Dr. Fausto by Jean-Paul Laurens
Dr. Fausto by Jean-Paul Laurens
1876 'Faust' by Goethe, decorated by Rudolf Seitz, large German edition 51x38cm
1876 'Faust' by Goethe, decorated by Rudolf Seitz, large German edition 51x38cm

Faust is the protagonist of a classic German legend based on the historical Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540).

The erudite Faust is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life, which leads him to make a pact with the Devil at a crossroads, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. The Faust legend has been the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical works that have reinterpreted it through the ages. "Faust" and the adjective "Faustian" imply sacrificing spiritual values for power, knowledge, or material gain.[1]

The Faust of early books—as well as the ballads, dramas, movies, and puppet-plays which grew out of them—is irrevocably damned because he prefers human knowledge over divine knowledge: "he laid the Holy Scriptures behind the door and under the bench, refused to be called doctor of theology, but preferred to be styled doctor of medicine".[2] Plays and comic puppet theatre loosely based on this legend were popular throughout Germany in the 16th century, often reducing Faust and Mephistopheles to figures of vulgar fun. The story was popularised in England by Christopher Marlowe, who gave it a classic treatment in his play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (c. 1592).[3] In Goethe's reworking of the story over two hundred years later, Faust becomes a dissatisfied intellectual who yearns for "more than earthly meat and drink" in his life.

Summary of the story

Faust is unsatisfied with his life as a scholar and becomes depressed. After an attempt to take his own life, he calls on the Devil for further knowledge and magic powers with which to indulge all the pleasure and knowledge of the world. In response, the Devil's representative, Mephistopheles, appears. He makes a bargain with Faust: Mephistopheles will serve Faust with his magic powers for a set number of years, but at the end of the term, the Devil will claim Faust's soul, and Faust will be eternally enslaved.

During the term of the bargain, Faust makes use of Mephistopheles in various ways. In Goethe's drama, and many subsequent versions of the story, Mephistopheles helps Faust seduce a beautiful and innocent girl, usually named Gretchen, whose life is ultimately destroyed when she gives birth to Faust's bastard son. Realizing this unholy act, she drowns the child and is held for murder. However, Gretchen's innocence saves her in the end, and she enters Heaven after execution. In Goethe's rendition, Faust is saved by God via his constant striving—in combination with Gretchen's pleadings with God in the form of the eternal feminine. However, in the early tales, Faust is irrevocably corrupted and believes his sins cannot be forgiven; when the term ends, the Devil carries him off to Hell.


Pan Twardowski and the devil by Michał Elwiro Andriolli. The Polish folklore legend bears many similarities to the story of Faust.
Pan Twardowski and the devil by Michał Elwiro Andriolli. The Polish folklore legend bears many similarities to the story of Faust.

The tale of Faust bears many similarities to the Theophilus legend recorded in the 13th century, writer Gautier de Coincy's Les Miracles de la Sainte Vierge. Here, a saintly figure makes a bargain with the keeper of the infernal world but is rescued from paying his debt to society through the mercy of the Blessed Virgin.[4] A depiction of the scene in which he subordinates himself to the Devil appears on the north tympanum of the Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Paris.[5]

The origin of Faust's name and persona remains unclear.[dubious ] In the Historia Brittonum, Faustus is the offspring of an incestuous marriage between king Vortigern and Vortigern's own daughter.[6]

The character is ostensibly based on Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540), a magician and alchemist probably from Knittlingen, Württemberg, who obtained a degree in divinity from Heidelberg University in 1509, but the legendary Faust has also been connected with Johann Fust (c. 1400–1466), Johann Gutenberg's business partner,[7] which suggests that Fust is one of the multiple origins to the Faust story.[8] Scholars such as Frank Baron[9] and Leo Ruickbie[10] contest many of these[which?] previous assumptions.[clarification needed]

The character in Polish folklore named Pan Twardowski presents similarities with Faust. The Polish story seems to have originated at roughly the same time as its German counterpart, yet it is unclear whether the two tales have a common origin or influenced each other. The historical Johann Georg Faust had studied in Kraków for a time and may have served as the inspiration for the character in the Polish legend.[11]

The first known printed source of the legend of Faust is a small chapbook bearing the title Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published in 1587. The book was re-edited and borrowed from throughout the 16th century. Other similar books of that period include:

The 1725 Faust chapbook was widely circulated and also read by the young Goethe.

