The Influence Of Goethe’s Faust
The diverse use of setting in ‘Faust’ is central to Goethe’s depiction of the protagonist’s quest to discover his life as part of rational, cosmic order. The play’s setting often mirrors Faust himself and becomes an important indicator of his mood, aspirations, and internal conflicts. Equally, the polarities within each setting also reflect Faust’s struggle to unite the human and divine in an attempt to find meaning and fulfillment in life. Initially, Faust is a character who is discontent, longing for the infinite with no limitations or boundaries. Consequently, the setting becomes a device through which Goethe conveys Faust’s conflict between human and divine existence and his resulting evolution of the character.
Paragraph 1: Faust’s Study
At the beginning of the play, Goethe uses Faust’s study to convey the protagonist’s desire to escape the limitations of his human existence. It is a “high-vaulted, narrow gothic room” that is “hemmed in by books […] which dust layers choke […] to ceiling-height.” The reference to “dust”, which symbolizes mortality and monotony, reflects the dissatisfaction and futility which characterizes Faust’s existence early on in the play. The image of being choked by dust, paired with the adjective “narrow”, presents Faust’s physical environment as “stifling” and painfully suffocating. This notion of dark, gloomy confinement is emphasized by the juxtaposition between Faust’s study and the light, expansiveness of Heaven, where the previous scene is set. While in his study, Faust declares that “heaven’s dear light must pass dimly through panes of painted glass.” The adverb “dimly” establishes a desolate mood and implies that the study is a barrier that deprives Faust not only of “light” but of harmony with Nature and the spirit realm. The use of the adjective “dear” highlights the desirability of life beyond the study walls from which Faust is presently detached, and his longing to connect with nature. His isolation is further emphasized by Faust being alone for most of the scene. This scene unfolding in the darkness of “Night”, is symbolic of Faust’s suffering: he ponders “how shall I find fulfillment in this gaol?” Having already surpassed his colleagues in what was a finite quest for knowledge, the metaphor of a “gaol” suggests that Faust is trapped in a prison of partial knowledge. As a man who takes “no pleasure in anything”, the restrictive setting of Faust’s study conveys his vulnerability to Mephistopheles and the temptations of “seeking magic’s assistance” as an escape route.
Paragraph 2: Earthbound
Faust’s state of helplessness is furthered by Goethe’s presentation of the earth as a place that restricts one’s divine aspirations. Similar to his study, Faust views the earth as “a prison [that he] can’t get away from.” The notion, within this metaphor, of an attempted escape reinforces Faust’s longing to transcend the human sphere in which he feels trapped. This sense of imprisonment is explored further in the phrase: “wings, alas, may grow/Upon our soul, but still our body is/ Earthbound.” Here, a contrast is drawn between the freedom of rising to heaven, as symbolized by “wings”, compared with the restriction of being bound to the earth. This conflict between the human and spiritual realms is a “division [which] tears [Faust’s] life in two.” On the one hand, he wants to be like God, but in reality, he is frustratingly “earthbound”. This suggests that Faust’s achievements in life are limited to those of the human condition, something that appears incapable of satisfying him. The reference to “body” and “soul” as two separate entities implies that the physicality of Faust’s human existence is a barrier to his spiritual aspirations.
Paragraph 3: Nature
In contrast to ideas of confinement within the setting, the natural environment is used to represent notions of escapism and self-renewal. In the play, nature embodies the sublime and is a place that transcends the “oppressive gloom” of bourgeoisie Germany. Faust observes that “ice thaws on the river, ice melts on the streams”. This imagery of water flowing in “floods of life” highlights the freeness and fluidity of nature. Faust’s references to being “set free” and “flee[ing] into open land” portray nature as a symbol of safety and liberation. This is evident in the cathedral when Gretchen anxiously says “I can’t breathe! The great pillars are stifling me”, “Give me air!”. This image of suffocation and claustrophobia conveys Gretchen’s distress. It is symbolic that she desires “air” as it is an element of nature. This, coupled with the fact that she faints at the end of the scene, illustrates her yearning for a natural setting as a means of escapism. In his paean to spring, Faust implies that nature’s rebirth is man’s rebirth also. This is evident in the line “the earth revives as everything grows and stirs and strives”. Combined with this notion of rejuvenation, the pairing of the verbs ‘stir’ and ‘strive’ suggests the awakening of Faust’s ambition in the presence of nature. Nature empowers him with the prosperity of “new life” and “new hopes” and provides him with his deepest, most sensitive feeling and enjoyment.
