Gretchen at Her Spinning Wheel by Natalie Weaver

Natalie Weaver editedIn my continuing music education, I was recently introduced to Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade (hear, for example, Renee Flemming’s performance of this work). The song is a setting of Goethe’s poem “Gretchens Stube,” in which Gretchen, a poor but upright maiden, sits alone in her room at the wheel, thinking longingly of Faust. Gretchen spins her mind and her threads on the cusp of ruin.

Faust desires Gretchen and with the help of his demonic wingman Mephistopheles (to whom he has bartered his soul in exchange for worldly favors), Faust has laid a trap to seduce Gretchen. Faust eventually gives Gretchen a sleeping potion to administer to her mother so he can come to Gretchen at night undisturbed. Contrary to the assurances of Faust, the potion kills Gretchen’s mother, even as Gretchen is conceiving a child from the illicit union, with the voyeur-devil panting in the wings. Gretchen’s enraged soldier-brother is subsequently fatally wounded in a brawl over the sordid matter, living just long enough to tell Gretchen exactly what he thinks of her. Destitute, Gretchen drowns her illegitimate child, is imprisoned, and dies burdened with grief. In Goethe’s Faust, Gretchen is ultimately saved because she was once so stainless a figure and in her failings became so sufficiently penitential. Stripped of her name and transformed as una poenitentium, her soul re-appears in the final scene of the second act of the tragedy among the choir of angels receiving Faust in his own redemption, who, by those same angels, is himself bewilderingly whisked away from the clutches of a very confused Mephistopheles.

Leaving off for the time being the interesting and important question of men writing women’s stories, the whole of Faust, and specifically Gretchen’s song within it, engaged me in a feminist religious critique in ways I found counter-intuitive. On one level, I could not help but read Faust as a Promethean sort of hero. Here you have an accomplished scholar who is simply exhausted by the futility of his work, and especially the shortcomings of theology. He is seeking empirical knowledge from any place that it can at last be found. Minus his grandiose local stature, he kind of reminds me of myself (and lots of other academicians in theology who have glimpsed religious faith and myth in their most tiresome and dangerous social distortions). I incline to commend Faust for entertaining the background, the darkness, the animal, the bodily, the elemental, the unspeakable – for, that is also classically the “feminine,” yes?

Then, there’s the obvious problem that Faust is, well, sort of an average creep. Of course, he, a man of grace, charm, and social standing, does not really need the devil’s help to seduce a vulnerable young girl, does he? So, also, Faust does not need the devil’s assistance to stay young and healthy; for, Mephistopheles notes, physical movement and diet can accomplish those ends alone. Faust, if he is really relying on supernatural evil to achieve mundane outcomes is, to my mind anyway, wasting cosmic power on minutia. But, if Mephistopheles is read figuratively, as in the old cartoons, a daring little red man riding around on the left shoulder doing battle in one’s conscience with the insufferably boring angel on the right, then Faust is something of a hero again. He is embodying romantic ideals, breaking free from the tyranny of socially conditioned righteousness and especially the tyranny of nineteenth century marriage customs that at once delimited who could marry and at the same time kept women in legal+economic chains, condemning both men and women to death by matrimonial malaise.

For me, the question hinges on Gretchen’s agency. Is she merely a poor girl, seduced? Or, is she a woman passionately, eagerly in love, who seizes an opportunity to live, even if only for a moment? Is her embodied joy, desire, and sexual delight truly wicked, especially when it is uncontrolled by the socially authored structures of economic and reproductive partnering? Is Gretchen ruined by Faust, who seems at last genuinely to care for Gretchen, when he tries to liberate her from prison? Or, is she ruined by a society that condemns her and gives her no option for life?

