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Faust believes she is condemned, but a voice from heaven says she is redeemed. She is to die, and Faust flees from her cell and leaves her to her fate.
In this regard, the female is seen as weaker than the male and as more subject to the vicissitudes of existence. Faust and Gretchen have similar ideas in the beginning, and she is destroyed while he continues his pursuit. The way Gretchen is used in this story is complex, for she represents the power of love that is not really recognized as a power by Mephistopheles. It is not powerful enough to divert Faust from his pursuit of knowledge, as it happens, Gretchen is also a gateway of sorts, linking Faust to the wonders of Nature in a way he would have missed on his own. The feminine is associated with Nature as a beneficial force through their love, at least women like Gretchen.
At the same time, there is a certain ambivalence apparent in the way Faust reacts to this woman and to all women, and one reason for this is that women are also seen as lures for the male, seen here in the form of Helen in particular. Helen represents the ideal of beauty, but she is also a destructive force, as she was in the Iliad because of the war fought over her. Faust is attracted to her in a way very different from his attraction to Gretchen. She seems to mean nothing to Mephistopheles, who is not a Romantic figure in the way Faust would be and who is not attracted by beauty, though he is capable of using the fact of that attraction to get what he wants from a human male like Faust. For Faust, Helen is even more problematic because while she may serve as an inspiration, she is a vision and not a real woman. She is a clear representation of the imagination and of its limits. Before evoking the vision of Helen, Faust has been sent to the realm of the Mothers by Mephistopheles, another vision of the feminine, in this case as guardians of the past. Faust wants to reach the past of the Greek era and is first sent to the Mothers as part of this quest, an Helen is the next part because she is that past. The feminine becomes a gateway again, here a gateway to the past and to the knowledge that Faust seeks.
Faust first sees Helen as an image in a mirror and seeks her for himself. It is her beauty alone that draws him. This first meeting is at the house of the witch, where Mephistopheles tries to use the witches to seduce Faust. Faust is not attracted to that sort of debauchery, and Mephisopheles tries to use first Gretchen and then Helen for the same purpose. He does not control Gretchen, though, for she has not been corrupted. His use of Helen is more subtle and also more complex, and if Helen fails to be what Mephisopheles wants, it is because of how Faust views her. After all, he is the one who has conjured her as a vision and who pursues her, but he does so not simply as an object of lust but also as an ideal of beauty, which in the Romantic view means a great deal more than physical beauty. For Faust, though, neither feminine purity as seen in Gretchen nor feminine beauty as seen in Helen can suffice. Helen is an ethereal being and not as real as Faust wants. Her beauty does not satisfy in the Romantic conception because she lacks the necessary moral center. It would seem that the ideal woman would be a union of Gretchen and Helen, while either alone is insufficient.
The Romantic vision of woman is therefore idealized in a way that might show that no women can ever attain the ideal set for her. She is both a moral gateway to Nature and a beautiful lure that lacks the necessary moral foundation.
Abrams, M.H., E. Talbot Donaldson, Hallet Smith, Robert M. Adams, Samuel Holt Monk, George H. Ford, and David Daiches. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962.
Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von.…[continue]
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