Paragraph 4: The Spirit Realm
The Spirit realm is a symbol of active creative power that represents Faust’s divine aspirations. Although Faust never finds himself physically in the spirit realm, this setting nonetheless symbolizes his quest for the infinite and his desire to become a god. Goethe conveys this idea of “activity” and “striving” through the fact that rhyming ceases when Faust “sees the Sign of the Earth-Spirit.” This shift in poetic form marks Faust’s spiritual awakening. This idea of a boundless existence and finding “superangelic strength” is exhibited when, while aspiring to live beyond earth, Faust says “No mountain range would stop me, not with all/Its rugged chasms; at divine speed, I fly.” It is evident that Faust desires for “all mortal limits [to be] gone”. Through this image of omnipotence, Goethe presents the idea that the spirit realm has the power to transcend the limitations of the physical setting
Paragraph 5: A Forest Cavern (Transition to a different understanding of nature)
Faust’s movement towards a more stable, secure relationship with Nature is expressed through the setting in “A Forest Cavern.” Prior to this scene, Faust had been concerned with understanding the cosmic and human orders of Nature. However, his reference to the cavern as a “refuge” establishes it as a sanctuary offering safety and protection. This displays Faust’s comfort with, but also dependence on, nature as a means of escape. During this scene, Faust settles into regular, blank verse – a contrast to previous scenes. This change in form illustrates his journey towards a more sound, objective view of nature. That Faust is “alone” yet content in the scene highlights that he no longer views his solitude as a form of detachment from his surroundings. In Faust’s commune with nature, he says “the air, /The water, now I recognize my brothers”. This notion of brotherhood represents Faust’s connection to his environment and also the notion of a mutual relationship. The diction of “now” and “recognize” indicates Faust’s recent shift toward unity with his surroundings. Possessive pronouns, such as “my”, along with more frequent self-references give Faust’s otherwise sentimental soliloquy and air of egotism. Throughout this scene the setting remains constant but, through the reintroduction of rhyme and irregular verse length upon Mephistopheles entrance on stage, Goethe snaps the audience back into the plane of reality.
Paragraph 6: Gretchen’s room
The setting of Gretchen’s room conveys Faust’s transition, under the influence of love, towards harmony with his physical environment. The cleanliness and simplicity of Gretchen’s “small well-kept room” establishes is symbolic of innocence and domesticity. Through entering perhaps the humblest of places, Faust is willingly immersing himself into the heart of common humanity, a moment that is emphasized by the “pause” which he takes before speaking. In his soliloquy, Faust reveres, in a sentimental tone, “what happiness [is] in this imprisonment” and “what riches in this poverty”. These oxymorons illustrate Faust’s emotional confusion in that he now is gratified and can sense “order” and “completeness”, rather than dissatisfaction, in his surroundings. Faust’s new appreciation of the human sphere is displayed when he states that “this whole place breathes deep content”. The personification of the setting connects “breath”, a symbol of life, to “place” which indicates Faust’s reabsorption into the cosmos. Given Faust is a man of ambivalence who is grappling with his identity, such a change in attitude hints that he is transitioning in other respects also, such as from sound to corrupt morals. Faust’s proclamation that “this little hut matches the heavens above”, reflects that he is coming to a greater appreciation of human life. Likening the human to the spirit realm suggests that Faust’s love for Gretchen has given him a spiritual connection to the world that allows him to now find divinity in his human existence.
Initially, Faust is a character who is discontent, longing for the infinite with no limitations or boundaries. His struggle to escape the confines of intellectualism and instead merge his life with sublime nature and the universe is reflected through the shift in settings from human to natural to divine realms. The setting is therefore essential to both narrative development and the characterization of the play’s incredibly complex protagonist. At its core, the setting reflects Faust himself, conveying everything from his moral ambivalence, restless dissatisfaction and despair, to his desires, his content, and his all-consuming love. It is ultimately through the setting that the totality of Faust’s character and human experience, with all its inherent frailties and might, is revealed.
- Polarity within the setting – Summer garden vs “a gloomy day” despair