The Wrong Way (Doctor Faustus)

In Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, the carnival workers are all people who enslaved themselves to Mr. Dark so he would grant them their inmost desires.  This concept is the heart of the story of Doctor Faustus.  The legend of Doctor Faustus is about a man who sold his soul to the devil for earthly gain; he finds that bargaining with evil and compromising his identity lead only to misery.

The source of the Faustus fable is Johannes Faustus, an ignominious German astrologer of the early 1500s (SparkNotes).  Most historical information about Faustus stems from personal accounts of the period, including those of Melanchthon, a noted theologian of the Protestant Reformation and a friend of Martin Luther (Goethe Garden 16; Shepherd).  Faust was apparently born in Knittlingen, Württemberg, in 1480.  He studied magic at Poland’s University of Cracow and then claimed that he could reproduce any one of Jesus’s miracles whenever he wished.  Some, like Martin Luther and Melanchthon, despised Faustus, but others invited him to become a schoolteacher.  His first tenure was disastrous, however; he molested the boys in his care and had to flee the town after he was discovered (Goethe Garden 16).

Faustus later surfaced in Erfurt, where he once lectured on Homer and then summoned the bard’s heroes for the amusement of his students.  Konrad Klinge, a Franciscan monk, rebuked Faustus’s godlessness; the doctor replied that he had made an eternal agreement with Satan and could never return to the right: “The devil has kept faithfully what he promised me; so I, too, want to keep faithfully what I have promised and pledged to him” (Goethe Garden 17).  The monk expelled him from the university.  According to legend, Faust also rode out of Auerbach’s Keller in Leipzig on a barrel; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was later a patron of the same bar (Hi Potentials).  Before sailing for Venezuela in 1535, German adventurer Philip von Hutten asked Faustus for an oracle; he later wrote to his brother that everything Faustus predicted had come true (Tewflik; Goethe Garden 17).  Some observers, including Melanchthon, said the devil accompanied Faustus in the form of a black dog.  Faust reportedly died in Staufen im Breisgau in 1540 (Goethe Garden 17).

The story of Faust spread quickly.  In 1587, the anonymous work Historia von D. Iohan Fausten was published in Germany, and the English translation surfaced five years later.  The work inspired Christopher Marlowe’s classic play, Doctor Faustus, first written in 1592 and published in 1604.  The legend also inspired Goethe’s masterpiece, the epic poem Faust (SparkNotes).

Faust is now a part of the popular consciousness.  Richard Wagner made it a symphony (Wagner), while Gounod and Berlioz wrote Faustian operas (Gounod; SparkNotes).  Faust’s entertainment of nobles with visions of the past and future formed the premise of Herman Hesse’s “An Evening With Doctor Faustus,” a short story about the terrors of the industrialization and commercialization of Germany (Hesse).  Hollywood embraced the story with the romantic comedy “Bedazzled” (Erickson).  According to legend, blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for otherworldly guitar skills; he died at age 28 after a jealous husband poisoned Johnson for making advances on the man’s wife.  In his final hours, Johnson purportedly pranced about like a dog and foamed at the mouth.  His last words were “I pray that my redeemer will come and take me from my grave” (Koda).  One episode of The Twilight Zone, “Escape Clause,” tells the story of a hypochondriac who sells his soul to the devil for immortality.  The man grows tired with life and murders his wife to get the death penalty; he is instead sentenced to life imprisonment and thus activates the contract’s escape clause, dying of a heart attack and yielding his soul to Satan (Cregg).

While the Historia provided a blueprint for the Faust tale, Marlowe and Goethe truly fleshed out the character and story.  At the beginning of the tale, Doctor Faustus is a great scholar who is unsatisfied with his life (Marlowe 2-3; Goethe New 20).  In Marlowe’s version, he desires power and pleasure beyond his wildest dreams; he and his friends Valdes and Cornelius want to “make all the nations canonize us. / As Indian Moors obey their Spanish lords / So shall the subjects of every element / Be always serviceable to us three” (Marlowe 7).  Marlowe’s Faust agrees to twenty-four years of earthly luxury in exchange for Mephistopheles’s services and signs the contract in blood (12-14, 22-23).  Goethe’s Faust, on the other hand, says, “Understand, once for all – pleasure is not the question! / To poignant joy and tumult I long to yield, / To exhilarating rage, enamored hate; / Nor shall my heart, from thirst of knowledge healed, / Henceforth to any sorrow bar the gate” (Garden 60).  Loneliness and the desire to really experience life motivate this Faust.  His blood pact with Mephistopheles includes the stipulation that Faust will forfeit his life the moment he is completely satisfied with it (56-59).

The devil is more than faithful to his end of the agreement.  All manners of men are impressed by Faust’s trickery, from emperors and dukes (Marlowe 42-44, 50-51; Goethe Garden 34-36) to fellow scholars (Marlowe 52-55) to tavern drunks (Goethe New 74, 80-82).  He woos the seamstress Margarethe, called Gretchen, with the grudging aid of his faithful servant, Mephistopheles, who much prefers a polygamous lifestyle (Goethe New 94-96, 99, 112, 125-126, 134-136; Marlowe 24).  Faust’s final paramour is Helen of Troy, “the face that launched a thousand ships” (Marlowe 52-55; Goethe Garden 39-41).  Mephistopheles grants Faust everything he desires, including a world tour (Marlowe 42), a youth formula (Goethe New 83-84, 89-90, 93), the martial aid of the Three Mighty Ones of the Hebrew King David (Goethe Garden 42), the destruction of other men’s property to sate Faust’s jealousy (435-437, 443-447, 453), and the construction of palaces and the drainage and landscaping of swamps (463-469).

