TheMaster and Margarita is considered by many criticsone of the best novels of the twentieth century.
This novel can “be reasonablycalled the greatest novel to come out of Communist Russia, a work of magicalrealism, a pre-apocalyptic novel, a love story, a biting political satire” (Murdoch) .The book writtenby Mihail Bulgakov has three main storylines. The first one is about a visit bythe devil to the Soviet Union. He disguises himself as “Woland”, an enigmaticand peculiar magician. His appearance is hard to pin-point due to the fact thathe is described differently by every witness: One says he wasshort, had gold teeth, and was lame in his right foot. Another says that he washugely tall, had platinum crowns and was lame in his left foot. Yet a thirdnotes laconically that he had no distinguishing features whatsoever… As to his teeth, he had platinum crowns onhis left side and gold ones on his right. He wore an expensive grey suit andforeign shoes of the same colour as his suit.
His grey beret was stuck jauntilyover one ear and under his arm he carried a walking stick with a knob in theshape of a poodle’s head. He looked slightly over forty. Crooked sort of mouth.Clean-shaven. Dark hair. Right eye black, left eye for some reason green.
Eyebrows black, but one higher than the other. In short- a foreigner. (Bulgakov)Woland’s entourageconsists of Behemoth (a giant cat that is able to walk, speak and even takehuman form), Koroiev (Woland’s assistant and a skilled illusionist), Azazello(a demon-assassin) and Hella (Woland’s vampire maid). Together, they playtricks on anyone that stands in their way. Alternatively,Pontius Pilate’s Jerusalem and the fate of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth)are presented in this novel.
Even thoughthese different stories don’t seem connected, their relation becomes apparentwhen the third storyline, the love story between Margarita and the Master ispresented and everything fits together. Thenovel itself is an allegory of good and evil, and could be considered protestliterature, due to its parallels between Woland and Stalin, but also due to itbeing a response to the atheistic propaganda from the Stalinist era. Bulgakovweaves in his book elements of political satire with biblical symbolism,through the double-sided representation of the divine and the demonic.
Whiledescribing the events from the Gospel, the narrator focuses more on the humannature of Yeshua (Jesus) rather than the divine one. This description does notinterfere with the soviet communist doctrine, because it does not hint todivine power, thus resulting a pagan version of the Gospel. On the other hand, (Yurchenko) notes that ‘thenovel’s elaborate structure, independence of events, mystical characters andhistorical figures having philosophical conversations would not have pleasedthe “new” reader looking for simplicity and practical recommendations inliterature’. Similarly, David (Gillespie) believes that ‘Thenovel eschews realism- both critical and socialist – from its very firstpages’, making it rather dissimilar from the dictated realities portrayed bySocialist Realist literature, which had no room for anything mystical or’paranormal’. The Master and Margarita is also astory within a story. At some point it is revealed that the tale of Yeshua ispart of the Master’s own burnt novel.
He wants to liberate himself from thecriticism and the strain of the manuscript, hoping to feel purified through theaction of fire on the manuscript. Woland returns the manuscript to him, saying”Don’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?” which became one of the mostmemorable and important quotes from this particular piece of literature. The burning of the manuscript also has abiographical meaning, being derived from the author’s own experiences. It tookten years to write the novel, during which several manuscripts were burned,because they were considered very dangerous. The persecution by the regimedidn’t deter him, but instead determined him to finish the novel and rewrite anumber of chapters from memory, as Bulgakov explained, ‘I know it by heart.’During this time, the author started thinking about different titles, all stillbeing centred on Satan – The Great Chancellor, Satan, Here I Am, The BlackTheologian, He Has Come, The Hoofed Consultant.The action beginsin a park in Moscow, where Berlioz, the editor of a literary journal and thepresident of the Massolit association, discusses the existence – or ratherinexistence of Jesus with Bezdomnîi, a poet. Both are atheists, due to theStalinist influence, and never shy away from including antireligious propagandain their writings.
Their conversation is suddenly interrupted by beintervention of an unusual man, a stranger, which shocks them by making somegrim prophecies, including Berlioz’s death. He also denies their atheisticbeliefs, by telling an anecdote about Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri. Afterthe bewildering conversation from the park, Moscow quickly becomes a grotesquecircus, engulfed in chaos. A bizarre trio with a vodka-loving cat takes upresidence in an apartment in Sadovaia Street. A magic show at the theatreuncovers secrets from the personal life of the audience and many magic numbersare meant to teach greedy people a lesson. It is raining money at some point,while the ladies are trading their own dresses for new, trendy ones createdfrom Woland’s “magic”. But as soon asthey leave the theatre, the vain ladies that traded their clothes are left withnothing but their underwear. Similarly, the money turn into worthless pieces ofpaper.
Later, important people of the society start missing, and a mentalinstitution is inundated with instances of sudden insanity. Duringall of this chaos, an unhappy woman, Margarita, is suffering for her lost love;she is more than willing to do anything to bring back her lover – a writerpersecuted because of his novel- , which she knows nothing of anymore. Thisdesperate woman finds herself in the middle of evil, at Satan’s ball, where hercourage, loyalty and determination are tested. It is thought ny many that thecharacter Margarita is in fact based on Bulgakov’s wife and muse, ElenaSilovski. Woland’svisit to Moscow is based on his wish to see how people of the present (1930)Moscow are any different from the people of Yershalaim (Jerusalem) during thetrial of Yeshua.He finally concludes that: They are peoplelike any other people… They love money, but that has always been so .
.. mankindloves money whatever its made of … Well, they’re light-minded… well, what ofit… mercy sometimes knocks at their hearts … ordinary people ..
. In general,reminiscent of the former ones…
only the housing problem has corrupted them…The Muscovites remind me very much pf their predecessors. (Bulgakov)Through Woland’s philosophicalreflections on the matter of human nature, Bulgakov is implying that people arethe same, regardless of country, time or the reign they are under. This isillustrated by the parallel between the first and the second storyline. Thereare a number of similarities between the two, the most important being the factthat they both take place during the Holy Week, Monday to Friday. Anotherimportant element is the moon, which is presented in both storylines, atapproximately the same “time”.
Animportant source of inspiration for TheMaster and Margarita is Goethe’s play, Faust.There are many references to this play; Bulgakov offers many parallels withthe story of Faust, pointing to a masterpiece and thus enlarging thephilosophical meaning of his own work. Evenbefore we hear the name of Woland, we are told that he carries a cane with ablack poodle’s head.
In the tragedy, when Faust invokes the “spirits betweenearth and sky” (Goethe), a black poodle appearsand follows him. Later, the poodle transforms himself into a hippopotamus, inRussian begemot—the cat’s name in the novel. Finally, when Faust uses magic,the devil steps forward as a travelling scholar. In the novel he introduceshimself as a foreign “perhaps German” professor. (Stenbock-Fermor) TheMaster and Margarita has been studied by the critics for a long time, in aneffort to uncover its hidden meanings and to identify any parallels between thecharacters and the historical figures of the time.
A consensus was neverreached, but one thing is for certain: in this extraordinary novel, with threedifferent storylines, Mihail Bulgakov ridicules the greed, vanity, corruptionand moral perversion of his coevals, while at the same time attacking theatheism of Stalinist Russia in the 1930′. He builds a complex and ambiguousallegory of good and evil, bravery and cowardice, love and sacrifice. Theinfamous devil pact is also present in this novel, due to the fact that theinspiration of this piece of literature lies within Faust, as presented earlier. When reading this amazingly uniquebook, all that is left is to ask ourselves: “What would your good do if evildidn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadowsdisappeared?” (Bulgakov)