The character of Mephistopheles, the self-proclaimed “spirit of negation” in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Part One, presents the reader with a personification of the demonic that had not previously been seen in literature. Mephistopheles utilizes his own brand of skepticism, which frequently borders on nihilism, to challenge previously held beliefs about humanity’s relationship to Hell. In his troubled yet symbiotic relationship with Faust, he further demonstrates the ways in which human nature is inextricably related to the darkness and evil he claims to represent. Ultimately, Mephistopheles’ close relationship with Faust and the way he functions as a protagonist offers compelling evidence that the evil and darkness Mephistopheles represents are an inevitable and necessary part of human nature.
The reader is introduced to Mephistopheles when he makes a wager with God that he will be able to steer Faust’s soul into sin. Mephistopheles identifies his personal motivations for trying to draw Faust into darkness:
Man errs, til he has ceased to strive.
I thank your Grace; for dead men never tempt
Me greatly, I confess. In this connection
I like to see a full and fresh complexion;
A corpse is an unwelcome visitor.
The cat-and-mouse game is what I prefer. (316-322)
In these lines, Mephistopheles says that he gets enjoyment out of manipulating souls while they are still alive. His rhymes, including “connection” and “complexion,” evoke his playful sense, underlining the enjoyment that he gets from manipulating souls. God’s statement, “Man errs, til he has ceased to strive,” gives the reader a clue about why having a living soul to tempt is so important to Mephistopheles: it is because these souls are continuously making the sort of errors that would lead them to be tempted by him in the first place. By saying he prefers the “cat-and-mouse game,” Mephistopheles gives away an important clue about his personality. He considers his attempts to cause human souls to sin to be entertaining. Essentially, Mephistopheles is saying that in order to get satisfaction out of the evil he commits, he needs the challenge of a human soul. He only engages in his attempts to distract humans from God while they are alive because he relies on their ability to act and make errors.
During this interaction, God’s opinion of Mephistopheles becomes clear:
Man is too apt to sink into mere satisfaction,
A total standstill is his constant wish:
Therefore your company, busily devilish,
Serves well to stimulate him into action. (336-343)
These lines introduce the reader to the text’s notion of sin and deepen our understanding of Mephistopheles’ character. In these lines, God identifies what he sees as the epitome of human error, “mere satisfaction,” and identifies characteristics in Mephistopheles that he sees as useful: activity. God uses words such as “mere” and “standstill” to characterize humanity and “busily” and “stimulate” to describe Mephistopheles. Through the Lord’s lines, the text underscores a way that Mephistopheles will become instrumental in Faust through the chaos and movement that he causes.
It is important to notice the way that the text highlights attributes of motion and productivity during the reader’s first introduction to Mephistopheles. In his article, “Between Satan and Mephistopheles: Byron and the Devil,” Fred Parker engages with the concept of motion. Reacting to the Lord’s description of Mephistopheles as “busily devilish,” Parker writes, “That phrase, muss als Teufel schaffen, also carries the implication, ‘must, as a devil, be productive’, or in [the translator’s] rendering, ‘must create forever.’ What is suggested here is an extraordinary reassimilation of the Devil into the larger, productive functioning of the whole” (Parker 19). Parker points out the connection between the devilish and the creative, but he frames it in the context of a larger divine plan. Looking at Mephistopheles’ character from this perspective, it seems that he is not simply a chaotic force that has forced himself upon the world, but that he has a specific function that God intends: productivity. The motion that Mephistopheles creates in the world, although it is sometimes destructive, serves a purpose. The concept of motion that recurs throughout this scene indicates that the darkness Mephistopheles represents gives humanity something to act against—the presence of evil—and the need for humanity to combat that evil has inherent meaning.
Later in Faust, Mephistopheles makes open declarations about his own character and his purpose, but these passages frequently offer more than meets the eye.
Well then, who are you?
Part of that Power which would
Do evil constantly, and constantly does good.
This riddle has, no doubt, some explanation.
