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Introduction to English 401: The Faust Theme

Faust, a figure
willing to risk damnation to gain superhuman power, has historically
intrigued artists, theologians, scholars, and lay people, and he
continues to fascinate us today. This course explores the Faust figure
in three diverse works of early-modern and modern literature. In some
ways these literary characters represent the specific times and places
of their authors, but they also display universal human qualities, such
as curiosity, ambition, pride, and fear.

Site: Athabasca University: Open Courseware
Course: English 401: The Faust Theme
Book: Introduction
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Friday, 20 July 2018, 3:01 AM MDT

Table of contents

Study Guide


Faust, a figure willing to risk damnation to gain superhuman power, has historically intrigued artists, theologians, scholars, and lay people, and he continues to fascinate us today. This course explores the Faust figure in three diverse works of early-modern and modern literature. In some ways these literary characters represent the specific times and places of their authors, but they also display universal human qualities, such as curiosity, ambition, pride, and fear.

As you will discover, Faust, like humanity, has always been a seeker. Sometimes he searches for personal freedom, for self-fulfillment, for power, or for pleasure. Because of Faust's longevity in written literature and his persistence in folk culture, he is a fitting metaphor for the study of the individual's search for meaning even today.

Study Guide


Learning Objectives

  1. Differentiate between the historical and legendary Faust figures.
  2. Trace the early literary history of the Faust figure.

Study Guide


Background on the Historical Faust Figure,
the Faust Legend, and Faust in Literature

The first two works you will read are Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (its full title is The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, Part I. The Faust figure has been used repeatedly as a personification of different philosophical and religious concepts in Western literature. Faust was an actual historical person who lived in the sixteenth century, but the concept of an individual's making a pact with the devil had been present in Western folklore ever since Christianity had been adopted. Many figures—both historical and fictional—from before the time of the historical Faust have been credited with experiences and powers similar to those he is alleged to have had. Among them are Theophilus (who had the first detailed pact with Satan), Solomon, Simon Magus, Virgil, Cyprian, Merlin, Roger Bacon, Robert the Devil, and Zyto, as well as several popes. Many of the legends that grew up around these individuals were formed quite early; for example, the Simon Magus account was formulated during the first four centuries AD, and most of the legends were common knowledge in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. 

Before the sixteenth century, the emphasis of the Faust figure was on magic and sorcery, but, with the rise of individualism and the growth of secular learning, a new emphasis on gaining sensual fulfilment and acquiring obscure knowledge emerged. While some of the Faust figures conceived during and after the Protestant Reformation are anti-Catholic, both the Protestant and Catholic churches opposed the ambition to gain knowledge for its own sake.

While we have only a few historical records pertaining to Doctor Faustus, his name and deeds have been circulated through ballads, plays, and stories. As we know, he was not the first figure thought to have sold his soul to the devil, but after his appearance many earlier legends came to be focused on him.


Holzschnitt von ca. 1616, Dr. Johannes Faust mit Homunculus, Mephistopheles (Nennwert 60 Pfennig).
Wikimedia (public domain)

Doctor Faustus, whose first name is usually given as George, Jörg, Johann, or Johannes, was a notorious German intellectual and practitioner of magic. He was a contemporary of Luther, and lived during the time of the Reformation, which was a time of great insecurity and upheaval. What historical records remain concerning Faustus contain discrepancies, and it is often quite difficult to differentiate clearly between historical and legendary evidence. From 1507 to 1540, there are accounts of his activities in letters, diaries, and reports by his contemporaries, among them Luther's comrade-in-arms, Philipp Melanchthon.

We do not know Doctor Faustus' exact birthdate, but it was probably around 1480; he is believed to have died in 1539 or 1540. Faustus was well educated; among other things, he studied magic at the University of Cracow. He lived for some time in Wittenberg (the city in which Luther published his 99 theses), but he is known to have travelled extensively throughout Germany and Europe. He is said to have performed many mysterious deeds with the help of the devil, whom he called his brother-in-law. Faustus attempted to fly while visiting Venice, and he is said to have been raised up into the air and then flung to the ground by the devil. Faustus was often accompanied by a dog, a symbol of evil power. In fact, Goethe has Mephistopheles first appear to Faust and Wagner as a dog.

In 1587, in Frankfurt am Main, Johann Spies published his account of Faust's life and death in Historia von D. Johann Fausten, usually referred to as the Faustbuch. It quickly became a best seller—a rarity at that time—going through sixteen printings in two years. The content, very pious and anti-Catholic, was used by Protestant leaders as an educational tool to attract and keep believers. In the Faustbuch, Faust is given twenty-four years of power and material gain in return for his soul. At the end of this time, Faust voices his regrets and wishes to be released from his contract with the devil. This is, of course, not possible, and he dies a horrible death, which serves as a warning to readers to avoid Faust's overweening ambition.


When Christopher Marlowe wrote his drama Doctor Faustus, he must have been aware of English translations of the Faustbuch, one of which appeared in 1592, as well as other Faust stories. This play, like the Faustbuch, became popular with all social classes. It was performed throughout England and on the Continent, and provided impetus for the writing of other dramatic versions of the Faust legend.

Various theatre groups freely adapted the Faust plays and no single stage text survives. In these dramatic versions, there was much emphasis on vulgarity, buffoonery, and superstition. Although the educated public became tired of the plays in the mid-to-late-eighteenth century, the legend stayed alive in puppet plays, the first known Faust puppet performance taking place in 1747. It may have been through this medium that Goethe first encountered the Faust figure.

