In a narrow, vaulted Gothic chamber Dr. Heinrich Faust sits at his desk, surrounded by a clutter of books and scientific instruments. It is Easter Eve.
Now fifty years old, Faust is depressed and frustrated. He has mastered all the important academic disciplines — Philosophy, Medicine, Law and Theology — has fearlessly inquired into everything that interested him, and is not afraid of the devil or Hell, but he is unsatisfied and believes himself trapped by the limitations of human understanding. Moreover, he feels that his achievements have been of no use to mankind and have brought him no earthly rewards. Now he plans to turn to magic in the hope of at last attaining ultimate knowledge.
Faust studies the esoteric symbols in an old magic book and meditates on their meaning, then invokes the Earth-Spirit. Accompanied by various spiritual phenomena, the Spirit of Earthly Reality appears, but it rebukes Faust, denies their kinship, and vanishes again.
This incident indicates that man's higher nature makes it impossible for him to be accepted into the gross sphere of complete earthliness, of abstract and formless being. Whatever his wishes, a human being cannot separate existence and consciousness.
Faust begins to despair of ever satisfying his aspirations when Wagner, his famulus or assistant, enters the room and interrupts him. In the conversation which follows both men speak at cross-purposes. Faust is critical of Wagner's conventional attitudes and Wagner is unable to understand Faust's unhappy alienation.
The dull, unimaginative but honest Wagner is a parody of bourgeois pedantry. His characterization emphasizes the differences between the search after knowledge for its own sake or for worldly rewards and the search for true understanding.
After Wagner departs, Faust returns to bitter thoughts about human impotence. The sight of a skull makes him think of suicide as the solution to his problems. He is about to drink a glass of poison when the pealing of church bells and the melodious singing of a choir remind him of the Easter message of resurrection and eternal life. Faust does not literally believe in these concepts, but they bring back memories of his childhood religious faith and their symbolic meaning restores his self-confidence.
The Easter message that inspires Faust is the hope of life's rebirth from corruption and death. It predicts the course that Faust will follow — first sinking lower and lower into the depths of personal degradation, then rising to the highest level of human fulfillment and salvation.