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The character of Faust is a complex one. For this reason, evidence will be found throughout the text that can be appropriated to paint him either as a hero or a villain. This is, however, the result of divergent conceptualization of morality and of the heroic character.
In this paper, I will provide evidence to show that, in consideration of the whole text, Faust can be understood as either hero or villain and that a deep analysis of the Dungeon scene will give credit to Dante’s claim that Faust cannot be morally classified as a positive figure.
Faust as a Positive Figure
Faust is a seeker of knowledge. He is driven by a great need to understand the nature of things, thereby, studying a number of disciplines including law, medicine, philosophy and theology (Goethe). This quest for knowledge occupies his whole life. This trait of persistence in seeking something one believes in is an integral part of the hero archetype.
In striving to arrive at the truth, he makes an error of judgment by getting into a wager with Mephistopheles. He does not believe in hell and, therefore, thinks he has outwitted Mephistopheles. In the end, he does make it to heaven after supplication, showing that he isn’t responsible for the errors of judgment he made earlier in his life.
A second argument supporting Faust’s place among heroes would be if he is regarded as a victim. Goethe’s plot alludes, to a great extent to the book of Job in the Bible. Job is the victim of a wager between God and Satan; Satan thinks he can corrupt Job’s moral standing but God knows otherwise. They make a wager and Job becomes the victim of endless misery as Satan seeks to make him deny God’s greatness.
In the end, Job upholds his faith on God and, for this reason, he is greatly rewarded. Faust’s experiences can be viewed this way. His eventual remorse for all he has done in search of knowledge and his quest to conquer death serve as the ultimate proof of his heroism.
Even after the witnessing the power of Satan, he still has a capacity for remorse. When looking at this way, Faust can be painted as a hero even if taking into account just a concept of a belief.
Faust as a negative Figure
Faust is given an avid need for humanly pleasures. He disregards all consequences in getting into a wager with Mephistopheles. He portrays little responsibility in giving into the desires of the flesh, a case in point being his lust for Gretchen. He has his way with her and later leaves her that leads to her eventual death.
He shows a great vanity when he accepts Mephistopheles’s offer to restore his youthfulness. On not finding any value in life after a spirit rejects his assertion that he and it are one, he considers committing suicide and it is only Easter bell that distracts him.
Faust in the Dungeon scene
An analysis of the dungeon scene can lead one to characterize Faust as a hero. The scene begins with Faust bearing the keys to the dungeon where Gretchen is imprisoned (Goethe). The motivation behind Faust’s action is admirable. He goes to rescue Gretchen from the jailers since he feels guilty for having deserted her. It is at a great personal risk to his person that he is undertaking this rescue (Goethe).
This act of heroism may also be interpreted as a sign of his love for Gretchen. He declares: “a lover lies at your feet/ who’ll end your painful slavery” (Goethe). It could also be argued that at Mephistopheles’s prompting.
Faust does not leave Gretchen until a voice comes from above declaring that she has been forgiven (Goethe). It can be argued that Faust’s action to redeem Gretchen are noble and that their significance is magnified by the lengths he goes to, even risking harm to himself just to save her.
The same scene can be used to provide proof for the argument that Faust is indeed a negative figure. Foremost, Faust’s rescue plan is motivated by the wrong impetus: his remorse and not necessarily his concern for Gretchen. This can be interpreted as proof of his egoistic nature.
When he opens Gretchen’s cell, she thinks that time of her execution has come. She rues her death and her lover’s absence: “I’m still so young, so young! / And yet I’ll die!/I was lovely too, that was my Ruin/ My love was near, now he’s gone /The garland’s torn: the flowers are done” (Goethe). To this lament, Faust declares: “How shall I endure this misery, say!” (Goethe).
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This declaration is an evidence of his inner guilt and anguish, the feeling that he seeks to assuage by freeing Gretchen. More profoundly, though, Faust’s attempt to save Gretchen is a sign of a much grave flaw in him and Faust is obviously quite disinclined towards penance.
Gretchen’s being in prison is partly his fault. Had he pursued love rather than lust when he first sought to woo Gretchen, she would not have been facing death. He is willing to disregard the past as evidenced by his saying: “Let past be past I say! / You’re destroying me!” (Goethe). It shows that he is ready to face the future and forget about everything that has happened.
Destro’s take on Faust is that it is completely impossible to find a positive side to his character. Drawing from contemporary ideas of morality, he argues that Faust’s obsession with finding the truth presents a flaw since he is unable to come to terms with his own salvation (Eee.uci.edu).
He uses Kantian view of morality to argue that Faust lacks the capacity for responsibility towards others and instead applies “the immoral “morality” of the Superman, for whom the supreme law is self-realization” (Eee.uci.edu).
This is a reference to Faust’s incapacity to face penance for deserting Gretchen and choosing the relatively easier route of appropriating Mephistopheles’ powers to save her. Dante contrasts Faust’s behavior with Gretchen’s who is ready to face death rather than escape from prison in the company of Faust and Mephistopheles.
It is clear that Dante bases his evaluation of Faust’s morality on Kantian inspired standpoint that scoffs at the idea of egoism. The author’s eventual decision to save Faust does seem, in Destro’s words, a “mockery of any kind of ethical judgment on him” (Eee.uci.edu). He sacrifices the interest of others for the sake of bodily pleasure. It is his preference of lust over love that leads to the death of both Gretchen and their child.
For these deaths, he is not willing or ready to face the appropriate consequences. Thus, he presents a typical case of a narcissistic hedonist. Little moral ground can be found to defend hedonism whether by consideration of the moral concept of his time or in the contemporary understanding of the term. Similarly, little basis exists for his eventual salvation from the story.
Consideration of the whole text leads one to arrive at the same conclusion. The argument that Faust is a victim of the spiritual machinations of the bet between God and Satan can not be further removed from the truth. While Job’s case to which Goethe alludes clearly shows the basis for Job’s salvation, Faust’s does not. He willingly gets into a wager with Mephistopheles.
His intentions in doing so are in no way noble since what he seeks is his involvement on pure bodily pleasure. He, therefore, can not be objectively argued to be a victim. From a moral point of view, he is responsible for his actions and would be expected to atone for them in a morally apt way. This, he does not do.
On analyzing Faust, as a whole, and later particularly focusing on the dungeon scene, I do agree with Destro’s assertion that it would be practically impossible to find any moral or heroic merits to the character of Faust (Eee.uci.edu).
This is particularly so if one were to base their argument on the contemporary understanding of morality. It would still be problematic for one to apply the philosophical notion of morality during the Goethe’s time. To find him heroic would be evidence of a complete misunderstanding of the idea of heroism, the concept of morality or both.
Eee.uci.edu. “Goethe’s Faust.” 2012. 25 Jan, 2012. <http://core.humanities.uci.edu/>.
Goethe. V. W. “Faust.” Poetry Translation. 2012. 25 Jan, 2012 <https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/FaustIScenesItoIII.php>.