Goethe Faust Part 1

Goethe Faust - Supposedly the best German literature ever written, our resident German speaking Austrian, picked it as her book club choice. A difficult but rewarding read!

This is a bit like attempting to read Shakespeare as it is an olde  poem.

It was originally written in Germany by Goethe in 1809 and then revised a few times by Goethe around 1829.

He is very famous in Germany and some would say this is the most important literature ever to come out of Germany.

So, when it appeared on our book club list we were a little hesitant. Were we about to break one of our rules for meetings by reading something way too high brow, that will bore the pants off everyone?

Well, we all found it a challenge, but were rewarded with an insightful discussion as we together, tried to fathom, what was going on!

Plot / Story

Goethe Faust Part I

We only attempted the first part of Goethe Faust. There are however two parts to this tragedy if you are feeling very brave.

We meet the Lord and the Devil (called Mephistopheles). The Devil says how corrupt mankind are and thinks he can turn one of the Lords men, Faust, into an evil sinner. The Lord thinks that Faust will remain loyal and not be tempted by the devil.

We are introduced to Faust. He is disillusioned with life. He's a gifted scholar, having read many books, particularly about science. He is also an accomplished alchemist too.

What he really wants is to be done with chemistry and be at one with nature. So he decides to call a spirit to guide him, but no spirit arrives. This only adds to his torment, knowing he is a mere human.

So, he decides to poison himself. But just as he is about to, he hears the voices of angels singing. It is an Easter celebration. His friend Wagner arrives and they join the Easter celebrations in the streets.

On the way home a black dog follows Faust home. When he is home, the dog turns into Mephistopheles (the devil) and there they contemplate Faust's life and current predicament. To show Faust his powers, the devil takes him on a journey where he hallucinates.

When he wakes up, the devil does a deal with Faust - A moment of transcendance  in exchange for being the devils servant whilst in hell. Faust agrees, thinking that he can stay in this new state, or the devil will never be able to achieve it, either way, he won't have to fulfill his part of the deal.

The devil then shows Faust various other lives that could lead to fulfillment e.g. those that have found contentment through drink. They also visit the witches, where Faust drinks some of a potion. He soon meets Gretchen and falls in love with her, and she with him.

A courtship between the two lovers begins. The devil plays many tricks on Gretchen, including the delivery of jewels that her mother finds and knows they are from a dark source. Faust persuades Gretchen to give a sleeping potion to her mother so they can consummate their marriage. Faust on several occasions tries to do the right thing by Gretchen, (e.g. keeping away from her due to his overwhelming feelings for her) but the voice from the devil, continues to press him into doing things he might ordinarily not have done.

She soon relises she is pregnant and is worried about having a baby out of wedlock. She gets rid of the baby and ends up being locked because of it, where she goes slightly mad.

Meanwhile, Gretchen's brother wants to avenge Gretchen's lover for getting her pregnant out of wedlock. They fight and Faust kills him.

Faust, with the devils help tries to rescue Gretchen from prison, but she doesn't recognise him. The devil forces Faust to leave, before he is arrested and sent to prison for killing Valentine, Gretchen's brother.


Goethe Faust

Science And The Arts

It seems from the poem that Goethe has learned all he can from books, particularly about chemistry and science. Yet this knowledge and learning is not enough to be fulfilled. Many theorists suggest that enlightenment comes from reading and knowledge. But Goethe goes against this theory, with Faust seeing this existence as too rational.

Good V's Evil

Clearly the devil plays a huge role in the first part of the book. He is always there to help and coerce Faust into making decisions, often wrongly. Whilst Faust starts out fairly defiant, over the course of the poem, he seems to listen more and more to  Mephistopheles, the devil, corrupting him more and more.

Faust's seduction of Gretchen and the murder of her brother, Valentine, are probably the best examples of this.


There are several references to religion throughout the story. We see this mainly at the beginning of the poem, when he tries to conjure the spirits ,and even more so with his conversations with Gretchen. She doesn't want to marry anyone who is not a believer in God. But Faust struggles to articulte what exactly he believes in, which leaves Gretchen feeling skeptical of his belief. Is Goethe being philosophical here and challenging our view of god and the fact that if we can't adequately define it, does it exist?

Love and Shakespeare

The love story between Gretchen and Faust reads like a Shakespeare play (Midsummer Nights Dream mixed with Romeo and Juliet). They even attend a play together that sounds like A Midsummer Nights Dream. It is a romantic story with sinister twists leading in tragedy.  Goethe must have taken some inspiration from Shakespeare here.

There are definitely deeper themes involved in this novel, relating more to philosophical arguments around "modernism" and "the enlightenment tradition" but we struggled to really get to the bottom of these. It took us more of time to make sure we had all understood the story!!

Enlightnement is defined by Wikipedia as a movement that happended in the 18th and 19th century and its aim was to  "reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advance knowledge through science" It rejected superstitions etc.

"Modernism" when related to the  arts, rejects "realism" and the theory of enlightenment as well as the belief in one all powerful creator.

We see both these aspects in the story. Faust rejects the enlightenment tradition at the beginning of the novel when he tries to commit suicide when he is unfulfilled despite all his studying. We see elements of modernism in the way Faust discusses religion and his in-articulation of a supreme being.

Book Club Questions

Goethe Faust

Discuss the story of Faust. Do you all agree on the story or do some have different interpretations?

Discuss Faust's character. Is he a good or bad person?

What role do you think the witches play in the poem?

Why do you think God enters the wager?

Discuss the concepts of Enlightenment and Modernism. What do you think Goethe Faust is trying to say?

Is this poem romantic? In what way?

Are there any similarities with Shakespeare's work?


Goethe Faust

We all felt pretty proud of ourselves for reading Goethe Faust.

It was hard going but we were rewarded by a lively discussion. We spent much time checking we had the story right - we all had slightly different ideas as to what was going on!

We discussed some of the themes and tried to tackle enlightenment and modernism. All very high brow but manageable with a couple of glasses of wine!

Top of Goethe Faust

Book Club Questions

Fab Book Club Recommendations

This Month's Book - Join Us!

Book of Month Club

Love reading about outrageous injustice and unfairness. Try this one.

Empty Cradles

Learn about new countries cultures. Try

Letters From Burma

Looking for books with a bit more depth for your Book Club? Try

John Steinbeck East of Eden

Establish some fun ground rules for your Book Club:

Rules For Meetings

Make things interesting - Have an annual Award Ceremony

Best Books Awards

Visit a Prison with a difference in South America. You will be amazed what goes on behind closed doors:

Marching Powder

Read a Classic and find out what makes Flaubert's story and writing so legendary:

Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert

Looking for something quirky and funny?

Try The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared