Analysis of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

The Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940) wrote The Master and Margarita (Master i Margarita) between 1928 and early 1940 in a time when the official ideology of the Soviet state was based on militant atheism and obligatory historical optimism. In stark opposition to the Bolshevik’s cultural norms, the novel depicts the devil as the main character and revolves around the grand themes of Christianity.

A “drawer masterpiece,” The Master and Margarita was first published long after the author’s death, between 1966 and 1967, yet in a highly censored form (12 percent of the text was cut by Soviet censors for references to the secret police, nudity, and coarse language). In 1967 a complete version was published in France by the YMCA Press and, soon after that, publication came in Germany by Possev. The uncensored edition was finally published in Moscow in 1973; since then it has been assimilated by the mainstream Soviet and post-Soviet literature and its appreciation has continuously grown. Both its form and themes define The Master and Margarita as a unique masterpiece not only in the Russian literary landscape but also in any Western world tradition (Salman Rushdie, among others, claims its influence upon The Satanic Verses). The (mis)alliances between the fantastic and realism, myth with accurate historical fact, theosophy with demonism, romanticism with burlesque proclaim the work’s individuality and position it among the most acclaimed novels of the 20th century.

Mikhail Bulgakov / IMDB

The Master and Margarita is composed of two parts: 32 titled chapters and an epilogue. The novel alternates between three settings and storylines. The first is Moscow in the 1930s, a city visited by Satan/Woland, a “magician” of dubious origin. It tells the events that occur during four days, beginning on a Wednesday and ending on a Saturday in May. Woland arrives with an entourage that includes a grotesquely dressed valet Fagotto, a mischievous, giant black cat Behemoth, a fanged hit man Azazello, a pale-faced Abadonna with death-inflicting gaze, and a witch Gella. The havoc wreaked by this group targets the literary elite, its trade union, MASSOLIT, and its privileged residence, the Griboyedov’s house. The carnivalesque opening of the book presents the clash between the unbelieving head of the literary bureaucracy, Berlioz, and Woland, depicted as an urbane foreign gentleman who defends belief and reveals his prophetic powers. The witness to this whole episode is the poet Ivan Bezdomny, whose transformation from “modern” to “traditional” and rejection of literature unifies the narrative. His futile attempt to hunt and capture the eccentric gang and warn of their evil and mysterious nature leads the reader to other central scenes and lands Ivan himself in a lunatic asylum. Here we are introduced to the Master, a bitter author whose desperation over the rejection of his historical novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ has led him to burn his manuscript and turn his back on the “real” world, including his lover, Margarita. Important episodes in the first part of the novel include other comic gems: Satan’s show at the Variety, satirizing the vanity and greed of the new rich, and the occupation of Berlioz’s fl at by Woland and his gang.

Part 2 introduces Margarita, the Master’s mistress. Desperate to save her lover, she takes Satan’s offer and becomes a witch with supernatural powers on the night of his Midnight Ball (Walpurgis Night), which coincides with the night of Good Friday. This episode links all three elements of the book together, since the Master’s novel also deals with this same spring full moon when Christ is crucified in Jerusalem. The second setting is the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, described by Woland talking to Berlioz—“I was there”—and echoed in the pages of the Master’s novel, which concerns Pilate’s meeting with Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus). Throughout the novel, Bulgakov ties Jerusalem and Moscow sometimes through polyphony, sometimes through counterpoint. The third setting is the one to which Margarita provides a bridge. She flies, accompanied by her maid, over the forests and rivers of Mother Russia, and then bathed and cleansed she reenters Moscow as the anointed hostess for Satan’s great Spring Ball. Standing by his side, she welcomes the dark celebrities of human history as they pour up from Hell. She survives this ordeal without breaking, empowered by her unwavering love for the Master and her acknowledgment of darkness as part of human life. As a prize, Satan grants her deepest wish: she frees the Master and lives in poverty and love with him. In an ironic ending, neither Satan nor God thinks this is any kind of life for good people, and the couple leave Moscow with the Devil on Easter Saturday.

While most critics identify these three main settings or story lines within the novel—those of Woland, Ieshua and Pilate, and the Master and Margarita—other critics agree that The Master and Margarita is a “double novel.” Assuming the risk of oversimplification, we can refer to a structure divided clearly between two main narratives: Woland’s coming to Moscow and the story of Ieshua and Pilate in Jerusalem. These two plots have a distinct approach of style and genre, hence the label “double novel”; nevertheless both intrigue through their symbolism. While the Jerusalem story is consistent in narrative voice and style, the Moscow account is erratic in both. Where the ancient tale has an omniscient narrator, Woland, the Moscow narrative poses the question of the narrator, who seems to be a disembodied voice whose reliability and knowledge are hard to establish. The narrative voice oscillates between personal and impersonal, which raises the issue of ambiguity. The three segments of the Ieshua and Pilate story are cohesive in that they all refer and lead to Ieshua’s execution. The ancient plot is detailed with the historical accuracy of the eyewitness and aims to realism. The Moscow chapters, conversely, are protean in style and story lines, with frequently difficult-to-grasp symbols. The plot is intentionally baffling and scattered: Woland’s coming to the Soviet capital triggers a number of narratives that have no apparent connection to one another. Woland’s companions create mayhem in Moscow: Ivan Bezdomny is sent to a lunatic asylum, where he hears an inmate’s (the Master’s) story of his recent experiences. Margarita turns into a witch and after a while, she reunites with the Master.

The Master and Margarita stands out through its uniqueness, a novel pervaded with a mystifying feeling, where the most fanciful occurrences prove realist, while the seemingly most plausible facts turn out to be phantasmagoric. The multiple layers of meaning lead to ambiguities and hence invite the reader’s imagination. A novel of its time (and for all times), The Master and Margarita nevertheless challenges the materialist philosophy, which constituted the basis of Soviet ideology, by revealing that the purpose of art is the revelation of hidden mystery. Continuing the tradition of fiction by Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the Russian symbolists, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita constitutes the natural development of the Russian novel into the 20th century, a masterpiece that is as much universal as it is Russian.

Barratt, Andrew. Between Two Worlds: A Critical Introduction to “The Master and Margarita.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Curtis, Julie A. E. Bulgakov’s Last Decade: The Writer as Hero. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
———. Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mihail Bulgakov, a Life in Letters and Diaries. London: Bloomsbury, 1991.
Edwards, T. R. N. Three Russian Writers and the Irrational. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Hunns, Derek J. Bulgakov’s Apocalyptic Critique of Literature. Lewiston, N.J.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.
Krugovoi, George. The Gnostic Novel of Mikhail Bulgakov: Sources and Exegesis. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991.
Pittman, Riitta H. The Writer’s Divided Self in Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Sahni, Kalpana. A Mind in Ferment: Mikhail Bulgakov’s Prose. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humantities Press, 1986.
Weeks, Laura. “The Master and Margarita”: A Critical Companion. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Russian Literature

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