Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?

The Temptation of Gretchen in Goethe's Faust, Part One

The connection between despair and the temptation to sin is an important theme in Goethe's Faust, Part One. Despair and temptation are most clearly correlated in the attack on Gretchen's soul wherein Faust leads Gretchen astray and then leaves her to fend for herself. Particularly interesting is the Cathedral scene, immediately after Faust's hasty departure, wherein an evil Spirit whips Gretchen into a frenzy of fear and self-loathing until she finally faints. By preying on Gretchen's vulnerabilities, the Evil Spirit hopes to drive Gretchen further and further into despair and, finally, to suicide. The Cathedral scene, then, appears to represent an attempt in earnest by the agents of Satan to claim Gretchen's soul for themselves.

Gretchen, having consummated an illicit relationship with Faust, certainly has a lot to fear from her fellow townspeople. It is clear from Lieschen's comments to Gretchen that girls who go astray in this manner are dealt with harshly:

Don't tell me you're sorry for her!
Why, all the rest of us, there we were,
Spinning, our mothers not letting us out,
In evenings, while she's sitting about,
In dark doorways with her fancy man,
Lingering in alleys as long as they can!
Well, now she'll have some penance to do,
And sit in her smock on the sinner's pew. (113)

The public penance to which Lieschen refers is prescribed for all "fallen" women, and leads many to despair and some to infanticide (165). It can be inferred from the desperate measures to which these women go to hide their illicit relations that the stigma associated with bearing an illegitimate child is nearly unbearable. Even Valentine, Gretchen's own brother, condemns her as a whore in his dying speech:

There'll come a time, and this I know,
All decent folk will abhor you so,
You slut! That like a plague-infected
Corpse you'll be shunned, you'll be rejected,
They'll look at you and your heart will quail,
Their eyes will all tell the same tale!
You'll have no gold chains or jewellery then,
Never stand in church by the altar again,
Never have any pretty lace to wear
At the dance, for you'll not be dancing there!
Into some dark corner may you creep
Among beggars and cripples to hide and weep;
May God forgive you as he may —
But on earth be cursed till your dying day! (119)

These are incredibly strong words from a brother to a sister for whom he presumably felt some familial love; if the stigma associated with bearing an illegitimate child is so strong as to be unbearable, then such harsh words from a beloved member of the family must be doubly unbearable.

The Cathedral scene, which comes immediately after Faust and Mephistopheles flee the city, appears to represent an attempt to claim Gretchen's soul for Hell. The setting is a Requiem Mass for Gretchen's mother, who has died from the sleeping potion which Gretchen administered to conceal her trysts with Faust. The Evil Spirit appears at a particularly opportune point in the Requiem to drive Gretchen to despair. As the choir sings, "Dies irae, dies illa/ Solvet saeclum in favilla," the Evil Spirit reminds Gretchen that she is responsible for her mother's death and preys on her worst fear, the fear that she has become pregnant:

Are you praying
For your mother's soul, who by your doing
Overslept into long, long purgatorial pains?
Whose blood stains your doorstep?
— And under your heart is there not
Something stirring, welling up already,
A foreboding presence,
Feared by you and by itself? (120)
It appears that the Spirit is attempting to drive Gretchen to suicide, which is a mortal sin and would lead directly to her damnation. In order to do this, the Spirit has picked a vulnerable time for Gretchen — clearly she must be shaken by the recent deaths of her mother and elder brother, and by the hasty departure of her lover. Additionally, the Spirit chose an opportune time within the Requiem Mass. The Choir is singing about the Final Judgement:
Dies irae, dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla…
Judex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet adparebit,
Nil inultim remanebit…
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix justus sit securus? (120-121)

Roughly, this passage means, "On the day of wrath, on that day the world shall be dissolved in fire… Therefore when the judge shall sit, whoever sins shall atone, and nothing shall remain secret… What am I, the miserable one, then to say? Whom shall I ask to protect me, when even the just man is hardly secure?" This passage suits the Evil Spirit's purposes well, in that it lends itself to a rather melancholy interpretation. Gretchen is keenly aware of her sin, all the more so because of her brother's speech to her and because of the Evil Spirit hovering over her, ready to remind her that she has failed in her duty. To a woman of Gretchen's age, in her social climate, her problems may well have seemed insurmountable, and the Evil Spirit is determined to convince her that there is no way out:

Hide yourself! Sin and shame
Cannot be hidden.
Air? Light?
Woe on you…

Souls in bliss
Have turned their faces from you.
They shrink from touching you,
For they are pure!
Woe! (121)

Consider Gretchen's situation at this point: She may be publicly disgraced (Valentine's dying words suggest that her shame is public, but the Cathedral scene suggests that what has passed between her and Faust is still a secret), she is mortally afraid that she may be pregnant, and an evil spirit is whispering in her ear that "Sin and shame/ Cannot be hidden" (121) and that "God's wrath seizes you!" (120) All the while, the Choir is singing about the Final Judgement, when the earth will be consumed in fire, each person's sins will be laid bare, and nothing will remain hidden. What is she, the miserable one, then to say? "Neighbour! Your smelling-salts!" (121) Given all the pressure brought to bear on Gretchen, it is no wonder that she fainted. In fact, it is surprising that she seems to survive, at least a little while longer, with most of her faculties intact.

In conclusion, the attempted temptation of Gretchen in Faust: Part One comes in two parts. The first, Faust's temptation of Gretchen into an illicit relationship, succeeds rather easily; thus Gretchen is led away from her high moral standards. The second, the Evil Spirit's torment of Gretchen in the Cathedral, represents Evil's attempt to obtain a firm grasp on Gretchen's soul. The Evil Spirit attempts to drive Gretchen to despair and finally suicide by preying on her worst fears: her fear that she has become pregnant and will thus be publicly shamed, and her fear that she may already be damned for her role in the death of her mother. By exploiting these vulnerabilities while the Choir sings about the Final Judgement, the Evil Spirit hopes to push Gretchen to suicide, from which there can be no redemption. In the end, though, even the best efforts of the Evil Spirit are insufficient to drive Gretchen over the edge to suicide; she loses her mind, but not her soul.

All quotations from Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust, Part One. Translated by David Luke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987

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