Faust is the protagonist of a classic German
legend. He is a scholar who is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life, so he makes
a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.
The Faust legend has been the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical
works that have reinterpreted it through the ages. Faust and the adjective Faustian imply
a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power
and success for a delimited term. The Faust of early books—as well as the
ballads, dramas, movies, and puppet-plays which grew out of them—is irrevocably damned
because he prefers human to divine knowledge; “he laid the Holy Scriptures behind the door
and under the bench, refused to be called doctor of Theology, but preferred to be styled
doctor of Medicine”. Plays and comic puppet theatre loosely based on this legend were
popular throughout Germany in the 16th century, often reducing Faust and Mephistopheles to
figures of vulgar fun. The story was popularised in England by Christopher Marlowe, who gave
it a classic treatment in his play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. In Goethe’s reworking
of the story two hundred years later, Faust becomes a dissatisfied intellectual who yearns
for “more than earthly meat and drink” in his life. Summary of the story
Faust is bored and depressed with his life as a scholar. After an attempt to take his
own life, he calls on the Devil for further knowledge and magic powers with which to indulge
all the pleasure and knowledge of the world. In response, the Devil’s representative, Mephistopheles,
appears. He makes a bargain with Faust: Mephistopheles will serve Faust with his magic powers for
a set number of years, but at the end of the term, the Devil will claim Faust’s soul and
Faust will be eternally damned. The term usually stipulated in the early tales is 24 years;
one year for each of the hours in a day. During the term of the bargain, Faust makes
use of Mephistopheles in various ways. In many versions of the story, particularly Goethe’s
drama, Mephistopheles helps him to seduce a beautiful and innocent girl, usually named
Gretchen, whose life is ultimately destroyed. However, Gretchen’s innocence saves her in
the end, and she enters Heaven. In Goethe’s rendition, Faust is saved by God’s grace via
his constant striving—in combination with Gretchen’s pleadings with God in the form
of the Eternal Feminine. However, in the early tales, Faust is irrevocably corrupted and
believes his sins cannot be forgiven; when the term ends, the Devil carries him off to
Hell. Sources Many aspects of the life of Simon Magus are
echoed in the Faust legend of Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Hans
Jonas writes, “surely few admirers of Marlowe’s and Goethe’s plays have an inkling that their
hero is the descendant of a gnostic sectary and that the beautiful Helen called up by
his art was once the fallen Thought of God through whose raising mankind was to be saved.”
The tale of Faust bears many similarities to the Theophilus legend recorded in the 13th
century, writer Gautier de Coincy’s Les Miracles de la Sainte Vierge. Here, a saintly figure
makes a bargain with the keeper of the infernal world but is rescued from paying his debt
to society through the mercy of the Blessed Virgin. A depiction of the scene in which
he subordinates himself to the Devil appears on the north tympanum of the Cathedrale de
Notre Dame de Paris. The character in Polish folklore named Pan
Twardowski presents similarities with Faust, and this legend seems to have originated at
roughly the same time. It is unclear whether the two tales have a common origin or influenced
each other. According to the theologian Philip Melanchthon, the historical Johann Faust had
studied in Kraków as well. The origin of Faust’s name and persona remains
unclear, though some sources also connect the legendary Faust with Johann Fust, Johann
Gutenberg’s business partner, or suggest that Fust is one of the multiple origins to the
Faust story.,Others believe he is based on the figure of Dr. Johann Georg Faust, a magician
and alchemist probably from Knittlingen, Württemberg, who obtained a degree in divinity from Heidelberg
University in 1509. Scholars such as Frank Baron and Leo Ruickbie contest many of these
previous assumptions. The first known printed source of the legend
of Faust is a small chapbook bearing the title Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published
in 1587. The book was re-edited and borrowed from throughout the 16th century. Other similar
books of that period include: Das Wagnerbuch
Das Widmann’sche Faustbuch Dr. Fausts großer und gewaltiger Höllenzwang
Dr. Johannes Faust, Magia naturalis et innaturalis Das Pfitzer’sche Faustbuch
Dr. Fausts großer und gewaltiger Meergeist Das Wagnerbuch
Faustbuch des Christlich Meynenden The 1725 Faust chapbook was widely circulated
and also read by the young Goethe. Related tales about a pact between man and
the Devil include the plays Mariken van Nieumeghen, Cenodoxus and The Countess Cathleen.
Locations linked to the story Staufen, a town in the extreme southwest of
Germany, claims to be where Faust died; depictions appear on buildings, etc. The only historical
source for this tradition is a passage in the Chronik der Grafen von Zimmern, which
was written around 1565, 25 years after Faust’s presumed death. These chronicles are generally
considered reliable, and in the 16th century there were still family ties between the lords
of Staufen and the counts of Zimmern in nearby Donaueschingen.
In Christopher Marlowe’s original telling of the tale, Wittenburg where Faust studied
was also written as Wertenberge. This has led to a measure of speculation as to where
precisely his story is set. Some scholars have suggested the Duchy of Württemberg;
others have suggested an allusion to Marlowe’s own Cambridge, but the likely placement of
Wittenberg is the historical capital of Wüttemberg, what is now the city of Stuttgart.
Literary appropriations Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus
The early Faust chapbook, while in circulation in northern Germany, found its way to England,
where in 1592 an English translation was published, The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved
Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus credited to a certain “P. F., Gent[leman]”. Christopher
Marlowe used this work as the basis for his more ambitious play, The Tragical History
of Doctor Faustus. Marlowe also borrowed from John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, on the exchanges
between Pope Adrian VI and a rival pope. Goethe’s Faust
Another important version of the legend is the play Faust, written by the German author
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The first part, which is the one more closely connected to
the earlier legend, was published in 1808, the second posthumously in 1832.
Goethe’s Faust complicates the simple Christian moral of the original legend. A hybrid between
a play and an extended poem, Goethe’s two-part “closet drama” is epic in scope. It gathers
together references from Christian, medieval, Roman, eastern, and Hellenic poetry, philosophy,
and literature. The composition and refinement of Goethe’s
own version of the legend occupied him for over sixty years. The final version, published
after his death, is recognized as a great work of German literature.
The story concerns the fate of Faust in his quest for the true essence of life. Frustrated
with learning and the limits to his knowledge, power, and enjoyment of life, he attracts
the attention of the Devil, who makes a bet with Faust that he will be able to satisfy
him; a notion that Faust is incredibly reluctant towards, as he believes this happy zenith
will never come. This is a significant difference between Goethe’s “Faust” and Marlowe’s; Faust
is not the one who suggests the wager. In the first part, Mephistopheles leads Faust
through experiences that culminate in a lustful relationship with Gretchen, an innocent young
woman. Gretchen and her family are destroyed by Mephistopheles’ deceptions and Faust’s
desires. Part one of the story ends in tragedy for Faust, as Gretchen is saved but Faust
is left to grieve in shame. The second part begins with the spirits of
the earth forgiving Faust and progresses into allegorical poetry. Faust and his Devil pass
through and manipulate the world of politics and the world of the classical gods, and meet
with Helen of Troy. Finally, having succeeded in taming the very forces of war and nature,
Faust experiences a singular moment of happiness. Mephistopheles tries to seize Faust’s soul
when he dies after this moment of happiness, but is frustrated and enraged when angels
intervene due to God’s grace. Though this grace is truly ‘gratuitous’ and does not condone
Faust’s frequent errors perpetrated with Mephistopheles, the angels state that this grace can only
occur because of Faust’s unending striving and due to the intercession of the forgiving
Gretchen. The final scene has Faust’s soul carried to heaven in the presence of God by
the intercession of the “Virgin, Mother, Queen, … Goddess kind forever… Eternal Womanhood.
