Mephistopheles is ignorant of the real power of love, and Gretchen turns out to be his principal human adversary. Faust’s love for Gretchen is his first real participation in life. Though it proves to be ultimately a step towards the seat of divine grace, it ends in grim and sordid tragedy. The story is one of seduction, desertion, murder, infanticide and madness, told with such clarity and freshness that it has become one of the most celebrated stories of German -- indeed, of all -- literature. Despite its great importance, it is, of course, merely an episode among other episodes in Faust’s career, not the main event, as Gounod has induced many to conclude. It is endowed with the directness and plasticity of a ballad changed into dramatic form. In 1770 Goethe, as is well known, collected twelve ballads in Alsace, of which eight dealt with the theme of the unfaithful lover, and it is not surprising that a ballad story should now be turned into drama, just as a ballad had provided the basis for the final act of Clavigo. We do not need to enter into the use that Goethe made of the opportunity presented by the story to reflect his own emotional disequilibrium resulting from his attachment to Lili Schönemann, except to observe that, as he was tempted progressively to identify himself with his characters, they took possession of him more firmly than he perhaps intended.
The story belongs to the ‘small world’ into which Mephistopheles is introducing Faust, just as much as Auerbachs Keller had done, with the difference that Faust is now eager and interested. It is small in more than one sense. The scene, as Goethe noted in one of his fragmentary sketches, is a ‘kleine Reichsst. Das anmuthige beschräckte des bürgerlichen Zustands’, a small cathedral city, inhabited by persons with small minds. The idyllic romanticism that has come to surround the drama and the tremendous wealth of human sympathy that it excites must not blind us to this. Gretchen’s bigoted and domineering mother who cares more for her money-lending than her daughter’s welfare, the avaricious priest, the dubious Schwerdtlein couple, an alleged libertine, gambler and adventurer and his concupiscent wife, the fallen girl Barbara, the envious gossip Lieschen, the brutal soldier Valentin, all these belong to small-town life with its restricted range of thoughts and emotions, which are usually selfish, censorious and not without that dissatisfaction which exists in all the other spheres we see in the drama. This is the background against which Gretchen moves.
Pure and devout, keenly observant where orthodoxy is concerned, sympathetic, practical, loyal unto death, Gretchen is shrewd, does not miss an opportunity of self-advertisement and is not immune to flattery. She is capable of putting Faust in his place when he boldly accosts her in the street, but is not displeased by being addressed as ‘Fräulein’, a term then applied to girls of high degree; nor does she omit to notice that he appears to be a nobleman, and she lowers her eyes in a manner that does not appear to be completely un-selfconscious. Faust sees her as the embodiment of modesty and virtue as well as of beauty. From the first his approach to love is both spiritual and physical. Her tragedy is all the blacker for being engendered, partly at least, in association with moral thoughts.
It should be noted that Mephistopheles is not present when Faust and Gretchen meet. He appears directly afterwards. Their acquaintance, as far as they are concerned, is a chance one and, though Mephistopheles has spied on Gretchen and her habits and may perhaps have brought Faust into the vicinity of the Cathedral, where he could meet her (or perhaps others), he is now not pleased with Faust’s choice, or at least leads him to suppose so. None the less, he has only himself to blame, for he tells us (l. 2445) that he had already known of the girl he would seek for his companion. Faust, for his part, has been well served by the potion. He has an aristocratic air, is dressed no doubt in the height of fashion, and Gretchen later confesses to the effect caused by his smiling lips, powerful eyes and noble bearing. The sensual side of him which emerges ‘in derber Liebeslust’ (l. 1114) has been strengthened to a degree that Mephistopheles seems to find embarrassing. Faust’s approach to Gretchen is impertinent, his attitude to love tempestuous. He thrusts all conventional considerations masterfully on one side and overrides the devil’s mock-moral scruples as he drives ruthlessly on. A lifetime in the University has certainly failed to teach him the proprieties. Having a willing henchman, he takes no step himself to seek out Gretchen. Mephistopheles, who has been listening to Gretchen’s confession -- it is a wicked anti-clerical thrust to depict the devil as an eavesdropper in church -- realizes that she may not be a reliable instrument in his cause and further excites Faust’s furious sensuality, first by feigning ignorance as to which girl Faust is after, then by announcing that he has no power over her, by reproaching Faust’s impatience and by demanding time -- a fortnight -- to prepare the ground. He is tamed when Faust threatens to repudiate the pact, demanding that he be taken to her room and be provided with a token, and that Mephistopheles should seek a present for her. All this is the outcome of a momentary meeting. The initiative is solely Faust’s, and so is the responsibility for the tragedy that is to come. The most learned theologian and (no doubt) moral philosopher rides roughshod over every ethical consideration.