I am the spirit of perpetual negation;
And rightly so, for all things that exist
Deserve to perish, and would not be missed (1335-1341)
The text’s use of the paradoxical language of constantly performing evil while simultaneously doing good draws our attention to Mephistopheles identifying himself as “the spirit of perpetual negation” – a possible answer to what Faust calls “this riddle.” However, Mephistopheles’ explanation is cryptic. One possible way to make sense of his assertion is to examine his curious choice of words, by which he refers to himself as the spirit of “perpetual negation” and as part of a greater power Mephistopheles’ identification as a “part” along with the contrast he draws between himself and the larger “power” sets up a dichotomy: good versus evil, creation versus destruction. He admits that he is subject to a greater power that is both good and generative. His role, by contrast, is constantly to destroy or “negate” them.
Parker recognizes Mephistopheles’ importance as part of a larger and more powerful supernatural force, explaining that Goethe’s “Prologue” draws heavily from the book of Job, an important context for the connection between Satan and God’s larger plan. This biblical book tells of a man named Job whom God refers to as “my servant,” saying “that there is none like him in earth, a perfect and an upright man” (Job 1:8). Satan tells God that Job is such a devoted servant because God has given him everything he desires. However, after God gives Satan the power to take away everything he granted, Satan sees that Job still praises God. Of Job’s Satan, Park writes that he “is not yet what he will become: the Devil who is the great Enemy of God and man. It seems clear that he is part of the court of Heaven… Yet it is also clear that he is something of a loose cannon, a semi-freelance, one of the sons of God but also distinguished from them” (Parker 18-19). In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles does not identify a target to destroy; instead his aim is destruction in itself. He says shortly after the above-quoted passage that “Destruction, sin, evil in short, is all / My sphere, the element I most prefer” (1343-1344). Mephistopheles, then, declares that he exists not to fulfill a certain goal, but to offer a depiction of sin and evil that is essentially related to human nature. By exposing the subtleties in Mephistopheles’ speech, it becomes apparent that Mephistopheles is not merely instrumental in Faust: just as he destroys, he also represents an essential part of a larger plan.
However, while this dialogue reveals the significance of Mephistopheles’ darkness, it also indicates that his darkness is futile. Faust goes on to suggest that Mephistopheles abandon his goal of cosmic chaos and attempt it “on a smaller scale” (1361), which leads Faust and Mephistopheles to have the following conversation:
The Something, this coarse world, this mess
Stands in the way of Nothingness,
And despite all I’ve undertaken,
This solid lump cannot be shaken.
And so the ever-stirring, wholesome energy
Of life is your arch-enemy (1364-1380)
Mephistopheles’ problem is that he derives all of his life’s energy from destruction, a course of action he has already described as futile. However, when the reader remembers that Mephistopheles offered the grounds for Faust’s realization in lines 1335-41, it becomes apparent Mephistopheles’ words need to be scrutinized closely, given that deception is an integral part of the game he plays with Faust’s soul. Faust realizes that the entirety of Mephistopheles’ life is centered on a goal that he cannot reach – a Nothingness still impeded by a Something “despite all I’ve undertaken” – but after musing on this riddle, Mephistopheles tells Faust that “On such a point there’s much to say,” implying that Faust has not yet reached the full answer (1385). Mephistopheles uses this riddle to suggest to Faust what he perceives to be the human condition: a life characterized by futility, fighting against the darkness he senses within himself. In this case, Mephistopheles has become a means of depicting evil and darkness to give Faust insight about himself. The text thus suggests that evil is an inevitable part of human nature. While Faust has noticed something relevant about Mephistopheles, he has also unknowingly come to a realization about himself. This is not the only time that Mephistopheles utilizes cryptic hints to convey important information to Faust. While it may be against Mephistopheles’ nature directly to tell Faust the danger of allowing hatred or futile desires to control his life, he is able to guide Faust into reaching this revelation of his own accord. Ironically, Mephistopheles almost functions as a guide, utilizing and promoting a skepticism that challenges what Faust had previously thought about himself to lead him to greater self-awareness. As Faust eventually realizes, Mephistopheles’ words cannot be taken at face value. While Mephistopheles is skeptical of Faust and his motives, he also encourages Faust to be skeptical of himself.
