It is the same evening, and Faust and Mephistopheles are in Martha’s garden. Martha and Mephistopheles walk together, and Margarete is on Faust’s arm. She is self-deprecating in conversation with him, but Faust praises her and kisses her hand, which makes the girl both anxious and pleased. She says Faust must know so many sensible people, but Faust responds that what passes for good sense is often vain stupidity.
The garden represents a kind of earthly paradise, so it is an appropriate setting in which to fall in love. Although Gretchen and Faust come from two very different backgrounds, their love transcends all boundaries. Love becomes a deep wisdom here, to Faust’s mind.
As they enjoy one another’s company, Margarete tells Faust about her and her fussy mother’s modest household. Because they don’t have a maid, Margarete has to cook and sweep and knit and sew herself. Her brother is a soldier, and her beloved little sister—whom Margarete cared for after their father died and their mother became paralyzed with misery—is dead. Faust says that Margarete has enjoyed the purest form of happiness through this, but she remembers hard hours too, of waking in the night to feed and comfort the child, and of waking early to clean the child and shop and cook.
Margarete has had a difficult life, in contrast to Faust’s life of relative privilege (recall that he has never had to manually labor). Nonetheless, Faust sees in Margarete’s love for her little sister the purest form of happiness. This is something of a naïve idealization, of course, and Margarete reminds Faust that with that happiness also came hardship. Margarete understands, as Faust does not, that pure happiness is just a dream, not a reality.
Meanwhile, Martha and Mephistopheles walk together. Martha says that it’s difficult to reform long-time bachelors into husbands. Mephistopheles says that all it would take is a woman like Martha to teach him better. Martha asks her companion to speak plainly: is he not at all romantically involved? Mephistopheles evades the question by quoting a proverb, that a home and a virtuous woman are as precious as gold and pearls. This frustrates Martha. The two walk on.
We later learn that Margarete is disgusted by Mephistopheles. The less upstanding Martha, however, attempts to seduce the devil here, and he evades her with riddles and proverbs. He is toying with her rather insensitively, out of boredom and a sadistic sense of fun.
Faust and Margarete are deep in conversation. Faust asks if she really recognized him when he entered the garden. She says she did. The two discuss their first meeting, which Margarete says dismayed but also pleased her. She picks a daisy and plucks its petals—he loves me, she murmurs, he loves me not… She plucks the last petal, elated that doing so coincides with “He loves me!” Faust says he does indeed love her. He clasps her hand and vows complete devotion. He feels a sense of bliss that he is sure must endure eternally, for its end would be his despair. Margarete runs off. Faust stands pensively a moment, and then follows her.
Faust asks Margarete if she recognized him to see whether he left an impression on her before being introduced by Mephistopheles as a man of power and wealth. That she did subtly indicates to Faust that Margarete loves him for who he is, not for his social status. Love brings Faust to a state of bliss. This bliss leads him not into stagnation, but only deeper into Margarete’s soul. Faust following Margarete here anticipates when his soul follows hers into heaven.
Mephistopheles and Martha reenter. Martha says that she’d ask her companion to remain longer if the evil-minded town wouldn’t gossip about it. Then she asks where the young couple is. Down the garden path like wanton butterflies, Mephistopheles answers. Martha says that Faust is infatuated with the girl. So the world runs its course, the devil says. They both exit.
Goethe introduces the judgmental town here to remind us that even love cannot exist in a vacuum, but is a part of a social whole, as Gretchen tragically learns later. Mephistopheles’ image of the butterflies suggests that love has transformed Faust and Gretchen.