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[12] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

A review on my all-time favorite read in literature.

Whether one believes or not: Satan disguises as a foreign magician, and along with his thrice-cursed assistants, penetrated a theater in Moscow with black magic and hypnotic tricks. The artiste, who has personally met Pontius Pilate, is believed to have hypnotized director of the theater and has then contrived to fling him out of Moscow. The whole of the city is occupied with impossible rumors and portion of truth that is embellished with the most luxuriant lies. One thing is for sure: the theater has had to be closed owing to the mysterious disappearance of its administration and all sorts of outrages which have taken place during the notorious séance of Professor Woland’s black magic.

The Master and Margarita is about Woland a.k.a. the Devil who weaves himself out of the shadow of the “other world” and into Moscow. This fantastical, humorous and yet devastating satire of Soviet life consists of two interwoven parts – one set in contemporary Moscow and the other in ancient Jerusalem at the time of Pilate. The Pilate story mainly focuses on his decision in sentencing Jesus Christ to death and the purging of his soul owing to fear and cowardice. The Moscow story impressively brims with imaginary and frightful characters, most importantly of which is an anonymous master who writes a novel about Pilate (in fact Satan has read the story and re-tells it) but is accused by literary critics of possessing illegal literature. Closely interwined with the master is Margarita, a woman who deserts her wealthy husband for the master and whose book has so inexorably absorbed her. She is willing to pawn her soul to the Devil in order to rescue the master from delirium. After all the sorceries and wonders by which she flies on a broom and destroys the apartment of the man who has rejected the master’s novel and so ruined his life, she knows precisely it is Satan she is visiting. But the meeting does not frighten her in the least for the hope that she will manage to regain happiness and peace makes her fearless.

While thousands of spectators, the whole staff of the theater and members of government commissions have seen this magician and almost everyone who encounters the eerie retinue is in an delirious state, it is no doubt that all these events begin with the gruesome death of Berlioz at the Patriarch’s Ponds. The chairman of a Moscow literature organization has slipped off some sunflower oil spilled on a turnstile and tumbled under a tram-car, head severed, and the exact manner of whose death fortold by Woland at his encounter with Berlioz and Ivan Nikoaevich Homeless. Poor Ivan has tried to convince that Devil does not exist and under Berlioz’s tutelage writes an anti-religious poem that negates Jesus’ existence. Ironically it is this very non-existing one who dwells in the beheaded writer’s apartment and to whom Margarita desposits her faith., and from whom seeks salvation and peace after she and the master have been robbed of everything in the normal reality of the world.

In The Master and Margarita, through its unusual range, picking up of tone, and sometimes a parodying voice, Bulgakov produces a novel that is a theatrical rendering of the terrors of 1930s. He meticulously weighs the question of cowardice, guilt, and conscience in considering the fate of his hero and through audacious portrayal of Christ, Satan and Pilate. The Pilate story, which is also the story written by the master, passes through a succession of narrators and converges to the Mosocw scene at the end, when the fates of Pilate, the master, and Margarita are simultaneously determined. Their fates reflect Bulgakov’s own conviction that cowardice being the worst of human vices – for it is impossible not to believe that the indomitable Margarita has tried, at the expense of forfeiting her soul and salvation, to think up the best future for the master. As for Pilate, he persistently felt the scruple of his conscience since Jesus, whose life if not for his damnable cowardice he could have spared knowing the guilt of other prisoners is more considerably burdened. All that is left to the procurator are wicked pains, incomprehensible anguish, and the piercing feeling that he has lost something irretrievable and all his belated attempts to make up for Jesus’ loss are nothing but some petty, worthless and despicable deeds.

The novel is meant to educate, and to guide one of a state of enlightenment in which the demarcation of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful and the transcendence of the need for retribution is the goal. The characters eventually are brought to see beyond apparent identity to the real identity, and to understand that Woland and Jesus being the same message. On top of the philosophical depth in redemption and death, the novel bespeaks details from Bulgakov’s own life and a more personal tone in the satire of Woland and the retinue versus the literary powers. The normality of Soviet life is imposed from the very beginning, at the expense of the poet Ivan Homeless, who remains throughout the book and appears at each pivotal turn of the novel, especially when parable merges with normal reality.

11 Responses

  1. I’ve been debating about buying this one; the story synposis intrigued me when I found it at the bookstore. I think that now I will defintiely purchase it. thanks for the review!

  2. […] reading: [12] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov The Master and Margarita, […]

  3. I read your most recent review (#70) before this one. But suffice to say that I’m darting into the bookstore to grab a copy of this book!

  4. Maybe I should start reading it since you’re teaching it right now?! Do I have to turn in the paper, sir?

  5. May I be so bald to introduce to you a new website, solely devoted to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita”. You can find it on


    I wish you a nice weekend,

    Jan Vanhellemont

  6. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. There are a few translations out there, but the Mirra Ginsburg translation is reputed to be the best and most faithful. It is one of my favorite books, filled with really rich allegory and a ton of wordplay, which is something that I am growing to appreciate more and more over time.

    I didn’t realize until the second reading that, embedded in this story is a “novel within a novel” …the story of Pontius Pilate and his encounter with the itinerant spiritual man, Yeshua. Finally, there is the story of the separated lovers, the Master and Margarita, who interweave between the other two stories. They live in the present day Moscow, but the Master ostensibly wrote the manuscript which told the story of Pontius Pilate.

  7. John:
    I have read the Vintage translation and the Penguin edition. I couldn’t fully understand, let alone appreciate, the meaning and implication of the book in the first couple readings. The Pontius Pilate story obviously is important or Bulgakov won’t arrange it in the second chapter. What surprises me is the delayed entry of Margarita, in the second half.

  8. […] the discussion on my reader’s profile raised the question of the different translations on The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. To the best of my knowledge, you may find seven current editions of this […]

  9. […] to some of you who have alerted me of the subtle connection between The Master and Margarita and The Satanic Verses. I’m bumping this one up to be my next read after Half of a Yellow […]

  10. […] Palour – W. Somerset Maugham (12/11/07) [105] The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley (10/25/07) [12] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov […]

  11. […] embody a gloomy, sober, and functional underworld-full of life, purpose, and sexuality. None of Mikhail Bulgakov’s works, which are anti-Stalin polemics, were published during his lifetime; but this significant […]

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