Literature Study GuidesFaust Parts 1 And 2Part 2 Act 2 Scenes 1 3 Summary

Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | Study Guide

Goethe

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Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | Part 2, Act 2, Scenes 1–3 | Summary

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Summary

Part 2, Act 2, Scene 1: A High, Narrow, Vaulted Gothic Chamber

Mephistopheles has brought Faust back to his old study, where Faust is passed out on the bed "trussed in bonds of love" for Helen. Mephistopheles rings a bell, and Nicodemus, a servant, appears. Mephistopheles sends him to fetch Wagner. While he's waiting, the Student Mephistopheles counseled in Part 1 turns up; he has his bachelor's degree now and believes he knows much more than an "old-timer" like Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles is indulgent; he knows time will change the young man's perspective.

Part 2, Act 2, Scene 2: A Laboratory

Mephistopheles visits Wagner in his lab just in time to witness Wagner succeed in creating life through alchemy. Mephistopheles is unimpressed. Wagner, however, is ecstatic. The result of his labor is a tiny man, Homunculus, who is impatient to "buckle down to work." Mephistopheles points him toward Faust, who is languishing in the next room. Homunculus reads Faust's dreams; he is seeing Leda with the swan. Mephistopheles is amazed; he can't see anything. Homunculus explains that's because Mephistopheles grew up in the Dark Ages in the North. To save Faust, he says, they need to take him somewhere more classical and suggests they visit the Thessalian witches. Off he goes with Mephistopheles and Faust, leaving Wagner forlorn.

Part 2, Act 2, Scene 3: Classical Walpurgis Night

The Thessalian witch Erichtho is on an ancient battlefield when she sees what looks like a meteor. It's actually the three travelers. Before they reach the ground, Homunculus and Mephistopheles circle around a few times before settling down. As soon as they settle down into "Greek myth," Faust wakes up and asks where "she" is. Homunculus tells him this would be a good place to look; then he and Mephistopheles go off to explore.

Mephistopheles meets a number of ancient mythical beings, such as griffins—who are quick to anger—and sphinxes—who are patient and philosophical. He also meets several witches and monsters who dance with him and try to seduce him, but each time he touches one, her beauty disappears. Things are just as bad in classical Greece, he decides, as anywhere else. Finally, a dryad takes him to meet the ugly Phorkyads, three female beings who were born old and share one eye and one tooth. Mephistopheles strikes a deal with them, taking on their likeness in exchange for giving them an additional fang and eye.

The only interesting people Homunculus meets are two philosophers—Anaxagoras and Thales—who are arguing about the origin of life. Anaxagoras thinks life came into being through fire, in volcanoes. He sees a globe in the sky and calls on the moon to come down. The globe falls to earth and shatters, and Anaxagoras collapses. Thales points out the moon, which is in the sky above them as usual, and takes Homunculus to a "sea festival." There, they meet the sea gods Nereus and Proteus.

In the meantime, Faust goes looking for Helen and meets the wise old centaur Chiron, who once carried a 10-year-old Helen to safety when she was chased by robbers. Chiron leads Faust into the underworld to find Helen.

Analysis

The title character of the entire work, Faust, has very little direct input into the events of Act 2. During the first two scenes, he is unconscious but, as readers learn in Scene 2, dreaming of characters from Greek mythology. The main player in Scene 1 is Mephistopheles, who has brought Faust back to his study for the first time since early in Part 1. The dusty gloom of the study and the unpleasant state of Faust's scholarly robe reinforce the transformation Faust has undergone. In Part 2, Act 1 he repudiates what he used to be; now readers see why. The darkness and mustiness of the study Faust is lying in at the start of Part 2, Act 2 contrasts sharply with the sun-drenched field in which Faust awoke at the start of Part 2, Act 1. The study is full of old books; the field was full of nature and the spirits associated with it. It's no wonder the earth spirit whom Faust conjured to his study in Part 1 left quickly and didn't return; Faust the scholar didn't have the connection to nature that lives in the Faust of Part 2. In Act 2, Scene 2 Mephistopheles is told that Faust won't ever wake up again if he is not transported to classical Greece.

Once again Goethe is discussing dichotomies. One dichotomy is between word and deed—between scholarship, which is twice-removed from experience, and experience itself. Even the famous teacher Chiron, Goethe tells readers in Scene 3, has given up scholarship and teaching just as Faust has.

Another dichotomy is between the medieval North and the classical South. Yet another dichotomy discussed throughout Act 2 is between youth and age. In Scene 1 this is discussed at length by Mephistopheles and the Student, who has recently received his bachelor's degree. The Student despises age, but Mephistopheles, who is of course much older than the Student can know, is unperturbed. After all this dichotomy is different from the others. Youth eventually and inevitably becomes aged. At the same time, youth doesn't disappear; it is merely cloaked by age. In Scene 3 Mephistopheles meets the Phorkyads, who somehow transcend this dichotomy. They were born looking old and ugly.

