Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a man of many interests –notably a German playwright, poet, scientist, and theatre director, in the early 1800s. A massively important literary figure in the modern age, Goethe was a very accomplished writer and wrote in areas such as literary criticism, botany and anatomy; wrote an autobiography, and several novels; as well as serving in the council of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar1. His first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) was the wildly popular account of a young man involved in a love triangle with a betrothed woman. The story is highly romanticized and results in the main character, Werther, taking his own life. Goethe was an early participant in the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Drive”) movement—a romantic movement that capitalized individualistic expressions of emotions in reaction to the constraints of rationality. Despite this, Goethe was highly critical of the French revolution and expressed doubt as to the general populace’s ability to self govern2. Prolific to the end of his life, Goethe completed part two of Faust shortly before his death in 1832 at 82 years old. He adapts Faust from an earlier play written by Christopher Marlowe, A Shakespeare contemporary whose play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, was responsible for the version written by Faust. The legend of Faust in general is a clear influence on Mary Shelley’s novel.
There are many different editions of Faust, and the story reverberates, like Frankenstein, throughout movies, music, adaptive literary works, and visual art. The original source of the story of Doctor Faustus appears in Faustbuch, an anonymously written play published in 1587, being based somewhat on a real man named Faust who likely practiced some form of “black magic”. The next most popular versions are Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604) and then Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (the first part being published in 1808). Although Frankenstein was published 1818, Percy and Mary Shelley undoubtedly read Goethe’s version of Faust Part 1, which aids in explaining how Goethe makes an appearance in Frankenstein.
Faust is the story of a very learned man, who seeks power and knowledge beyond the worldly limitations of his study. Preluding this story, in Goethe’s version of the story, God makes a wager with Mephistopheles, the devil, that he cannot lead Faust, God’s favorite scholar, astray. The play opens with a solemn Faust contemplating suicide, having reached the limits of his knowledge and finding otherworldly knowledge blocked to him. Before he does, however, he hears the noises of an Easter celebration and briefly joins the celebration. When he returns home he is followed by a poodle, who later transforms into Mephistopheles and offers Faust a contract: if Mephistopheles can show Faust a moment where he can be truly satisfied with life, a moment he doesn’t want to end, Faust will serve Mephistopheles in hell. In Mephistopheles’ pursuit of this goal, Faust falls for a young woman named Gretchen. Gretchen, being very devout and pure of heart, desires Faust and eventually succumbs to this desire. Initially fearing the interference of Gretchen’s mother, Faust secures a sleeping potion for Gretchen’s mother, which ends up accidentally killing her. Gretchen then becomes pregnant. Her brother, Valentine, challenges Faust to a duel out of anger over the loss of her sister’s innocence and eventually loses, cursing Gretchen as he dies. Gretchen, plagued with evil spirits, seeks help from a church but finds none. On Walpurgis Night, a night where witches celebrate with the devil, Gretchen, in utter distress, kills her newborn child and is condemned to execution for doing so. When Faust and Mephistopheles break Gretchen from her prison, she appeals to God for salvation. This is where Part One of Goethe’s play ends – with voices from above declaring Gretchen is saved.
Marlowe’s version rings rather differently. In The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Faust is so desperate to achieve power that he calls upon the devil and renounces God himself, drawing a pentagram and summoning Mephistopheles. Faust and Mephistopheles then involve themselves in a series of pranks that, rather than gaining Faust any type of power, render him as petty and powerless. Throughout the entirety of Marlowe’s play Faust is given several warnings that he should repent and contemplates seeking salvation several times. It is not until Faust is being dragged to hell in his last hour, however, that he truly begins to regret his decision. The question of Faust’s salvation is very ambiguous and not clearly answered.
There are three major themes that are important to focus on in consideration of the play’s context within Frankenstein: the achievement of forbidden power; the idea of moral responsibility; and the question of redemption.
The original appearance of Faust in lore is one of a sinful man conspiring with the devil. Marlowe’s adaptation of Faustus makes clear the idea that Faust is a man who has continually chosen to reject God in order to live a life of excess and sin. Goethe brings a new perspective into the folklore – because Faust claims that Mephistopheles will never be able to show him satisfaction, he is predicting his own downfall and condemning himself to unhappiness from the very beginning. Throughout the novel, Faust tries to level himself with supernatural beings – desiring to be on an equal plane with them. Faust, in dealing with Mephistopheles, addresses his egoism: “my proper place is on your level. The Great Spirit rejected me with scorn, and Nature’s doors are closed against me. The thread of thought is torn asunder, and I am surfeited with knowledge still.” (Goethe 45) Faust started the play feeling deeply unsatisfied with the limitations of his knowledge, his inability to determine the purpose of life, and he is now making a deal with Mephistopheles so he can discern that secret. This characterizes the alienation that Faust feels in his surroundings and makes him an excellent portrayal of the Modern Man—individualistic, at odds with society, and highly educated.
Furthermore, because of this alienation, Faust is unable to take moral responsibility for his actions. In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Faust and Mephistopheles commit several pranks, such as Faustus conjuring horns onto a knight in court, which is greatly amusing to Faust if not a little tedious after a while. In Goethe’s version, Faust’s selfish pursuit of amusement culminates into his lover’s downfall – “May I be crushed by what will be her doom, and let her share my ruin with me!” (86 tr. Stuart Atkins). Faust also has an inability to properly see the consequences of his actions – this is made clear when he conjures the Earth Spirit, and then can’t bear to look at it. It is this irresponsibility that results in the death of Gretchen and fills Faust with regret. It is inevitably Faust that is the cause of his own downfall, and his lack of responsibility for his actions are indicative of that, with even Mephistopheles stating, “Why have you entered into partnership with us if you cannot keep its terms?” (Goethe 113).
