English 401
The Faust Theme

 

English 401
The Faust Theme

The Faust Theme: Conclusion?

You have read three works in the Faust tradition: Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Goethe's Faust, and Ibsen's Peer Gynt. The protagonists of these works fit the traditional faustian model, they are restless, active males with identifiable desires and faults. Their choices of action or inaction have ramifications for themselves individually and for the persons surrounding them. These characters live lives of extremes, throwing over one way of life to explore another. Faust and Dr. Faustus are continually striving; Peer Gynt plunges from adventure to adventure unable to commit himself. All of them exclude loving relationships from their lives in order to pursue their personal aims.

Each character's end is unique. Following tradition, Marlowe's Faustus is damned because of his refusal to repent; but contrary to tradition, Goethe's Faust is saved because of his continual striving and because of the intercession of love. Peer strives also, but in a much more mundane fashion. After having wasted his life, Peer appears to get a second chance through Solveig's love. Has any one of them met his goals?

With all three protagonists, we have been introduced to quests for self-fulfillment, pleasure, power, freedom, and self-evasion. All three protagonists are male creations of male writers who were leading artists and thinkers of their day. When women occur in these works, they are supporting players. The mythical Helena appears only very briefly in Marlowe's and Goethe's works—and Ibsen makes a quick pun on Goethe's closing line about the eternal feminine. In the case of Gretchen and Solveig, the women play crucial roles in the heroes' final destinies, but they remain secondary characters.

The challenges of the faustian legends continued to fascinate artists after Ibsen. They created works in many different genres and adapted the themes to their own cultures and times. Ibsen and other 19th century authors began asking how the searches for knowledge and identity played out in women's lives as well as men's.

Throughout the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, artists explored variations on these themes, some asking if to strive incessan,tly is evil or noble; if there is a fundamental difference between the male quest and the female quest to discover the meaning of life; and if we can "have it all." There is a short list of some of these authors and their works in the Supplementary Materials List.

Is the quest for self-knowledge the same at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was at the end of the sixteenth century? We hope you will be spurred on by this introduction to the Faust theme to continue searching for an answer to  this essential question in more iterations of this theme.