Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Prison
Assisted by Mephistopheles, Faust makes his way to Gretchen's cell. When he enters, Faust finds that she has been driven insane by her imprisonment and sense of guilt. Gretchen does not remember him and huddles fearfully in the corner of the cell, thinking he is the hangman come to execute her for having drowned her baby. Gretchen pleads with Faust to spare her life and begs permission to hold her infant once more.
Faust is grief-stricken by this discovery. He cries out in despair. Suddenly Gretchen regains her senses and recognizes him. She joyously leaps up and her chains fall off. Faust and Gretchen embrace. Now that her lover has returned, Gretchen is no longer afraid and feels confident that everything will be well.
Faust tries to hurry Gretchen out of the cell before morning light, but she rejects his offer of escape. She knows she cannot evade punishment for her crimes and foresees no peace except that of the grave. Faust unsuccessfully tries to change her mind.
As dawn breaks Mephistopheles enters the cell and warns Faust to come along. Gretchen recognizes the devil and fears he has come for her. She prays for divine mercy:
Judgment of God! I have given myself to Thee!
O Father, save me! I am thine!
Mephistopheles tells Faust to come at once or share Gretchen's doom, for, he says, "she is condemned!" But a voice from Heaven interjects, "Redeemed!" Once again Mephisto summons Faust and they depart together. The scene closes with Gretchen's voice faintly calling after her loved one.
The scene is particularly praised by critics for its poignant portrayal of Gretchen's madness. Gretchen's restoration to sanity when she sees Faust illustrates the regenerative power of love. Her refusal to escape is based on her acknowledgment of responsibility for her acts and her acceptance of God's law. She has a simple and clear-cut conception of right and wrong which is incomprehensible to the still inwardly doubting Faust. Gretchen is granted salvation by God's grace (the voice from Heaven) because her crimes were the result of inexperience and her motives were never sinful or impure. Gretchen was led into sin by following her instincts, but in Goethe's thought it is part of being human to err. One is redeemed in the end if his conscience learns to know the difference between good and evil, rejects sinfulness, and repents. Gretchen's final words, "Heinrich! I shudder to look at you," express her horror at the ungodly, negativistic life Faust has chosen by maintaining his association with Mephisto, rather than any change in her feelings for him. Her final cries are an effort to make him abandon the devil and throw himself into the merciful arms of the Lord.
This is the end of the first part of the tragedy, a portion of a larger work but at the same time complete in itself. So far Mephisto has lost his wager with the Lord and failed to secure Faust's soul. God's faith in man has been upheld by Faust's moral renewal on the Walpurgis Night and his final though misguided effort to do a good deed. Despite his flirtation with sensuality and evil, Faust's love for Gretchen had developed into something more than lust. In addition, he has realized that the total abnegation of reason is repugnant to human nature. While he has not yet redeemed himself, these decisive changes in his outlook seem to justify the Lord's belief in the innate goodness of mankind.
Faust, however, has still not found happiness or fulfillment in life, and is not sufficiently purged of sinfulness to terminate his alliance with the devil. In his next to last speech Faust says, "I wish I had never been born!" showing his continued alienation, heightened now by the slight experience he has had with love and true spirituality: At this point, though, Faust is unable to apply his new knowledge to himself and still hopes to satisfy the craving of his empty soul through temporal achievements brought about with the devil's help. Thus, the resolution of Faust's struggle with his soul is in doubt, but a passionate and moving love story has come to a tragic end. At its close Faust seems at last to be on the right path.
Gretchen's salvation and her loving concern for him right up to the moment of her death are lessons which will make a permanent impression on him. Faust knows now that he cannot find himself through uninhibited sensuality, but he must taste all the world has to offer before he learns that only in God lies human fulfillment. The relationship of the events in Part Two to those in Part One is not as close as might be expected, due to the long time interval between their composition by Goethe, but nonetheless the strand of Faust's adventures is taken up and carried to its ultimate philosophical conclusion in the remaining sections of the poem.