The Romantic Hero in Goethe's Faust

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The Romantic Hero in Goethe's Faust

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Long hailed as the watershed of Romantic literature, Goethe’s Faust

uses the misadventures of its hero to parallel the challenges that

pervaded European society in the dynamic years of the late eighteenth

and early nineteenth centuries. Faust is the prototypical Romantic

hero because the transformation of his attitudes mirrors the larger

transformation that was occurring in the society in which Goethe

conceived the play. Faust’s odyssey transports him from adherence to

the cold rationale of the Enlightenment to a passion for the pleasures

that came to define the Romantic spirit. Faust not only expresses the

moral contradictions and spiritual yearnings of a man in search of

fulfillment, but also portrays the broader mindset of a society that

was groping for meaning in a world where reason no longer sufficed as

a catalyst for human cultural life.

The period of German Romanticism in which Goethe wrote Faust was

plagued with the same intrinsic turmoil that Faust himself felt prior

to making his deal with Mephisto. The destruction that the French

Revolution had exacted on the European consciousness was evident in

the attitudes of the people most touched by the tumult of the era –

people who came to realize that absolution was no longer a pertinent

intellectual goal. The cold rationale of the Enlightenment was no

longer adequate to explain the significance of life in a society where

everything had so recently been turned upside down. Romanticism was

the expression of this society’s craving for answers and fulfillment.

Everywhere, people embraced life passionately and lived as...

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...emption, despite her sins,

because “all her crime was love” (line 4501).

Goethe’s Faust is a work in which a new type of hero emerges to

satisfy the needs of a changing society. With Faust, Goethe succeeded

in representing a microcosm of the tensions that accompanied the shift

from rationalism to Romanticism. Complex and dynamic, Faust, like the

great men of his era, is a hero whose most notable achievement is his

transformation of the lives of others as well as his own. In this

respect, the lesson of the Romantic hero is comprised less of romance

than of utility. Following the trends of the Goethe’s contemporary

evolving society, the means by which Faust succeeds in accomplishing

his goals are largely selfish, brutal, and unethical. This is perhaps

Goethe’s single greatest reflection on the modern nature of heroism.
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