of earthly endeavor and may not be claimed unless the latter is indefatigable and pure. And earthly endeavor must go forward in the glorious name of heavenly love, which is manifested in the Eternal Womanly, sustaining, comforting, guiding and drawing men ever forward. This is embodied as well in Gretchen as in the Mater Gloriosa. All this is a highly symbolical way of expressing Goethe's views on immortality. It is not intended to be understood in terms of orthodox religion. The concepts of intercession, grace and redemption are there, but they are reinterpreted by the poet in the context of his own beliefs. Immortality is an extension of earthly life. The conditions under which it may be won have been described as well as -- at much greater length -- those by which it may not be. When it is gained it is shown for what it is, namely a constant selfless co-operation of human spirits, each advancing its fellows, and all therefore marching forward individually and corporately towards the central truth. This does not need to be comprehended in any merely supernatural sense. It also has a terrestrial meaning. It is, after all, what Herder understood by his League of Humanity, in which the transitory and the accidental are sloughed off and only permanent values remain. All who contribute to human development in a positive sense are united in its brotherhood. There can be little doubt that Goethe intended his work to be understood in this way. If it is so understood, the awkward question does not arise as to why Faust, a tremendous sinner, should none the less be saved, and, coupled with this question, the extent to which his career, because it ended in salvation, may therefore be taken as exemplary in spite of its criminal nature. Goethe merely demonstrates what it is that gains prolongation of existence and what does not. This is something beyond mere adhesion to traditional norms or religious dogmas. It is fruitful activity in the cause of mankind and therefore in the cause of God. Such activity cannot perish. It seeks new spheres in which it may manifest itself, new tasks to discharge, new problems to overcome, and lives on as an undying spiritual force among men. This has little to do with ethics as generally accepted. Faust's behavior to the end leaves doubts on the moral score. What is decisive is his positive spiritual attitude and endeavor which will achieve permanent things and live on in others after his death. Goethe demonstrates, with all the emphasis at his command, the illusion and tragedy which come about from association with all that is contrary to this; that is to say, with evil, with negation, frustration, destruction. The purpose of life is to live. Only in its fullness and development is there the guarantee of continued life. Faust's victory is that, in spite of his failures, he does not turn away from life. He measures himself against the spirit of denial and defeats it. The soul that Mephistopheles cannot destroy cannot perish.