Literature Commentary: Faust

28 Sep

It’s one of the most well-known stories in world literature: a man sells his soul to the devil in return for unimaginable power and the fulfillment of all his desires. After noticing “Faust” on the recommended reading list for Patrick Henry, I thought it might be useful to read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s classic play for myself.

(Note: In order to analyze the theological underpinnings of this complex work, the following review contains spoilers.)

Faust is an alchemist in search of truth. He has probed the complexities of the four elements and sought answers in the spirit world, but all to no avail. When the devil Mephistopheles appears to him, promising to reveal the secrets of the universe, it’s an easy decision for Faust. He quickly accepts Mephistopheles’ offer and embarks upon a bizarre journey through time and space.

Faust promptly employs Mephistopheles’ powers to win the heart of Margaret, a young and innocent girl. He seduces and abandons her before traveling with Mephistopheles to an assembly of evil forces. Overcome with horror at what he is seeing, he returns to Margaret’s hometown and finds her imprisoned for her sin. With a little help from Mephistopheles, he tries to free her, but she dies during the escape. To assuage his grief, Mephistopheles shows him an image of the beautiful Helena of Troy, with whom Faust immediately falls in love. The rest of the book chronicles Mephistopheles’ journey through time to bring Helena to Faust. (There are a lot of other scenes, but they’re not especially pivotal).

As the final scene opens, Faust is an old man, alone once again, who rules the kingdom that Mephistopheles provided for him. He knows that as soon as he dies, the devil will arrive to claim his soul. He resigns himself to his fate and dies. Mephistopheles eagerly attempts to seize Faust’s soul, only to have it snatched from his grasp by a host of angels who miraculously intervene. Faust is carried to heaven and reunited with Margaret, leaving an angry Mephistopheles feeling cheated of his lawful prey.

This story is obviously full of theology, and worthy of thorough analysis…but because it’s such a dense, complicated, and difficult work, I’ll be fairly brief here. For me, the biggest surprise was that Faust’s soul is ultimately redeemed at the end of the story. I was fully expecting Mephistopheles to show up and drag Faust down to Hell. This narrative choice is both a good thing and a bad thing.

In one sense, “Faust” accurately reflects the Christian understanding that grace is unmerited – that we cannot win God’s favor for ourselves and must rely on His sovereign grace for salvation. Faust is, by the end of the story, incapable of redeeming himself or drawing close to God…but through His mercy, God chooses to redeem Faust and bring his soul to heaven.

But in another sense, Faust never genuinely repents of his misdeeds. He has used Mephistopheles’ power for selfish gain, and never truly repudiates the devil who gave him earthly riches. The heart of Christianity is a recognition of sin and Christ’s power to overcome it. We must acknowledge Jesus as Lord, not Self as Lord, to allow the Holy Spirit to begin His redemptive work in our hearts. Faust, while he expresses regret over some of the things he has done, never genuinely turns from his life of sin or makes any substantial effort to do so.

It’s certainly food for thought, and it’s an interesting concept. However, “Faust” is marred by hundreds of pages of tedious dialogue and digressions, which add nothing to the relatively simple storyline. It’s extremely dull at points (especially in “Part II” – the second half) and not all that rewarding. Worth reading for those who (like me) may be required to study it later in college, or anyone who has an interest in the origins of the Faust/Mephistopheles concept. For everyone else, there are a lot of other classics that will probably be more meaningful.

Interesting, but there are probably more productive ways to spend your time.

1 Comment

Posted by on September 28, 2009 in Classic


One response to “Literature Commentary: Faust

  1. livingoakheart

    August 10, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    There’s another version (author escapes me) that leaves Faust unredeemed. There are actually huge literary battles between those who prefer Goethe’s and those who prefer the other’s.


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