As the play begins, Faust—God's favorite human—is in his study, disillusioned and depressed. He knows everything there is to know from books, but it isn't enough for him. He has had enough of words. He wants to know the underlying purpose of life. This desire drives him to make a deal with the Devil, Mephistopheles. As an everyman character, Faust typifies the universal human struggle to find meaning in life. His tragic flaw is that he seeks to know that which is not for man to know. Nonetheless, his struggle for meaning is rewarded with his entry into Heaven at the play's end.
Mephistopheles is a complex version of the devil. He is worldly, intelligent, and an astute observer of humanity. While he purports to believe in nothing, his role in the universe proves essential. God requires evil as a natural part of life because the presence of evil serves to draw out good in a character such as Faust. Mephistopheles serves as a mirror to Faust's negative characteristics, but because he fails to account for Faust's positive traits, Mephistopheles does not succeed in his wager to corrupt Faust. Alternate spellings of the Mephistopheles's name include Mephostophiles, Mephastophilis, and Mephostophilis.
Gretchen's innocence provides a Christian contrast to the other characters in the play. It is this innocence that allows for Gretchen's corruption, penance, and ultimate redemption. Because Gretchen's actions are never motivated by evil intent, she earns her own salvation and aids Faust's through her love for him.