The scene changes to Gretchen’s room, so neat and well kept as to elicit
commendation from Mephistopheles. The two interlopers enter just after
Gretchen, remembering the presumptuous cavalier, has gone out to pay her
usual visit to Marthe. Faust, after a moment of silence produced by the
unexpected feeling which comes upon him, sends his companion out so as
to be alone in his contemplation. His emotions undergo a remarkable change
as compared with the previous scene. The atmosphere of the place -- the
silent influence of Gretchen, that is to say -- brings this about. Gretchen’s
first victory, a transformation of Faust’s sensuality into something that
begins to resemble love, is gained without her needing to be present. His
words are no longer those of a libertine. He begins to appreciate her as
a person. He discovers that she possesses the secret of tranquillity which
he has never been able to gain:
|Wie atmet rings Gefühl der Stille,
Der Ordnung, der Zufriedenheit!
In dieser Armut welche Fülle!
In diesem Kerker welche Seligkeit!
[[ Here stillness breathes through every listening sense;
Here stays contentment, far from storm and stress,
And poverty enriched by innocence;
This little cell holds perfect happiness! ]]
Overcome by the sense of completeness, harmony and contentment which
she engenders, he experiences for the first time in his existence that
oneness with nature which he had known of academically but had never achieved,
except as a vision in his momentary contemplation of the macrocosm-sign.
What he now feels confirms that which had been previously theoretical and
doubtless the subject of many a lecture. Gretchen thus symbolizes for him
-- indeed, his own theories predisposed him to regard her as so doing --
the orderliness and fullness of the universe. She is a part of nature.
All her actions in her everyday life reflect naturalness and purity:
|Ich fühl, o Müdchen, deinen Geist
Der Füll’ und Ordnung um mich säuseln,
Der mütterlich dich täglich unterweist,
Den Teppich auf den Tisch dich reinlich breiten heißt,
Sogar den Sand zu deinen Füßen kräuseln.
O liebe Hand! so göttergleich!
Die Hütte wird durch dich ein Himmelreich.
(Er hebt einen Bettvorhang auf.)
Was faßt mich für ein Wonnegraus!
The words göttergleich, Himmelreich, Engel and Götterbild
are not thoughtlessly chosen. Faust is carried away -- perhaps intoxicated
-- by the feeling of unity with the divine creativeness and harmony that
his new experience brings. He is astounded at the change that has come
|Wie innig fühl’ ich mich gerührt!
Was willst du hier? Was wird das Herz dir schwer?
Armsel’ ger Faust! ich kenne dich nicht mehr.
Umgibt mich hier ein Zauberduft?
Mich drang’s, so grade zu genießen,
Und fühle mich in Liebestraum zerfließen!
[[ How moved and troubled is my cloudy breast!
What make you here? Why is your heart so sore?
Ah, wretched Faust, I know you now no more!
And what enchanted atmosphere is this?
I thought to follow hot on passion’s flair,
And now I languish for a true-love’s bliss. ]]
The alteration is profound, and moral qualities present themselves.
His better nature is bestirred. The immoral power of the potion is overcome
as by a miracle. All the more despicable is his later conduct, therefore. Mephistopheles’ entry with a (presumably
stolen) casket of jewels (Ich hab’s wo anders hergenommen (l. 2732);
that is, not from the buried treasure referred to in l. 2676.) does not dispel his doubts.
|Ich weiß nicht, soll ich?
[[ Shall I, or not? ]]
Faust says hesitantly. But Gretchen’s return prevents any further talk, and Mephistopheles (evidently a cracksman) leaves the present in Gretchen’s chest. It invariably happens that Faust’s good intentions fail to be implemented because of some last-minute diabolical intervention.
After a moment’s apprehension, and still with thoughts of Faust in her head, Gretchen sings her famous ballad of love that is loyal unto death. ‘Der König in Thule’ has a symbolical meaning. It is an advance commentary upon Gretchen’s relationship with Faust. The only love she knows is love that is faithful, as hers will be, and as Faust’s will not. The song’s contents are, moreover, a subtle means of undermining her resistance. The thought that love can be so constant and the inability to conceive that his love cannot be as all-encompassing as her own help her to overcome unconsciously any reluctance she may feel. To drop into the folk-song is, of course, natural for a girl of her degree and education. Everything fits appropriately into place in the ballad atmosphere of the Gretchen drama.
