Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | Study Guide


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Course Hero. "Faust (Parts 1 and 2) Study Guide." July 20, 2017. Accessed August 15, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Faust-Parts-1-and-2/.


Course Hero, "Faust (Parts 1 and 2) Study Guide," July 20, 2017, accessed August 15, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Faust-Parts-1-and-2/.

Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | Themes


Faust is a highly moralistic play in which the themes are closely interwoven with Goethe's own overriding sense of morality. For Goethe, it is important to strive for wisdom and to benefit humanity. This notion informs all his primary themes:

Pursuit of Knowledge

Two types of knowledge feature in Faust: the scholarly knowledge acquired from books, and the knowledge of the world gained through experience. At the beginning, Faust knows all there is to learn from books, but he is lacking in real-life experience. He wishes for fulfillment through emotional relationships with others and the satisfaction of his drive for real, practical achievement. But as long as he remains locked in his study doing no more than parroting his learning to his students, he will never have that fulfillment. He states this dissatisfaction in Part 1, Scene 3 when he insists, "In the beginning was the deed"—and not just "the word." Mere language is not sufficient.

In his pursuit of knowledge, Faust goes off with Mephistopheles and never knowingly returns to his study. He continues striving till the end of his life, and it is this continued pursuit that—despite his partnership with the Devil—saves his soul.

This theme is also explored through other characters. Mephistopheles, for instance, has lived so long that he knows more than just about anyone else about nature and humanity. As a result, he has become jaded and has lost interest in both; all that interests him is winning the wagers he makes. The exact opposite is true of Homunculus, who is equally self-centered but who, after springing into life in a test tube in Part 2, Act 2, Scene 2, immediately sets out to get all the firsthand experience he can. The theme is also informed by the dedication and desolation of Faust's student, Wagner. After years of studying, Wagner masters alchemy and achieves the greatest alchemical feat possible: the creation of life. But his creation, Homunculus, repudiates Wagner's laboratory-bound existence and immediately leaves him behind.


In Faust there are many types of imprisonment. First, there are literal prisons. At the end of Part 1, Faust's young lover, Gretchen, is condemned to death for infanticide, and he visits her in her prison cell. Later, at the beginning of Part 2, Act 4, Mephistopheles talks about having been imprisoned in "Hell's pit." But there are also many figurative prisons. In Part 1 Faust calls his study a "dismal prison." In Part 2 Wagner seems equally imprisoned in his laboratory. Helen and the Chorus perceive both Menelaus's palace in Sparta and Faust's gray castle courtyard as prisons. Even the paradisiacal island of Arcadia turns out to be a prison from which Faust's son, Euphorion, is so desperate to escape that he falls to his death in an attempt to literally fly away from it.

Only two of the prisoners completely escape their prisons. Faust escapes his study after Part 1, Scene 4 and never returns. Gretchen is executed, but her soul is redeemed, and she and Faust will be together again. The rest of the prisoners are not so fortunate. Wagner stays locked in his lab rather than follow Homunculus. Mephistopheles may have escaped Hell's pit, but he continues to return to it from time to time. He also carries its bleakness in his soul. Euphorion dies and ends up in the Greek underworld. Helen, who has already escaped the underworld twice in the course of the play, returns there. Her son's death has cut the ties "uniting [her] to life, to love," and she leaves "in grief/And pain."

Imprisonment is not about bars and walls, but it is a state of mind. Mephistopheles carries hell with him. Wagner does not make the dangerous choice Faust makes, so he remains imprisoned in a world of books and test tubes.

Man's Inhumanity to Man

Goethe disapproved of the damage people inflict on one another through both emotional and physical violence, and he explores these in Faust. In Part 1 he examines the damage inflicted by artificial socioreligious mores. Gretchen gives voice to this theme when she meets Lieschen at the well in Part 1, Scene 17. Lieschen talks disparagingly about a single girl who is pregnant, and Gretchen realizes she used to be just as cruel. When the same thing happens to her, her own brother is the first to denigrate her, calling her a whore and a slut. On top of the emotional pain, she becomes an outcast and sees no possibility of providing for her child. The kindest thing she can think to do is drown the baby, for which she will be executed. Thus, the village's stigmatizing someone for loving another person leads to the death of a child and its mother.

Part 2 explores this theme on a much wider level. The Emperor goes to war, and soldiers fight and are killed. Helen fears her servants will be executed for her infidelity. Even Faust, however unintentionally, causes the death of others. Baucis is certain workers died in the process of Faust's great reclamation scheme. Then Baucis and Philemon themselves, as well as their visitor, die when Faust is impatient to acquire their land.

Most of the cruelty in Faust results from thoughtlessness and the inability of one person to empathize with another.

Sin and Redemption

The philosopher George Santayana said of Faust, "Goethe surrounded his original scenes [that is, the Urfaust] with others ... in which a philosophy of life was indicated; namely, that he who strives strays, yet in that straying finds his salvation." Indeed, of all the human characters in Faust, it is Faust and his lover Gretchen who commit the most heinous sins. Gretchen murders their baby. Faust not only kills Gretchen's brother, Valentine, but also—however inadvertently—causes the deaths of Baucis and Philemon, as well as the Traveler, who dies trying to defend them. Yet it is these two sinners who are redeemed. Before their deaths, both express sincere penitence, and both have striven to gain wisdom through experience.

Gretchen's striving is of a different sort than Faust's, as her world is a much smaller one. She is only a teenaged girl, but she learns a great deal in her short life, all of it gleaned from experience. Even before she knows she is pregnant, she sees how wrongly she has judged others. Once she does know, she acts according to her understanding of what is best. When offered life through Mephistopheles's powers, she turns it down. This shows wisdom that Faust has not yet achieved. Faust himself continues to strive. He has little chance to learn from his experience with Gretchen, as he is made to forget her. But he finds his ultimate satisfaction in trying to create a place in which common people can live happy and productive lives. Toward the end of his life, he renounces evil and rejoices in the expectation of achieving good. As a result, he, too, is redeemed.

Goethe followed this philosophy in his own life as well. He once said,

We cannot all serve our country in the same way, but each does his best, according as God has endowed him. I ... have always striven, investigated, and done as much, and that as well, as I could. If everyone can say the same of himself, it will prove well with all.

He puts this notion into the mouths of angels in the final scene of Faust: "Who strives, and keeps on striving still,/For him there is salvation."

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