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“The Master and Margarita”

Background

The Master and Margarita was written by Mikhail Bulgakov (mee-ha-EEL bool-GA-kov). He finished writing it in 1940 and it was first published in 1966.

Thoughts

I enjoyed reading The Master and Margarita because it was funny, fantastical, and unique. The novel felt disjointed until the ending, when somehow, it felt like it congealed. A primary theme is belief in the supernatural.

I noticed many Christian and Fäuste references, and certainly there are many that I missed. As an American reader who is ignorant of Russian history, I must have also missed other themes and satire.

Characters

Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz is the short, dark-haired, plump, bald editor of a literary journal and chairman of the board of Massolit.

Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev is a young, broad-shouldered poet who writes under the pseudonym Homeless.

Koroviev, also called Fagott, is Woland’s henchman; seven feet tall and unbelievably thin, he has a jeering face.

Woland is satan. His left teeth have platinum crowns, his right have gold, his right eye is black, his left green, he has dark hair and appears to be a little over 40.

Yeshua Ha-Nozri, Woland’s depiction of Jesus. Yeshua is Aramaic for “Lord of Salvation” and Ha-Nozri means “of Nazareth.”

Pontius Pilate was the procurator of Jerusalem.

Behemoth is a giant, walking, talking black cat who loves guns and alcohol. He is one Woland’s companions.

Stepan Bogdanovich Likhodeev, or Styopa for short, is the director of the Variety Theatre, and Berlioz’s roommate.

Azazello is one of Woland’s companions; he is short but extraordinarily broad-shouldered; he wears a bowler hat, has flaming red hair, a fang, and is quite ugly.

Doctor Stravinksy is the friendly psychiatrist at the country hospital.

Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy is the chairman of the tenants’ association where Berlioz and Styopa lived.

Grigory Danilovich Rimsky is the financial directory (findirector) of the Variety Theater.

Ivan Savelyevich Varenukha is the administrator of the Variety Theater.

Georges Bengalsky is the master of ceremonies for the Variety Theater.

Vassily Stepanovich Lastochkin is the bookkeeper at the Variety Theater.

The Master is a writer, who wrote a book about Pontius Pilate and subsequently went insane. At the time when Ivan meets him, he is a “clean shaven, dark-haired man of approximately thirty-eight, with a sharp nose, anxious [brown] eyes, and a wisp of hair hanging down on his forehead.”

Margarita Nikolaevna is a beautiful intelligent woman who lives in Moscow, and is one of the few characters who can accept the supernatural. For this reason Woland and his henchman seem to admire her.

Woland, Homeless, Pontius Pilate, and Margarita were my favourite characters.

Outline

  1. Berlioz and Homeless discuss Jesus’ existence with a stranger
  2. (Jerusalem) The stranger recalls Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate
  3. Berlioz slips and is decapitated by a tram car
  4. Homeless chases then searches for the stranger; he losses is cloths
  5. Massolit members wait for Berlioz; Homeless barges in and is arrested
  6. Enraged Homeless is sedated at the clinic, and sent to the country
  7. Styopa wakes hungover, and Woland takes his theater and apartment, transporting him to Yalta
  8. Homeless wakes at the country hospital, and is convinced to stay
  9. Bosoy is vanished by Woland, after checking Berlioz’s apartment
  10. Rimsky and Varenukha receive telegrams from Yalta; Varenukha is intercepted and brought to Woland
  11. Ivan gives up writing a statement to the police, and accepts his situation
  12. Woland’s séance—cards, money, Bengalsky’s head, dresses, exposure
  13. Ivan meets the master and hears story of love and the rejected novel
  14. Rimsky is ambushed by the ghost of Varenukha, barely escaping when the cock crows
  15. Bosoy arrives at the asylum and dreams about the currency theater
  16. (Jerusalem) Jesus is executed; Matthew Levi attempts to relieve him
  17. The Variety closes; supernatural events follow its bookkeeper until he is arrested
  18. Berlioz’s uncle and the Variety’s barman visit Woland
  19. Margarita meets Azazello, who proposes a way for her to see the master
  20. The magical cream turns Margarita into a beautiful which
  21. Margarita flies over Moscow and destroys the critic’s apartment
  22. Margarita meets Woland, who is playing chess with Behemoth
  23. Margarita greets guests at Woland’s super fantastical ball
  24. Woland reunites Margarita and the master in their old apartment
  25. (Jerusalem) Pilate meets with the head of secret police
  26. (Jerusalem) Judas is murdered, while chasing after his lover
  27. The investigation; Berlioz’s appartment is destroyed in a fight
  28. Behometh and Koroviev wreck havoc on Moscow
  29. Yeshua intercedes for the master and Margarita and Woland complies
  30. The master and Margarita’s magical departure from Moscow
  31. Whistles on the hills overlooking Moscow
  32. Pilate is relieved at last, and the master and Margarita can rest
  33. (Epilogue) The minor Moscow characters’s endings