The Goddess is thus victorious over Mephistopheles, who had insisted at Faust’s death that he
would be consigned to “The Eternal Empty.” Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita
The story of Faust is woven into Dr. Mikhail Bulgakov’s best-known novel, The Master and
Margarita with Margarita being modeled on Gretchen and the Master on Faust. Other characters
in the novel include Woland and Mikhail Alexandrovitch Berlioz.
Mann’s Doctor Faustus Thomas Mann’s 1947 Doktor Faustus: Das Leben
des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde adapts the Faust
legend to a 20th-century context, documenting the life of fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn
as analog and embodiment of the early 20th-century history of Germany and of Europe. The talented
Leverkühn, after contracting venereal disease from a brothel visit, forms a pact with a
Mephistophelean character to grant him 24 years of brilliance and success as a composer.
He produces works of increasing beauty to universal acclaim, even while physical illness
begins to corrupt his body. In 1930, when presenting his final masterwork, he confesses
the pact he had made: madness and syphilis now overcome him, and he suffers a slow and
total collapse until his death in 1940. Leverkühn’s spiritual, mental, and physical collapse and
degradation are mapped on to the period in which Nazism rose in Germany, and Leverkühn’s
fate is shown as that of the soul of Germany. Additional dramatic selections
Faust by Estanislao del Campo The Death of Doctor Faustus by Michel de Ghelderode
Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights by Gertrude Stein
My Faust by Paul Valéry Faust, a Subjective Tragedy by Fernando Pessoa
Faust by Edgar Brau Cinematic appropriations Murnau’s Faust
F.W. Murnau, director of the classic Nosferatu, directed a silent version of Faust that premiered
in 1926. Murnau’s film featured special effects that were remarkable for the time and many
of these shots are still impressive today. In one, Mephisto towers over a town, dark
wings spread wide, as a fog rolls in bringing the plague. In another, Faust rides with Mephisto
through the sky, as the camera seems to swoop across a landscape that includes snowy mountains,
cliffs and waterfalls. In this version of the story, Faust is an
elderly scholar and alchemist who is frustrated at his inability to help the plague-stricken
population. He summons Mephisto, who overcomes Faust’s reluctance to sign a pact by telling
him he can try it for one day with no obligation. At the end of that day, having been restored
to youth and helped by Mephisto to steal a beautiful woman from her wedding feast, Faust
is sufficiently tempted that he agrees to extend the pact for eternity. Eventually he
becomes bored with the pursuit of pleasure and returns home, where he falls in love with
the beautiful and innocent Gretchen. His corruption ultimately ruins both their lives, though
there is still a chance for redemption in the end.
Similarities to Goethe’s Faust include the classic tale of a man who sold his soul to
the Devil, the same Mephisto wagering with an angel to corrupt the soul of Faust, the
plague sent by Mephisto on Faust’s small town, and the familiar cliffhanger with Faust unable
to find a cure and therefore turning to Mephisto, renouncing God, the angel, and science alike.
Musical appropriations Operatic
The Faust legend has been the basis for three major operas:
Mefistofele, the only completed opera by Arrigo Boito
Doktor Faust, begun by Ferruccio Busoni and completed by his pupil Philipp Jarnach
Faust, by Charles Gounod to a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré from Carré’s
play Faust et Marguerite, in turn loosely based on Goethe’s Faust, Part 1
Symphonic Faust has inspired major musical works in
other forms: The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz
Scenes from Goethe’s Faust by Robert Schumann Faust Symphony by Franz Liszt
Symphony No. 8 by Gustav Mahler Histoire du soldat by Igor Stravinsky
Other Epica and The Black Halo by symphonic progressive
metal band Kamelot are sequential concept albums loosely based on the Faust narrative.
See also Deal with the Devil
Jonathan Moulton, the “Yankee Faust” Works based on Faust
Notes Sources
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, edited and with an introduction by Sylvan Barnet.
Signet Classics, 1969. J. Scheible, Das Kloster.
Further reading The Faustian Century: German Literature and
Culture in the Age of Luther and Faustus. Ed. J. M. van der Laan and Andrew Weeks. Camden
House, 2013. ISBN 978-1571135520.


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