Faust attains much through his partnership with Mephistopheles, but he finds to his dismay that any blessing the devil gives men twists into a curse.  Two young boys steal one of Faust’s books and call Mephistopheles to do their bidding, and he turns them into a dog and an ape for their trouble (Marlowe 38-42).  Mephistopheles grants tavern men every wine they desire, but every spilled drop bursts into flames (Goethe New 80-82).  When Faust asks Mephistopheles and the Mighty Ones to destroy an old couple’s trees but move the people to a different location, the Mighty Ones kill and ransack everything (Goethe Garden 453).  After Margarethe’s affair with Faust, Faust kills her brother Valentine; as Valentine is dying, he denounces Margarethe as a whore (Goethe New 144-146).  Gretchen gives birth to Faust’s child, then kills it and receives an execution sentence.  When Faust arrives to save her, she is almost totally insane and refuses to leave the prison and certain death (176-181).  Faust’s relationship with Helen of Troy also meets a tragic end; after the death of her child with Faust, she is overcome with grief and perishes (Goethe Garden 39-41).

Though the price of Mephistopheles’s work is Faust’s soul, Faust initially believes himself immune to the supernatural consequences of his actions (Marlowe 23-24).  When Mephistopheles warns him that every day of eternal separation from God is a living hell, Faust rebukes him: “What, is great Mephistopheles so passionate for being deprived of the joys of heaven? / Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude / And scorn those joys thou never shalt possess” (14).  “The beyond fills me with small concern, / If you dash this world to fragments first, / The other may arise in turn,” he echoes in Goethe’s version (New 57).

Despite this bravado, Faustus is a weak man who cringes when confronted with the full brunt of his actions.  In Marlowe’s play, Faust repeatedly fears for his soul but decides to keep things the way they are and remain miserable (Marlowe 18-19, 26, 29, 54-61).  In Goethe’s tale, Faust summons the Earth Spirit, but when the Spirit appears, Faust is terrified by him and cringes in a corner.  “Thou who dost encompass the wide world, / Creative Spirit, how similar we are!” stammers Faust.  The Earth Spirit responds, “Thou resemblest the spirit thou canst understand / Not me!” (New 18-19).

Heaven and hell grapple for control of Faust throughout his life.  God and Mephistopheles wager for his soul (Goethe New 12), and a choir of angels saves Faust from an attempted suicide (26-28).  A good angel and a bad angel are the doctor’s constant companions, arriving whenever he is in conflict and making cases for their own sides (Marlowe 18-19, 26, 29).  The host of Hell, including Lucifer and the Seven Deadly Sins, visit Faust to ensure his loyalty (29-32).  A mysterious Old Man rebukes Faustus to choose the path of righteousness and prays for his salvation (53-56).

The conflict between good and evil culminates at the end of Faust’s life.  In Marlowe’s story, Faust believes he is too weak and flawed for God’s forgiveness, and he is carried away by devils at the end of twenty-four years (57-61).  In Goethe’s, Faust is finally satisfied when he learns to accept and appreciate himself and his life, learns to be happy with every day as it is, and starts working to improve the lives of others (Goethe Garden 457, 463-9).  When Mephistopheles and his devils crouch around Faust’s body, preparing to snatch his soul, angels arrive and defeat the demons with the piercing power of love (479-487).  Faust is carried up into heaven and reunited with Margarethe for eternity (493-503).

When Doctor Faustus sold his soul to the devil, he received earthly power and pleasure, but the consequences of giving up his self to the forces of evil left him miserable and unhappy.  The theme of the story is stated early in Goethe’s book when Faust asks Mephistopheles what he should be if the devil couldn’t make him a god.  Mephistopheles replies, “You will be in the end just what you are! / Get yourself a wig with curls a score, / Get yourself stilts a yard high or more, / You will be in the end – just what you are!” (New 61).  Faustus, just like Bradbury’s carnival workers, trades in his identity for his wishes and finds himself unhappy with the bargain in the end.  He does not become happy until he accepts life, love, and himself and devotes himself to the service of others.  Doctor Faustus is an account of a German doctor of the 1500s, but it is also a tale of man’s dealings with good and evil and his appreciation of himself and the world.

Works Cited

Cregg, Matthew S.  “Episode 6 – Escape Clause.”  20 Nov. 2002 <<>>

Erickson, Hal.  “Bedazzled.”  20 Nov. 2002 <<>>

Goethe, Johann.  Faust.  Garden City (NY): Doubleday, 1961.

Goethe, Johann.  Faust.  New York: Heritage Press, 1932.

Gounod, Charles.  “Faust.”  Piano Themes From Grand Opera.  Ed. Charles Bateman.  Ojai (CA): Creative Concepts, 1993.  37-43.

Hesse, Herman.  “An Evening With Doctor Faust.”  Stories of Five Decades.  Ed. Theodore Ziolkowski.  New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1972.

Hi Potentials.  “Living in Leipzig: From Auerbach’s Keller to Modern Night Life.”  05 Dec. 2002 <<>>

Koda, Cub.  “Robert Johnson.”  20 Nov. 2002 <<>>

Marlowe, Christopher.  Doctor Faustus.  New York: Appleton, 1950.

Shepherd, Victor.  “Philip Melanchthon.”  05 Dec. 2002 <<>>

SparkNotes.  “Doctor Faustus: Context.”  20 Nov. 2002 <<>>

Tewflik, Mark.  “Re: Free Article Request.”  05 Dec. 2002 <>

Wagner, Richard.  Faust Overture.  Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Cond. William Steinberg.  Record.  Command, 1963.

Explore posts in the same categories: Literature, Schoolwork

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