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The Representations of the Three Main Characters in Faust


Faust can be seen as a figure of all humanity since he embodies the best and the worst in human.

While he has undoubtedly remarkable characteristics, he is craving for absolute power and ultimate pleasure. We can also notice this in Liszt’s representation of Faust in the form of music. It goes through several melodies, each representing feelings like love and passion, depicting Faust's inner turmoil.

Then it follows by a big triumphant theme, showing Faust's pride and heroism.

Faust reveals his desire most clearly through his monologues and through his conversations with Mephistopheles.

Especially in Murnau’s movie, his fierce and hideous facial expression shows a man without satisfaction, continually reaching for more knowledge, more power and more experience. Faust is a scholar who falls into despair because he feels as though he has exhausted the limits of his knowledge. He sits in his study and mourns that though he has studied all of the great knowledge, he feels no wiser from it (Goethe, Faust, lines 354-359).

These lines set up the central motivation of the story. He feels that he will only become complete if he can fuse his life with nature and the universe.

Faust loses his faith as he pours himself entirely into his education and learns more about the world through the eyes of science. He is then brought to the realization of just how little he truly knows about the nature of the world and even begins to question his own divinity.  “Am I a god? Light fills my mind” (439).
Faust's abandonment of faith and reason ultimately leads him to magic.  In this case, magic is the doubt of reality.  Faust summons the devil Mephistopheles for one purpose: to provide him with the means to live life only in the moment, a fast-paced series of intense experiences.  Faust's lack of faith results in a lack of morality and the most questionable decision he has ever made: selling his soul to the devil. Faust wants to experience all of life for every person crammed into his own single lifetime.  After abandoning faith and reason, he is left with no other option than this. 

The other character that plays a crucial part in the story is the devil Mephistopheles.

Mephistopheles can be seen as the symbol of doubt as he needs to play off of Faust's doubts in order to manipulate him. The music in the 3rd movement of the Faust symphony indicates that the devil can't create anything, they only destroy. Therefore, Liszt doesn't create any original themes for the devil. He simply takes Faust's themes and disfigures them into wicked parodies to show Mephistopheles acting through Faust.

Much like the common interpretations of a devil, Mephistopheles is clever, stubborn, tempting and most of all, evil.

The evil side is portrayed in the negative aspects of Faust's personality, which shows that no matter how much power the Lord has, the devil would always have an impact on someone’s decisions. On the other hand, Mephistopheles has some distinct characteristics, which make him different from other serious devils. He is humorous and disrespectful and might not seem to be harmful to anyone at first sight.

However, it is actually more vicious when people let down their guards. Mephistopheles acts like a secretly evil friend who talk Faust into making the wrong decision rather than being like an obvious wicked figure. However, Mephistopheles is just slightly more powerful than Faust himself. Most of the time, destructive interference needs to be done physically by Mephistopheles himself instead of him just spitting out magic spells.

Mephistopheles is smart and creative when it came to luring in his victims of evil.

He disguises himself as a dog and follows Faust home. Faust then realizes the dog is "circling around" him and "a wake of fire's streaming behind him" (lines 1175-1179). Mephistopheles also brings the complicated factor of love into the equation, by planting the jewel box in her room and setting Faust up with Gretchen.  Love seems to be his exception when Faust says he wants a fast-paced life from one experience to another. He stays with Gretchen from their initial meeting and this long commitment is not in Mephistopheles’ plan.

In fact, in Murnau’s silent movie, Mephistopheles shows his disdain for Gretchen on his face without physically saying anything. It is ironic that a powerful devil like Mephistopheles cannot actually do anything to an innocent little girl like Gretchen.

Therefore, this might be one of the reasons why Faust falls for her on the first sight and their story stands a large proportion in Murnau’s movie.


Gretchen is the most important female character in this story, representing the religious and moral society.

She is the only character we feel sorry for, an ideal picture of simplicity, warmth and depth of affection.

