Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Faust Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The son of Johann Caspar Goethe and Catharina Elizabeth Textor, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born into a life of privilege: he received his education from private tutors, and as a young boy was trained in the arts of dancing, horseback riding, and fencing. He also developed an early interest in literature, especially the Homeric epics of the Odyssey and the Iliad, the Old Testament, and the poetry of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. From 1765 to 1768, he studied law in Leipzig, and, while these studies ended in illness and failure, Goethe soon recovered himself and developed influential friendships with intellectuals and artists like Johann Gottfried Herder, who introduced him to Shakespeare, who catalyzed Goethe’s literary awakening. With his ambitions at a new height, Goethe went on in 1774 to compose the book that brought him instant international celebrity, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a pioneering classic of the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) literary movement, which valued the heightened expression of intense passion. On the strength of this novel, Goethe was invited to the court of Duke Carl August in Weimar, where he would live for the rest of his life, serving as an adviser, diplomat, and statesman. During this period, he also began developing and refining what would become Faust, his most important literary work, though it would take him some sixty years to bring it to completion. In the meantime, Goethe produced not only poetry, drama, and fiction (including his famous novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice [1795-1796]), but also scientific works, the most famous of which is his Theory of Colors (1810), a challenge to the Newtonian theory of optics. After one of the most fruitful and diverse imaginative careers in human history, Goethe died in his Weimar home in 1832, of apparent heart failure. He is today considered the single most important writer Germany has ever produced, the peer of Dante and Shakespeare.
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Historical Context of Faust

Faust actively engages with all of human history leading up to Goethe’s own time, including that of Classical Greece (510-323 BC), the Middle Ages (500s-1500s AD), the Enlightment (1620s-1780s AD), and Romanticism (late 1700s-1800s AD). The poem critiques medieval culture and the Enlightenment rather severely, in the persons of Mephistopheles and Faust/Wagner, respectively. Medievalism is represented as backward-looking and self-satisfied, with knowledge based on authority rather than on independent critical thinking. The Enlightment, in contrast, is represented as mechanically, barrenly rational, devoid of imagination and in conflict with nature, as Wagner is able to create the unnatural Homunculus only with the catalyst of the devil. The poem instead presents Classical Greece as a valuable cultural model, with its humanism and ideals of good proportion and order, which Goethe saw as a much-needed corrective to the fiery, rampant individualism, passion, and imaginative overreaching of the Romantic movement of his own time, of which Faust becomes the most obvious representative in the poem.

Other Books Related to Faust

Goethe’s Faust is a dramatic poem that incorporates the entire Western literary tradition. It houses wild pageants littered with figures from Greek mythology, including griffins, sphinxes, harpies, and Helen of Troy from Homer’s Iliad. The ambition of the poem can only be compared with Dante’s Divine Comedy, as both seek to present an absolute vision of the cosmos in its totality (compare Goethe’s Faust with Christopher Marlowe’s daring but altogether more minor tragedy Doctor Faustus [1604], and the infinite magnitude of Goethe’s conception of the same material will become clear). However, Goethe not only looks to the great books of the Western canon, but also incorporates German folk traditions into Faust, including the legend of Faust itself, which he quite likely encountered early in his life, as the legend was often adapted in Germany for puppet plays. Goethe’s influence on other writers has been extensive, and can be seen in authors as diverse as Thomas Mann, who wrote a novel modeled on Goethe’s Faust titled Doctor Faustus (1947), as well as Mikhail Bulgakov, who also looked to Goethe’s Faust in writing his Soviet satire, The Master and Margarita (1967).
Key Facts about Faust
  • Full Title: Faust
  • When Written: 1772-1831
  • Where Written: Leipzig, Weimar, Italy, and elsewhere
  • When Published: 1832 (although fragments appeared throughout Goethe’s lifetime)
  • Literary Period: Weimar Classicism
  • Genre: Closet drama; cosmological epic
  • Setting: Heaven and earth, from Leipzig to Greece
  • Climax: Faust dies, and the devils and angels skirmish with one another for his immortal soul
  • Antagonist: The devil, Mephistopheles

Extra Credit for Faust

The Living Garment of Poetry. Goethe wove his great poem from a great many poetic sources. In a conversation recorded by Goethe’s associate Eckermann, the poet defends his practice as follows: “The world remains always the same; situations are repeated; one people lives, loves and feels like another; why should not one poet write like another?”

Goethe, the Original Superman. The nineteenth-century German philosophy Friedrich Nietzsche received Goethe’s Faust with enthusiasm. In his Twilight of the Idols, he wrote approvingly of the poet: “He did not sever himself from life, he placed himself within it… What he aspired to was totality; he strove against the separation of reason, sensibility, emotion, will. Goethe conceived of a strong, highly cultured human being [Faust] who, keeping himself in check and having reverence for himself, dares to allow himself the whole compass and wealth of naturalness, who is strong enough for his freedom.”