The reason Mephistopheles brought Faust back to his study was to find Wagner. He hopes Wagner can wake up his former master. Mephistopheles is helpless because Faust's problem is rooted in the classical myth, something over which Mephistopheles has no power. In Scene 2 Mephistopheles has found Wagner, whose alchemy has now reached mastery. He has finally succeeded where centuries of alchemists have failed: he has created life. This life takes the form of Homunculus, a little being more mind than matter. Homunculus is a shining light in a vial, a curious mind that immediately wants to go out and experience everything it can. Its creator, Wagner, is the epitome of a scholar and spends his time in research, seldom if ever leaving his laboratory. In contrast, Homunculus can't bear to stay in the lab; it has to be up and doing. Wagner is all word; Homunculus is all deed. Wagner is what Faust has left behind and now abhors; Homunculus very significantly is an embodiment of Faust's striving.

It is interesting at this point to compare Homunculus with Mephistopheles. Both are witty and provide much of the humor in Faust. However, where Mephistopheles is jaded and easily tires of others' company, Homunculus is new to life and delights in meeting others and exploring the world. In Scene 3 a little of his fascination with experience seems to have infected Mephistopheles, who explores the strange classical landscape; he even merges with the ugly witches he meets at the end of the act. As usual, though, Mephistopheles has something up his sleeve. Why else would he want to take on the likeness of one of the ugly old Phorkyads? Perhaps readers will understand his motives when they meet him again according to Goethe's plan.

It is Homunculus, who sprang into being with a connection to the classical world, who warns that Faust must return there if he is to recover. It joins its power to Mephisto's to bring the three of them to a supernatural classical plane. As soon as Faust touches the earth there, he awakes and goes looking for Helen. Just as he fell for Gretchen at first sight in Part 1, he sees Helen at the end of Part 2, Act 1 and is immediately obsessed. But this time he doesn't demand Mephisto's help; he goes off on his own, finds Chiron, and follows the centaur into the underworld without a second thought. This courageous classical hero pursuing the mythical beauty is quite a contrast to the needy old scholar who constantly sought Mephisto's help when courting a village girl in Part 1. But little of the very long Scene 3 is devoted to Faust's activities. Most of it involves the adventures of Mephistopheles and Homunculus.

In Homunculus's wanderings, he meets two characters in particular who relate to Goethe's beliefs about the nature of life. One of these is the sea god Proteus, who can change his appearance rapidly and at will. For some this ability made Proteus a symbol for the matter God used to create Earth and everything on it. It is from the god's name that the word protean derives; protean means "ever-changing." Proteus also knew everything—past, present, and future. Faust resembles Proteus in his search to know everything. He also shifts from one persona to another in the course of the play—an old scholar, a youthful lover, an economic advisor to the Emperor, an alchemist, an engineer, and so forth. It is not only Faust, however, who resembles Proteus. Goethe himself has frequently been described as protean. Not only did he work in many artistic forms, he was a complete renaissance man—a scientist, an engineer, a politician, a statesman, a businessman, a lawyer, and so much more. It was his philosophy of life to be as changeable and to know as much as Proteus.

The other significant character Homunculus meets is Thales. Unlike his pal Anaxagoras, Thales believes life arose from the sea. The real Thales was a Greek philosopher of the 6th century BCE. He looked for natural rather than divine sources of creation and is considered the originator of Greek astronomy and the scientific method. Thales believed the source of all things was water, so it is only logical he should take Homunculus to the sea festival, where they meet Proteus. Like Thales Faust believes life originated in water; at the beginning of Act 4, he will express complete lack of interest in Mephistopheles's assertion that all things originate in fiery explosions. Their conversation will echo the conversation between Thales and Anaxagoras. Goethe himself was, among many other things, a student of botany and anatomy. He noted the similarities between various plant and animal structures. However, Darwin had not yet proposed his theory of evolution, and Goethe was one of the scientists who asserted a different theory. He saw these similarities as modifications on a basic animal or plant Gestalt (their common underlying form), as archetypes or ideals. All living beings, then, were shifts in this basic form. Thus, Goethe's philosophy of science, like his philosophy of life, was protean.

It is worth noting that the name Lynceus first turns up in Act 2, Scene 3. Chiron mentions him as Jason's "sharp-eyed" helmsman on the Argo. In Act 3 and Act 5, he will reappear as Faust's watchman, again valued for his sharp eyes. Lynceus could see through objects and even to the center of the earth. However, he was also a king of Argos and a powerful warrior. Lynceus has an interesting connection to Helen, too. Her two brothers—also the children of Leda and Zeus—were Castor and Pollux. They tried to abduct two women who were engaged to Lynceus and his brother Idas. When Lynceus and Idas pursued them, Lynceus spotted Castor hiding in a tree, and Idas stabbed him. In revenge, Pollux killed Lynceus. When Helen spares Lynceus, she rewrites Lynceus's story just as her flight from Sparta rewrites her own.

By creating life—that is, Homunculus—Wagner has reached the ultimate goal of alchemy. He experiences one moment of ecstatic fulfillment and then loses everything when Homunculus goes off to classical Greece with Mephistopheles and Faust. Having accomplished everything he ever set out to do, he has nothing left to live for. This is the feeling Faust had at the beginning of the play, when he contemplated suicide. Oddly, it was Mephistopheles who showed him a way past it. And it will be their wager that will keep him from experiencing it again.

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