Faust and the German Nation: How Literature Dictates Manifestations of Nationalism

As Benedict Anderson makes evident in Imagined Communities, literature and the nation are often intertwined in a multitude of ways. In the case of Goethe’s Faust, a single work of literature became so meaningful to the German people that they made it their national text, and use it, whether consciously or unconsciously, to help them decipher what it means to be German. The story of Faust itself conveys truths about nationalism and nationhood; throughout their journeys, Faust and Mephistopheles encounter various portrayals of nations, and Faust also endeavors to create his own nation. Among the principles that the text conveys are the idea of the nation as a people bound by their past as well as the present, the existence of the nation as an expression of a homogeneous community, and the symbolic importance of women to the national imagination.

Ernest Renan’s What is a Nation? is an overview of one important definition of a nation. In the course of his analysis, Renan develops this definition in a series of points. It is his belief that people wishing to become a part of a larger nation must display active consent toward doing so. He also argues that members of a nation should share both a common past and the desire to exhibit commonalities in the present. He states, “A nation has a soul, a spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other in the present. One is the possession of a rich legacy of memories; the other is the desire to live together and to value the common heritage.” Consider Faust’s nation and its inhabitants; two members don’t seem to fit in. Philemon and Baucis are in many ways Faust’s antitheses; they are perfectly content to stay where they are, worship God, and live a relatively meager existence. For this reason, it is clear to both parties that the old couple does not consent to be a part of Faust’s nation, and in lines 11275-77, Faust calls for their relocation: “Then go and push them aside for me! –/ You know the land, with my approval, / Set aside for the old folks removal.” Because Faust, Philemon, and Baucis do not share a past and have no desire to live together in harmony, they cannot effectively form a nation together.

In order for one nation to grow strong and prosperous, there must be other nations to which it can compare itself. In Faust Part 2 Act II, Faust and Mephisto travel through Greece, and while they observe the area, Mephisto remarks about the sins of the Greek people, saying, “They lure the heart of man to happier sins: /While ours, one always finds, are gloomy things.” (Goethe 6974-75) This comparison is telling, not in the opinions it details, but the very fact that it exists. Goethe presents a very clear ‘us versus them’ situation in this act. This coincides with the ideas presented in Anderson’s Imagined Communities; Mephistopheles assumes the overarching qualities of both his own people and this foreign entity, even though he can’t possibly personally know any significant percentage of the people about which he is passing these judgements. Anderson argues that this is the foundation of what a nation is; there is a sense of familiarity and brotherhood that is felt throughout a nation. Nationhood turns strangers into family, and, as Anderson states, “Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings.” This clarifies why it is so easy for Mephisto to discern alleged differences between the two nations.

Faust closes with a scene in the heavens where several important women from the bible, as well as Gretchen, appear. In the final lines of the work, the mystic choir proclaims “Woman, eternal, / Beckons us on.” (Goethe 12110-11) This line from a famous work of German history can be compared to sayings from another, darker time in Germany’s past: Yuval Davis discusses the slogans of Hitler youth, stating “For girls the motto was – ‘be faithful; be pure; be German’. For boys it was – ‘live faithfully; fight bravely; die laughing’. The national duties of the boys were to live and die for the nation; girls did not need to act – they had to become the national embodiment.” Women are often seen as the faces of national movements, as is shown in Faust; in the end, it is the woman who is calling Faust and Germany forward into the future.

The nation is complicated, multifaceted, and constantly changing, but there are some core elements that solidify its existence. As evidenced in the quintessential German text, Faust, a nation must be made up of consenting individuals, who share a past and, additionally, desire to share a present, perhaps because they feel a strong sense of fraternity among themselves, despite the impossibility of their actual acquaintance with one another. Furthermore, Goethe reveals that his ideal nation looks to its women for symbolic guidance. As such, this famous work of literature functions as a path to a deeper understanding of the German nation.

Gretchen’s Inexplicable Fall: Goethe’s “Faust”

In its own haunting and mysterious way, the line between sanity and insanity can be incredibly blurry at times. Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust, is filled with this mysterious case of insanity. In this first part of Goethe’s great work, the embittered thinker, Faust, and Mephistopheles, the devil, enter into a contract. Soon, Faust is living a rejuvenated life and winning the love of the beautiful Gretchen. However, in this compelling tragedy of arrogance, unfulfilled desire, and self-delusion, Gretchen heads inexorably toward an infernal destruction. A question thus comes into play; who is responsible for Gretchen’s fall? In order to accurately assess this question, we must analyze the words and actions of Mephistopheles, Faust, and Gretchen herself.

The first one to be considered for Gretchen’s fall is Mephistopheles, the Devil. Mephistopheles makes a deal with the Lord to tempt Faust. In response, Faust wagers that Mephistopheles will not be able to show him an eternal moment that would ever satisfy his thirst for knowledge. Faust soon finds his eternal moment in his love for a young girl, Gretchen. Although the devil sees it as a hard task when asked to get Gretchen for Faust, he helps Faust win her over: “We’d waste our time storming and running; we have to have recourse to cunning” (Goethe 10). Hence, Mephistopheles ignites a plan using wit and deceit. He knew Gretchen was a good person, he even said, “innocent, sweet dear!” (Goethe 94) referring to her. In accordance with the plan, the Devil leaves jewelry to her, which Gretchen wears and adores (Goethe 33). This temptation of the jewelry causes her to hide it from her parents, sneak around with Faust, murder her child with Faust, and, ultimately, go mad. Mephistopheles is a reasonable candidate for being responsible for Gretchen’s fall to insanity.

