Doctor Faustus: Lessons in Grieving

Doctor Faustus


I have written several times over the past seven years about how students of mine have turned to works of literature as they grappled with the death of parents. Five years ago Caitie Harrigan became obsessed with the Faustus story following the death of her mother—she read ten different versions for her senior project—and this past semester Andrew Giganti, who recently lost his father, wrote about Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in my British Literature survey. We don’t generally think that the drama of the man who sells his soul to the devil is about death, but Caitie’s and Andrew’s essays have me rethinking Marlowe’s play.

Here’s how I summed up Caitie’s senior project as it neared its end:

Caitie’s mother developed leukemia when Caitie was ten, and although it went into remission, a more virulent strain returned with full force when Caitie was 20 and she died in four months. Twice faced with the prospect of her mother’s death, Caitie found herself wrestling with existential questions about life’s meaning from an early age. When she got to college, she took a number of religious studies courses in addition to English courses but failed to find satisfactory answers. In fact, she was struck by the strangeness of ritual and the desperation of fundamentalists.

She found the figure of Satan compelling, however, and last month she figured out that the devil, as he appears in the Faustus stories, voices her own fear that life is absurd. When the devil tells Goethe’s Faust that life is a wasteland and humans are no more than grasshoppers, it struck home. Soul is put to the test in the story of Faustus, just as Caitie was testing her own belief in soul.

In other words, Caitie’s project was a roundabout way of exploring whether her mother had just disappeared into nothingness—in which case, life seemed to be meaningless—of whether there was a spiritual plane and her mother was, in some inexpressible way, still existent. If the devil could be proved wrong, then there was hope.

This wasn’t the only way that Caitie explored these questions. At times she sensed her mother’s presence. She just feared that what she sensed wasn’t real, that she was indulging in wish fulfillment. Wrestling with the story seemed to be a solid way of engaging with the question.

Andrew entered the story from a different angle. For him, Marlowe articulates the helplessness he felt in the face of his father’s death. As he says of the play,

Faustus’s need for control derives from his refusal to accept his own mortality; Faustus believes that by becoming all-powerful he will be able to conquer his own mortality.

There’s a lot to be said for Andrew’s reading. The trigger event for Faustus’s diabolic bargain appears to be an outbreak of the plague. While Faustus cures multiple cities of the malady—his prescriptions are “hung up as monuments”—the encounter with death reminds him that, sooner or later, all will die. Rather than fatalistically surrender to this fact (“Che sera, sera,/What will be, shall be”), Faustus fantasizes conquering death:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and
there’s no truth in us. Why, then, belike we must sin, and so
consequently die:
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera,
What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu!
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters;
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.

Faustus’s bargain is for 24 years, and when I teach the play my students sensibly ask me why Faustus doesn’t ask for a life extension. The play is not about magic, however, but about human psychology, which is what Andrew realized. Say that Faustus is 46, in which case 24 years takes him 60, perhaps life expectancy for the age. Faustus may lust for intellectual and physical power because it gives him the illusion that he can control the uncontrollable. Wallowing in the seven deadly sins and fantasizing about Helen of Troy are other ways of coping. Put another way, he engages in fantasies and indulges in decadent behavior because he feels utterly powerless.

Andrew’s prose got a little tangled as he strove to articulate his helplessness—we both agreed the essay needed another draft—but you can see him wrestling mightily:

My demons are anxiety and depression, born from my inability to properly cope with the passing of my father. Every day, every minute, these demons drag and trap me in hell, a state of mind where I’m stuck in an endless void of my own consciousness. There is no fiery hilltop surrounded by leagues of black sand and lost souls unable to reclaim their graces. There is only I, my demons, and the constant realization that I could not control my father’s fate and save him from whatever awaits us after we close our eyes for the final time.

Andrew most identified with Faustus’s belief that his fate in entirely in his own hands. Faustus wants to control everything without help from God, regarding anything else as an ignoble surrender. Even when he is panicking on his deathbed, Faustus can’t let go and cries out to Lucifer—his egotistical desire for power—rather than to God. He can’t, as the saying has it, “Let go, let God.”

Andrew related to this, noting that he insisted on handling his grief all by himself rather than reaching out to others or to God. He did not, for instance, seek the help of a school counselor or a therapist. As a result, he floundered around, like Faustus, in his isolation.

Andrew called this “pride” and, in doing so, helps us better understand and even sympathize with the vice. Death is so painful that we long to be invulnerable and above it all. Unfortunately,by attempting to rise above our humanity, with all its limitations, we create our own private hells. This was Andrew’s biggest revelation.

What it taught him, he said, is that he needs to reach out for help in handling his grief. If the play has taught him that, it has proved a blessing beyond imagining.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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