Faust’s study symbolizes the failure of scholarship to satisfy the human desire for meaning. It is crammed with authoritative, dusty books that Faust, for one, dismisses as containing empty words. In fact, the study is so crammed as to cramp Faust and spiritually entomb him. It is no wonder, then, that some of his most desperate acts take place here, like his interrupted suicide attempt and his making a deal with Mephistopheles. The intellectual stagnation symbolized by the study is perhaps most forcefully presented in Mephistopheles’s speeches to the young student who pays him a visit there. The devil champions rote memorization over critical thinking, mindless acceptance of old and outdated intellectual authorities, and big words over meaning and substance. The restless, ever-curious Faust, on the other hand, feels much more at home in nature, where his imagination is free and his creativity can act upon and change the world.
Wagner’s laboratory is similar to Faust’s study in being a center for human learning, but it proves more productive. Wagner, after all, succeeds in creating the Homunculus, who, however unnatural, is very much alive—unlike Faust’s “dead” books. What accounts for this relative productivity is this: the laboratory is not a place where intellectual authority is blindly admired, but rather a place where the human mind interacts with and works on natural phenomena in the form of scientific inquiry. The laboratory, then, symbolizes the relative successes of science during the Age of Enlightenment. But it also symbolizes the rather stark limitations of science. Wagner cannot create Homunculus on his own, as the devil’s magical presence, it would seem, is required to turn a science experiment into a living being. Moreover, Homunculus himself, like Faust before him, promptly leaves the laboratory in favor of nature, the only environment in which he can hope to discover the details of the world’s workings and achieve a proper existence, as he later does in the Aegean Sea. The laboratory of the Enlightenment may produce the seed of knowledge, the play suggests, but it cannot bring that seed to fruition as nature can.