Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | Study Guide

Goethe

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Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | Part 1, Scenes 23–25 | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Scene 23: An Overcast Day, A Field

Back to the main action, Faust has heard what has become of Gretchen in his absence: she has been convicted of murder and is in prison awaiting execution. He's furious with Mephistopheles for keeping it from him and for distracting him with "insipid entertainments." Mephistopheles asks why Faust ever got involved in their wager. He says Faust wants "to fly, but can't stand heights." And anyway, he asks, "Who's the one who ruined her ... you or me?" Faust insists Mephistopheles free her, but he can't; she has been sentenced by a court whose power comes from God. He agrees to help, though. He'll take Faust to the prison and "muddle the turnkey's senses," but Faust will have to steal the key and free Gretchen. Spirit horses will be ready to carry them away.

Part 1, Scene 24: Night, Open Country

As Faust and Mephistopheles gallop past a place of execution, they see people there performing a ceremony of some kind. Mephistopheles says the people are witches.

Part 1, Scene 25: A Prison

Faust is outside Gretchen's cell. He can hear her reciting accusations of murder—that she killed her baby and mother and buried her sister. When he unlocks the door, she thinks he's the executioner. Faust's heart breaks to hear her rantings. When he cries her name, though, she recognizes his voice and eventually realizes he's physically present. But she doesn't want to go with him. She thinks he can't love her now and knows society will reject her. She tells Faust where she drowned the baby and begs him to rescue the child before it's too late. Mephistopheles comes to the door and says they must go. Gretchen is terrified. The devil is there for her, she says, and she begs God and his angels to protect her. She tells Faust she's afraid of him. Mephistopheles says, "She's condemned," but a voice from above contradicts him, saying, "She is saved." Mephistopheles and Faust disappear as the voice calls out Faust's name.

Part 1 of Faust ends here.

Analysis

Scene 23 is the only one in the play written in prose. Actually, the original version of Part 1—the Urfaust—was entirely in prose. When Goethe set about reworking it, he translated all but this scene into verse. The sudden use of prose heightens the audience's response to the argument between Faust and Mephistopheles by making it more immediate and accessible. In fact, in May 1798 Goethe wrote to Schiller that the prose gave the writing "a naturalness and force which in comparison with the rest makes them quite unbearable." The scene is almost exactly as written in the Urfaust, as is Scene 24, which, although written originally as prose, can easily pass for verse. Both have the emotional force typical of Goethe's Sturm und Drang period.

When Faust arrives in Gretchen's cell to rescue her, he finds a very changed young woman. In the time he was gone, she must have lost everything that comprised her life. Her friends in the village will have ostracized her for having an affair and getting pregnant, and, based on her ravings, her mother went mad with grief after losing her son. After all, she had already lost her husband and her younger daughter, and her remaining daughter has been disgraced. When the baby was born, Gretchen no doubt realized that she could not keep it and raise it to be the target of hatred and derision. Moreover, since she couldn't find work, she couldn't afford to care for the child. Had Faust been there, they might have married and perhaps moved to a place more accepting. But when Mephistopheles goaded Faust into killing Valentine, he made that relatively happy ending impossible. Given the culture of the time and place, Gretchen's fate was inevitable.

At the end of the last scene in Part 1, Gretchen makes it clear she believes she deserves her sentence. She sees no possibility of escaping with Faust and living happily; society would reject them. So even before Mephistopheles appears, she is already unwilling to leave her cell. She doesn't believe she should be saved from execution because knows she has committed a terrible crime. But, no matter what society thinks, it is not unpardonable. Contradicting Mephistopheles, who is no doubt congratulating himself that he has succeeded in getting ahold of the pious Gretchen's soul, the Lord foils him by saying Gretchen is saved. Mephistopheles and Faust are gone before the voice speaks again, calling out to Faust by his first name. The voice is the only "character" to use Faust's first name besides Gretchen. This indicates the intimacy of God's relationship with the individual. The voice from above was a late addition to the scene not present in the Urfaust. It confirms that redemption is possible and foreshadows Faust's redemption at the end of Part 2.

Gretchen's sudden reprieve is reminiscent of the deus ex machina ("god from the machine") of ancient Greek theater, when a god would descend from above by way of a machine to save the protagonist. It was an unexpected event that saved the character stuck in an otherwise hopeless situation. Goethe doesn't have the Lord arrive in person, though, and Gretchen is not saved physically. It is her soul that has been saved. She will still be executed, but she will not be entering Mephistopheles's realm.

Clearly, Faust is appalled that Gretchen has been sentenced to death and wants to prevent her execution. But did Goethe disapprove of her sentence? History says he did not. Infanticide was a common crime at the time, and Goethe was on the Weimar privy council in 1783 when a servant in one of the duchy's towns, Johanna Höhn, was sentenced to death for killing her illegitimate baby. Duke Charles suggested the law be changed to be more merciful to the woman and not require the death penalty. But all three of his privy councilors, Goethe included, voted to maintain the law as it was.

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