Feminist Fridays: Gretchen am Spinnrade

What if men cared more about preventing unwanted pregnancies?

Our guy Franz. I see he escaped some facial deformities that often accompanied late-stage syphilis. Photo: Wikipedia, baby!

I know it’s a Sunday, but Feminist Fridays are BACK! We’re digging into one of my favorites today with Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), a wild ride worthy of aria status, using the famous Goethe text, Faust.

Let’s back up and talk about our guy Franz Schubert (1797-1828). He wrote around 600 vocal works, primarily lieder (art songs) in his short life, in addition to symphonies, sacred music, operas, and piano and chamber work. He famously died officially of typhoid fever in 1828, but many scholars postulate he died of syphilis. I’m not sure why this is so scandalous; many people died of syphilis back in the day. No, seriously. Everybody was dying of syphilis, and it was gnarly. Thank goodness for penicillin, am I right?

Schubert made the most of his short time on earth by becoming one of the most prolific German art song composers of all time. The sheer number of works he composed over a few years is truly astounding, and we can thank him in many ways for ushering in a new era of compositional style. Beethoven reportedly was impressed!

The agony!!! Gretchen at her spinning wheel. Artist: Frank Cadogan Cowper.

Gretchen am Spinnrade is perhaps Schubert’s most iconic piece for soprano. Although it is an art song, the intensity, storyline, and relationship between voice and piano evoke the dramatic sensibility of an operatic aria. He wrote the song at the tender age of 16, further proof of his compositional genius. 

Ugh, one of the best. Enjoy the incredible vocalism of Kiri Te Kanawa.
Google Translate meets my own poetic translation for clarity.

Let’s talk about the story of Faust for a minute. Although the character of Faust has been around since the 1500s, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play is one of the most consequential and well-known interpretations. In two parts, Goethe tells the story of a medieval man who sells his soul to the devil.

But I don’t really care about Faust– I care about the beautiful young woman, Gretchen (or Margaret, the two names are used interchangeably), whom he seduces and impregnates.

She accidentally kills her mom with a sleeping potion meant to keep her unaware of Faust’s visit, her brother condemns Faust, who kills him with the devil’s help, and Gretchen drowns her baby. Gretchen is then imprisoned for murdering her child, and although Faust attempts to free her with the devil’s help, she refuses. Ultimately, she is pardoned by God as she dies.

Woof. Romanticism, man.

This song is set before all of the tragedy unfolds. Gretchen has met Faust, and his charms consume her. She sits restlessly at her spinning wheel, heard in the piano accompaniment, as she obsesses over her love for Faust. They haven’t had sex yet, but her longing for him builds in the vocal line as the piano accompaniment imitates her increasing inability to focus on her work. 

Definitely turned some heads while reading this in Iowa.

Like many women before her, having sex with a man was the worst choice Gretchen could have ever made. The implication of this choice was unfairly 100% on her. I finished a fabulous book, Ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way to Think About Abortion, by Gabrielle Blair, while sipping a delicious chai at a coffee shop in Ames, Iowa, last Sunday. It’s a short read but supremely validating and angering all at once. 

Blair was able to clearly articulate a frustration of mine in the conversation surrounding unwanted pregnancy and abortion: 100% of unwanted pregnancies are caused by irresponsible ejaculation, and yet, women bear most or all of the responsibility of preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Through 28 straightforward arguments, Blair attempts to shift the abortion issue away from legislating women’s bodies and toward a focus on equalizing the playing field of responsibility in preventing unwanted pregnancies. Assuming both parties are fertile, women are fertile for approximately 24 hours per month, whereas men can impregnate a woman 24/7, 365 days per year. Despite this, women account for 90% of the birth control market and face stigmas surrounding prioritizing men’s comfort and pleasure over pregnancy prevention. 

In Gounod’s opera, Faust, the devil had a hand in helping Faust seduce Gretchen, which could be a commentary on how tempting it is to sin, or it could be a way of absolving Gretchen of her actions. Regardless, love makes people do stupid things, like getting knocked up and accidentally killing their mom with a sleeping potion. Right?

In my mind, Gretchen resembles Ophelia– a tragic character swept up in the problems of and mistreatment by men, only to die, tortured, and alone. She fits nicely into a literary trope of helpless women who become victims at the hands of the men who were supposed to love them. At least Hamlet also dies– In Goethe’s version of Faust, the hero goes on to have an entire part two without mentioning how he ruined Gretchen’s life and caused her demise. At least she got to go to heaven. Yes?

My hope for a modern Gretchen is that she could fall in love and have sex with a man who understands that preventing unwanted pregnancies falls on both parties. By taking control of her sexuality, our modern Gretchen can restlessly daydream at her spinning wheel without worrying about a life-upending change. It makes for a far less dramatic story– distinctly less darkly romantic but much more empowering.

The devil can still condemn Faust to eternal damnation, though– he’s the worst.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: