Faust is considered the most famous work of German literature. Yet, when Goethe began writing the drama in 1773, he lived in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, a crumbling realm of principalities and free cities. The German nation state would not be founded until 1871.
Despite their considerable cultural differences, the German-speaking territories were affected by common demographic, political, and economic changes. Following the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the population increased significantly during the mid-eighteenth century, straining traditional forms of social control. After 1750, an ever-increasing portion of the nobility—which had previously monopolized political and socioeconomic life through land ownership—was forced to sell its property to newly affluent commoners. The rise of these “non-noble elites,” who thought of social prestige in terms of wealth, political expertise, educational achievement, and moral stature, challenged the nobility’s claim to power. It was this new social order into which Goethe, the son of a wealthy Lutheran family, was born. He became a public intellectual whose works reached a broad secular readership and whose status made evident the new opportunities available for someone of his social standing.
By the 1770s, the Germans had developed a vernacular literary tradition comparable to that of England and France, and intellectuals like Gottfried Ephraim Lessing and Johann Gottfried Herder led efforts to promote a “national” literary culture. Herder, in particular, argued that the Germans could not build such aliterature by simply imitating English or French models; they needed to utilize theirown traditions and folklore. Goethe’s text, in dramatizing the legend of Faust, does just that.
In the sixteenth century, Faust was understood to be a historical person: he is mentioned in Martin Luther’s Table Talks of 1566, and the publisher of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten of 1587 (see Explorations) asserts that this story is based on the life and writings of an infamous magician of the dark arts. Reformation-era texts such as the Historia recounted and embellished the story in order toinstruct a religious readership about the dangers of the devil and human arrogance. With its references to magic, alchemy, and scholasticism, Goethe’s drama retainsmuch of the sixteenth-century character, while also reflecting sentiments of its owntime. Goethe’s Faust explores modern aesthetic and existential concerns. In 1947,Thomas Mann would reimagine the story in more contemporary ways in his DoctorFaustus (see Explorations).
Written by: Arthur Salvo (Germanic Languages, Columbia University) and Alexanderv. Thun (Germanic Languages, Columbia University)
A New History of German Literature, ed. David E. Wellbery et al (Harvard University Press, 2006).
Nicholas Boyle, German Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008).
Jochen Schmidt, Goethes Faust: Erster und Zweiter Teil: Grundlagen—Werk—Wirkung (C.H. Beck, 2001).
James J. Sheehan, German History: 1770-1886 (Oxford University Press, 1993).