Theme: Belief in the Supernatural

Satan visits Moscow and accomplishes his plans with many supernatural feats. The book explores how individuals react to these events, and in particular the nature of denial and belief.

The opening discussion, between the editor Berlioz, the poet Ivan, and the Satan, is regarding the existence of Jesus. After some back and forth, Satan says:

“Bear in mind that Jesus did exist.”

“You see, Professor,” Berlioz responded with a forced smile, “we respect your great learning, but on this question we hold to a different point of view.”

“There’s no need for any points of view,” the strange professor replied, “he simply existed, that’s all.”

“But there’s need for some proof …” Berlioz began.

“There’s no need for any proofs,” replied the professor, and he began to speak softly …” (p. 14)

And then Satan tells the story of Jesus’ trial before Pilate.

Later, Ivan discusses is in the insane asylum discussing his encounter with Satan with another inmate:

“Very well,” the visitor replied, and he said weightily and distinctly: “Yesterday at the Patriarch’s Ponds you met Satan.”

Ivan did not get upset, as he had promised, but even so he was greatly astounded.

“That can’t be! He doesn’t exist!”

“Good heavens! Anyone else might say that, but not you. You were apparently one of his first victims. You’re sitting, as you yourself understand, in a psychiatric clinic, yet you keep saying he doesn’t exist. Really, it’s strange!”

“… And, really, I’m surprised at Berlioz! Now you, of course, are a virginal person,” here the guest apologized again, “but that one, from what I’ve heard about him, had after all read at least something!” (p. 133)

Surprisingly, the visitor (who, unknown to Ivan, is the master) doubts the existence of Satan towards the end of the novel, after Satan has returned the master and Margarita back to their little apartment in Moscow:

“Pah, the devil!” exclaimed the master unexpectedly. “But, just think, it’s …” he put out his cigarette butt in the ashtray and pressed his head with his hands. “No, listen, you’re an intelligent person and have never been crazy … are you seriously convinced that we were at Satan’s yesterday?”

“Quite seriously,” Margarita replied.

“Of course, of course,” the master said ironically, “so now instead of one madman there are two—husband and wife!” (p. 365)

Margarita, from the start, had less trouble believing in the supernatural, and she tries to convince here lover to believe too:

“I swear to you by your life, I swear by the astrologer’s son whom you guessed, that all will be well!”

“Fine, fine,” responded the master, and he added, laughing: “of course, when people have been robbed of everything, like you and me, they seek salvation from other-worldly powers! Well, so, I agree to seek there.” (p. 367)

But he is still skeptical, until moments later one of Woland’s companions visits:

“No, Margarita’s right… Of course, this is the devil’s messenger sitting before me. No more than two nights ago, I myself tried to prove to Ivan that it was precisely Satan whom he had met at the Patriarch’s Ponds, and now for some reason I got scared of the thoughts and started babbling something about hypnotists and hallucination…Devil there’s any hypnotists in it!…” (p. 368)

Many other characters struggle to reconcile the supernatural events with their reason. The findirector Rimsky, upon receiving telegrams from Styopa who had been in Moscow that morning but was transported by Satan across Russian to Yalta, searches for possible explanations:

The findirector’s position was very difficult. It was necessary at once, right on the spot, to invent ordinary explanations for extraordinary phenomena.

