Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Cathedral Nave
The heartbroken Gretchen attends a service at the cathedral to find forgiveness for her sins and solace for her almost unbearable suffering. The church is crowded, but she is alone, except for an Evil Spirit who lurks nearby and reproaches her. Whispering in her ear, the Spirit enumerates her transgressions — she is pregnant, Valentine is dead because of her, and her mother is dead also, killed by the sleeping potion which Gretchen gave her.
The Spirit's cruel taunts destroy Gretchen's remaining hopes for mercy and her misery increases. The emotional intensity of the scene is heightened by the alternation between the choir chanting the powerful Latin Hymn Dies Irae ("The Day of Wrath") and the hissing accusations of the Evil Spirit. At last Gretchen reaches the limit of her endurance and faints.
Gretchen is unable to benefit from the comforting influence of religion because she is conscious of her guilt and fears damnation. In Goethe's view, conventional religion is too limited and inflexible to be able to solace the unhappy sinner. The Church does not understand God or human nature; thus it cannot help Gretchen or forgive her sins. Gretchen is indeed guilty in a legalistic sense, but her remorse is genuine and there were extenuating circumstances behind each of her crimes, even though this does not absolve her of personal responsibility. The Spirit that torments Gretchen takes none of this into consideration. It makes accusations that are grounded in facts, but it presents a wholly negative interpretation of God's mercy and withholds all possibility of forgiveness from the penitent. That is why Goethe has made it into an "evil" Spirit.