What is the worst vice? With so many options, Mikhail Bulgakov selects cowardice as the focus of his novel The Master and Margarita. Set in Soviet Russia, Bulgakov explores cowardice through three interwoven stories: Satan arriving in Soviet Moscow, Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion of Jesus in Israel, and the tragic affair of a writer and his lover.
The Master and Margarita
Originally published: 1966 (serial), 1967 (single volume), 1973 (uncensored), Soviet Union
Rating: 5 = Personal Classic
With the main narrative set in Soviet Moscow, Bulgakov infuses spiritual/magical elements into each of the three interwoven storylines.
The novel opens with a discussion by two artistic Moscow citizens (a head of a literary organization and a poet) about whether or not Jesus was a historical person and whether or not Satan exists. During their conversation, they are joined by Professor Woland who assures them that Jesus existed by telling them what he claims is a firsthand account of Pilate and Jesus. Woland correctly predicts the death of one of the men and causes the other to get arrested and committed to a facility for the insane. But, these are just the beginnings of Woland’s activities in Moscow as he prepares to hold a black magic séance.
The story of Pilate in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus’ death starts off told by Woland and then weaves its way throughout the novel. It focuses on Pilate and his actions on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. While not completely in line with the traditional Gospel accounts, the story explores who Pilate is and why he acts the way he does.
The Master and Margarita
This storyline is not picked up until Part 2 but becomes the uniting story of the novel. The master has spent years writing a story of Pilate but is unable to get it published. Meanwhile, he meets Margarita, an already married woman, and they fall madly in love with each other. Margarita despairs when he vanishes, but what lengths will she go to in order to get him back?
Bulgakov’s descriptive style is beautiful and brings each setting to life. The reader can picture Moscow as well as Jerusalem and can see each character vividly. Even the magical places—like the famous scene at Satan’s Spring Ball—appear in the reader’s mind in brilliant colors and even the atmosphere can be felt (reading about the warm Jerusalem sun, for example). It has been a while since I have lost myself so fully in the places of a novel. Don’t let the main setting of Soviet Moscow fool you; there is more to this novel than dark, bleak city streets.
What I didn’t really expect in this novel were the moments of magic. Professor Woland (Satan) and his entourage of troublemakers not only create an impressive black magic séance for the public but they disrupt individual lives. Before the famous scene at Satan’s Spring Ball, there are two completely naked women who fly over the city on a broom and a pig, respectively. The enchanted Spring Ball occurs at midnight during a full moon and is full of fascinating party guests. While historical stories are fun, I’m a sucker for magical or fantastical elements.
I have come to expect novels that grapple with big life questions when I pick up a Russian book. Although written after the time of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Bulgakov certainly carries on the tradition of delving into the big questions of life while telling a story. Woland isn’t exactly Dostoyevsky’s Satan dressed as a Russian gentleman (from “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brother’s Karamazov), but he is in more of the novel and is the main catalyst for action in The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov’s novel focuses on the big questions of good and evil (with the existence of Woland and the actions of Pilate), explores cowardice as a major vice (with Pilate, the Master, and the Soviet climate), and offers a scathing critique of the Soviet Union’s practices and corruptions (published after the death of Stalin). Bulgakov’s depiction of Satan as Woland is unique and highlights different ways to think about both Satan and how evil generally works in the world.
Probably as a symptom of having so many storylines, the characters in the novel are less developed than they could be. While the reader can picture the characters vividly, thanks to Bulgakov’s descriptions, their personality traits and motivations can be more difficult to detect. This can make it difficult for a reader to get into the story, since the main character for the reader to relate to, the poet Ivan Homeless, is really only in one of the three storylines for most of the novel. While I see the characterizations as a typical symptom of an action-focused novel, it could make the book feel difficult to get into for some readers.
Another potentially difficult part of the novel is the time period it is set in. At least as an American, the 1930s in the Soviet Union is not an era I know much about. The novel—since it was written in this time period—does suppose the reader has some knowledge of the times. Bulgakov’s critique of Soviet Moscow doesn’t work if the reader knows too little about what life was like then. The edition I read (the one linked to in this review) offered some endnotes to clarify Soviet terms, places, and organizations, and even gave some explanations of Bulgakov’s critique. Good notes will certainly add to your reading of this novel and help to bring Soviet Russia to life.
This novel is for the reader who doesn’t mind a challenge, wants to learn about Soviet Russia, enjoys encountering life’s big questions, and would appreciate magic (even dark magic). It is frequently considered one of the “great novels” and I heartily recommend it.
I leave you with the most famous quote from The Master and Margarita that speaks to the ability of ideas to survive:
“рукописи не горят [manuscripts don’t burn]”
For further reading, check out this website devoted to the novel.