Faust is also responsible for Gretchen’s fall since he seduced her, leading to most of her misfortunes. Even after Gretchen refuses to be with Faust as she says, Faust kept on insisting: “I’m not a lady, am not fair; I can go home without your care” (Goethe 81). Faust asked for Mephistopheles help him so as could get Gretchen: “Get me that girl, and don’t ask why”(Goethe 10). After winning her heart, Faust gives Gretchen a sleeping potion to give to her mother, yet the potion turns out to be poisonous, leading to the mother’s death. Gretchen eventually becomes pregnant and goes insane, drowning her newborn baby in the process. In another instance, Faust adds to Gretchen’s misery by killing her own brother in a fight (Goethe 116). Faust, consequently, is profoundly reckless and is responsible for her fall.

Finally, Gretchen herself is plausibly responsible for directly compromising her own sanity. When Martha presents her with jewelry, she agrees to wear it. Gretchen also falls in love with Faust after he seduces her, despite her inner feeling that Faust’s friend Mephistopheles has an evil motive. Gretchen says to Faust, “The man who is with you as your mate deep in my inmost soul I hate” (Goethe 109). Gretchen is, however, attracted to Faust, and once they are together, she says, “Yet I confess I know not why my heart began at once to stir to take your part” (Goethe 101). Gretchen’s words show how she fell for Faust despite the latter talking vulgarly to her. Gretchen’s naivety and loneliness contributed to her falling for Faust. Eventually, her actions led to the deaths of her mother and her newborn child. Later, it contributed to her downfall when she became insane and went to prison (Goethe 145). Because her choices are intimately linked to her fate, Gretchen is a major contributor to her own fall.

So who is responsible for Gretchen’s fall to insanity? After considering Mephistopheles, Faust, and Gretchen, we can see that Gretchen is the most to blame for her fall. Most of Gretchen’s problems came about due to naivety and poor decision-making. Overall, Faust helps to illustrate that people’s actions affect others–and that people are responsible for their own failings.

Work cited

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, and David Luke. Faust. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Print.

“Responsibility.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.

Differences in Carter’s Version of “The Erl-King”

When reading through Goethe’s version of “The Erl-King,” then Carter’s, it is striking how different many of the core elements are between the two stories. Major changes Carter has made include the introduction of a female character and the narrative voice which becomes first person rather than the third person narrator Goethe uses. Although obvious, the length of Carter’s story has a profound effect on the entire meaning of the story and the overall message; Goethe by presenting the myth in a short poem can present the morals of the story very simplistically. The fact that the Father should trust his Son is clear to the reader and the general warning that the Erl-King is dangerous is equally clear. In contrast, any morals in Carter’s 9-page story are almost impossible to derive; she makes the plot more complex through stronger characterisation, which is only possible through an extended story. However, Carter by no means forgets the origins of the original myth and often references it through slightly archaic and not so contemporary syntax such as ‘The Erl-King will do you grievous harm.” Carter also makes the reader aware that her story is based off an original myth through classic fairy tale lines such as, “What big eyes you have.”

Another truth that runs through both stories is that the character of the Erl-King has many desirable virtues; he is not a simple antagonist or villain. For example the reader can only realise that Goethe’s Erl-King is evil through the medium of the small child, if the techniques of “!” and strong imperatives were not included when the child speaks, then the audience’s view of the Erl-King would be one of caring and generosity. The Erl-King offers ‘gold’ and ‘care’ which seems better than the Father’s constant ignorance towards the child’s fears. It could even be argued that the Erl-King saves the child and gives him happiness. Humanity does not understand death and is unaware of what happens after it, but Goethe’s Erl-King is the master of death and maybe knows that the child will be happier after death, whatever that may entail. The narrator in Carter’s tale even argues directly to the audience that the Erl-King could be considered good or at the very least not to blame for the crimes he commits. She describes his hair as ‘beautiful’ and his eyes as ‘life’ , these are descriptions that one would give to a stereotypical male hero of a fairytale, one who comes and saves a damsel in distress. Carter may be including these descriptions to pay homage to the incomprehensible character in Goethe’s version, a character that either saves or hurts the child; an answer the audience can never know. Carter also adds to the parallel between her and Goethe’s Erl-King by making the Erl-King possibly evil as well; her description also comprises of phrases like ‘his touch both consoles and devastates me’ which is highly similar to how the child in Goethe’s poem feels. In both versions the Erl-King is defined only by how other characters react to him, whether it is fear or sexual lust.

Despite Carter using some elements from Goethe’s original the different narrative voice creates a wholly different story. The exploration of feminism is brought in through this technique as the female narrator struggles to decide whether the Erl-King is good or bad. The best description of him is probably a ‘tender butcher’ which is interesting because it is the first time Carter presents a man as perhaps being unable to objectify women, although the Erl-King does it so obviously through his collection of birds. The birds represent women becoming play things of men when they were free spirits. But Carter suggests the Erl-King cannot help himself because he epitomises nature which is presented as dark; completely opposite to how romantic poets such as Keats presented it. Nature created him so he is nature in a humanoid form; it is only nature that scares the woman. The theme of threat is introduced as soon as she enters the woods, not when she sees the Erl-King; the line ‘bars of light’ foreshadow the fate nature has in store for her. This idea of Erl-King being in tune with nature is not included in Goethe’s poem and neither is the exploration into how a woman can become the dominator in the relationship through powerful acts, such as the murder of the Erl-King.

One final similarity between the texts is clear at the end of the story. The female narrator suddenly changes her style of relaying the story back to the reader; she begins to state what ‘she’ will do not what “I have done”. This gives the story an ambiguous end because we as a reader are unsure whether she did actually kill the Erl-King or only planned to; she could be in a cage at the end of the story. This ambiguity can be seen in Goethe’s version as well because we, as readers, do not know the true fate of the child.