Although Mephistopheles can be surprisingly subtle in the way he communicates with Faust, as the Goethe’s play nears its end, he reveals himself more directly:
Well, here we are again at the end of our wit’s tether, the point where your poor human brains always snap! Why do you make common cause with us, if you can’t stand the pace? Why try to fly if you’ve no head for heights? Did we force ourselves on you, or you on us? (Goethe 140-1)
At evidenced by the citation above, the text has transitioned from verse to prose. The rhyme scheme disappears, allowing for more free-flowing dialogue as Mephistopheles and Faust fight. Mephistopheles’ efforts to draw a distinction between “you” and “us” is significant because until this point Mephistopheles has offered a representation of evil where he and humanity were closely intertwined. Here, Mephistopheles derisively contrasts his and Faust’s abilities with statements like, “Why try to fly if you’ve no head for heights?” He repeats the word “us” while simultaneously referring to Faust as a “poor human,” highlighting the differences between them. While humanity and evil may appear indistinguishable earlier in Faust, the devil emerges as an absolute, whereas the evil in humanity (and in Faust himself) is limited. From this, the reader can infer that while human nature needs evil to exist, it is not the same all-consuming evil present in characters like Mephistopheles. There is always a point where “human brains… snap.” While Mephistopheles sees this as a shortcoming, the text does not invite us to abhor this moment of “weakness” in Faust. Faust’s ultimate failure to follow Mephistopheles in his evil pursuits shows that while he may be uncomfortably susceptible to evil, he is unable to fulfill Mephistopheles’ role of perpetual negation.
Following these lines Faust makes a statement that shows the impact that Mephistopheles’ games have had on his life:
Stop barring your greedy fangs at me, it makes me sick! – Oh you great splendid Spirit, who deigned to appear to me, who know my heart and my soul, why did you chain me to this vile companion, who gorges his appetite on ruin and drinks refreshment from destruction? (Goethe 141)
The cosmic powers at work throughout Faust have reappeared. Faust contrasts his feelings about God, the “great splendid Spirit… who know[s] my heart and my soul,” with Mephistopheles, “this vile companion” bent on ruin and destruction. Interestingly, Faust recognizes that God has “chained” his soul to Mephistopheles, yet he still praises the Lord. In the end, God was correct about Mephistopheles’ role; he leads Faust towards action and better recognition of himself. Faust says that God knows “[his] heart and [his] soul.” His question as to why God chained him to Mephistopheles indicates Faust’s acknowledgment that God willed their interaction, and that there was ultimately a reason for all of the events that occurred between them. Faust seems to understand this as well, for even after the pain Mephistopheles causes him, he still praises God as a “great splendid spirit.” He also blames Mephistopheles for “gorge[ing] his appetite on ruin and drink[ing] refreshment from destruction” when it is clear through their being “chained” together that Faust has participated in the same actions. Ironically, in acknowledging his involvement with Mephistopheles and referring to their relationship as being “chained” to one another, Faust comes close to admitting to the darkness within himself. It is only by virtue of Mephistopheles, however, that Faust gains a greater knowledge of himself.
Mephistopheles acts as an embodiment of darkness and evil to highlight certain characteristics in Faust. Unexpectedly, his demonic behavior turns Mephistopheles into a protagonist, in that he motivates action in Faust and leads him to greater understanding. Mephistopheles openly claims to represent negation, the dark side of cosmic nature, and through their interactions Mephistopheles forces Faust to come to terms with the evil within himself. By observing subtleties in Mephistopheles’ speeches and in his description by others in Faust: Part One, we gain a clearer picture of why evil is represented as inevitable, what function it serves, and what it implies about Faust and human nature.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust: Part One. Ed. David Luke. Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Parker, Fred. “Between Satan and Mephistopheles: Byron and the Devil.” The Cambridge Quarterly 35.1 (2006): 1-29. Print.