A child is born of the same natural processes and functions, whether these occur to a body that is socially sanctioned or to one that is marginalized. Lawfulness and legitimacy do not inhere in bodies; they are discriminately posited or ascribed to them. Gretchen’s dowerless body happens to fall outside the margins of tolerance, as did that of her child. So, while Faust comes to rescue Gretchen in the end, she refuses his aid. For, she knows there is no place for her in this world. Gretchen (lines 3544 – 3585) learned through her own experience that social condemnation is quick and errant. Yet, though she believed herself to be caught in sin, she still invoked God to say that all with Faust had been so gut, so lieb! Her brother, representing the whole, saw it otherwise – for, since she has slept with one man, he presumes that she will invite the entire town to lie down with her, as she has now become by his naming an accursed, brazen and repulsive harlot. Love and maternity are not permitted to such a one. She must die.

Yet, in spite of her lack of social power, Gretchen retains significant control over her decisions and actions, from her initial song of desire for Faust until her resistance to escape with him from prison. Although Gretchen is captured on the great Rota Fortunae, she nevertheless continues to spin her own story, grounded in her body, and willing to experience her own life whither it shall lead. She is bound to the cyclical tasks of routine domesticity, a condition widely held in the nineteenth century to be native to women’s peculiar nature. She is depicted at her wheel, spinning distractedly with her fingers and her mind, gazing out the window for some glimmer of life and love. She is at last caught in what others have spun for her: social class, deception, rumor, accusation, and judgment. Still, she continues spinning out her own volition, vision, and voice, through her death, and beyond it. Once seen in her agency, we might read her as an iconic Weaver, revisited, no longer as merely a tragic figure, but as a Spinster/Spinner in the Daly vernacular.

This passage from Boston University’s Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology captures for me how in both the ordinariness and extraordinariness of her tale, she is redeemed, not as una poenitentium but as Gretchen am Spinnrade:

The creative, celebratory and critical process is Spinning. The term aptly captures the spiraling motion, the dizziness one might feel engaged in such a process. It is a process, which occurs on the boundaries of patriarchal society, for Daly affirms that it is impossible to fully separate oneself from that society. Yet Spinning issues forth into the void beyond, creating new spaces, new galaxies and new times… From within the patriarchal system, these tales are mere flights of fancy. But, from the margins, looking out, it is the creation and dis-covery/un-covering of new landscapes of being and meaning. It is the existential and semantic construction of a reality beyond and below patriarchy, the outward manifestation of gynergy, the fundamental power of women to be and to construct meaning.


Natalie Kertes Weaver, Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013)Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.


Categories: Fiction, Gender and Power, Literature, Music, Poetry

Tags: , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. I read Goethe’s Faust in (I think) graduate school and I’ve seen Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus on DVD a couple of times. It’s an interesting story, but I think the German and English Romantic poets were all nuts. The devil sitting on their shoulders was anti-rational self-expression. That said, what you write about Gretchen (who does not appear in Marlowe) makes sense if we look at an early 19th-century play with our modern eyes.

    But I bet anyone who’s been to graduate school, especially in the humanities, maybe especially as a literature major, wishes he or she had a handy Mephistopheles to bring him or her some fun. You can only spin term papers or scientific research (I guess) for so long before you’re very vulnerable to distraction of almost any kind.


  2. The Marlowe version (written late 1500s) is very different from Goethe version (written late1700s- early 1800s). Goethe’s is better- it is hilarious, with Mephistopheles having the best and funniest lines.

    I personally feel that Goethe is making a huge critique on the patriarchal society in which Gretchen and Faust live, and how women pay heavily for living outside the norms. Gretchen is condemned by every aspect of her society, but not by God- she is saved. It is also her love which saves the ever-wandering Faust.

    Really enjoyed your post and I will listen to Gretchen’s spinning song. Thank you so much!


  3. I love Franz Shubert. Everybody reading this, if you haven’t already — do follow that link in the first paragraph to Renee Flemming’s performance (you may have to click “skip the ad” at YouTube). But what a gorgeous voice!! Thanks so much for the link and this fascinating post, Natalie.


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