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A synopsis of the play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Mephistopheles has debated with God the worth of a creation that only destroys the men it rears, and he has denied as well the essential goodness of man. God has singled out the saintly old scholar, Faust, to prove that there is at least one good man on earth. But the Devil has declared Faust like the rest: “Give him to me but for a little while and I will damn his soul eternally.” God has accepted the wager, contending: “While man’s desires and aspirations stir, he cannot choose but err; yet in his erring journey through the night, instinctively he travels toward the light.”

The Devil, descending to earth to tempt the aged scholar, finds him utterly disappointed by his life: “Has all my learning taught me only this–that men, self-tortured, everywhere must bleed? That, seeking life, they blindly rush to death?” Mephistopheles offers him a new life, with restored youth and himself as his slave, if Faust will be his slave in the next world. Faust, planning now to live from pleasure to pleasure, agrees to become the Devil’s slave when he has reached the apex of bliss, and the bargain is sealed in a drop of blood.
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Mephistopheles then transforms Faust into a handsome young man. The two set forth to join merrymakers at Auerbach’s Tavern where the Devil draws drink from a wooden table and turns it into fire. A Witches’ Kitchen is their next stop, and here the Devil gives Faust the draught that imbues him with sensual love. Then, in the street outside, he sees Margaret, a fresh and lovely young girl, and offers his escort, but she rebuffs him. He tells the Devil of his passion for her, and, disregarding Mephistopheles’ sardonic observation that Margaret has just returned from confession, demands that he hold her in his arms that night or he will break his pledge.

The Devil contrives a meeting of Faust and Margaret (who, in the German original, is known as Gretchen) in a neighbor’s garden, and the girl is enchanted by the charm and intelligence of her visitor. She prays that he will come again. Faust indeed appears again, but this time to urge that she admit him to her room while her mother sleeps. To overcome Margaret’s fears of discovery, he gives her a sleeping potion for her mother, and the lovers have their meeting. But it ends in tragedy: the potion kills the mother, and Margaret is to have a child.

Margaret’s brother, Valentine, just home from service with the army, hears of her disgrace and seeks out Faust to avenge her. They fight; Faust stabs the youth who dies with a curse upon his sister. Faust now seeks supernatural pleasures, and at the Witches’ Sabbath joins the evil spirits in their weird play. But he cannot free his mind of the tragic Margaret and orders the Devil to take him to her.

However, he finds that it is too late; Margaret has been imprisoned, accused of the murder of her baby, and she rejects Faust’s offer of rescue. Preferring to face her punishment with the help of God, she dies. So ends Faust’s adventure in sensuality–without finding the supreme moment of bliss that would warrant his surrender to Mephistopheles. He is eager now “to bare his breast to every pang, to know all human joy and sorrow,” and to share with his fellow men “the shipwreck of mankind.” (Part One ends with Faust’s glorification of Margaret as the symbol of eternal womanhood.)

In Part Two, the frustrated Mephistopheles tempts him with pleasure of another sort, and takes him “out of the little world into the great world.” He presents him at the court of the German Emperor, where his talents quickly earn for him the Emperor’s gratitude and the honors of a councilor. But these rewards, too, are empty to Faust. He recalls the thrills of his romantic life, and conjures from the ages the spirit of Helen, to which he supplies lifeblood. He attempts to woo her, but Helen, symbol of the beauties of antiquity, eludes him, leaving nothing in his unhappy hands but her cloak.

So, “with his very walk a series of faults,” the despairing Faust plods on through another series of experiences in his pursuit of true happiness, but only failure–or hollow triumph that is worse–is his lot in each. Even a great victory in battle for the Emperor proves as bitter as defeat. Mephistopheles offers now his greatest temptations–whole cities and even kingdoms, the most glorious of deeds, the height of physical beauty in more women, and an earthly immortality in fame–but Faust has sickened of all.

As before, he has reached the apex of his new life, and almost infinite experience has failed, throughout his second youth and middle age, to bring anything other than disillusionment. In old age again, he is wearied by its cares and bankruptcy of spirit, its relentless drain of strength. There is nothing left but loneliness and bitter contemplation of the cold ashes of his youth. With the final blow of blindness, he is prepared to abandon his quest forever.

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In this extremity, as he declares happiness only an illusion, he suddenly discovers happiness in envisioning a vast humanitarian project. He decides to reclaim coastal swamps and to build upon the free soil homes for millions of men who will labor to maintain their freedom. With this purpose–forgetfulness of self in service to others–the now joyous Faust realizes his ultimate moment, the very peak of human happiness.

But at this very moment, Faust dies. Mephistopheles, it seems, has won his wager with God: Faust indeed has sinned greatly. The Devil claims the soul of the old scholar, but the angels descending in a shower of roses, dispute him and bear Faust’s soul to heaven because, through all Faust’s erring, he has ever instinctively traveled toward the light.

Margaret, whose sin and death were the work of Faust, is first to greet his soul in the after life. It is her mission to be his guide, for “woman is the eternal saviour of man.”

“His noble spirit now is free,
And saved from the Devil’s scheming:
Whoever aspires unweariedly
Is not beyond redeeming.”

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