Controversy #3 (Fall 1998)
"Why doesn't Faustus repent?"
Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder. This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature. Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder. You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read. The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.
Arnie's Note on #3: Joe's question, which nobody took up, perhaps because it seemed too hard to answer, makes a great deal of sense. The enormous weight of emotional and logical evidence, which should make any reasonable person renounce that pact with Lucifer and Mephistophelis, in fact appears to weaken in its persuasive power as the plot approaches Faustus' damnation. (Note how easily the "Good Angel" and "Old Man" are whisked offstage!) Could we think of this as a kind of psychological portrait, allegorized rather like Everyman, of what happens when a man goes mad or bad? There also is a good theological argument for what's wrong with Faustus, and it has to do with the nature of the Seven Deadly sins, especially Pride. You might look for traces of the "Seven" in Faustus' character. Marlowe's use of them in the personification allegory warrants their use in interpreting the playwright's intentions, even though they're a somewhat dated medieval concept by C16.
"Why doesn't Faustus repent?," Joe Kranak, 9/30/98
Being familiar with Goethe's Faust in which Faust does repent and goes to heaven, I was wondering why didn't Faustus repent. He waivers on the possiblity of repenting several times throughout the play, this being manifested in the appearance of the good and evil angels. A few of the times when he is about to repent one of the devils steps in and prevents him. Such as when Mephistophilis has devils bring jewels and riches to Faustus after he sees "homo fuge" on his arm, or at the end of scene five when Lucifer appears to show Faustus the seven deadly sins after Faustus calls to Christ to save his soul. Also, in scene twelve, when Faustus begins to repent, Mephistophilis threatens to tear him to pieces. After he does this Mephistophilis says: "I cannot touch his soul, but what I may afflict his body with, I will attemptwhich is but little worth." This implies that the devils can only affect with bodily threats, such as they can only entice with bodily pleasures. When Faustus asks for a wife he is denied and told he can only have a woman to sleep with. Faustus' soul is dragged to hell by the enticement of wealth and knowledge and the fear of the punishment of the devils if he repents. Therefore, he is so compelled by pain and pleasure that he can't repent.
Or is it because Faustus' sin is too sinful to forgive? In scene five when Faustus is trying to write the contract and his blood congeals and then he sees "homo fuge" on his arm, it seems to imply that his soul does not want to be given and is trying to resist. Faustus asks: "is not thy soul thy own?" which echoes of Everyman's moral that everything is only lent to us by God. Therefore, Fuastus, in taking ownership of his soul, is trying to become like God. Faustus also tries to become a god by gaining infinite knowledge and he tries to gain power to match a god's through becoming what he calls in his contract a "spirit" and has a supernaturnal being as a servant. He thinks that his power could match that of God when, in scene five, he says: "what god can hurt thee, Faustus?" Therefore, I wonder whether the reason he can't repent is because, by trying to become a god, he has committed an unabsolvable sin?
Or is there something else that Marlowe is trying to say by not allowing Faustus to repent?