Selling one’s soul to the Devil is a common trope in various forms of media these days. The psychological literary power of such a trope resides in the duality inherit in Christianity between spiritual gain in an unseen spiritual realm versus material gain in this world. In most cases where a character sells their soul, they are trading their spiritual reward for some material desire in the here and now. On a more fundamental psychological level, they are trading long-term satisfaction for instant gratification. The Faust tradition represents one of the most famous traditions of this literary trope. The most famous versions of the Faust story were created by the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe and the Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.
Christopher Marlowe’s version of the play presents Faust as a dissatisfied scholar who employs magic to contact the devil. He makes his deal with the devil in order to discover the ultimate answers hidden from humanity and experience forbidden pleasures. Marlowe’s work serves as a meditation on the dangers of giving up one’s soul for forbidden pleasures and secret knowledge in this world.
Goethe’s Faust also is a scholar. He has mastered the fields of law, theology, philosophy, and medicine. He, too, has elements of the dissatisfied scholar, but Goethe goes further with the character and presents a Faust that is tired and weary of life in general. Faust makes a deal with Mephistopheles to experience the world and find the elusive sense of joy in life that books and immersing himself in scholarship have never brought him. Much like Marlowe’s Faust the work critiques the formal education systems of the time, and draws on the general human desire to know and explores the limitations of knowledge, but Goethe’s version shows us a Faust who wants more than just new knowledge, this Faust seems hungry to experience life to its fullest. This Faust feels that all this study has been a waste of time. He makes the deal not only from a desire to have new experiences, but also because at this point he has come to believe he will never experience true bliss so in a way the deal seems like a good bet. He will only lose his soul if Mephistopheles can get him to experience a moment which he doesn’t want to end. Since he believes he can’t experience such happiness, it seems unlikely to him that he will ever lose the deal.
Goethe also recasts the play into a failed love story, which aligns it with his other work, such as his novels, which also features relationships that falter. In this version, Faust pursues his lust for the pure-hearted innocent and religiously inclined Gretchen, which ends up ruining the life of Gretchen. Goethe reminds us that the pursuit of our own selfish desires can harm other people. It also adds another dimension to the deal with the devil trope as Faust not only promises his own soul, but almost costs Gretchen her soul. She even kills their child in a fit of madness after Faust disappears for a while, which perhaps is an allusion to Euripides’ Medea who also murders her own children when Jason abandons her. Faust functions as Gretchen’s devil, her temptation, the irresistible force that causes her to betray the moral standards in which she has lived the first half of her life. Why does she go along with this temptation? I think Goethe implies that for all her humble peasant upbringing in contrast to Faust’s elite education, she also feels a dissatisfaction with life.
The beginning prologue in which Mephistopheles asks permission from God to tempt and corrupt Faust is an allusion to the biblical Book of Job. Unlike Job who begins with everything a person could want and has that taken from him, the situation is flipped, Faust has nothing he wants in life and makes the deal with Mephistopheles to find the happiness that is missing from it. Job is brought to the height of unhappiness only to be confronted by God and have new rewards bestowed upon him for his faithfulness, whereas Faust sells his soul and betrays his loyalty to God to find elusive happiness in the world.