Related tales about a pact between man and the Devil include the plays Mariken van Nieumeghen (Dutch, early 16th century, author unknown), Cenodoxus (German, early 17th century, by Jacob Bidermann) and The Countess Cathleen (Irish legend of unknown origin believed by some to be taken from the French play Les marchands d'âmes).

Locations linked to the story

Staufen, a town in the extreme southwest of Germany, claims to be where Faust died (c. 1540); depictions appear on buildings, etc. The only historical source for this tradition is a passage in the Chronik der Grafen von Zimmern, which was written c. 1565, 25 years after Faust's presumed death. These chronicles are generally considered reliable, and in the 16th century there were still family ties between the lords of Staufen and the counts of Zimmern in nearby Donaueschingen.[12]

In Christopher Marlowe's original telling of the tale, Wittenburg where Faust studied was also written as Wertenberge. This has led to a measure of speculation as to where precisely his story is set. Some scholars have suggested the Duchy of Württemberg; others have suggested an allusion to Marlowe's own Cambridge (Gill, 2008, p. 5)

Literary adaptations

Marlowe Faustus in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Marlowe Faustus in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

The early Faust chapbook, while in circulation in northern Germany, found its way to England, where in 1592 an English translation was published, The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor Iohn Faustus credited to a certain "P. F., Gent[leman]". Christopher Marlowe used this work as the basis for his more ambitious play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (published c. 1604). Marlowe also borrowed from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, on the exchanges between Pope Adrian VI and a rival pope.

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Goethe's Faust
Illustration by Harry Clarke for Goethe's Faust

Goethe's Faust

Main article: Goethe's Faust

Another important version of the legend is the play Faust, written by the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The first part, which is the one more closely connected to the earlier legend, was published in 1808, the second posthumously in 1832.

Goethe's Faust complicates the simple Christian moral of the original legend. A hybrid between a play and an extended poem, Goethe's two-part "closet drama" is epic in scope. It gathers together references from Christian, medieval, Roman, eastern, and Hellenic poetry, philosophy, and literature.

The composition and refinement of Goethe's own version of the legend occupied him, off and on, for over sixty years. The final version, published after his death, is recognized as a great work of German literature.

The story concerns the fate of Faust in his quest for the true essence of life ("was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält"). Frustrated with learning and the limits to his knowledge, power, and enjoyment of life, he attracts the attention of the Devil (represented by Mephistopheles), who makes a bet with Faust that he will be able to satisfy him. Faust is reluctant, believing this will never happen. This is a significant difference between Goethe's "Faust" and Marlowe's; Faust is not the one who suggests the wager.

In the first part, Mephistopheles leads Faust through experiences that culminate in a lustful relationship with Gretchen, an innocent young woman. Gretchen and her family are destroyed by Mephistopheles' deceptions and Faust's desires. Part one of the story ends in tragedy for Faust, as Gretchen is saved but Faust is left to grieve in shame.

The second part begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust (and the rest of mankind) and progresses into allegorical poetry. Faust and his Devil pass through and manipulate the world of politics and the world of the classical gods, and meet with Helen of Troy (the personification of beauty). Finally, in anticipation of having tamed the forces of war and nature and created a place for a free people to live, Faust is happy and dies.