And later that evening, during Woland’s first séance, the master of ceremonies expresses a common response to the supernatural:

“… And so, now comes the famous foreign artiste, Monseiur Woland, with a séance of black magic. Well, both you and I know,” here Bengalsky smiled a wise smile, “that there’s no such thing in the world, and that it’s all just superstition, and Maestro Woland is simply a perfect master of the technique of conjuring, as we shall see from the most interesting part, that is, the exposure of the technique” (p. 119)

and, after a couple very impressive “magic tricks,” including a rain of cash from the ceiling:

“Here, citizens, you and I have just beheld a case of so-called mass hypnosis. A purely scientific experiment, proving in the best way possible that there are no miracles in magic. Let us ask Maestro Woland to expose this experiment for us. Presently, citizens, you will see these supposed banknotes disappear as suddenly as they appeared.”

Here he applauded, but quite alone, while a confident smile played on his face, yet in his eyes there was no such confidence, but rather an expression of entreaty. (p. 122)

Shortly after, Satan has his cat cut off Bengalsky’s head (it is put back on later) and then Bengalsky ends up in the insane asylum with other characters who have run into Wooland.

Perhaps the novel’s most direct rejection of atheism and disbelief is found in Woland’s last words to the beheaded atheist Berlioz at his ball:

“Everything came to pass, did it not?” Woland went on, looking into the head’s eyes. “The head was cut off by a woman, the meeting did not take place, and I am living in your apartment. That is a fact. And fact is the most stubborn thing in the world. But we are now interested in what follows, and not in this already accomplished fact. You have always been an ardent preacher of the theory that, on the cutting off of his head, life ceases in a man, he turns to ashes and goes into non-being. I have the pleasure of informing you, in the presence of my guests, though they serve as proof of quite a different theory, that your theory is both solid and clever. However, one theory is as good as another. There is also one which holds that it will be given to each according to his faith. Let it come true! You go into non-being, and from the cup into which you are to be transformed, I will joyfully drink to being!” (p. 273)

The epilogue describes how the many people who saw Woland’s supernatural séance were able to rationalize it away and subsequently forget about it.

Thus, from start to finish, the novel explores belief and disbelief in reaction to the devil. The devil, like Jesus in the Bible, wants people to believe in him.

Quotes

A nice taste of Bulgakov’s funny whimsical style is found near the beginning of the novel, when two writers in the park attempt to a seltzer:

“Give us seltzer,” Berlioz asked.

“There is no seltzer,” the woman in the stand said, and for some reason became offended.

“Is there beer?” Homeless inquired in a rasping voice.

“Beer’ll be delivered towards evening,” the woman replied.

“Then what is there?” asked Berlioz.

“Apricot soda, only warm,” said the woman.

“Well, let’s have it, let’s have it! …”

The soda produced an abundance of yellow foam, and the air began to smell of a barber-shop. Having finished drinking, the writers immediately started to hiccup, paid, and sat down on a bench face to the pond and back to Bronnaya. (p. 3)

This quote, which has stuck with me perhaps more than any other, appears to be Bulgakov’s rejection of human-derived morality:

“But here is a question that is troubling me: if there is no God, then, one may ask, who governs human life and, in general, the whole order of things on earth?”

“Man governs it himself,’ Homeless angrily hastened to reply to this admittedly none-too-clear question.

“Pardon me,” the stranger responded gently, “but in order to govern, one needs, after all, to have a precise plan for a certain, at least somewhat decent, length of time. Allow me to ask you, then how can man govern, if he is not only deprived of the opportunity of making a plan for at least some ridiculously short period—well, say, a thousand years—but cannot even vouch for his own tomorrow?” (pp. 9 - 10)

And to make his point, the stranger predicts that Berlioz will die shortly there after, and sure enough he does. And, as we saw earlier, Berlioz meets an unfortunate ending.

