In the play “Faust” by Johann Goethe, Gretchen’s character envelops extreme aspects of Virgin Mary and of Eve. Mary acts as the symbol of the mother of mankind, the pure woman who makes men’s salvation possible. She has no evil in her at all. In contrast, Eve is the archetypal figure of the fallen woman, the cause of man’s suffering and damnation.
She symbolizes death, destruction, and human depravity. Eve is the antithesis of Mary; together the two archetypes correspond to the two sides of Gretchen’s character.
When Gretchen is first introduced in the play, she appears to be the ideal of innocence and purity. When Faust tries to talk to her on the street, she refuses. “I’m not a lady, am not fair; I can go home without your care.” (2607) A properly brought up young woman would never allow herself to be picked up on the street.
It is her naive that attracts Faust most of all. “I’ve never seen [Gretchen’s] equal anywhere! So virtuous, modest, through and through!” (2610-1) Even Mephistopheles acknowledges her virtue. He calls her an “innocent, sweet dear!” (3007).
Goethe further identifies Gretchen as a saint when Gretchen’s bedroom becomes a shrine to Faust. Faust uses religious language to describe the room. “Welcome, sweet light, which weaves through this sanctuary. Seize my heart, you sweet pain of love, you that live languishing on the dew of hope! How the feeling of stillness breathes out order and contentment all around.
In this poverty, what fullness! In this prison, what holiness!” (2687-94) Just from being in her room, he feels spiritual sacredness, often associated with shrines of saints. He imagines her bed as a “father’s throne”(2696) with “a flock of children clinging swarmed” (2697) around it, thus associating Gretchen with maternity. A large part of Faust’s attraction to Gretchen is the image of a virgin mother he sees in her, the ideal of feminine purity.
Gretchen’s strong religious background further strengthens her saintly image. The prayer in the Ramparts scene is an example of her religious training. “Oh, bend Thou, Mother of Sorrows; send Thou a look of pity on my pain.” (3587-9) Gretchen looks on the world from a religious perspective. She wants to make Faust’s actions consistent with her religious upbringing.
“How do you feel about religion? But without desire [you revere the Holy Sacraments], alas! It’s long since you confessed or went to mass!” (3415-23) Gretchen can sense Mephistopheles is the devil. She can feel his evil presence, which is what saints are supposed to be able to do.
She screams when Mephistopheles comes near her prison, “What rises up from the threshold here? He! He! Thrust him out! In this holy place what is he about?””(4601-3) In the end of the book, Gretchen is forgiven and her sins are redeemed. A voice from heaven calls, “She is saved!” (4611) Regardless of her sins, the religious side of Gretchen remains throughout the book.
Gretchen is constantly aware of her crimes and prays. “My peace is gone, my heart is sore.” (3374-5) She retains her ability to sense the presence of Mephistopheles until the end. Because of Gretchen’s salvation, the audience knows that her religious side has been stronger than her sinful side.
However, in some situations, Gretchen is presented as a fallen woman who causes her own ruin. Even though Gretchen rejects Faust on the street, she is immediately attracted to him, in spite of the fact that he acts very vulgarly toward her. Gretchen disregards her religious upbringing and starts an affair with Faust.
Later she tells him, “Yet I confess I know not why my heart began at once to stir to take your part.” (3175-6) The double side of Gretchen’s femininity is evident in the Evening scene. Gretchen is made both innocent and erotic as she removes her clothes and sings a romantic song.
While she remains a girl getting ready for bed, her undressing is a foreshadowing of her affair with Faust. Later, in the church at the mass for her mother’s death, an evil spirit torments Gretchen. She does not feel comfortable in the church anymore because she has sinned.
“Would I be away from here! It seems to me as the organ would stifle my breathing as if my inmost heart were melted by the singing.” (3808-12) Gretchen understands her responsibility for her sins and she can no longer hush her guilty conscience.
Gretchen can no longer bear the burden of guilt and turns to Mater Dolorosa, to whom she prays in the Ramparts scene. This scene depicts Gretchen praying at the statue of the Virgin Mary. It presents the dichotomy of Gretchen’s character: Gretchen the saint and Gretchen the fallen woman.
Gretchen the saint finds herself in a similar condition with the Virgin Mary as an unwed mother-to-be. Both experience society’s harsh judgments. She appeals to the Virgin’s empathy, exclaiming that only Mary could understand what she is feeling. “What my poor heart suffers, how it trembles, what it desires; only you alone know.” (3601-3) The words are very personal and show her vulnerability, creating a text fit for a girl like Gretchen, who at this point is experiencing real, unexpected pain.
The correlation between Gretchen and Mary becomes more evident when we consider Gretchen’s depiction of a virgin mother of sorts. Goethe portrays her as such through her experience with her younger sister. Earlier in the play, Gretchen explains how she raised her sister alone. She cared for the child and treated it as her own, all the way up to its early death.
“I raised it and it loved me completely [Mother] could not think of suckling it herself, the poor babe pitifully wee. And so I brought it up, and quite alone, with milk and water; so it became my own.” (3130-3) Gretchen was like a mother to the child, though she remained a virgin. She combines the maternal nature of a mother with the innocent purity of a girl.
Just as Gretchen is connected to Mary as a virgin mother, she feels closeness to Mary because of her suffering. The prayer Gretchen recites expresses Mary’s pain at the loss of her son, a foreshadowing of Gretchen’s own pain that comes at the death of her child. Gretchen’s deep emotions suggest that she is still innocent and pure. This image contrasts sharply with the suggestion that she could kill her child later on. She calls herself “the whore, who killed her child” (4412-3) Gretchen receives no help from heaven, regardless of her pleas.
This heavenly silence would be more appropriate for the other Gretchen, Gretchen the fallen woman. This other facet of Gretchen’s character is in complete contrast to the first and provides a very different perspective on the scene in the Ramparts. While a saint prays to receive some kind of absolution, a sinner prays to blaspheme.
The lack of response to her plea can be seen as a prelude to her further fall. A parallel can be created between Gretchen and Eve – the fallen woman – who is herself responsible for her own ruin. Though Gretchen feels helpless against Faust’s seduction, she still knows right from wrong. For example, she recognizes from the beginning that Mephistopheles is evil and not the charming man he appears to be. “The man who is with you as your mate deep in my inmost soul I hate.” (3420-1)
Gretchen who kills her daughter is reminiscent of Eve who brings mortality – death – on herself and her children. Just as Eve falls because she wants to gain knowledge and is tricked by a “guile” snake who has more knowledge than Eve, Gretchen is corrupted by all-knowing Faust. Even though Gretchen exhibits many good qualities, she “falls” with Faust, which is similar to the fall of Adam and Eve.
Gretchen’s double personality permits the audience to perceive the character of other heroes in the play more clearly.
Enter innocent Gretchen, a poor lower-class young woman who experiences the impossible, love. Under Mephisto’s magical potion, Faust becomes intoxicated with passion and controlled by his hormones. It is under this spell that he approaches the “beautiful” Gretchen, however, the feeling of passion is not mutual between the two.
Faust realizes then, that his simple looks and personality will not attract Gretchen, rather Faust must deceive and manipulate this woman in order to possess her. Thus, Faust turns to Mephisto for help in his quest for Gretchen, “Get me that girl, and don’t ask why?”(257)
Mephisto replies with a quote that establishes the nature at which Faust will pursue Gretchen with, “We’d waste our time storming and running; we have to have recourse to cunning.”(261) It is from this point in the story that Faust declines into a state of immorality and irresponsibility; a level he will remain at for the majority of the story.