Marlowe's drama and the puppet plays had a common theme, namely that the possession of too much knowledge is a sin. This emphasis shifted when Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a highly esteemed eighteenth-century German writer of the Enlightenment, took up the Faust figure. Unlike previous authors, Lessing believed that the desire and search for knowledge and truth were the highest of human ideals. He began work on his Faust play in 1755, but did not complete it, despite the fact that he worked on it for twenty years. It is noteworthy that, in Lessing's mid-eighteenth century version, Faust would in the end be reconciled with his God, despite his search for knowledge having been aided by the devil. This change in attitude was probably caused by the change in intellectual climate as society became less concerned with traditional Christian beliefs and more involved in the rational pursuits of science and knowledge. Goethe's Faust, which is covered in depth in Unit 2, follows Lessing's work chronologically, and further embodies the values of the Enlightenment.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, literary works continued to deal with the complexity of the Faustian quest. We have poems by Heinrich Heine, Nikolaus Lenau, and Karl Shapiro, plays by C.D. Grabbe, and Paul Valery, and prose works by Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, Louisa May Alcott, Anatoli Lunacharski, and Thomas Mann. Each author who has written on the basic Faust story has formulated it somewhat differently. Some, like Lenau and Shapiro, give the search for knowledge a personal and contemporary relevance. Lunacharski, in Faust and the City, focuses primarily on a Marxist application of the social content in the latter part of Goethe's Faust, Part II. Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus, written in 1947 in the United States, is an impressive interpretation of a twentieth-century artist's intellectual, psychological, and social dilemma. We have moved a long way from the morality plays' simplistic message of the avoidance of damnation, to a situation in which the individual's salvation or damnation is of a psychological nature, while also closely associated with his social environment.

Composers have also created musical works using the Faust theme. Charles Gounod based his opera Faust (1859), on the Faust and Gretchen episode in Goethe's Faust, Part I. Other composers who have taken themes and ideas from the Faust tradition include Louis Spohr (Faust, 1818), Hector Berlioz (La Damnation de Faust, 1846), Franz Liszt (Eine Faust Symphonie, 1857), and Arrigo Boito (Mefistofele, 1868). The twentieth-century pop singer and composer Randy Newman wrote Faust, a musical, in 1995, casting himself as the devil on the recording.

A Musical Interlude: Charles Gounod's Opera, Faust

O merveille! ... A moi les plaisirs

Singers: Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), Frieda Hempel (vocalist: soprano vocal), Maria Duchêne (vocalist: contralto), Andrés de Segurola (vocalist: bass vocal), Léon Rothier (vocalist: bass vocal). Composer: Charles Gounod (1818-1893). (The Internet Archive) [Public domain or Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

Air de Marguerite dit Air des bijoux

Gounod - Air de Marguerite dit Air des bijoux, extrait de Faust - Orgue: Philippe Malgouyres - Soprano: Michèle Laporte. Enregistré dans le temple de Paris Plaisance le 09-05-2009. By Josephlaporte (Own work). [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

Sérénade de Méphistophélès

Sérénade de Méphistophélès of the Opera, Faust by Charles Gounod, interpreted by Fédor Chaliapiney (1873 - 1938). [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Study Guide


Interactive Exercises

A Brief Overview of Early-Modern and Modern Literature

Instructions: This interactive exercise is meant to test your general knowledge of important textual background from this Introduction. After reading each question, write down as many points as you can that would go into your answer. When you have done so, move your cursor over the question and click. The answer should appear in a text box below the question.

  1. To which artistic movement does Marlowe's Doctor Faustus belong?

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is an English Renaissance drama.

Modern literature itself has its roots in the creativity of the Renaissance. The fifteenth century experienced an explosion of intellectual and artistic activity stimulated by the revival of classical learning and thought and a rejection of the religious restrictions of the Middle Ages. Writers and scholars speculated on the need for an ideal society based on reason and science.

By the 1600s, people—at least those with the leisure for self-reflection—had come to see themselves as individuals striving for spiritual and physical freedom. Classical learning had convinced artists and writers that humanity itself, in all of its glory, was a worthy focus of study. The development of a balanced mind and body, and sheer enjoyment of life itself, had come to be seen as proper goals of mankind.

  1. Goethe's Faust exemplifies the ideals of which artistic movement?

Goethe's Faust is one of the great works of the Romantic Movement which flourished in Europe in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Romanticism, like the Renaissance, places the individual at the very centre of its world view. It emphasizes intuition and imagination, and holds that nature, pure and unspoiled, is the source of truth, since it was created by divine power.

In England, the Romantic Movement became prominent with the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Wordsworth's “Preface” to the second edition in 1800 became the literary manifesto of the movement. It defined “all good poetry” as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”[1] and proposed that language free itself from artificial Neo-Classical conventions. The poet must write not only for himself, but for all men, and must select from the “real language of men . . . who feel vividly and see clearly.”[2]


[1] Wordsworth, William, and Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, The Lyrical Ballads 1798-1808. London: Methuen, 1959, p. 10.

[2] Wordsworth & Coleridge, p. 28.

  1. Which late-nineteenth century artistic movements objectively observed and recorded humanity's real living conditions?

In Realism and Naturalism the individual was seen as a victim of either biological or socio-economic determinism. In novels, plot took second place to the depiction of character, which was to be conceived in accordance with each individual's instincts, hereditary traits, and environment. Ibsen's plays, including Peer Gynt, expose the ills of modern society and humanity's shortcomings.