In Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe subverted the traditional hero’s journey story structure. In the hero’s journey structure, a hero with all the archetypical traits of courage, virtue, and leadership embarks on some quest. He encounters temptations, difficulties, and ultimately, sacrifices something in order to complete his quest and learn some truth about himself or the world. This sacrifice and ultimate paradigm shift of the hero is meant to teach the reader some lesson or get them to ask and ponder some ultimate question. In Homer’s Odyssey, this structure is clearly visible.
Odysseus is a traditional hero – virtuous to a fault, cunning and resourceful when necessary but refusing to use his abilities for evil purposes. His quest is to find his way home to Ithaka from the ruins of Troy. Along his journey, he encounters various difficulties: his men are attacked by Harpies, he nearly gives in to the temptations of the Sirens, Circe turns them into pigs, and a Cyclops captures him and his men before they escape through Odysseus’ natural resourcefulness. In the end, Odysseus makes it home to Ithaka, rids his home of piglike suitors, and is reunited with his wife and son.
The structural elements of Faust are similar. The story seems to have all the same beats as the Odyssey: a hero on a quest faces temptations and overcomes them all to live happily ever after. However, a more thorough analysis of the story reveals a very different message. In order to understand the true message of Faust, we need to look at the cultural context of the work and at Goethe’s own life. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived in Germany from 1749 to 1832, a time of great change in Europe. During these years, the Enlightenment was at its peak and was changing the way writers, philosophers, and scientists viewed the world. Instead of the light-hearted, feelings-based ideas of the earlier Romantic period, the Enlightenment put a stronger value on reason, logic, scientific advancement, and study. Many prominent Enlightenment writers and philosophers were not religious, or even anti-religious, and these themes come across in their writing. Goethe was not writing from a Christian or religious perspective, which shaped the way he wrote about the dangers of making a bargain with the devil.
As a hero, Faust has more flaws than Odysseus, making him a good candidate for a tragic hero, but Faust the novel is clearly a comedy. It has a happy ending, doesn’t really take itself that seriously from a meta standpoint, and in the end, Faust’s bad decisions don’t seem to matter at all. He still gets a happy ending because his entire life – from his studies to his temptations to even his bargain with the devil himself – was all just a game God played with Satan. This underlying theme that Faust’s choices didn’t matter is consistent with the ideas of determinism, the idea that the future has already been laid out by the laws of nature or an unseen hand, and no human actions will affect the outcome. The rise in a Western belief in determinism is strongly associated with the advent of Newtonian physics, which were a key discovery of the early Enlightenment. As a student interested in science and philosophy, Goethe would have been well aware of both Newton’s ideas and the idea of determinism.
Although Faust and Odysseus share similar “hero” journeys, they arrive at very different understandings of the world. Odysseus, in surviving all his dangers and trials through his cunning, learns that human resourcefulness and loyalty to family can triumph over even the storms and problems sent to him by the gods. Odysseus can outwit them all. Faust, by selling his soul to the devil and giving into temptation after temptation yet still being raised to heaven in the end, learns that his choices don’t matter. God had determined the outcome far in advance, and nothing Faust did would change it. These two similar yet vastly different stories pit two different belief systems against each other. Odysseus represents the confidence in human tenacity and in the power of virtue expressed by the ancients, such as Aristotle and Cicero. Faust represents the Enlightenment era skepticism of human importance in the face of the brave new world of science and the unfolding mysteries of the cosmos. Through his knowledge of ancient beliefs and current philosophies, Goethe was able to weave a masterful story that subverted the typical structure of the genre and remained a sparkling gem of Enlightenment beliefs even to this day.