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Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | Motifs

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Polarities

Faust is a litany of juxtapositions. One of the first to catch readers' (or an audience's) attention is word versus deed, which appears, at least by implication, in the epigraph to Part 1 and is discussed at length by Faust in Part 1, Scene 3. Others are youth versus age and related polarities such as inexperience versus experience, ignorance versus wisdom, and naivety versus jadedness. Mephistopheles's medieval Germanic roots are countered by classical Greece, where he has no power until he barters for it. Still other polarities are beauty versus ugliness, the inexpressible versus "pure word," good versus evil, Heaven versus Hell, and the powers of the mind versus the needs of the flesh. For Goethe, such polarities in a sense define life since they impel the individual into constant striving for unity.

Alchemy and Magic

Goethe first brings up alchemy and magic in the first scene of Part 1. Faust has turned to alchemy and is studying its symbols. This motif pervades Faust, and either alchemy or magic is mentioned by Faust, Mephistopheles, or another character in almost every scene.

Alchemy can also be seen as a metaphor in that Faust is somehow an alchemical combination of several other characters in the play. His past—before the action of the play—is visible in the arrogant Student and the studious Wagner. Then as the play begins, he seems as jaded as Mephistopheles. Later he embraces life with the gusto of Homunculus. It is not until the final scenes that Faust comes into his own permitted unity at the end.

Classical Greece

Classical Greece is a motif in Faust from the very start. The early references are subtle, such as Wagner thinking he hears Faust declaiming Greek tragedy in Scene 1 and Mephistopheles's glancing reference to Helen of Troy in the last line of Scene 6 ("old Jack will/Soon see a Helen in every Jill"). In Part 2, however, it becomes a dominant motif. Many characters are drawn from classical Greek myth, not least Helen of Troy, who marries and has a son with Faust. Faust, Mephistopheles, and Homunculus travel through classical Greece and meet many of its legendary people and creatures. Even some of the character names in the German settings, such as Lynceus (Faust's watchman) and the old couple Baucis and Philemon, are named after characters from classical Greek mythology.

Bible

References to the Bible appear frequently throughout Faust. The epigraph to Part 1, for instance—"In the beginning was the Deed!"—is a reference to the Gospel according to John. In the Prologue in Heaven, Mephistopheles talks about "that old aunt of mine, the famous snake"; this is a reference to the snake that tempts Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Also in the Prologue, the Lord asks, "Do you know Faust? ... My good servant!"; this is an allusion to Job 1:8: "And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job ...?" Such references continue through to the end. The original three Mighty Men were invincible warriors who fought with King David in 2 Samuel 23:8–12. In Part 2, Act 5, Scene 2, in order to take possession of their land, Faust has Mephistopheles arrange for Baucis and Philemon to be removed from their home and moved to a cottage he has prepared for them. Mephistopheles comments in an aside that "It's Naboth's vineyard once again." This is a reference to 1 Kings 21, in which King Ahab tries to acquire a vineyard, the owner (Naboth) refuses to sell or trade for it, and Ahab's wife, Jezebel, arranges for Naboth to be killed. Like Faust, Ahab is penitent.

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