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Themes and Colors
Reason and Passion Theme Icon
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Pleasure and Love Theme Icon
Parts, Wholes, and Limits Theme Icon
Intellectualism and the Value of Words Theme Icon
Politics Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Faust, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Parts, Wholes, and Limits Theme Icon

Early in the play, Faust studies the sign of the Macrocosm, which presents to him the whole universe in its harmonious unity, all of its parts related to one another and to the whole that they make up. Although this vision ultimately leaves Faust desiring more, the ability to act and not just contemplate, it is nonetheless central to an understanding of Faust. Essentially everything good that occurs in the play results when actions are carried out harmoniously, with their whole context in mind, while bad results arise when actions are carried out as though they were wholes in themselves and not merely parts. In other words, the play privileges the macrocosmic (universal) over the microcosmic (individual) perspective. Even the structure of the play emphasizes this principle: the “Prelude on the Stage” reminds us of the economic and theatrical contexts of Faust, while the “Prologue in Heaven” reminds us that what happens on earth, like the tragedy of Faust itself, is only a symbol, to Goethe’s mind, of the divine whole which contains all of nature and all of us.

The Lord of all creation, God Himself, has the ultimate macrocosmic perspective of the world, understanding as he does how all the parts of His creation relate to and harmonize with the whole, from heaven to earth to hell. Even the most negative part of His creation, Mephistopheles, ultimately does macrocosmic good while he attempts to perform evil. Faust’s desire for transcendence is essentially a desire to wholly understand the macrocosm and act in harmony within it. Ironically enough, this desire brings him into conflict with the world, as when he orders the devil and the Three Mighty Men to seize Baucis and Philemon’s cottage and the lands surrounding it. The episode epitomizes the folly of acting without a fuller consciousness of one’s context—it is foolish, after all, to send the devil out on a peaceful errand (Mephistopheles ends up killing Baucis and Philemon), just as it’s foolish to act shortsightedly, as the Emperor so often does, in printing paper money and falling into a life of wanton pleasure. Faust’s tragedy, his dissatisfaction with life which leads him into crime and which follows him to his death, comes about to a large extent because no single person can hold the world in their head and their hand, yet Faust attempts to do exactly this. Thus the drama suggests that one should strive tirelessly to understand the world, but with a sense of one’s limitations, or, put another way, a sense of the fact that one is but a small part of the whole.

Parts, Wholes, and Limits ThemeTracker

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Parts, Wholes, and Limits Quotes in Faust

Below you will find the important quotes in Faust related to the theme of Parts, Wholes, and Limits.
Prelude in the Theater Quotes

When Nature, unconcerned, twirls her endless thread
and fixes it upon the spindle,
when all creation’s inharmonious myriads
vex us with a potpourri of sound,
who then divides the strand monotonously unreeling
and gives it life and rhythmic motion,
who summons single voices to the general choir
where music swells in glorious accord?

Related Characters: The Dramatic Poet (speaker)
Page Number: 142-149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, two of the "form characters" of the poem, the Dramatic Poet and the Stage Manager, bicker over how best to put on a play of Faust. The Manager takes the position that the goal of a play is simple: to entertain a drunk, lazy audience. The Poet, however, takes a lofty, Romantic view of things: he thinks of himself as a kind of mastermind, organizing the chaotic "parts" of a play (its characters, its singers, etc.), and of a play's story, into one organized whole. The Poet makes a complicated analogy, comparing his duty as a poet to that of God, who organizes the different discrete parts of the natural world into one harmonious whole.

Goethe arguably presents his own view most clearly here--he sees himself as the "God" of his fictional world, imposing order and control upon his characters in order to create something beautiful and harmonious. And as with God, Goethe doesn't see himself as a mere entertainer or a businessman: his goal is to transform his disorderly audience of drunks into a more pious, educated group--he hopes to pass on some lessons and observations about good and evil, art, life, etc.


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So now upon our modest stage act out
creation in its every aspect,
and move with all deliberate haste
from heaven, through the world, to hell!

Related Characters: The Manager (speaker)
Page Number: 239-242
Explanation and Analysis:

The Stage Manager now prepares to begin the play. The Manager knows that the Poet has planned out a great, epic saga, in which the characters will travel between heaven and hell. To prepare the audience for what's to come, perhaps, the Manager talks about the stage sets his production will use: sets that imitate heaven and hell, perhaps, but don't replicate them perfectly.

It's a mark of the radical nature of Goethe's poem that he felt the need to insert a prologue of this kind: the play was neither comedy nor drama, and was far more ambitious than anything the German theatergoer of the era would have been used to seeing. The passage also reinforces one of Goethe's key ideas: the poem is a fictional world, designed to imitate and in some ways enhance the qualities of the real world. The sets onstage might be flimsier than the real world, it's true, but the characters will speak in heightened language, increasing the drama of the poem. In such a way, the poem will mimic and yet also go beyond the limits of reality.

Prologue in Heaven Quotes

Angels gain comfort from the sight,
though none can fully grasp Your Being,
and all the grandeur You have wrought
still has the splendor of its primal day.

Related Characters: Raphael (speaker), Gabriel (speaker), Michael (speaker), The Lord
Page Number: 267-270
Explanation and Analysis:

In this second prologue, the angels of heaven gather around God and praise him for the majesty of his creation: God has created the universe, something so vast and complex that nobody can understand it.

The passage is important because its explicit meaning seems to be somewhat contradicted in the poem itself. Here, we're told that none but God could conceive of the whole world in all its majesty. And yet we've just gotten done listening to a poet (something of a stand-in for Goethe, perhaps) who claims to have built an entire fictional world on the stage, whose complexity attempts to equal that of the real world created by God. So Goethe seems to acknowledge God's grandeur (thus remaining pious and humble) while also aspiring to replicate such grandeur in fiction. Goethe, one could argue, is something of a Faust character himself: taking on God's awesome power, in the sense that he makes himself the "God" of his own writings.

Part 1: Night (Faust’s Study 1) Quotes

No dog would want to linger on like this!
That is why I’ve turned to magic,
in hope that with the help of spirit-power
I might solve many mysteries,
so that I need no longer toil and sweat
to speak of what I do not know,
can learn what, deep within it,
binds the universe together,
may contemplate all seminal forces—
and be done with peddling empty words.

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker)
Page Number: 376-385
Explanation and Analysis:

In the absence of help from Philosophy, Theology, etc., Faust turns to magic in the hope of bringing comfort to his soul. Faust is an educated man, and yet the world's established, preexisting knowledge seems dry and useless to him: it educates him but doesn't nourish him. Magic, on the other hand, appeals to Faust because it's undiscovered, and has the potential to give him truly godlike knowledge. Here Faust would truly be a stranger in a strange land, investigating a mysterious, uncertain discipline.

Because the passage shows Faust venturing into the unknown, it tells us a lot about his character. We knew that Faust was dissatisfied with his lot in life, but here, we see that he's still energetic and adventurous enough to try something new. Faust has internalized all the world's knowledge, but his knowledge hasn't made him dull or cautious: on the contrary, it's just made him hungry for more knowledge. Indeed, his restlessness and ambition are arguably his defining qualities, those that bring about both his downfall and his salvation.

The passage also conveys some of Faust's arrogance and hubris: instead of accepting his status as God's servant, he wants to know the mind of God and understand the forces that bind the universe together. Like so many of the fictional magicians and mad scientists whom Goethe's Faust inspired, Faust will arrogantly try to "play God," and face punishment for his actions.

How all things interweave as one
and work and live each in the other!

How grand a show! But still, alas! mere show.
Infinite Nature, when can I lay hold of you
and of your breasts?

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker)
Related Symbols: Nature and the Earth Spirit
Page Number: 447-456
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we get a better sense of what, exactly, is lacking in Faust's life. Faust reads a book in which he comes across a passage about the macrocosmic nature of the universe. Faust learns that the universe is all one harmonious whole--every tiny part of the world has its grander purpose and locks in with the other parts.

Faust's newfound knowledge of the universe, however, doesn't bring him much happiness. It's not enough for Faust to learn that the universe has a purpose; Faust wants to experience that purpose first-hand, instead of trusting that the purpose exists. In short, Faust doesn't want to be a cog in a machine anymore--he wants to understand and touch the machine itself.

Note the physical nature of this passage--Faust talks about "laying hold" of Nature, whom he personifies as a beautiful woman. It's certainly possible to suggest that Faust is simply deprived of love and human companionship: he's trying to find passion and eros in science and philosophy, and so of course he comes up short. And yet Faust's observations about Nature could suggest that knowledge itself has an almost erotic quality: the mixture of power, domination, and love that Faust feels as he talks about nature shows us that Faust is trying to fit all of human contact and experience into his crazed experiments.

Part 1: Faust’s Study 2 Quotes

[I am] a part of that force
which, always willing evil, always produces good.

