Faust

Faust

Prisons and Keys Symbol Icon

For Faust, as for Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the world is a prison, confining him, shackling his imagination, and limiting his power. His study is a prison made out of books, dead authorities and empty words. His body is a prison that he attempts to escape by means of suicide, only to be interrupted. His deal with Mephistopheles could see him condemned to that most miserable and inescapable prison of all, hell itself. However, Faust is a uniquely restless and resourceful prisoner, always seeking means of escaping from himself, of becoming more than he is. Magic, nature, love, and earthly power in the service of human society are all keys that he uses to escape his unnecessary limitations and achieve freedom and enjoyment.

To emphasize and refine the idea of imprisonment and liberation, Goethe includes in Faust several literal prisons and keys. Margarete, for example, is imprisoned for murdering the child she and Faust conceive together, and Faust steals a jailer’s keys in order to liberate her and save her from her impending execution. Margarete understands, however, as Faust does not, that her prison is not physical, but is more truly the haunting guilt she experiences after the deaths of her mother, brother, and child. This is a prison that is inescapable other than through profound penitence. Homunculus is trapped in a prison as well, the vial in which he unnaturally crystallized in Wagner’s laboratory. His key, metaphorically speaking, is exposure to the Classical Aegean Sea, which the play holds up as the natural origin of life, where he experiences a passion so strong that his vial shatters. Finally, there is the key that Mephistopheles gives to Faust so that he can descend to the realm of the mystical Mothers, a Nothingness where Faust hopes to find his All. He uses the key to liberate back into life the shades of Helen of Troy and her lover Paris, and so the key also becomes a phallic symbol, that which unlocks from the feminine Nothingness new life. Try as he might, however, and despite being armed with so many keys, it is only after his death and ascension into heaven that Faust’s soul truly achieves freedom.

Prisons and Keys Quotes in Faust

The Faust quotes below all refer to the symbol of Prisons and Keys. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Reason and Passion Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Princeton University Press edition of Faust published in 2014.
Part 2: Act 2: Laboratory Quotes

[Homunculus’s vial is] rising, flashing, piling up—
another moment and it’s done!
A grand design may seem insane at first;
but in the future chance will seem absurd,
and such a brain as this, intended for great thoughts,
will in its turn create a thinker too.

Related Characters: Wagner (speaker), Homunculus
Related Symbols: Faust’s Study and Wagner’s Laboratory, Prisons and Keys
Page Number: 6865-6870
Explanation and Analysis:

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Prisons and Keys Symbol Timeline in Faust

The timeline below shows where the symbol Prisons and Keys appears in Faust. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: Night (Faust’s Study 1)
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Intellectualism and the Value of Words Theme Icon
...wants to roam in the moonlight and rejuvenate himself by doing so, he is still imprisoned by his worm-eaten, dusty books. He feels anxious and constricted to find himself surrounded not... (full context)
Part 1: Cathedral
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Pleasure and Love Theme Icon
Parts, Wholes, and Limits Theme Icon
...her heart. As the choir sings on, Gretchen says that the pillars and walls are confining her—she needs air. The Evil Spirit tells Gretchen that all blessed souls avert their faces... (full context)
Part 1: An Expanse of Open Country
Pleasure and Love Theme Icon
...country under an overcast sky. Faust has learned that Gretchen is miserable and despairing in prison—for killing her newborn child, Faust’s own. Speaking in prose for the first time in the... (full context)
Part 1: Prison
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Pleasure and Love Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Part 2: Act 1: An Imperial Palace: A Dark Gallery
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Pleasure and Love Theme Icon
Politics Theme Icon
Mephistopheles gives Faust a tiny key that begins to grow in his hand. It has special properties, the devil says. Faust... (full context)
Part 2: Act 1: An Imperial Palace: Knight’s Hall
Reason and Passion Theme Icon
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Pleasure and Love Theme Icon
Politics Theme Icon
...part of a stage in front of the curtain), Faust invokes the Mothers, touches his key to the bowl, and summons Paris. (full context)
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Pleasure and Love Theme Icon
...and possess her himself. Faust leaps up and attempts to seize Helen. He touches his key to Paris. An explosion results that leaves Faust lying on the floor. The phantom figures... (full context)
Part 2: Act 2: Laboratory
Reason and Passion Theme Icon
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Intellectualism and the Value of Words Theme Icon
...cumbersome apparatus designed for fantastic purposes. He is at the hearth, excited. In the inmost vial of his apparatus something glows like a living ember. Mephistopheles enters and Wagner explains that... (full context)
Reason and Passion Theme Icon
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Pleasure and Love Theme Icon
Intellectualism and the Value of Words Theme Icon
Inside the vial is Homunculus, a very small human or humanoid creature, making dainty gestures. It speaks, addressing... (full context)
Part 2: Act 2: Classical Walpurgis Night: The Pharsalian Fields
Reason and Passion Theme Icon
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Parts, Wholes, and Limits Theme Icon
Intellectualism and the Value of Words Theme Icon
From the sky, accompanied by light, enter Homunculus, still in his vial, Mephistopheles, and Faust, who wakes upon landing, refreshed just to be in Greece. The three... (full context)
Pleasure and Love Theme Icon
...mountain nymph greets him and directs him to Homunculus, who is trying to destroy his vial and achieve a proper existence. (full context)
Part 2: Act 2: Classical Walpurgis Night: Rocky Inlets of the Aegean Sea
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Parts, Wholes, and Limits Theme Icon
...speak with Proteus. They lure him over to them by shining the lamp of Homunculus’s vial. The tricky shape-shifter comes in the form of a giant turtle and then, at Thales’... (full context)
The Human Desire for Meaning and Transcendence Theme Icon
Pleasure and Love Theme Icon
Parts, Wholes, and Limits Theme Icon
...afar Thales sees Homunculus’ flame burn brighter with passion, till at last Homunculus shatters his vial and his fiery being embraces the waves. Everyone praises the elements. (full context)
Part 2: Act 3: Before Menelaus’ Palace at Sparta
Reason and Passion Theme Icon
...spread and obscure their vision, Helen and the Trojan women find themselves suddenly in a prison-like pit or courtyard. They fear they’re as much captive now as they were before. (full context)