A Quick History of Pacts with the Devil in Literature
Could a pact with the devil be an apt metaphor for our times? Who would've thought.
The phrase “a pact with the Devil” was not one I had thought about much before I took a fantastic literature class by that name at the University of Iowa with the wonderful (if not eccentric) professors Dr. Waltraud Maierhofer and Dr. Anna Barker.
In my head it was a simple metaphor about selling one’s soul to the devil—trading something divine for some measly material gain. And that is the central idea of a pact with the Devil. But what the class showed me was that this simple and, by now, cliche idea has inspired the creation of music and literature over hundreds of years that grappled with “big questions” about what it means to be human and the human condition. This includes “fancy” artists and writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Giuseppe Tartini, but also a classic American hero like Mark Twain.
I think there’s a lot of beauty in pondering a story that has been reinterpreted and rearranged across centuries to make sense of our ever changing world, and I think there’s a lot of value in thinking about the “big fundamental truths” these devil-ish stories present. So I wanted to share this slightly edited paper that I wrote for the class, summarizing how the legend of Dr. Faust has been told in different centuries and countries to try to understand what it means to be human.
I love to listen to music while I read, so I’ll provide a quick recommendation: the “Devil's Trill Sonata” composed by Italian Giuseppe Tartini the 18th century. The incredible story behind the song, which is apparently remarkably difficult to play even for today’s world class violinists, is that the Devil himself came to Tartini in a dream and played the most beautiful sonata ever performed. When Tartini awoke, he scrambled to recall the song. “Devil’s Trill” is what he could remember, but he always insisted it was a pale comparison to the Devil’s original performance. Click play below and take a listen while you read on:
Early Dr. Faust
The legend of Dr. Faust has been used by authors and playwrights for centuries in attempts to grapple with massive technological and sociological change. You may not recognize the names Faust or Mephistopheles, but you’re undoubtedly run into some of the legend’s themes: a pact with evil, a fun-loving devil, and the shortsighted hubris of mankind. These elements emerged from German folktales sometime in the 1500s, but perhaps no person is more responsible for the current prominence of Faustian stories than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, author of the two-part stage play Faust, first published in the early 1800s. Goethe’s work was influenced by past works, but the fame his work gained influenced storytelling for generations.
The story, characters, and themes of Faust have been rearranged, reinterpreted, and reexamined by playwrights, authors, musicians, comedians, politicians, satirists, and poets in the centuries since, telling stories that are similar in form, but also unique to the period from which they originate.
The earliest Faust legends speak of a scholar who grows tired with the knowledge he has been able to gain through religion and science. He yearns to understand more profound, divine, and metaphysical truths. Doctor Faustus (as many of the early stories call him), in order to secure such knowledge, summons the devil and subsequently strikes up a contract. He agrees to surrender his body and soul to the devil after twenty-four years and to give up his Christian faith immediately, in exchange for service from the devil for as long as Faustus lives. Once the deal is struck, Faustus is able to call up the devil at any time to learn the profound truths he desires.
These early legends were dramatized by the English playwright Christopher Marlowe in the late 1500s in the stage play, Doctor Faustus. Marlowe’s telling follows many of the old legends closely. Faustus, who has grown weary and tired of all his ordinary, earthly knowledge, summons the devil and receives Lucifer’s messenger demon, Mephistophilis. The pact is struck as above, with Mephistophilis promising to serve Faustus and provide him with whatever knowledge and power he wants for twenty-four years. They agree to the terms, signing the contract in blood.
Faustus and Mephistophilis then go on a series of wild adventures together; playing a series of pranks on the Pope himself and jetting around the world impressing various queens and rulers. As the years go on, Faustus’ newfound powers are used for increasingly childish and unimpressive pranks. When Faustus’s twenty-four years are nearly up, he comes to regret his shortsighted pact, but he can not get out of it. He attempts to flee from Mephistophilis, but, as one might expect, he meets a gruesome, violent end.
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus used the Faustian devil pact to explore the expanding scientific knowledge of humanity during the Renaissance period. The play warns us that knowledge may not always be worth the cost, especially if we use short sighted thinking to get it. If we aren’t careful and considerate with our search for knowledge, we may become like Faustus, made increasingly childlike and insignificant, never living up to our potential, and meeting a brutal and unfortunate end, brought about by our own ambition.
The most influential Faust story came over two centuries later in the form of Goethe’s Faust. Published in two parts, the play deepened and complicated Marlowe’s characters and themes. This is evident from the very beginning of Part One. The play opens with a series of short scenes, one of which—the “Prelude on the Stage”—serves as a succinct introduction to the tension at the heart of most Fuastian tales.
