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Mephistopheles, "the spirit that denies," appears before God and wins His permission to tempt Faust. The story then runs as follows-we can only outline it, without attempting to dwell upon the splendid conception of Faust's character: Dr. Heinrich Faust, an aged student of Wittenberg, has run the whole gamut of human life, and begins to despair of the ability of even knowledge to give pleasure or benefit. He wishes to move beyond all earthly power and to taste something of the knowledge which upholds the universe. By means of magic he calls up the Earth Spirit; but his weak human personality is repelled by the awe of the sight. In despair at his powerlessness he determines to poison himself; but just as the cup is raised to his lips, the joyful Easter bells ring forth and voices are heard singing "Christ is risen!" The memory of his childhood faith rushes upon the mind of Faust and he dashes down the cup. That same evening Mephistopheles appears in his study. Faust has been striving for knowledge as the only true happiness; he has found that knowledge is a mere phantom of joy. Therefore, he offers to sell his soul if he shall ever realize happiness :
When to the moment I shall say,
So a compact is entered on and Faust receives the
gift of youth. Thereafter Mephistopheles offers him all manner of pleasure for his indulgence. Then the fair Margaret appears. She is the most beautiful of all Goethe's characters and is said to be a reminiscence of his early love, Frederika Brion. Pure and most lovable, she comes under the baleful influence of Mephistopheles. Through his suggestions, Faust wins her innocent love and ruins her. This draws after it a train of dreadful sorrow for the gentle Gretchen. Her mother dies; then her brother is slain by treachery, cursing her with his dying breath; lastly she kills her little child. She is arrested and condemned to death, and as she lies friendless and mad on the straw of her dungeon, Faust comes to try and save her. But in vain. Mephistopheles carries him off, pursued by Gretchen's pitiful cry, "Heinrich! Heinrich!"
So the First Part closes. But that last sad word gives a hint of the raison d'être of the Second Part: Margaret would not be happy if saved alone. A space of time intervenes between the First and Second Parts. Faust is discovered repentant and striving to quiet the anguish of his soul. Passing over the first three acts, in the fourth we come to a closer connection with the First Part. Here, and in the following act, Faust is engaged in draining and reclaiming from the sea a waste tract of land given him by an emperor whom he had served. Mephistopheles objects to this work for future generations, but Faust, now a blind old man, perseveres. At
last, joyful in the prospect of the good he is doing for mankind, he says:
"Anticipating all that future bliss,
I have it now. That moment's here. "Tis this!"
Dying, he has apparently forfeited his soul to the devil. But Mephistopheles has lost, because he has failed to draw Faust permanently away from the right, or to make cease his activity and his aspiration. The soul that continually aspires to the good shall be saved. So in vain the legions of evil spirits endeavor to capture the spirit of Faust. He is borne by angels to higher spheres, where Gretchen awaits his coming.
It has been said that this great poem presents a certain lack of unity. This is only natural when we remember the differing circumstances and moods under which it was written and the years during which it lay developing in the poet's mind. But in estimating its worth as a work of art we must not disregard the poet's intention. Fundamentally, Faust teaches the truth that salvation comes of sincere effort and aspiration as much as from actual achievement. The clue to the somewhat confusing mysticism of the piece and its fantasy is found in the fact that "it is at once a problem and a picture. Therein lies its fascination. The problem embraces all questions of vital importance; the picture represents all opinions, all sentiments, all classes, moving on the stage of life." In the problem lies the other
mode for the expression of the great truth which has been mentioned. The beauty and variety of the drama draw towards it a public appreciation the more universal because of that variety, and hence it wins a larger audience to whom the truth may be brought home. It is the truth which appealed so strongly to the English poet, Browning: "He that endures to the end shall be saved." The angels sing as they bear aloft the soul of Faust: "The man who strives and ever aspires him can we set free! "
We may cite two examples of Goethe's verse in Faust. The first from the dialogue between Faust and his servant Wagner:
Mark how, beneath the evening sunset's glow,
Yet, finally, the weary god is sinking;
Yet in each soul is born the pleasure
Of yearning onward, upward and away,
When o'er our heads, lost in the vaulted azure,
When over crags and piny highlands
And over plains and lakes and islands