Related Characters: Mephistopheles (speaker), Heinrich Faust
Page Number: 1335-1336
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Faust finally meets Mephistopheles, generally considered the "villain" of the poem. Mephistopheles is the incarnation of the Devil, who's come to tempt Faust into wickedness. And yet Mephistopheles introduces himself to Fast by claiming to be a force for good, even when he intends to be a force of evil. Mephistopheles is a servant of the Devil, meaning that ultimately, he's less powerful than almighty God. Mephistopheles tries to do the Devil's will, and yet in the grand scheme of things, every evil deed the Devil does turns out to be a good thing for the human race. Just as Judas's betrayal of Christ seemed like an act of wickedness, but turned out to be a "good" thing (since it led to Christ's redeeming mankind's sins forever), Mephistopheles's manipulations seem wicked, but in the end God will use them to make Faust a better man. Goethe's notion of the relationship between good and evil (evil never wins in the end, and is just another tool for God to bring about greater good) is consonant with centuries of Christian theology, dating all the way back to the Middle Ages.

Part 1: Faust’s Study 3 Quotes

Take my word for it, anyone who thinks too much
is like an animal that in a barren heath
some evil spirit drives around in circles
while all about lie fine green pastures.

Related Characters: Mephistopheles (speaker), Heinrich Faust
Page Number: 1830-1833
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Faust and Mephistopheles have arranged a contract (setting in motion the events of the rest of the poem). Mephistopheles notes that Faust has agreed to the corrupt bargain (in which Faust will be granted unlimited power, until the moment when he wishes to "linger," at which time he'll lose his life and soul) because Faust is dissatisfied with his own knowledge and enlightenment. Mephistopheles reminds Faust that intelligence is a prison: the ignorant man can more readily embrace the glories of God (the "green pastures," perhaps an allusion to the Bible's famous 23rd Psalm), while Faust is too smart to embrace God whole-heartedly.

The passage is a good reminder of how Mephistopheles is both a figure of good and a figure of evil. Mephistopheles wants to take Faust's life for himself, and yet he also seems to understand Faust deeply: he recognizes, for instance, that Faust's study has brought him knowledge but not spiritual enlightenment. Mephistopheles is both Faust's worst enemy and his best friend in the play.

Part 1: Walpurgis Night Quotes

Great folk may like the noisy life,
we’ll be quite cozy in this quiet spot.
Besides, it is an ancient practice
to make your own small worlds inside the great one.

Related Characters: Mephistopheles (speaker)
Page Number: 4042-4045
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mephistopheles takes Faust to a mysterious mountaintop populated by witches: it is Walpurgisnacht, a traditional German night of evil and demonic ceremony. As one might expect, Mephistopheles is a big fan of Walpurgisnacht; he loves being in a place in which he doesn't have to hide from God--here on the mountaintop he can create a microcosm within the macrocosm of the universe, and there indulge in unbridled evil.

It's possible to read the passage as a "metafictional" observation: i.e., Goethe is making a point about his own poem. Notice that the Walpurgisnacht section of the text is usually interpreted as an abrupt diversion from the plot of the poem: it has nothing to do with the action of the story before or after, and therefore could be seen as a self-contained "world." Furthermore, Mephistopheles' observations suggest a strange kinship between Goethe and Mephistopheles himself--they're both the architects of fictional worlds in which they're free to do as they want, (supposedly) without the judgment of others. In fiction, as in Walpurgisnacht, one can find temporary freedom.

Part 2: Act 1: An Imperial Palace: The Throne Room Quotes

That merit and good fortune are connected
is something that these idiots will never see;
the philosopher’s stone could be in their possession,
but there’d be no philosopher to use it.

Related Characters: Mephistopheles (speaker)
Page Number: 5061-5064
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the scene, Mephistopheles has convinced the foolish, pleasure-loving Emperor to dig for buried treasure throughout his land in the hopes of remedying the crisis in his territory. The Emperor is hopeful that he'll be able to find gold and stave off some of the problems in his kingdom. When Mephistopheles is alone, he rejoices that the Emperor is about to become reliant on gold for his power--Mephistopheles senses that the Emperor will become weaker and more materialistic as a result of this "quick fix." Mephistopheles also makes the point that all punishment from God comes with a reason attached--in other words, the Emperor has been experiencing crises in his kingdom because he's a bad emperor who's appointed fools to run his kingdom. Humans in general, Mephistopheles argues, would be better off if they just understood that punishment isn't random; i.e., that the best way to avoid punishment is just to be a better person.

