Faust: The Dichotomy of Gretchen: In the play “Faust” by
Johann Goethe, Gretchen’s character envelops extreme aspects of Virgin Mary and
of Eve. Mary acts as the symbol of the mother of mankind, the pure woman who
makes men’s salvation possible. She has no evil in her at all. In contrast, Eve
is the archetypal figure of the fallen woman, the cause of man’s suffering and
Faust: The Dichotomy of Gretchen
In the play “Faust” by Johann Goethe, Gretchen’s character envelops
extreme aspects of Virgin Mary and of Eve. Mary acts as the symbol of the mother
of mankind, the pure woman who makes men’s salvation possible. She has no evil
in her at all. In contrast, Eve is the archetypal figure of the fallen woman,
the cause of man’s suffering and damnation. She symbolizes death, destruction,
and human depravity. Eve is the antithesis of Mary; together the two archetypes
correspond to the two sides of Gretchen’s character.
When Gretchen is first introduced in the play, she appears to be the ideal of
innocence and purity. When Faust tries to talk to her on the street, she
refuses. “I’m not a lady, am not fair; I can go home without your
care.” (2607) A properly brought up young woman would never allow herself
to be picked up on the street. It is her naivet that attracts Faust most of
all. “I’ve never seen Gretchen’s equal anywhere! So virtuous, modest,
through and through!” (2610-1) Even Mephistopheles acknowledges her virtue.
He calls her an “innocent, sweet dear!” (3007). Goethe further
identifies Gretchen as a saint when Gretchen’s bedroom becomes a shrine to
Faust. Faust uses religious language to describe the room. “Welcome, sweet
light, which weaves through this sanctuary. Seize my heart, you sweet pain of
love, you that live languishing on the dew of hope! How the feeling of stillness
breathes out order and contentment all around. In this poverty, what fullness!
In this prison, what holiness!” (2687-94) Just from being in her room, he
feels spiritual sacredness, often associated with shrines of saints. He imagines
her bed as a “father’s throne”(2696) with “a flock of children
clinging swarmed” (2697) around it, thus associating Gretchen with
maternity. A large part of Faust’s attraction to Gretchen is the image of a
virgin mother he sees in her, the ideal of feminine purity.
Gretchen’s strong religious background further strengthens her saintly image.
The prayer in the Ramparts scene is an example of her religious training.
“Oh, bend Thou, Mother of Sorrows; send Thou a look of pity on my
pain.” (3587-9) Gretchen looks on the world from a religious perspective.
She wants to make Faust’s actions consistent with her religious upbringing.
“How do you feel about religion? But without desire you revere the
Holy Sacraments, alas! It’s long since you confessed or went to mass!”
(3415-23) Gretchen can sense Mephistopheles is devil. She can feel his evil
presence, which is what saints are supposed to be able to do. She screams when
Mephistopheles comes near her prison, “What rises up from the threshold
here? He! He! Thrust him out! In this holy place what is he
about?””(4601-3) In the end of the book, Gretchen is forgiven and her
sins are redeemed. A voice from heaven calls, “She is saved!” (4611)
Regardless of her sins, the religious side of Gretchen remains throughout the
book. Gretchen is constantly aware of her crimes and prays. “My peace is
gone, my heart is sore.” (3374-5) She retains her ability to sense the
presence of Mephistopheles until the end. Because of Gretchen’s salvation, the
audience knows that her religious side has been stronger than her sinful side.
However, in some situations, Gretchen is presented as a fallen woman who
causes her own ruin. Even though Gretchen rejects Faust on the street, she is
immediately attracted to him, in spite of the fact that he acts very vulgar
toward her. Gretchen disregards her religious upbringing and starts an affair
with Faust. Later she tells him, “Yet I confess I know not why my heart
began at once to stir to take your part.” (3175-6) The double side of
Gretchen’s femininity is evident in the Evening scene. Gretchen is made both
innocent and erotic as she removes her clothes and sings a romantic song. While
she remains a girl getting ready for bed, her undressing is a foreshadowing of
her affair with Faust. Later, in the church at the mass for her mother’s death,
an evil spirit torments Gretchen. She does not feel comfortable in