At the cathedral, a mass with organ and choir is in progress. Surrounded by people, and with her Evil Spirit behind her, stands the fallen Gretchen. Her Evil Spirit torments her with memories of innocence. It reminds her of Valentine’s death, his blood shed because of her sins, as well as of her mother’s death (which is stated here for the first time), caused by the potion which she, Gretchen, gave to her at Faust’s urging. The Evil Spirit also implies that Gretchen is pregnant.
Gretchen is in a cathedral seeking forgiveness for her sins. Her Evil Spirit is a figure representing her conscience, pulling her thoughts away from God and the possibility of change, down toward a paralyzing, repetitive guilt. It is in this sense that the Spirit is evil. The Spirit is also concealing to Gretchen the infinitude of divine love and mercy.
Gretchen wants to escape the thoughts the Evil Spirit inspires in her. The choir sings the “Dies irae,” a Latin hymn about God’s wrath on Judgment Day. The Evil Spirit insinuates that on Judgment Day, Gretchen will be damned to burn in torment. Gretchen tells the Spirit to go away and says that the organ is taking her breath away, that the singing is undoing her heart. As the choir sings on, Gretchen says that the pillars and walls are confining her—she needs air. The Evil Spirit tells Gretchen that all blessed souls avert their faces from her in horror now. Gretchen asks the person next to her for their smelling salts (a chemical compound used as a restorative in cases of faintness or headache), and then Gretchen faints.
The imagery of Catholicism focuses a great deal on guilt and the fiery wrath of God. Goethe seems to suggest here that these ideas imprison the soul, when what the soul really needs is liberation into the wholeness of the divine, represented by the natural fresh air that Gretchen so desperately calls for. Her fainting represents her giving into the Evil Spirit. In performance, this scene is very claustrophobic, with the heavy choral hymn underlying the dialogue between Gretchen and the Spirit.