Mephistopheles tries to seize Faust's soul when he dies after this moment of happiness, but is frustrated and enraged when angels intervene due to God's grace. Though this grace is 'gratuitous' and does not condone Faust's frequent errors with Mephistopheles, the angels state that this grace can only occur because of Faust's unending striving and due to the intercession of the forgiving Gretchen. The final scene has Faust's soul carried to Heaven in the presence of God by the intercession of the "Virgin, Mother, Queen, ... Goddess kind forever... Eternal Womanhood.[13] The woman is thus victorious over Mephistopheles, who had insisted at Faust's death that he would be consigned to "The Eternal Empty".

Goethe's Faust is a genuinely classical production, but the idea is a historical idea, and hence every notable historical era will have its own Faust.

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Immediate Stages of the Erotic

Mann's Doctor Faustus

Thomas Mann's 1947 Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde adapts the Faust legend to a 20th-century context, documenting the life of fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn as analog and embodiment of the early 20th-century history of Germany and of Europe. The talented Leverkühn, after contracting venereal disease from a brothel visit, forms a pact with a Mephistophelean character to grant him 24 years of brilliance and success as a composer. He produces works of increasing beauty to universal acclaim, even while physical illness begins to corrupt his body. In 1930, when presenting his final masterwork (The Lamentation of Dr Faust), he confesses the pact he had made: madness and syphilis now overcome him, and he suffers a slow and total collapse until his death in 1940. Leverkühn's spiritual, mental, and physical collapse and degradation are mapped on to the period in which Nazism rose in Germany, and Leverkühn's fate is shown as that of the soul of Germany.

Benét's The Devil and Daniel Webster

Faust and Lilith by Richard Westall (1831)
Faust and Lilith by Richard Westall (1831)

Stephen Vincent Benét's short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" published in 1937 is a retelling of the tale of Faust based on the short story "The Devil and Tom Walker", written by Washington Irving. Benet's version of the story centers on a New Hampshire farmer by the name of Jabez Stone who, plagued with unending bad luck, is approached by the devil under the name of Mr. Scratch who offers him seven years of prosperity in exchange for his soul. Jabez Stone is eventually defended by Daniel Webster, a fictional version of the famous lawyer and orator, in front of a judge and jury of the damned, and his case is won. It was adapted in 1941 as a movie, The Devil and Daniel Webster, with James Craig as Jabez and Edward Arnold as Webster. It was remade in 2007 as Shortcut to Happiness with Alec Baldwin as Jabez and Anthony Hopkins as Webster.

Selected additional dramatic works

Selected additional novels, stories, poems, and comics

Cinematic adaptations

Early films

Murnau's Faust

F.W. Murnau, director of the classic Nosferatu, directed a silent version of Faust that premiered in 1926. Murnau's film featured special effects that were remarkable for the era.[18] In one scene, Mephisto towers over a town, dark wings spread wide, as a fog rolls in bringing the plague. In another, an extended montage sequence shows Faust, mounted behind Mephisto, riding through the heavens, and the camera view, effectively swooping through quickly changing panoramic backgrounds, courses past snowy mountains, high promontories and cliffs, and waterfalls.

In the Murnau version of the tale, the aging bearded scholar and alchemist is disillusioned by the palpable failure of his supposed cure for a plague that has stricken his town. Faust renounces his many years of hard travail and studies in alchemy. In his despair, he hauls all his bound volumes by armloads onto a growing pyre, intending to burn them. However, a wind turns over a few cabalistic leaves, and one of the books' pages catches Faust's eye. Their words contain a prescription for how to invoke the dreadful dark forces.