The spirit of noble purity breathes around her little world of domestic duties. The first shadow falls on this transparent soul, and she is tricked into leaving behind the virtuousness of her youth by committing crimes such as poisoning her mother.

Her relationship with Faust is destined for tragedy as Faust tempts Gretchen away from her moral life. Faust’s love becomes an infatuation spurred by his new target once he has had all that Gretchen gets to offer. The whole Gretchen Tragedy is there to invoke a feeling of temptation. She was a stereotypical of a peasant woman before she met Faust. However, she falls into the temptation after getting jewels from Mephistopheles.

Liszt uses some tender music to illustrate the innocence and gentleness of this little girl. Simple combinations of string instruments create highly beautiful textures. There’s also a rapturous part in this movement showing her confused feeling when falling deep in love with Faust.

Gretchen ends up poisoning her mother in order to commit the ultimate sin for a woman. Being a pregnant but unmarried woman, Gretchen is cursed seriously: “ That girl has at last been made a fool. That comes from having airs. It stinks! She is feeding two when she eats and drinks.” (1135) Even worse, her brother is killed when he comes to catch the man who ruined his sister’s reputation.

Gretchen certainly pays a great price for straying in her enchanted love for Faust.  “I look at you, dear Heinrich, and somehow/My will is yours, it's not my own will now./Already I've done so many things for you,/There's—almost nothing left to do” (3517-20). The evil she committed while enchanted has driven her mad with guilt.  She cannot live with herself and therefore will not allow herself to be saved by Faust.  “No,/From here to my everlasting tomb/And not one step further I'll go!” (4539-40). The redemption of Gretchen even after the murder of her mother and child proves that despite her straying, she is still the epitome of faith in this story. 

In the movie, Gretchen seems to be even more innocent than she is in the text.

Gretchen and God might be the only heroes in this story. It is God who saves Faust in the end and lets everyone make his or her own decisions. Gretchen turns herself to God after her stray off the path and she also accepts her lover after she knows his deceits and all the heartbreak he caused her. The Gretchen Tragedy is the quintessential element of this play, which shows every side of the devil and the true side of God all through Goethe’s eyes.

Murnau’s moive is not completely the same story as in Goethe’s Faust.

One of the great historians of German silent cinema Siegried Kracauer said, he "misrepresented, if not ignored, all significant motives inherent in its subject matter. The metaphysical conflict between good and evil was thoroughly vulgarized." While Lotte Eisner wrote the film "starts with the most remarkable and poignant image the German chiaroscuro ever created.

The chaotic destiny of the opening shot, the light drawing in the mist, the rays beaming through the opaque air, the visual fugue which diapasons round the heavens, are breathtaking." Everyone might have different opinions on how Murnau shows the story to the audience but some images in the movie remain impressive in their magnificence. There’re some unforgettable scenes such as angels talking to each other in the heaven, Faust getting his youth back, and Faust flying over the countryside on Mephistopheles’ cloak.

Those scenes carry an amazing impact on the audience who have only read the text of Faust before. French director Eric Rohmer stated, "Murnau was able to mobilize all those forces which guaranteed him complete control of the film's space. Every formal element--the faces and bodies of the actors, objects, landscape, and such natural phenomena as snow, light, fire, and clouds--have been created or recreated with an exact knowledge of their visual effect.

Never has a film left so little to chance."

Faust is subtitled "A Tragedy", which is supposed to be a lamentable, dreadful, or fatal disaster. It is actually befitting because of Faust's alliance with the Devil Mephistopheles and the fate of two of the main characters at the end of the story.

However, this story could also be considered as a comedy in different versions. In the play, there are comic and ironic ways to either mock or punish religionists, atheists, and demons. The vivid expressions, exaggerated storyline, and the sense of humor of the characters are adding some comic elements in this tragedy. Though the three main characters are depicted in a various ways from different representation of Faust (all text translations, Listz’s music or Murnau’s movies), their main characteristic and personal values remain the same: Faust’s desire for power, Mephistopheles’ evilness and Gretchen’s innocence.

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