The foreigner describes the process of getting lung-cancer:

“You are no longer interested in anyone’s fate but your own. Your family starts lying to you. Feeling that something is wrong, you rush to learned doctors, then to quacks, and sometimes to fortune-tellers as well. Like the first, so the second and third are completely senseless, as you understand. And it all ends tragically: a man who still recently thought he was governing something, suddenly winds up lying motionless in a wooden box, and the people around him, seeing that the man lying there is no longer good for anything, burn him in an oven.” (p. 10)

Yeshua, explaining to Pontius Pilate that he did not incite the Jews to destroy the temple:

“These good people … haven’t any learning and have confused everything I told them. Generally, I’m beginning to be afraid that this confusion may go on for a very long time. And all because he writes down the things I say incorrectly.” (p. 19)

Bulgakov’s interpolation of John 18:38, when Pilate asks Jesus “What is Truth?”:

“And why did you stir up the people in the bazaar, you vagrant, talking about the truth, of which you have no notion? What is truth?”

And here the procurator thought: “Oh, my gods! I’m asking him about something unnecessary at a trial … my reason no longer serves me …” And again he pictured a cup of dark liquid. “Poison, bring me poison…”

And again he heard the voice:

“The truth is, first of all, that your head aches, and aches so badly that you’re having faint-hearted thoughts of death. You’re not only unable to speak to me, but it is even hard for you to look at me. And I am now your unwilling torturer, which upsets me. You can’t even think about anything and only dream that your dog should come, apparently the one being you are attached to. But your suffering will soon be over, your headache will go away.” (p. 21)

Bulgakov’s disdain for the mystics:

But no, no! The seductive mystics are lying, there are no Caribbean Seas in the world, no desperate freebooters sail them, no corvette chases after them, no cannon smoke drifts across the waves. There is nothing, and there was nothing! There is that sickly linden over there, there is the cast-iron fence, and the boulevard beyond it … And the ice is melting in the bowl, and at the next table you see someone’s bloodshot, bovine eyes, and you’re afraid, afraid … Oh, gods, my gods, poison, bring me poison! … (p. 58)

Bulgakov’s describes how Berlioz’s death is received:

Yes, he’s dead, dead … But, we, we’re alive!

Yes, a wave of grief billowed up, held out for a while, but then began to subside, and somebody went back to his table and—sneakily at first, then openly—drank a little vodka and ate a bite. And, really, can one let chicken cutlets de volaille perish? How can we help Mikhail Alexandrovich? By going hungry? But, after all, we’re alive! (p. 59)

The various schemes to get Berlioz’s living space:

The news of Berlioz’s death spread through the whole house with a sort of supernatural speed, and as of seven o’clock Thursday morning, Bosoy began to receive telephone calls and then personal visits with declarations containing claims to the deceased’s living space. In the period of two hours, Nikanor Ivanovich received thirty-two such declarations.

They contained pleas, threats, libels, denunciations, promises to do renovations at their expense, references to unbearable over-crowding and the impossibility of living in the same apartment with bandits. Among others there were a description, staggering in its artistic power, of the theft from the apartment no. 31 of some meat dumplings, tucked directly into the pocket of a suit jacket, two vows to end life by suicide and one confession of secret pregnancy. (p. 92)

How to tell if someone is lying:

“Understand that the tongue can conceal the truth, but the eyes—never! A sudden question is put to you, you don’t even flinch, in one second you get hold of yourself and know what you must say to conceal the truth, and you speak quite convincingly, and not a wrinkle on your face moves, but—alas—the truth which the question stirs up from the bottom of your soul leaps momentarily into your eyes, and it’s all over! They see it, and you’re caught!” (p. 165)

A lament as the master and Margarita leave the earth:

Gods, my gods! How sad the evening earth! How mysterious the mists over the swamps! He who has wandered in these mists, he who has suffered much before death, he who has flown over this earth bearing on himself too heavy a burden, knows it. The weary man knows it. And without regret he leaves the mists of the earth, its swamps and rivers, with a light heart he gives himeself into the hands of death, knowing that she alone can bring him peace. (p. 379)

All quotes are from the 1997 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.