Summary and Analysis Part 1: Faust's Study (iii)



The next day Faust is alone in his study again. Mephistopheles enters, dressed as a nobleman. He tries to tempt Faust by offering him a life of limitless wealth and pleasure, but Faust sadly declines the offer, saying that the world's pleasures cannot end his doubts or satisfy his needs.

Mephistopheles taunts Faust for his failure to commit suicide on Easter Eve and drives him to voice a rejection of the value of life and the traditional Christian virtues. The devil urges Faust to begin a new life with his assistance, and to exist no longer as an ordinary human being. If Faust agrees to become his servant after death (i.e. to sell his soul), Mephisto will be his during life and will guarantee to provide all that Faust desires.

Faust accepts this offer with some hesitation, for he doubts Mephisto's ability to fulfill his end of the bargain, but makes a significant change in the wording of the pact. Faust promises that if any moment, however brief, is so charged with pleasure for him that he says, "Linger a while! Thou art so fair!" that will be the day of his death and he will serve the devil forever after.


Mephisto's costume in this scene is a reminder to Faust of the narrow limitations on the world in which he has been living until now. Faust's change in wording recalls the divine law that action is the ruling force of the universe, and raises the story of this Faust to a higher philosophical level than that of the hero of the old legends. The terms of the new pact mean that only when Faust is so satiated with pleasure that he chooses to be in a state of rest or nonaction will he be damned. In other words, the primal sin is to absolve oneself of the responsibility for motion and activity. This idea is in full accord with Mephisto's nihilistic principles so the devil accepts the amended pact. In Goethe's religious thought, movement, action, and striving are equated with virtue, while nonmovement, passivity, and resignation are sin. Since Faust does not believe in the traditional heaven and hell, he is really offering little in his own terms, and is betting his life rather than selling his soul. In Faust's mind there is no certainty that eternal life really exists, so he is merely stating his willingness to give up an existence that he is already dissatisfied with. Faust's desire is not intrinsically an evil one, despite his pact with the devil. As the Lord said in the "Prologue," striving and error are the path of even the righteous man. At this point Faust's final end is still uncertain, but his opportunity to redeem himself is undiminished by his alliance with Mephisto.

The devil is unsure of his ability to fulfill Faust's request, but he accepts the challenge and their pact is signed in blood. Faust is filled with eagerness to taste all those aspects of life that he has neglected until now. He has found that reason and magic were unable to console him, but hopes to find understanding and knowledge through emotional and physical experience. Faust and Mephistopheles are interrupted when a student knocks at the door. Faust is in no mood to see him and asks Mephisto to take his place. The devil puts on Faust's academic gown.

The young freshman has just arrived in town and wants the advice of the great scholar Faust on his studies, but Mephisto confuses him by a bitter, satirical attack on pedantry and academic learning. The devil's analysis of the traditional learned disciplines parodies Faust's in the first scene. Before the student departs, Mephistopheles sarcastically writes in his album, Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum ("You shall be like God, knowing good and evil"), the advice given by the serpent to Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The devil as portrayed by Goethe performs a necessary function in the execution of the divine purpose. Despite his cynical belief in the futility of learning and the grossness of mankind, Mephisto often speaks the truth. His advice to the student is important for understanding God's attitude toward Faust's moral errors — one comes to know good partly through knowing evil, and one cannot come to know God without this knowledge. Moreover, true knowledge is gotten only from experience.

After the student goes, Faust re-enters the room. Mephistopheles cheerfully congratulates him on his new life and they set out on their adventures.