Death, Faustus, and a Search for Meaning

Burton as Faustus, Taylor as Helen of Tro

Why would a 21-year-old be riveted by the Faustus story? That’s a question that Caitie Harrigan, a student whose senior project I am mentoring, has been wrestling with. Last week she came a little closer to an answer. She has given me permission to tell her story.

Caitie started the project last summer by reading every version of the Faustus story that she could lay her hands on: the original 1587 Historia von D. Johnaa Fausten, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1592), Goethe’s Faust, Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (the most difficult novel I’ve ever read), and Klaus Mann’s Mephisto. In the end, she decided to focus on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Mann’s Mephisto and launched into her project. But as occurs with many senior projects, she couldn’t figure out what she wanted to say about them.

From 30 years of teaching experience (not to mention familiarity with reader response theory), I have learned that it helps students encountering such difficulties to identify the personal narrative that has drawn them to the work.  Students need not write about their drama in their essays (although some of them do), but they need to be aware of the work’s significance for them.

In our session, therefore, I repeatedly asked Caitie why she is drawn to the story of Faustus.  In an emotional session, she began to come up with some answers.

Caitie has been searching for basic answers since her mother died unexpectedly two years ago.  Ten years earlier she developed a rare form of lymphoma, which was treated and went into remission, but it then returned in another form, and during treatment Katie’s mother caught pneumonia. Already a thoughtful and sensitive student, Catie found herself questioning American consumer society and the shallow satisfactions that it offers.  Madison Avenue and society at large assure us constantly that a wide selection of material goods will provide us with transcendent happiness, and Caitie was experiencing the gap between their promises and her loss.

Caitie also wants some material reassurance that her mother has passed to some transcendent realm, that she is still existent and has not just “ceased to be” (to quote Wordsworth). To want material confirmation of the immaterial is, of course, a contradiction. But that doesn’t make us want it any the less.

One cannot dwell in grief forever, however, and at the same time that she found herself questioning, Caitie has felt the lure of the material world. She feels guilty over the fact that she likes to shop. Her confusion has drawn her to the story of the man who turns his back on his soul.

Marlowe’s Faustus and Mann’s Mephisto are men torn. In Marlowe’s play, Faustus begins to long for power when he realizes he is mortal. (Think of it as a midlife crisis.) But the more power he gets, the more empty the material world begins to appear. He can have any woman that he wants but he cannot have a soul mate. He can know everything about the world except who made it. He is in existential despair and twice contemplates suicide.

His “good angel” tells him to turn towards God. But God doesn’t seem to be as solid as the material world, and faith involves letting go of the self whereas his impulse, in his fear and his desire, is to grasp harder. Furthermore, the material world is enticing and offers up apparent satisfactions, embodied in the seven deadly sins. As a result, he writhes in uncertainty, sometimes talking of repentance, sometimes sinking into depression, sometimes engaging is empty activities that are a far cry from the ambitious agenda he once set for himself.  At times his pleasure-seeking appears to function as an anesthetic designed to drown out his underlying unhappiness.

The anesthetic no longer works when, 24 years later, he starts dying. In a sense, death calls his bluff and he has no answers. His death is one of the ugliest in literature. He does not go gentle into that good night. There is no peaceful acceptance.

I’m not entirely sure yet how Caitie will ultimately frame her search and her reading of the Faustus stories.  I know, however, that her longing for substantive answers goes very deep and that she turned to literature because society doesn’t seem able to help her. At the very least, she will end up with more clarity than she has at the moment.

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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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