The Prelude’s three characters—the poet, clown, and director—debate how they should run the play. The ideal, of course, is to take the time to create a beautiful work of art which strives to understand truths about the meaning of life. But, they note, they also face the more practical need to just get on with it and produce a successful, popular play.
You can probably see the parallels here— the character Faust struggles with this same tension. On the one hand, is there not value in understanding the meaning of life, of the profound metaphysical question for which Faust seeks answers? Yet on the other, we can’t all spend every day sitting around and pondering the meaning of it all. At a certain point, we need to get on with the show and live our lives. Otherwise, what will our lives have amounted to other than idle pondering?
The full plot of Faust is complex and difficult to summarize. Part One, after the opening pieces, begins in a manner similar to Doctor Faustus. Faust is fed up with mere earthly knowledge and pursues a pact with the devil in order to secure access to more fundamental truths and more incredible power. The terms of his pact are quite different, however. Instead of ending after twenty-four years, his life and soul are to be surrendered to the devil when he reaches a moment of sheer bliss which he hopes continues forever:
“If ever in the moment I shall say/ Beautiful moment, do not pass away!/ Then you may forge your chains to bind me/ Then I will put my life behind me” (lines 1699-1702).
Faust is not too worried about reaching such bliss, however, since he has so far been largely unsatisfied with his life and knowledge. Throughout Part One, Faust does little good with his new powers. Following in Doctor Faustus' footsteps, he pulls some pranks and eventually begins to pursue a woman named Margareta (or Gretchen in some translations). Using his devil-ish powers, he ends up ruining her life. Faust is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of Margareta’s brother, mother, and child. Part One ends with Margareta’s own death and Faust refusing to process or acknowledge his responsibility.
Part Two, the much longer and more lyrical of the two parts, follows Faust well into old age. He continues to use his powers for vain and immature ends, and the consequences of his actions become even darker. As he gains fame and connections with powerful kings, he pushes away the oceans to reclaim land and build himself a castle. His self-centeredness leads to more innocent deaths, however, when he becomes irritated at an old couple living near his farm. The Devil's ambassador over-interprets his request to remove the couple by killing them.
At this moment, perhaps motivated by a long-coming recognition of guilt, he decides to try to benefit humanity. As soon as he discloses this intention, however, he dies—having reached that dreaded moment of sheer bliss. Just as the reader thinks the Devil has won, God’s angels swoop down and carry Faust’s soul off to heaven. Ultimately, he is saved.
With this twist ending, and long road that brings us there, Goethe’s Faust offers a more nuanced take on the character of Faust than previous works. It is not clear if Faust's late blooming desire for benevolence comes from a realization of guilt or genuine selflessness discovered in old age. Nevertheless, the ending presents a promise of redemption and forgiveness from God if one even simply intends to do good.
The lesson of Goethe's Faust is not as straightforward as Marlowe's dire warning. And it may also seem strange to imply that one can successfully utilize a pact with the devil to accomplish real good in the world—or at least to save oneself from eternal damnation. As Mephistopheles describes himself in Part One:
“I am part of that Power which would do evil constantly, and constantly does good” (lines 1335-36).
The characters and themes of Goethe’s Faust have echoed through popular culture for centuries. You'll encounter the phrase “Faustian bargain” used to describe short-sighted or misguided compromises in politics, and the Faustian and Mephistophelean archetypes have also sprung up in many places. Fun loving, reasonably lighthearted devil characters are found in Russian novels, including Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. More contemporarily, the stunning Netflix show Lucifer casts God's forsaken son not as the embodiment of evil but a misunderstood, fun-loving rebel.
Faustian Stories in Modern Contexts
The Faust of Marlowe and Goethe was partially responding to the scientific revolutions of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. New discoveries were dramatically changing how people understood the world and shaking the long-established religious foundations of society. More recent Faustian stories have followed in this tradition.
In the 1920s, none other than American darling Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) wrote a short story entitled “Sold to Satan.” The witty story, told in the first person, chronicles Twain’s own desire to sell his soul in order to secure some money to prospect on the stock market. He sets up a meeting with Satan (in exchange for a 2.5% commission to a local business agent) where the two discuss the role of steam and coal power in recent human development.
Satan then foretells that radium, which he is in fact clothed in, will be the next development in human evolution. Once isolated, radium will be able to produce heat, power, and electricity on its own, and those who control it will be wealthy beyond imagination. Satan specifically speaks of Marie Curie, who was, at the time of Twain’s writing, seeking to isolate radium. In exchange for his soul, Satan points Twain to a huge deposit of radium, setting him up for great wealth.
