Faust enters his study with the poodle, feeling that his better soul has been awakened by the night, and he feels a greater sense of love for man and God. The poodle is running about, and Faust offers it a cushion to lie down on by the stove. He then sings of self-knowledge, hope, and life-giving waters, only for the poodle to growl and interrupt what Faust calls the sacred harmonies. All of a sudden, he feels his contentment fading away.
Nature and human companionship have seemingly rejuvenated Faust. Last night he was considering suicide, but now he feels a new sense of love for man, God, and himself. Just as all seems well, however, Mephistopheles in the form of the poodle growls and disturbs Faust’s sense of harmony and contentment.
Faust resolves to translate the New Testament, specifically the Gospel of John, out of its original Greek into German. He stops on the first sentence, “In the beginning was the Word.” Unwilling to concede that words have such high power, he considers substituting for “the Word” “the Mind,” “the Power,” and finally “the Act.”
“In the beginning was the Word” refers to how God created the world. Faust does not accept that words have creative power—only action does, to his mind. Through action, thought and will can realize themselves in nature.
The poodle begins barking and Faust invites it out of the study, only for the animal to transform into a large and horrible Spirit, hippopotamus-like with red eyes. Faust vows to master this creature with the Key of Solomon, a textbook of magic. In the passage outside, Spirits whisper that one of their sly fellows has been caught in the scholar’s study, and they discuss freeing it. Faust calls upon the four elements, fire, water, air, and earth, but these fail to cause the creature pain. Faust then casts another spell and gestures toward a pentagram on the doorsill of his study, which drives the creature to swell and retreat behind the stove. It begins to melt away like mist.
Throughout this scene, Mephistopheles barks to distract Faust from ideas of harmony and creation, the better to snare his soul in negativity. Mephistopheles, being the Spirit of negation, is not vulnerable to material elements like fire and water. He is subject only to deeper laws, like the one saying that when he is trapped, as he is by the pentagram, he must submit to his entrapment.
As the mist clears, Mephistopheles enters from behind the stove dressed like a goliard, a special kind of religious cleric. He had been hiding in the poodle all along. Mephistopheles congratulates Faust on his learnedness, for the scholar had made the devil sweat indeed. Faust asks the Spirit for its name, but Mephistopheles says merely that he is a part of that force which, though always trying to do evil, always produces good. He is the Spirit of Eternal Negation, whose essence is sin and destruction, in a word, Evil. Faust asks Mephistopheles why he calls himself a part of something, when the Spirit stands before him whole. The devil retorts that mortals are insignificant fools, who like to think of themselves as complete when really they are just parts of a whole, too.
The devil’s religious clothing is doubly ironic: first, in that the devil is the enemy to God’s creation, whereas the religious cleric worships God, and second in that the devil, as he himself says, does indeed do good despite himself, as God wills it. In this way, Mephistopheles is in fact like a religious cleric, although a begrudging one. Faust thinks that individuals are whole in themselves, but this is an error—individuals are just parts of the whole. The devil knows this from experience, for his individual negations always promote creation in the bigger scheme of things.
Faust says he understands: since the devil can’t destroy everything at once, he must settle for destroying creation piece by piece. Mephistopheles concedes that his business of destruction is not really thriving, and that if he didn’t have fire to himself he’d have nothing to call his own. Faust suggests the devil look into a different line of work. Mephistopheles says this is an interesting idea that the two should discuss at a later meeting.
Mephistopheles’ comparison of destruction to a business is both a dark understatement and dripping with sarcasm. Businesses ideally create value, whereas Mephistopheles seeks to destroy all value. Faust seems remarkably unthreatened by the devil, who is more dangerous, even if also weaker, than the Earth Spirit.
Mephistopheles assumes he is excused to go, but points out a little problem: the pentagram on the study doorsill. He was able to come in because the magical Sign was badly drawn, and didn’t notice it as a poodle, but he is now imprisoned by it. Faust is pleased by this surprising triumph. When asked why he can’t just leave by another exit, the devil explains that he, like all demons and specters, is bound by this rule: where they enter is where they must exit. Faust likes that even Hell is bound by laws, and supposes it is possible for humans to safely make contracts with such gentleman as Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles says it takes time to work out such arrangements, and requests the freedom to leave.
Although Faust has sought and seeks omnipotence, it is humorously enough through ignorance and error that he happens to ensnare Mephistopheles. A lack of control over his magical knowledge gives Faust control, however short-lived, over the ultimate magical being. Faust seems to think that demonic magic works instantaneously, but things take time, Mephistopheles reminds him. Devils, like human beings, are limited in their capacities for action, and bound by laws.
Faust thinks a devil in hand, however, is well worth keeping, and Mephistopheles trapped himself, after all. The devil consents to stay, but only if he can use his black arts to entertain Faust properly. Faust has no objections, and so Mephistopheles summons spirits who provide intense sensuous pleasure to the ear with song, to the eye with pictures, and to the smell, taste, and touch. The spirits sing of clear blue skies, beautiful heavenly bodies, bowers and vineyards, birds and dancers.
Mephistopheles escapes Faust’s snares here, just as Faust’s soul will escape Mephistopheles later. The illusions the devil summons parody the natural world Faust so rejoices in. Whereas nature is beautiful and wakes one up, however, the devil’s illusions are merely pleasurable and just put one to sleep. The devil often uses what seem like good things to deceive.
At last Mephistopheles dismisses the choir of spirits he has summoned, for Faust has fallen to sleep. This scholar is not yet the man, the devil says, to hold a demon captive. He orders his minions to surround Faust with beautiful visions, to plunge him into a sea of mad illusions. Meanwhile, Mephistopheles summons a rat to gnaw away the pentagram on the doorsill that holds him prisoner. This done, he bids Faust dream on, then exits. Faust wakes, surprised to have been duped. Did he dream the devil, he wonders, and did the poodle simply run away?
Faust often underestimates the devil’s ingenuity and cruelty. Contrast the rat that liberates Mephistopheles here—ugly, gnawing, pestilential—with the beautiful angels who save Faust from damnation at the end of the drama. The devil’s illusions give Faust a taste for the beauty he can enjoy with the aid of demonic magic—but always such beauty dissolves as in a dream, leaving only confusion and pain.