As Gretchen opens the chest, noting with surprise that she had locked
it before leaving, she finds the box of jewellery. The song had spoken
of a golden beaker as a gift of love, and the suggestion of a present perhaps
had an unconscious effect in her mind. The sight of the box calls forth
two thoughts -- that perhaps it is a pledge received by her money-lending
mother and that with its aid she could pass for a girl of high degree,
as indeed that very day she had already done in one man’s eyes without
any artificial aids. Her vanity and cupidity are aroused. Without reflecting
further whose property they may be, she tries the trinkets on, and her
discontented sigh that without money beauty is useless indicates that the
tranquillity that Faust had so much admired is beginning to be destroyed.
Mephistopheles has gained a point already. There is social unrest in the
|Nach Golde drängt,
Am Golde hängt
Doch alles. Ach wir Armen!
[[ The lure of gold
Has power to hold
The hearts of all: alas for all us poor. ]]
As the next scene tells us, Gretchen questions her mother concerning
the jewellery and discovers her surmise that it may be a pledge to be wrong.
The suggestion of the gift made in the ballad, ‘Der König in Thule’,
now bears fruit. Gretchen
|sitzt nun unruhvoll,
Weiß weder, was sie will noch soll,
Denkt ans Geschmeide Tag und Nacht,
Noch mehr an den, der’s ihr gebracht;
[[ Sits in discontent,
Unwilling to resign or to resent,
Keeps dreaming of the casket’s golden store
And of the one who gave it, even more. ]]
which does not mean that she knows who the giver is, only that she is
thinking well of him and is curious.
|Und wahrlich! gottlos ist nicht der,
Der ihn so fein gebracht hierher,
[[ Besides, she felt that such a handsome giver
Could not be godless or an evil-liver. ]]
she is reported as having said. Her longing is intensified because her mother, without inquiring as to the ownership, high-handedly gives the box to a priest, an action in which she is reluctantly compelled to concur. Mephistopheles’ speech describing and mimicking the bigotry of the mother and the avid unction of the priest is a rich piece of caricature. It is mordant satire to depict a clergyman obtaining the devil’s jewels by exploiting feminine piety, a servant of God receiving stolen goods, the church taking ill-gotten gains that corrupt the soul.
The scene definitively emphasizes Faust’s responsibility for what is to come. If he had had some compunction (in Gretchen’s room), about receiving the jewels, now, when he has a chance to give up the whole venture, he demands a second and even better gift and furthermore suggests that Mephistopheles should strike up an acquaintance with Marthe. The lofty spirituality of the previous scene has not lasted. There is no going back after this. Gretchen’s mother, with the priest’s aid, has been Mephistopheles’ unwitting agent in fanning the flames both in Gretchen and in Faust. She could not have acted more favourably in his cause. Her domination of her daughter is an important factor in the tragedy.
The first result is apparent in the next scene, which takes place in
Marthe’s house. Gretchen brings her new gift to show to her dubious friend.
She comes in the morning instead of the afternoon, a clear sign of her
excitement. Her inability any longer to confide in her despotic mother
is at once increased by Marthe’s suggestion that she should wear the jewellery
secretly and then unobtrusively in public, on some pretext or other if
necessary. For Marthe is the reverse of bigoted and is anxious to deprive
the church of a second chance of ill-gotten gains:
|Das muß Sie nicht der Mutter sagen;
Tät’s wieder gleich zur Beichte tragen.
[[ A girl were best not tell her mother,
Or priests will have it, like the other. ]]
The naïveté of Gretchen stands out by comparison with her neighbour’s impurity.
Mephistopheles, carrying out Faust’s suggestion, now arrives. His deferential
behaviour to Gretchen (including his use of the polite second person plural,
a form of address which he does not use towards Marthe) weakens her scruples
concerning her lowly station, for she realizes for a second time that she
can pass publicly for a girl of noble birth.
|Denk’, Kind, um alles in der Welt!