Like Goethe's Faust, Twain’s story (which name-drops Goethe at one point, when Twain vainly hopes to be compared to him) is also responding to new forces shaking the foundations of society—transformations in the business and economic realms brought about by scientific advancements and industrialization. Satan at one point notes, almost offhand, that with the radioactive power of radium he could destroy the world in “a flash of flame and a puff of smoke” (page 8). This is an eerily prophetic look at how close the world would come to nuclear war in the following decades.
A decade or so later, in 1936 Nazi Germany, Klaus Mann wrote a stunning novel entitled Mephiso which further adapted the Faustian model. Rather than responding to social changes resulting from scientific and economic changes, Mann’s Mephisto refines the metaphor of selling one’s soul into a sharpen political critique.
The novel’s central character, Hendrik Höfgen, begins as a little known stage actor in Germany. His slow rise to fame parallels the Nazis ascent to power. As his country is thrown into political turmoil, many of his friends and colleagues work against the Nazis, seeing the destruction and evil they will bring. But Höfgen avoids taking a stand against the Nazis, much to the disgust of his peers, and eventually even partners with the Regime in order to increase his own fame and influence.
Mann uses his novel and the metaphorical pact with the devil to powerfully criticize those, who, like Höfgen, try to convince themselves that they are a-political, that their actions only have consequences for themselves, and that they can’t change what’s happening around them.
Throughout the novel, Mann issues a series of rhetorical questions meant to bring to light how being willfully or ignorantly blind to the world of politics can lead to extreme danger:
“Does he not feel the change in the seasons?... Encapsulated by his ambitions as in a prison cell... Hendrick embraces a destiny that seems to him exceptional but is in fact nothing but a vulgar arabesque at the edge of an enterprise doomed to collapse” (page 146).
“Did he not notice how the streets of Berlin had changed? Did he see the brown and black uniforms, the swastika flags, the marching youths? Did he hear the warlike songs that rang out in the streets and from the radio and the film screens? Did he listen to the Führer’s speeches, with their threats and boasting? Did he read the newspapers.... Did he care about the fate of men and women whom he had earlier called his friends?” (page 168)
The Ongoing Relevance of Devil Pacts
While the stories of Marlowe, Goethe, and Twain provide fairly fantastical illustrations of selling one’s soul, Mann’s Mephisto provides a startlingly concrete and pointed real-world example. To me, it is Mann's pact with the Devil which seems most relevant today.
I am apparently not the only one who thinks so. In 2017 a New York stage saw performances of a modern extension of Goethe's Faust, entitled rather crudely “Faust 3: The Turd Coming, or The Fart of the Deal.”
The play is “a political satire of the Trump fiasco and portrays the ill-advised bargain between the sewer rats and their chosen king, a deceptive clown figure. Although the clown is offensive, vulgar, and evil, the people agree to sign away their future on the gamble that the clown will improve their lives, but they are shat upon instead."
The crudeness of this description, from the playwrights themselves, typifies a bit of that liberal elitism that many claim drives people away from the cause. I haven't seen the play, so it's possible that it is actually subtle and interact in its take on Trump, but my suspicion is that its the sort of blunt, self-assured satire I find off-putting.
Regardless of this particular play's artistic merit, its existence demonstrates the timelessness of the Faustian story. How many Americans made a deal with Trump—for tax cuts or deregulation or a vague sense of "being heard—in exchange for the further erosion of public trust, unity, and decency? How many voters said "well, I don't love him, but he's better than the other guy"?
I think it's interesting to look to the stories of Marlowe, Goethe, and Mann in our modern context. Are we doomed to a violent end like Marlowe's Faust, or do we have a chance of redemption as Goethe seems to promise? What would such redemption look like? I again think Mann's story might be the most applicable. Throughout the novel, Höfgen tells himself that his connections to power will allow him to help his old friends. But as his fame peaks, his friends are arrested or killed, and he realizes he is more famous for his connection to power than for his artistic ability. He lives in a mansion, but feels more alone than ever. The novel ends with him breaking down in tears to his mother, who realizes he is now deeply and spiritually broken. In the end, he is pathetic, broken, and self-hating.
Across eras, Faust and devil pacts have been used by artists to confront some of the most profound concerns of the times, and to provide warnings for the future inspired by the present. These warnings and lessons can take the form of concrete political morals. But I think the big, metaphysical questions of Goethe's Faust are also important to contemplate. How do we balance striving for greatness with doing good and finding meaning? What good are great power and knowledge if it costs us too much to get there?
I somehow suspect we will continue to ponder these questions for quite some time.
I highly recommend all the stories I discussed . I compiled them (along with a very academic book about the history of religious scholars and philosophers pondering the question of evil through the devil) in a handy list you can access here. If you follow that link and purchase any of the books, you'll support both me and a fund which supports local independent bookstores. Awesome!
The cover of Mephisto is creepy, but the story is great!