Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | Study Guide


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Faust (Parts 1 and 2) | 10 Things You Didn't Know


German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play Faust explores the susceptibility of humankind to evil and features a protagonist, Faust, who commits a classic mistake of hubris (pride): he makes a deal with the devil. Goethe's Faust first appeared as a fragment, now called the Urfaust, in 1790, and later as a complete work entitled Faust: Part One in 1808. Faust: Part Two, which focuses on the larger-scale, philosophical impact of evil, was published posthumously in 1832, just after Goethe's death.

Borrowing the Faust legend from earlier playwrights such as the 16th century English poet Christopher Marlowe—famous for his play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus—Goethe portrays Faust as a brilliant yet vain figure. The Faust myth, in all of its forms, tells of the protagonist's encounter with Mephistopheles, a devil in service to Satan. Faust's discontent regarding the limits of human knowledge leads him to experiment with magic, summoning Mephistopheles. The devil promises Faust insights and power greater than any man before him in exchange for Faust's soul upon his death. Unlike previous narratives of the Faust legend, Goethe's version is equally focused on the possibility of redemption as it is on the dangers of sin. Despite rarely being performed in full, Goethe's Faust is considered his great contribution to the stage and one of the best adaptations of the tale of Faust, and it has spawned countless adaptations, including Charles Gounod's famous 1859 operatic version.

1. The character of Faust was based on a "real" sorcerer and alchemist.

Johann Georg Faust, born in 1480, was one of the historical figures behind the Faust legend. Faust was a German alchemist—an early scientist who attempted to transmute lesser metals into gold—who was rumored to have signed a pact with the devil. The Protestant leader Martin Luther corroborated this story, and Faust was expelled from the University of Erfurt by the Franciscan monks. Upon being asked to repent for his sins, Faust confessed that he had, in fact, promised his soul to the devil. Faust allegedly met a terrible end—he was rumored to have been torn to pieces by the devil and his eyes glued to a wall.

2. The first author to translate Faust into French enjoyed walking his pet lobster on a leash.

The first French translator of Goethe's Faust was notoriously eccentric. Gérard Labrunie, who wrote under the pen name Gérard de Nerval, published a widely acclaimed translation of Faust in 1828. Labrunie was mentally unstable for much of his life, spending time in the hospital after a diagnosis of insanity, and chronicling his hallucinations in his 1853 memoir entitled Aurélia. Before his death in 1855, Labrunie famously walked his pet lobster through the gardens of the Palais-Royal in Paris, using a blue ribbon as a leash.

3. Gretchen's fate was much darker in Goethe's original draft of Faust.

The Urfaust is a preliminary, fragmentary version of Faust, also attributed to Goethe. There is one notable difference between the Urfaust and the final version—the fate of Gretchen. While Faust's love is forgiven by God at the end of Goethe's final version, Gretchen's destiny is darker in Urfaust, which ends with Mephistopheles announcing that "She is condemned!"

4. Goethe spent 60 years writing Faust.

Faust was Goethe's magnum opus, and it took the majority of the playwright's life to complete. Part One and Part Two took Goethe a total of at least 60 years to finish, and the author was 81 by the time his work was done.

5. One of Goethe's novels is thought to have triggered several suicides.

Goethe's first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was one of the first German novels to achieve status as an international best seller after its publication in 1774. The novel is remembered today as an infamous literary work, however, as it was thought to have influenced several young readers to commit suicide. One young woman in Germany, Christel von Lassberg, drowned herself in the Ilm River, carrying a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther in her pocket. Allegedly, readers found Goethe's depictions of the troubled protagonist, Werther, to be so romantic that they emulated his tragic suicide themselves.

6. Faust introduced new phrases to the German language.

Goethe's Faust is memorable not only for its compelling narrative but also for the profound effect it had on the German language. The play is responsible for introducing new German phrases that reflect difficultly worded principles. The phrase des Pudels Kern traces its roots to Faust, implying the "real nature or deeper meaning of something" after a revelation. Des Pudels Kern translates directly to "the core of the poodle," a reference to Faust's examination of a dog and his discovery that the creature is actually the devil, Mephistopheles. The phrase Gretchenfrage (translated to "the Gretchen question") denotes inquiry into the reasoning behind a controversial or difficult issue. The phrase stems from Gretchen questioning Faust about his religion.

7. A Russian translator was publicly ridiculed for misinterpreting Goethe's Faust.

While the eccentric essayist/poet Gérard Labrunie's French translation of Faust was praised, Boris Pasternak's Russian translation was met with scrutiny and criticism. The magazine Novy Mir attacked Pasternak's translation in a 1950 review, stating, "the translator clearly distorts Goethe's ideas." In response to the harsh criticism, Pasternak retorted, smugly:

There has been much concern over an article in Novy Mir denouncing my Faust on the grounds that the gods, angels, witches, spirits, the madness of poor Gretchen, and everything 'irrational' has been rendered much too well, while Goethe's 'progressive' ideas (what are they?) have been glossed over. But I have a contract to do the second part as well! I don't know how it will all end. Fortunately, it seems that the article won't have any practical effect.

8. The predecessor to Goethe's Faust was lost for more than a century.

Goethe completed the original draft of Faust, now known as Urfaust, in his early 20s. The manuscript for Urfaust was either thrown away or lost, and it wasn't found by scholars until the end of the 19th century. The philologist Erich Schmidt discovered the Urfaust manuscript in Dresden in 1887 and considered it a fascinating "missing link" of Germanic literary studies. Aside from the notable difference regarding Gretchen's salvation, Goethe incorporated most of the narrative from Urfaust into Faust: Part One.

9. Mephistopheles's name derives from the Hebrew language.

Although the legend of Faust derives from German folklore and the stories of Johann Fust and Johann Georg Faust, the name of the devil who corrupts Faust's soul is actually derived from the Hebrew language. The name Mephistopheles is a compound of the Hebrew words mephitz, meaning "destroyer," and tophel, meaning "liar." Names for devils in the Middle Ages were regularly taken from Hebrew, and the notions of destruction and deceit certainly compliment Mephistopheles's character.

10. Goethe thought he'd be remembered for his work in the sciences, not for writing Faust.

Despite the years of work Goethe dedicated to writing Faust, the author was convinced that his true contributions to humankind would be his work in the sciences. Goethe was fascinated by the scientific roots of color as a phenomenon, and he published his Theory of Colours in 1810. This volume sought to explain the color spectrum, the science behind colored shadows, and to provide an alternate color wheel. Although Goethe is most remembered today for Faust, he reportedly took no pride in his literary work, despite all the time he invested in his writings.

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