Der Herr dich für ein Fräulein hält,
[[ Of all the things that I heard tell! --
He takes you for a demoiselle! ]]
says Marthe. The first stage in Mephistopheles’ plan for arranging an assignation is to announce the death of Marthe’s husband. A grass widow for some time, she has desired this event, but still more, authentic evidence of it. A death notice in the newspaper will, after all, advertise her matrimonial wishes. The innocent Gretchen is at once sympathetic, declares that the thought of the overwhelming sorrow of a lover’s death could deter her from ever loving and promises to pray for the repose of Schwerdtlein’s soul. This reaction is important. To what lengths will she not be prepared to go by way of intercession for Faust? She is given a further opportunity of exhibiting her goodness when Mephistopheles indelicately inquires if she has any sentimental attachment. She reproves him as firmly as she had once reproved Faust. The scene gives direct evidence, such as we have not had earlier, of the generosity and purity of her character, as well as of her major weakness, fear of her mother.
The story of Schwerdtlein’s career as a pirate and his death from the mal de Naples as told by Mephistopheles provides a comic background to this revelation of Gretchen’s character. His words are chosen with consummate skill in order to excite in Marthe alternately feigned grief and unforgiving anger. Playing subtly upon her vanity, calculation and prurience, he maliciously even offers himself to console her as a husband. Her summary that, apart from his desertion, loose living, drunkenness and gambling, Schwerdtlein was not a ‘bad sort’ (this verdict being based in part on Mephistopheles’ doubtful narrative) is as revealing about herself as it is about him.
Marthe’s request, as the visitor is about to leave, for corroborative
evidence of her husband’s reported death leads to the final stage in Mephistopheles’
plan. Her desire is that the world may know that she is again free to marry.
He will bring his friend that very night to give his testimony. He describes
|Ein braver Knab’! ist viel gereist,
Fräuleins alle Höflichkeit erweist,
[[ A gallant lad, he is, has travelled wide,
And knows how ladies should be gratified. ]]
and proceeds to inquire if Gretchen will also be present. She does not
refuse the invitation, but it is Marthe who finally clinches the matter,
saying for her as well as for herself:
|Da hinterm Haus in meinem Garten
Wollen wir der Herrn heut abend warten.
[[ Tonight, within my little garden, then,
Behind the house, we’ll wait the gentlemen. ]]
Faust’s tormenting sensuality boils over when Mephistopheles informs
him of his plan. The fact that a disreputable go-between, such as he is
told Marthe is --
|Das ist ein Weib wie auserlesen
Zum Kuppler- und Zigeunerwesen!
[[ That woman seems to me expressly made
To play the pimp or ply a gipsy’s trade. ]]
-- will be used to aid his advances arouses no moral revulsion. ‘So recht!’ he replies, quite casually. What does give him pause, however, is the story which he is to tell that Schwerdtlein is buried at Padua. His objection -- he does not know that the whole story may be a fiction -- that they will have go to Padua in orrder to verify the fact rests rather on his unwillingness to absent himself from the place where Gretchen is, even for a short time (for they could travel on Mephistopheles’ magic cloak), than on exclusively ethical considerations. He therefore asks for a less inconvenient plan. Mephistopheles, however, taking the objection to be a moral one, points out with obvious sophistry that Faust’s teaching at the University had contained a good deal of unverified information and that his future declaration of eternal love to Gretchen will be just about as valid.
Faust’s reply to this is important:
|Laß das! Es wird! - Wenn ich empfinde,
Für das Gefühl, für das Gewühl
Nach Namen suche, keinen finde,
Dann durch die Welt mit allen Sinnen schweife,
Nach allen höchsten Worten greife,
Und diese Glut, von der ich brenne,
Unendlich, ewig, ewig nenne,
Ist das ein teuflisch Lügenspiel?
[[ No more! This holds! - If in my mind
The turmoil lives, the flood and flame,
So that I seek but never find
Its most mysterious name;
When heart and soul I range the earth
To find a lofty word of worth,
And still the same
I burn, I burn
Is this then empty sophistry
And just a devil’s game? ]]
He means that his inability adequately to define his feelings will not
invalidate their sincerity. It is, of course, true that things exist independently
of their being described, but it is strange that the most learned man alive,
who can no doubt define everything else, cannot define his own emotions,
the things which he now knows matter most in life. It is a hypocritical
piece of irresponsible self persuasion on his part to imply that whatever
he says to Gretchen he will not be telling a lie. He submits to Mephistopheles’
|Denn du hast recht, vorzüglich, weil ich muß
[[ (So come, I view this chatter with disgust,)
And bow to you, simply because I must. ]]
All considerations dissolve entirely before the imperious demand of Faust’s ego for self-fulfilment.