Faust heeds these recipes and begins enacting the mystic protocols: on a hill, alone, summoning Mephisto, certain forces begin to convene, and Faust in a state of growing trepidation hesitates, and begins to withdraw; he flees along a winding, twisting pathway, returning to his study chambers. At pauses along this retreat, though, he meets a reappearing figure. Each time, it doffs its hat—in a greeting, that is Mephisto, confronting him. Mephisto overcomes Faust's reluctance to sign a long binding pact with the invitation that Faust may try on these powers, just for one day, and without obligation to longer terms. Upon the end of that day, the sands of twenty-four hours having run out, after Faust's having been restored to youth and, helped by his servant Mephisto to steal a beautiful woman from her wedding feast, Faust is tempted so much that he agrees to sign a pact for eternity (which is to say when, in due course, his time runs out). Eventually Faust becomes bored with the pursuit of pleasure and returns home, where he falls in love with the beautiful and innocent Gretchen. His corruption (enabled, or embodied, through the forms of Mephisto) ultimately ruins both their lives, though there is still a chance for redemption in the end.

Similarities to Goethe's Faust include the classic tale of a man who sold his soul to the Devil, the same Mephisto wagering with an angel to corrupt the soul of Faust, the plague sent by Mephisto on Faust's small town, and the familiar cliffhanger with Faust unable to find a cure for the Plague, and therefore turning to Mephisto, renouncing God, the angel, and science alike.

La Beauté du diable (The Beauty of the Devil)

Directed by René Clair, 1950, La Beauté du diable is an adaptation with Michel Simon as Mephistopheles/Faust as old man, and Gérard Philipe as Faust transformed into a young man.[19]

Phantom of the Paradise

Directed by Brian DePalma, 1974 - A vain rock impresario, who has sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for eternal youth, corrupts and destroys a brilliant but unsuccessful songwriter and a beautiful ingenue.

Mephisto (1981)

Mephisto (1981), directed by István Szabó, portrays an actor in 1930s Germany who aligns himself with the Nazi party for prestige.[20]

Lekce Faust (Faust)

Directed by Jan Švankmajer, 1994 – The source material of Švankmajer's film is the Faust legend; including traditional Czech puppet show versions, this film production uses a variety of cinematic formats, such as stop-motion photography animation and claymation.


Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, 2011 – German-language film starring Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinsky, Isolda Dychauk.

American Satan

Directed by Ash Avildsen, 2017 – A rock and roll modern retelling of the Faust legend starring Andy Biersack as Johnny Faust.[21]

The Last Faust

Directed by Philipp Humm, 2019 – a contemporary feature art film directly based on Goethe's Faust, Part One and Faust, Part Two.[22] The film is the first filmed version of Faust, I and Faust, II as well as a part of Humm's Gesamtkunstwerk, an art project with over 150 different artworks such as paintings, photos, sculptures, drawings and an illustrated novella.[23][24]

Musical adaptations

Feodor Chaliapin as Méphistophélès, 1915
Feodor Chaliapin as Méphistophélès, 1915


The Faust legend has been the basis for several major operas: for a more complete list, visit Works based on Faust


Faust has inspired major musical works in other forms:

Other adaptations

In psychotherapy

Psychodynamic therapy uses the idea of a Faustian bargain to explain defence mechanisms, usually rooted in childhood, that sacrifice elements of the self in favor of some form of psychological survival. For the neurotic, abandoning one's genuine feeling self in favour of a false self more amenable to caretakers may offer a viable form of life, but at the expense of one's true emotions and affects.[27] For the psychotic, a Faustian bargain with an omnipotent self can offer the imaginary refuge of a psychic retreat at the price of living in unreality.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "Faustian" – pertaining to or resembling or befitting Faust or Faustus especially in insatiably striving for worldly knowledge and power even at the price of spiritual values; "a Faustian pact with the Devil". http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Faustian
  2. ^  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainPhillips, Walter Alison (1911). "Faust". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 10 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 211.
  3. ^ "Christopher Marlowe". Biography. Archived from the original on 23 March 2018. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  4. ^ An 1875 edition is at: Coincy, Par Gautier de; Par M L'Abbé Poquet (1857). Les miracles de la Sainte Vierge (in French). Parmantier/Didron.
  5. ^ See, for example, this photo at: Ballegeer, Stephen (5 August 2006). "Notre-Dame, Paris: Portal on the north transept". flickr. Archived from the original on 2016-11-29.
  6. ^ Nennius (2006). History of the Britons. Translated by J. A. Giles. Project Gutenberg.
  7. ^ Meggs, Philip B.; Purvis, Alston W. (May 10, 2016). Meggs' History of Graphic Design (Fourth ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. p. 73. ISBN 978-1-1187-7205-8.
  8. ^ Jensen, Eric (Autumn 1982). "Liszt, Nerval, and "Faust"". 19th-Century Music. University of California Press. 6 (2): 153. doi:10.2307/746273. JSTOR 746273.
  9. ^ Baron, Frank (1978). Doctor Faustus, from History to Legend. Wilhelm Fink Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7705-1539-4.
  10. ^ Ruickbie, Leo (2009). Faustus: The Life and Times of a Renaissance Magician. The History Press. ISBN 978-0-7509-5090-9.
  11. ^ Schamschula, Walter (1992). "Pan Twardowski: The Polish Variant of the Faust Legend in Slavic Literatures: A Study in Motif History". In Birnbaum, Henrik; Eekman, Thomas; McLean, Hugh (eds.). California Slavic Studies: Volume 14. University of California Press. pp. 209–231. ISBN 9780520070257.
  12. ^ Geiges, Leif (1981). Faust's Tod in Staufen: Sage – Dokumente. Freiburg im Breisgau: Kehrer Verlag KG.
  13. ^ Goethe, Faust, Part Two, lines 12101–12110, translation: David Luke, Oxford World Classics, ISBN 978-0-1995-3620-7.
  14. ^ Pagel, Louis. Doctor Faustus of the popular legend Marlowe, the Puppet-Play, Goethe, and Lenau, treated historically and critically. p. 46.
  15. ^ "Faust and Marguerite". Library of Congress. Retrieved June 1, 2022.
  16. ^ Workman, Christopher; Howarth, Troy (2016). Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the Silent Era. Midnight Marquee Press. p. 235. ISBN 978-1936168-68-2.
  17. ^ a b Workman, Christopher; Howarth, Troy (2016). "Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the Silent Era". Midnight Marquee Press. p. 249.ISBN 978-1936168-68-2.
  18. ^ "F.W. Murnau | German director". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-06-16.
  19. ^ Khan, Imran (18 November 2013). "'The Beauty and the Devil' and the Visual Feast". PopMatters. Retrieved 12 March 2021.
  20. ^ Cunningham, John (2014). The Cinema of István Szabó: Visions of Europe. New York City: Columbia University Press. p. 157. ISBN 978-0-231-17199-1.
  21. ^ "American Satan (2017)". Archived from the original on 5 May 2018. Retrieved 5 May 2018 – via www.imdb.com.
  22. ^ "The Last Faust". www.imdb.com. 2 December 2019. Retrieved 2019-12-12.
  23. ^ Feay, Suzi (2019-11-29). "The Last Faust: Steven Berkoff stars in Philipp Humm's take on Goethe". Financial Times. London. Archived from the original on 2022-12-10. Retrieved 2019-12-31.
  24. ^ Humm, Philipp. "The Last Faust - Ein Gesamtkunstwerk". philipphumm.art. Retrieved 2019-12-31.
  25. ^ Malone, Paul M. Faust as Rock Opera in Icons of Modern Culture Series (2004)
  26. ^ Maierhofer, Waltraut Devilishly good: Rudolf Volz's Rock Opera Faust and Event Culture in Music in Goethe's Faust, Goethe's Faust in Music (2017)
  27. ^ Fosha, Diana (May 5, 2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-4650-9567-4.
  28. ^ Williams, Paul (2001). A Language for Psychosis: Psychoanalysis of Psychotic States. Taylor & Francis. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-4159-3325-4.


Further reading