The courtyard of Faust’s palace is now lit by torches. Mephistopheles enters, leading a group of Lemures, spirits of the restless or malignant dead in Roman mythology. The devil sets them to digging a grave for Faust, for his death is near, though Faust himself thinks that the Lemures are working on a canal in accordance with his plans.
Faust confuses the sounds of his grave’s construction with his canal being built, but this confusion expresses a deep reality—that Faust will achieve transcendence and meaning only after his death, when his body is in the grave and his soul is in heaven.
Faust dreams of draining a contaminating marsh as his crowning last achievement, so that millions of people can live, not safe but free to work nonetheless in green and fertile fields. He wishes that he could see the people’s teeming life, and their autonomy on unencumbered soil. If this ever came to pass, he’d say of the moment: “Tarry a while, you are so fair” (the words in his contract with Mephistopheles, which, when spoken of a moment experienced, forfeit Faust’s soul to the devil). Thus envisioning the heights of happiness, he enjoys now his highest moment.
Faust’s final vision is of the Utopia he hopes to build on earth. It is a vision not of domination but of justice, prosperity, and love. Although Faust is never satisfied, and dies before he can realize his vision, he nonetheless learns at last to find happiness in desire and progress, not just accomplishment. He never gives into bodily pleasure and idleness either, but is always striving, and this striving saves his soul.
Faust falls back dead and is caught by the Lemures, who lay him on the ground. Mephistopheles says that nothing satisfies Faust, and so he just keeps chasing shapes that always change. But time triumphs, and now Faust is dead. The devil says that the past and nothingness are the same thing, and that he’d prefer Eternal Emptiness to creation.
The devil’s comment that nothing satisfies Faust seems to be a concession that he, the devil, has not won Faust’s soul by the terms of their contract. Being the devil, he attempts to take Faust’s soul nonetheless.
The Lemures begin to bury the body of Faust. Mephistopheles says that if the dead man’s soul tries to rise, he’ll show his blood-signed contract to it, even though, he sighs, there are so many ways to cheat the devil of his souls these days. Mephistopheles conjures devils to assist him in arresting Faust’s soul, and he orders them to bring with them the hideous mouth of hell, which opens its jaws to the Flaming City.
The devil has not fairly won Faust’s soul, and so he must resort to force in securing it for himself. The Flaming City of hell is a sharp contrast to Faust’s Utopian vision, one that emphasizes the devil’s commitment to negativity.
The glorious host of heaven enters from above, singing of forgiveness. Mephistopheles hates their nasty, androgynous songs, for they have cost him many souls. Angels begin to scatter roses about, making the devils flinch. In agitation Mephistopheles orders his minions to shut their mouths and noses, but it is too late, and their strength and valor is giving out. He curses them while they stand on their heads, cartwheel about, and plunge back into hell.
Mephistopheles can win human battles, but illusions cannot help him now against the angels, even though armed only with roses. His minions’ panic and flight suggests that the devil is about as competent a ruler as the Emperor is, despite his love of domination. The roses represent mercy and are contrasted with hellfire.
Mephistopheles fights off the roses that drift about him. His head is on fire and his body burns. He is surprised, however, to find the angels not an offensive sight, as he used to, but instead to be lovely, even attractive. He wants to kiss them like a lover, and suggests that they could wear less clothing, instead of these long prudish robes. He lecherously admires the angels’ buttocks. These rascals really whet his appetite, he says.
The roses would stimulate true love in anyone but the devil himself. The closest thing he can feel to love is lust, and so he begins, outrageously, to sexually pine for the angels. In his sensual madness, however, the devil ignores the fact that Faust’s soul is escaping him. He ignores the whole situation and is distracted by only a part.
The angels rise, bearing off the immortal part of Faust from his gravesite. Mephistopheles begins to regain his composure. Even though he finds himself afflicted with boils now, he is pleased to find the love-illusion dissipated and himself still every inch a devil. The angels have succeeded, however, in robbing him of a great treasure: Faust’s noble soul. Mephistopheles calls himself a bungler who’s wasted a great investment all over some erotic silliness. The very height of folly defeated the devil himself.
Faust’s grave is not a prison, but a doorway to salvation. Thanks to divine love, the great man finally leaves the world that so limited and frustrated him. The devil, in a way, has ultimately succeeded only in spurring Faust on, teaching him to learn his limits and how best to work within them. Willing Faust’s damnation, Mephistopheles has instead contributed to Faust’s salvation.