Gretchen Before and After by Natalie Weaver

Natalie Weaver editedIn May, I attended the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust.  This work, featuring four soloists, a full choir and orchestra, and a children’s choir, was first performed in Hungary in 1846.  Its composition was inspired by a French translation of Goethe’s Faust, following the basic storyline of Faust in four acts: Faust’s disillusionment; Faust’s encounter with Mephistopheles and the allure of happiness; Faust’s seduction of Marguerite; and Faust’s damnation/ Marguerite’s redemption.  With such limited space, the opera/cantata plays more as a précis of Faust than a full telling of the story, which is perhaps why the dramatis personae seem rather more like caricatures of themselves than richly developed characters.  There were beautiful moments in the music, and the performances were brilliant, but the whole left me feeling apathetic… that is, until I went to the bathroom.

While waiting beneath the gorgeous mosaics of Cleveland’s Severence Hall for use of one of three (or four?) petite little stalls in the ladies’ room on the atrium level, I chatted with one of the regular elders I have come to know in line over the years.  She complained to me, “I don’t know why Marguerite gets saved and Faust is damned.  After all, Marguerite is the one who poisons her mother.  Marguerite is really at fault here, don’t you think?”  Ah, I thought, here it is.  The woman is blamed, but for what?  For murder (occasioned by Marguerite’s carrying out Faust’s directive); or for her beauty (Faust cedes to Mephisto’s power to seduce because he is, in his own way, seduced first by Marguerite’s appearance); or for having sex with someone outside of marriage (Marguerite carries the burden of responsibility for shaming her family and for her own destruction).  My bathroom friend would have been happy to see Marguerite pay for these crimes and found it dissatisfying that she was delivered from them.

I could hear in her comments the same blame placed on unwed mothers, women who receive government assistance to feed their children, pregnant teens, and prostitutes.  The blame is ancient in Western thought, exemplified here by Tertullian, who notes in On the Veiling of Virgins, chap 7:

So perilous a face, then, ought to be shaded, which has cast stumbling-stones even so far as heaven: that, when standing in the presence of God, at whose bar it stands accused of the driving of the angels from their (native) confines, it may blush before the other angels as well; and may repress that former evil liberty of its head,-(a liberty) now to be exhibited not even before human eyes. But even if they were females already contaminated whom those angels had desired, so much the more “on account of the angels” would it have been the duty of virgins to be veiled, as it would have been the more possible for virgins to have been the cause of the angels’ sinning.

And, thus, he concludes in his De Cultu Feminarum, bk. 1, ch.1:

“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too.”

“You are the devil’s gateway:
you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree:
you are the first deserter of the divine law:
you are she who persuaded him (Adam) whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.
You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.
On account of your desert-that is, death-even the Son of God had to die.”

Part of why Berlioz’s Faust was unsatisfying to me is that I have become much more familiar with Goethe’s Faust as a work situated within a larger critique of marriage, which I think carries within it an underlying feminist critique of women’s socially demarcated being.  Frustration with sexual norms, marriage laws, and economic conventions of marriage as conflicting with the greater project of personal and societal Bildung (or self-becoming or self-cultivation) can be read as dominant motifs in many of Goethe’s other successful (and subversive) works: Wilhelm Meister; Sorrows of Young Werther; and Elective Affinities.  In this light, one must admit tensions in blame and responsibility in all the Faustian characters that expand beyond traditional gendered assignments for social role, participation, and voice.

As I have contemplated the story over these past months (see my April post), I turned to the visual arts to relieve my own frustration with the over sexualization of Gretchen (Marguerite’s nickname).  For, she most surely is a character who warrants richer consideration than the pinnacle moment in life when she has sex for the first time, before which everything is perfect and after which all literally goes to hell.    Her character/story has become for me somehow paradigmatic of womanhood, both in the way that it is typecast and also in the way that it insists on pushing beyond its casting.  There is then, for me, not one Gretchen/Marguerite but several concurrent ways in which I see her, and in which, moreover, I can imagine that she might see herself.  Here are my representations:

Gretchen stepping away from her spinning wheel, looking out the window, or perhaps looking into it:

Gretchen stepping away


Gretchen seduced or seducing, or perhaps legitimately enjoying herself:

Gretchen seduced

Gretchen’s experience of motherhood, which recalls the Madonna, or all maternal grief:

Gretchen motherhood

Gretchen’s transformation, or redemption, or exaltation, or pleasure:

Gretchen transformation

Gretchen before and after:

Gretchen before and after


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: Art, General, Music

Tags: , , , ,

4 replies

  1. Fabulous expression, “legitimately enjoying herself,” and the drawing that goes with it, so powerful that sense of abandon. And thanks for all of this, Natalie, an unusual topic and interesting.


  2. Thank you for sharing your expressive artwork with us. You have really captured some beautifully powerful gestures and facial expressions. What medium did you use (oil pastel)?


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