The Romantic Hero In Goethe's Faust

1847 words - 7 pages

The Romantic Hero in Goethe's Faust
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Long hailed as the watershed of Romantic literature, Goethe’s Faust
uses the misadventures of its hero to parallel the challenges that
pervaded European society in the dynamic years of the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries. Faust is the prototypical Romantic
hero because the transformation of his attitudes mirrors the larger
transformation that was occurring in the society in which Goethe
conceived the play. Faust’s odyssey transports him from adherence to
the cold rationale of the Enlightenment to a passion for the pleasures
that came to define the Romantic spirit. Faust not only expresses the
moral contradictions and spiritual yearnings of a man in search of
fulfillment, but also portrays the broader mindset of a society that
was groping for meaning in a world where reason no longer sufficed as
a catalyst for human cultural life.

The period of German Romanticism in which Goethe wrote Faust was
plagued with the same intrinsic turmoil that Faust himself felt prior
to making his deal with Mephisto. The destruction that the French
Revolution had exacted on the European consciousness was evident in
the attitudes of the people most touched by the tumult of the era –
people who came to realize that absolution was no longer a pertinent
intellectual goal. The cold rationale of the Enlightenment was no
longer adequate to explain the significance of life in a society where
everything had so recently been turned upside down. Romanticism was
the expression of this society’s craving for answers and fulfillment.
Everywhere, people embraced life passionately and lived as if on a
never-ending quest for more. The Romantic hero embodies this ideal.
Faust, obsessed with the necessity of action, follows a doomed path
where his thirst for power eventually signals his demise. Faust’s
statement, “In the beginning was the deed,” is a perfect example of
his adherence to the idea that action is the only worthy means of
living (line 1264). Like Napoleon, the greatest real-life Romantic
hero of Goethe’s day, Faust is desperate to advance his earthly
position. He is prepared to go so far as to sign a compact with the
Devil to “enlarge my soul to encompass all humanity” (line 1793). He
will do anything to achieve a life of adventure and passion; and, like
Napoleon, he refuses to believe that he can be conquered by any force.

Like all heroes, Faust is doomed because his personality possesses a
fatal flaw. In Faust’s case, his ego is the root of his damnation. The
dominance of Faust’s ego, however, is one of the things that makes his
heroism a particularly Romantic. The Romantic movement placed an
emphasis on the self – on feelings, desires, and the abstract workings
of man’s emotional depths. Faust, as a Romantic hero, constitutes...

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