Faust, lamp in hand, stands in the prison before a small iron door, having stolen a jailer’s keys. A long-forgotten sense of horror makes him tremble, for behind the iron door is Margarete. Inside she sings in the persona of her dead child, singing about the whorish mother who killed the infant and the father who ate it, and about having transformed into a bird.
Faust intends to liberate Gretchen from her physical prison, but her actions suggest that her prison is not just a physical one, but mental as well. She sings a folk song and reads her own horrific tragedy into its lyrics.
Faust enters the cell and Margarete cowers, afraid that her execution is about to take place, even though it is scheduled for the following morning. She does not recognize Faust, even as he unshackles her. He throws himself down and identifies himself as one who loves her. Margarete throws herself down too, to pray to the saints.
Faust is, in one sense, Gretchen’s executioner, for he is the one who introduced so much suffering into her life. She turns away from the thought of her imminent death and prays for divine love and forgiveness.
When Faust calls her name, Margarete recognizes his voice. She feels free and embraces the man she loves. Happy memories of their courtship overwhelm her, so much so that even as Faust urges her to escape with him she lingers and caresses him. His lips are cold, and Margarete asks if he really knows whom he’s freeing: a mother-killer and child-murderer. Let what is past be past, commands Faust, but Margarete says she only wants death and eternal rest, and will not leave with him.
Being called by her name restores Margarete to temporary lucidity. Margarete knows, as the calloused Faust does not, that the past cannot stay in the past, but exists in the present, too, and in the whole of time that is eternity. She would escape from this prison only to be in the prison of the world again. Instead she desires rest and eternal salvation.
Margarete tells Faust to leave without her, to save his poor child, and she imagines her mother sitting on a rock shaking her head—the mother who died so that her daughter and her daughter’s lover could have their happiness together. Faust says that if Margarete won’t respond to reason, he’ll carry her away, but Margarete cries for him to take his wicked hands off of her. The sun is rising, and Margarete is committed to dying today.
This scene of liberation becomes a dark retelling of Faust’s seduction of Margarete. Faust, gentle and loving at first, becomes brutal, just as he was brutal in acting on his lust. This time, however, Margarete pulls away from Faust and denounces him as wicked. She will not swoon and die from his kisses, but instead on the scaffold.
Mephistopheles enters and tells Faust and Margarete to come away, or else both of them will be lost. Margarete begs Faust to send Mephistopheles out, and the devil threatens to abandon both of them. Margarete calls on divine justice and the heavenly Father to save her and keep her safe. She is judged, cries Mephistopheles but then a voice from the heavens cries, “She is saved.” Mephistopheles tells Faust to flee, and the two disappear. Margarete’s voice is heard from within, calling Faust’s name: Heinrich! Heinrich! This is the end of Part I of Goethe’s Faust.
Faust thinks the devil is a necessary evil, but Margarete recognizes that he isn’t needed so long as one is not concerned with earthly life, but rather with divine justice. The devil’s idea of judgment is coarsely human: Margarete has been sentenced by her society to die. But the voice from heaven reminds us that earthly justice is nothing compared to divine justice, and Margarete is granted her eternal salvation.