Faust’s ability to return to God and redeem himself is heavily scrutinized in every adaptation of the story. His relationship with religion throughout the Goethe’s play is hard to place – for example, he describes himself as a man “made in God’s image” (a reference to the bible) but seems constantly throughout the play to strive to step outside the limitations of humanity. When Gretchen asked Faust whether he believed in God, his reply is one that is slightly heretical – he states that feeling and God are very much the same thing to him. Yet even so, Faust is very quick to make a deal with the devil and spurns possible salvation many times. Goethe’s version of Faust hardly seeks redemption in the first part of the story, whereas Marlowe’s Faust is constantly considering the mistake he has made in selling his soul. For example, when Faust attempts to sign the contract with Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s play, his blood congeals, signifying the mistake he is making. Regardless, both versions of Faust involve a very impulsive decision to cast off God and put himself in the company of the devil, in Marlowe’s case, despite repeated warnings. In Goethe’s play, Faust is redeemed in the end. In Marlowe’s play, it’s much harder to tell whether he can redeem himself at all, and much of it seem to do with Catholic versus Protestant beliefs about confession. Goethe seeks to turn Faust into a sort of Everyman for the modern age, possessing knowledge in a variety of different subjects yet struggling with his own limitations and flaws.
Impact on Frankenstein
Many connections can be made between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the German folklore Faust. At a base level, Victor Frankenstein and Faust are very similar in personality. Much like Victor, Faustus goes too far and his reckless behavior is the very reason for his (possible) damnation. Much like a Byronic Hero, both Faust and Frankenstein reject standard social conventions, feel alienated from society, are scholarly, learned men, and are primarily selfish in behavior. Both the Byronic hero (Such as Byron’s Manfred) and the Faustian character contain modern era character archetypes that Shelley seeks to critique in her novel. Whereas Goethe attempts to convey that striving and error are pathways to salvation, Shelley asserts instead that these types of heroes recklessly abandon their own morality in their pursuits, trampling on all others in their path—Shelley, through Victor, takes an adamant stance against the individualism so highly prized in this era of literary work. Marlowe seems to indicate as well that Faust’s pursuit of power turned him into a petty and mediocre person, which is only reversed when Faust begins to contemplate the hour of his death, much like Victor, who only fully laments his mistakes when he recounts his tale to Walden.
Both Victor and Faustus seek knowledge beyond the powers of human limitation. There can be parallels found in the concept of alchemy and occult knowledge as pathways to achieving supernatural understanding. Frankenstein, as a child, studies Cornelius Agrippa and other occultists, stating, “the raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favorite authors” (Shelley 23) detailing an early obsession with the elixir of life and outdated methods of science helps set up Frankenstein’s future playing with forbidden knowledge. Frankenstein’s interest in alchemy and science also parallels Faust’s – Faust gives Gretchen a potion for her mother than ends up killing her, and likewise the brew he prepares for his own suicide has an unmistakably alchemical depiction—“Here is a juice that soon intoxicates,” Faust states, “and whose brown stream now rises to your brim.” (Goethe 21)
One contextual reference to Goethe is made directly in Shelley’s novel by the monster. Among the books that contribute to his education are Goethe’s Sorrows of a Young Werther, a novel with “gentle and domestic manners” that correlated to the monster’s own desires. In Werther, the monster sees a man, “whose extinction I wept, without precisely understanding it.” (Shelley 97). This passage sets up an important contrast. Werther, who is deeply affected by love and what might be called “domestic affection”, is set as a parallel to the monster. The emotions that drive Werther to suicide are highly sympathized by the monster. Faust, on the other hand, being similar to Victor, is a complete antithesis of Werther. Shelley herself sees a likeness in Werther to her mother, given that her father presents Wollstonecraft in such a light when he publishes her work posthumously3, so it’s not outlandish to imagine that Faust is a foil to Werther, being instead motivated by his own desires and his own alienation.
Another area in which Faust makes an appearance in Frankenstein is in the monster’s comparisons to Satan. In Goethe’s version of the play, Mephistopheles seeks Faust as the result of a wager with God; in Marlowe’s edition, however, Faust calls upon and raises the devil himself, choosing to learn the dark arts and renounce God. Recall the passage of Frankenstein where the monster states: “I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.” (Shelley 98) The monster is making a reference to Paradise Lost, but this unwaveringly parallels him to Mephistopheles as well. Early melodramatic adaptations of Frankenstein reverberate this sentiment. In Richard Peake’s Presumption; Or, The Fate of Frankenstein, Victor’s assistant Fritz gives Clerval an account of Victor’s behavior, stating: “My shrewd guess, sir, is that, like Doctor Faustus, my master is raising the Devil.” (Act 1)4 Early adaptations, specifically plays, seem to have no problem catching on to the similarities between Faust and Frankenstein. The monster, then, has a similar position to Satan in the idea that the monster doesn't truly fit in anywhere. And like Mephistopheles of Marlowe's play, the monster is summoned by the use of supernatural power.
Additional Texts/Further Readings
1 Boyle, Nicholas. Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, 17 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.
2 McCabe, Joseph. 'Goethe: The Man and His Character'. pp. 343
3 Burwick, Roswitha. "Goethe's Werther and Frankenstein." Burwick, "Goethe's Werther and Frankenstein" N.p., 1993. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.
4 Shattuck, Roger. "Faust and Frankenstein." St. Martin's Press, 1996. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust. Trans. Stuart Atkins. Vol. 2. Boston: Suhrkamp, 1984. Print.
Turvey, John, Per Dahlberg, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Frankenstein. N.p.: Longman, 1988. Print.