The passage reiterates Mephistopheles' original point: he's an agent of good, even as he does evil. Ironically, Mephistopheles is the most morally-attuned character in the poem; he recognizes that humans will be rewarded for their good behavior. The difference between Mephistopheles and God, of course is that Mephistopheles is evil, and seeks to harm mankind. And yet he's totally aware of God's law, to an extent that no human in the play is (with the possible exception of Faust).

Part 2: Act 1: An Imperial Palace: A Dark Gallery Quotes

You are the father of all mystagogues
who ever cheated docile neophytes,
but you reverse their method—send me to a void
for higher wisdom and for greater powers.
You’re making me the cat whose task it is
to pull your chestnuts from the fire.
But do not stop! Let’s probe the matter fully,
since in your Nothingness I hope to find my All.

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker), Mephistopheles
Page Number: 6249-6256
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mephistopheles (who's been tasked with summoning Paris and Helen to the Emperor's court) explains to Faust that he's about to enter into a mysterious zone in which there's no space or time. This space, the land of the "Mothers," will be lonely and foreign to Faust--it will be, in essence, Nothingness incarnate. Faust senses that Mephistopheles is manipulating him into the world of Nothingness in order to bring out Helen and Paris for him--Faust compares himself to a cat pulling out hot chestnuts from a fire because the cat's owner is too scared to do so himself. Thus, Faust shoots back that he hopes to find enlightenment in Nothingness: in fact, he hopes to find All there. He's not afraid of doing Mephistopheles' dirty work for him.

The passage is exceptionally confusing because of the way it treats "nothing" like a 'thing." Mephistopheles is the master of nothingness, because in Christian theology, evil is considered the absence of good; i.e., nothingness itself. And yet in the realm of nothingness, from which Faust and Mephistopheles will summon Paris and Helen of Troy, Faust hopes to find glory--a boundless sense of power, creativity, and domination. 

Part 2: Act 2: Classical Walpurgis Night: The Pharsalian Fields Quotes

You’ll never learn unless you make mistakes.
If you want to exist, do so on your own!

Related Characters: Mephistopheles (speaker), Homunculus
Page Number: 7847-7848
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mephistopheles watches as Homunculus, the creation of Wagner, proceeds to watch the trial of two philosophers, Anaxagoras and Thales, as they debate the material sources of the natural world. Mephistopheles warns Homunculus that he'll never learn anything about the universe unless he makes his own mistakes--as if to suggest that by latching onto Thales and Anaxagoras, he'll always be a pupil, never a real thinker.

In ancient Greece, Thales and Anaxagoras were two of the most notable early philosophers, who believed they'd found the substances that made up the universe (Thales famously claimed that everything is made out of water). And yet Mephistopheles' exchange with Homunculus isn't about the universe's structure, but rather the structure of education and free will. Mephistopheles seems to believe that the best way to learn is to be free; to be one's "own boss." One should take Mephistopheles' advice with a grain of salt. Mephistopheles' observations could be interpreted as heretical (since they imply that humans shouldn't worship God, but merely live "on their own") or Christian (since the notion of free will and making one's own mistakes is central to salvation in Christian theology). The ambiguous nature of Mephistopheles' advice sums up his identity as a character who may be doing evil, but who also has some intriguing things to say and teach us.

Part 2: Act 5: Faust’s Palace (The Large Outer Courtyard) Quotes

If only I might see that people’s teeming life,
share their autonomy on unencumbered soil;
then, to the moment, I could say:
tarry a while, you are so fair—
the traces of my days on earth
will survive into eternity!—
Envisioning those heights of happiness,
I now enjoy my highest moment.

Related Characters: Heinrich Faust (speaker)
Page Number: 11,579-11,586
Explanation and Analysis:

Faust has studied almost every field, but in the end, it's political science and city planning that strike him as presenting an opportunity for true, fundamental happiness. Faust wants to drain a large marsh, creating a huge, green space in which people will be able to work happily and freely. Faust wishes that he could drain the marsh and free the "unencumbered soil" beneath it--such an achievement would lead him to be totally, completely happy; it would be his defining achievement as a mortal man.

In this scene, Faust approaches death, because he's finally said the fatal words, "tarry a moment, you are so fair," that signal his satisfaction. And yet, as we'll come to see, Faust's soul is saved (even though he dies) because he never actually succeeded in enacting his vision of the ideal city. Faust wants to savor a moment in his utopian kingdom, and yet because that moment never actually comes to be--the utopia remains unbuilt--Faust is ultimately saved from the terms of his bargain. His constant restlessness and ambition, which initially led to his deal with the devil, now act as his salvation. There is something eminently Romantic in the manner of Faust's death: he dies striving for greatness, rather than having achieved it himself.