Faustian Bargain: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:02 Definition of a…
  • 0:29 Origins
  • 1:58 As Metaphor
  • 2:46 Examples
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Would you be willing to sacrifice your soul to the devil in exchange for anything you've ever dreamed or desired? In this lesson, we will take a look at the popular storytelling theme, the Faustian bargain.

Definition of a Faustian Bargain

A Faustian bargain is deal with the devil, a pact with Satan, an agreement that allows you to have anything you've ever wanted. And in exchange for extreme wealth or power, all you have to do is hand your soul over to the devil for eternity. The popular theme of the Faustian bargain started in folktales, but its stories are still told in popular films, music, comic strips, books, and television programs today.

Origins of a Faustian Bargain

The legend started in a German folktale hundreds of years ago. The tale was about a guy named Faust. The story was originally told to warn Christians that God has set human limits, and a righteous man must respect those limits or suffer through eternal damnation.

There are many different versions of the story, but the main framework remains more or less the same. Faust was an intelligent and successful scholar, but he wanted more out of the life; he was bored with the limited nature of human knowledge. So he decided that it would be a good idea to call the devil and ask him for supreme knowledge and power so he could enjoy all the pleasures that the world had to offer.

In response to his request, the devil sends his right-hand man Mephistopheles, who offers Faust a deal. He can have supreme knowledge and power for 24 years, but in exchange, the devil wants Faust's soul where it will then spend eternity in Hell. Faust accepts the bargain and signs his fate with blood.

Faust goes about enjoying his newfound knowledge and power. He seduces women, he becomes a young man, he travels the world, he summons spirits, and with every step he gains more knowledge and more power. His experiences are limitless; he enjoys everything that the world can possibly give him.

At the end of the term, Faust waits for the devil; he knows his time is up. The devil carries his spirit off to Hell and the story is over. However, it should be noted that in some tales, Faust outsmarts the devil or develops a plan to get out of the deal.

Faustian Bargain as a Metaphor

The idea of selling your soul to the devil has become a metaphor for getting something you want in exchange for sacrificing something great. Often times it's something intangible, like your morals or self-esteem. So let's say that you really wanted to get an A on a final exam. The grade would make you valedictorian of your class and ensure your acceptance into Harvard University. It's all you've ever wanted in life. And let's also say that you found out that you could somehow obtain a copy of the exam ahead of time.

Yes, if you did see the exam beforehand, you would get an A and all your dreams would come true. But the Faustian bargain would be that you would become a cheater. It would mean that you didn't earn the rewards yourself. In turn, you would sacrifice your morals and ethics, and you would never be able to turn back. You would always be a cheater.

Examples: Film, Literature, and Music

The motif (a recurring idea or theme) of the Faustian bargain remains one of the most popular narratives in storytelling. Here are a couple of examples of literature, films, and music.

The Godfather was written by Mario Puzo and published in 1969. It was later adapted for the screen in 1972 and went on to become one of the most celebrated films in cinema history. The film and the novel both begin on the day of Connie Corleone's wedding.

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