The scene in Marthe’s garden that same evening is one of the immortal
scenes of all literature. It is the apex of the first section of the Gretchen
story. We are spared Faust’s humiliating moment when he gives his false
testimony and his reaction upon being recognized by Gretchen and are presented
merely with the end of the lovers’ conversation. It falls into three parts,
with dialogue between Mephistopheles and Marthe inserted as a foil. It
is against the demonic background of these last two characters that Gretchen’s
love develops. All along Gretchen has been unaware that Marthe is the chosen
instrument of Hell and, therefore, has been unconscious of the danger that
threatens. She remembers Mephistopheles’ description of Faust as a man
of the world, is taken aback and flustered when he kisses her hand, and
provokes the beginning of an academic lecture, which she does not follow,
when she declares that his friends are cleverer than she is and that he
will no doubt forget her. The lines:
|O Beste! glaube, was man so verständig nennt,
Ist oft mehr Eitelkeit und Kurzsinn,
[[ Dear girl, believe me, so-called cleverness
Is often vanity and mere pretence. ]]
remind us of Faust’s correction of Wagner. An incipient philosophical
appraisal of the virtues of humility and innocence, the supreme gifts of
living nature, with whom Faust identifies Gretchen yet again,
|Ach, daß die Einfalt, daß die Unschuld nie
Sich selbst und ihren heil’gen Wert erkennt!
Daß Demut, Niedrigkeit, die höchsten Gaben
Der liebevoll austeilenden Natur --
[[ I mean that true souls hardly guess
The sacred worth of their own innocence;
Yet simple love and meekness are sublime,
The sweetest gifts of Nature’s bounteous grace. ]]
is interrupted by her account of her home life, in which self appreciation
is skilfully combined with self-apology. Her mother’s meanness, her soldier
brother, the little sister whom she vainly tried to rear, her cooking,
sweeping, knitting, sewing, shopping, washing, as she tells of these, Faust
is constrained to say:
|Du hast gewiß das reinste Glück empfunden,
[[ The purest human happiness was yours. ]]
words which can hardly sound more than a mockery to her, but to him
mean that she has led a life of useful activity, the sort of life which
he had never been able to discover. While he had striven by all manner
of means to grasp the secret of nature, she embodied it within herself.
An explanation by Gretchen of her feelings upon first being approached
by Faust then follows. Finally she has recourse to the folk-oracle of plucking
the petals of a marguerite (accurately symbolical, as well, of what is
to happen to her). To all this Faust can say little but ‘Süß
Liebchen’ or ‘Du holdes Himmelsangesicht’. As he had said, he does not
know how to define his feelings, any more than he knows of the popular
custom of the marguerite. His longest speech in a conversation almost monopolized
by Gretchen admits that his emotions are inexpressible:
|O schaudre nicht! Laß diesen Blick,
Laß diesen Händedruck dir sagen,
Was unaussprechlich ist:
Sich hinzugeben ganz und eine Wonne
Zu fühlen, die ewig sein muß!
[[ No sighs or trembling! Look in my eyes,
And let them, let this handclasp say to you
Things beyond human speech.
Ah love, wholly to yield one’s self, to know
Deep bliss that has no ending! ]]
As he refers to eternal love he pauses at the word ‘ewig’, recalling
memories of the morning conversation with Mephistopheles, and adds the
lines, mentally defying his adversary:
|Ewig! -- Ihr Ende würde Verzweiflung sein.
Nein, kein Ende! Kein Ende!
[[ Marked for eternity, so deep,
This cannot end - unless despair were all!
Nay, there’s no ending then. ]]
All this time Marthe, remembering Mephistopheles’ earlier advances and aided by jealousy of Gretchen’s success, makes an undisguised attempt to lure the devil into matrimony. His evasion leaves no hope except of a liaison. Her husband is forgotten in less than a day. Even her mock-moral solicitude for Gretchen, as the dusk falls, merely springs from her desire, as a (supposedly) marriageable widow, to attempt to safeguard her own dubious reputation. For the neighbours talk, and no doubt have done so before, about the goings-on in her garden. Gretchen’s mother, who must have heard the gossip, ought clearly to have protected her daughter from contact with this unwholesome household.
The few lines in the summer-house may or may not follow chronologically directly upon what has preceded, but they follow it ‘in temper. Gretchen, who has now changed to the ‘du’ form of address, would be all submission, were it not for her mother. She is completely unaware of any peril. Mephistopheles’ interruption gives Faust a further chance to reflect upon the disastrous aid which he has enlisted. But the purity of Gretchen’s love has enveloped him.
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