Thoughts on “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita is a book by Mikhail Bulgakov, written from 1928 to 1940, but published only in 1967 due to Soviet censorship, long after the author’s death. It’s considered one of the best works of Soviet literature if not the best. I finished reading it last week, and, although I haven’t read any other works of Soviet literature, I can believe that it’s one of the best.

I’m more familiar with Russian novels of the 19th century: the works of Tolstoy, Dosteyevsky, etc. So it was interesting to see how a 20th-century Russian novel compared, although of course I don’t know how representative The Master and Margarita (let’s call it TMM, because I’m going to have to write it a lot) is of 20th-century Russian literature in general. There are some clear differences between TMM and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s novels. For example, while Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky stuck to realism in their writing (even though the devil made an appearance as a character in The Brothers Karamazov, he could be explained as a hallucination), TMM is not very realistic at all. It’s arguably a fantasy novel. I mean, the premise of the story is that the devil, together with a band of demon sidekicks, has come to Moscow to cause trouble. One of the characters, who you might see on the cover if you buy the book, is a talking cat called Behemoth. At several points he threatens people wielding a Browning handgun. There are some memorably absurd lines involving, like the following:

“I challenge you to a duel!” screamed the cat, sailing over their heads on the swinging chandelier.

If this strikes you as a pretty amusing line, that’s probably intentional. Because another way in which TMM is quite different from your average Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky book is that it’s a comedy. A Russian kind of comedy, mind you; it can be categorised best as farce, although there are elements of black comedy too, to a lesser extent. Basically, if you find it funny when bizarre, horrible things happen to people, but they kinda deserve it, then you’ll probably enjoy the humour in TMM. Oh, and although a lot of it went over my head, since I wasn’t ever a Soviet citizen, there’s political satire in here too. That’s why Stalin wouldn’t allow it to be published, after all. There is at least one point where a more serious political message is conveyed, one more horrifying than amusing: I’m thinking of the chapter called “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream”. I’ll confess that I completely missed the point of this chapter when I first read it; I only realised its significance when I was reading about the book online and came across people saying that it was an ‘obvious’ allusion to the secret police’s interrogation methods. But, even if you take the chapter just as what it is on the surface, a description of a strange dream, it’s an unsettling read. In fact, I believe that this is one of the chapters that was still heavily censored for a time even after the book was published.

It was never my impression, though, that the political aspect of TMM was central to it. I’ve seen a lot of descriptions of the book along the lines of ‘satire of Soviet life’, and I guess you can interpret it that way, but that isn’t how I interpreted it. It seemed to me that the book was mostly about something else; it was more than just a comedy, and more than just a political satire or exposé along the lines of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. That said, I can’t really tell you what this extra something is. Like most good works of art, I don’t think it has or is supposed to have a straightforward message. So I won’t say anything more about what the deeper meaning of TMM is; that’s up to you to reckon for yourself if you read the book. But I can give you a brief overview of the plot (which I guess can be thought of as the meaning at the surface level).

The book has two parts. In Part 1 the reader is treated to a number of descriptions of the disastrous encounters various residents of Moscow have with Satan (going by the alias of “Professor Woland”) and his gang of demons. This is fairly entertaining, and it includes “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream” and no doubt other politically meaningful excerpts. But if this was all there was to the book, I’d be disappointed. Part 2 is the meat of the book, in my opinion. That’s where we are introduced to the titular character, Margarita. There are two titular characters, actually, since there’s the Master as well, who is Margarita’s boyfriend. But it’s Margarita who the narrative follows. We are briefly introduced to the Master in part 1, when he is living in an insane asylum (where a lot of the people who have had the misfortune to meet Professor Woland have ended up). He was a writer (he refuses to tell his name), who wrote a magnum opus about Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea in Jesus’s time, but the censors refused to publish it, he got into political trouble, and he ended up being sent to the madhouse (but not before he decided to burn his book’s entire manuscript). By the way, a writer, who wrote a great book that was censored—does that sound familiar? Yes, it’s not too hard to see that the Master is, at least on one level, a stand-in for Bulgakov himself. You might say that the book he was writing represents TMM itself, in which case I guess you could say that Bulgakov wrote a book about himself writing it1. The manuscript-burning episode even has a parallel in Bulgakov’s life: apparently, he set an early manuscript of TMM alight as well.

I forgot to mention, by the way, that there are actually some chapters in Part 1 which do not progress the main story, but instead give us a chapter of the Master’s lost manuscript. So there are actually two stories in parallel: the main story set in Moscow in the 1930s, and the Master’s story about Pontius Pilate, set in Jerusalem in 1 AD. The Master’s story is, as far as I know, a pretty faithful retelling of the same one readers of the gospels will be familiar with; although I couldn’t really say since I haven’t read the gospels myself. But it’s an interesting side-narrative. In my experience books that try this dual narrative technique often suffer from one of the narratives being less interesting than the other. I’m thinking of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed here; that’s a great book, but I was always more interested in what was happening on Urras than Annares. But TMM is not one of the books that suffers from this; I often found the Biblical sub-narrative more interesting than the main one. This sub-narrative continues into Part 2, as well.

Anyway, the Master had a girlfriend, Margarita, and he didn’t get a chance to tell her that he was being taken away from his home, nor did he opt to disappoint her with the news once he was free to tell her, so when Part 2 begins she has no idea where he is and fears that he has died. Then she encounters a mysterious man in a park, who is actually Azazello, one of Professor Woland’s goons. He’s been entrusted with the task of getting Margarita to carry out a certain errand, which Woland anticipates she will do in return for being reunited with her love, the Master. Azazello isn’t a very good salesman—his pitch isn’t very clear, and I don’t think calling someone a “stupid bitch” ever helps—but when he recite a passage from the Master’s lost book, Margarita realises what he has to offer, and agrees to do whatever he wants.

What follows is the most wonderful section of the book, in my opinion. Azazello gives Margarita a special cream which, when she rubs it on her body, restores her youthful beauty and grants her the powers of a witch. Then she hops on a broomstick (while still completely naked—witches don’t need clothes) and goes flying out of Moscow and far to the east (although not before stopping at the apartment of one of the critics who negatively reviewed the Master’s book and gleefully smashing everything in it). It’s the kind of section that you want to read as slowly as possible, savouring every new sentence since the prose is just such a pleasure to read. In the end she lands somewhere deep in Siberia, where there is no trace of human habitation, and bathes in a river. When she steps onto the bank she is greeted by a band of pipe-playing frogs, dancing water-sprites, curtsying fellow witches and a goat-legged man brings her champagne. Then after a short stay, she is returned to Moscow in a flying car driven by a crow.

In Moscow, Margarita is taken to Woland’s apartment and meets his demon crew. There, she learns what the errand is that she has agreed to doing. It turns out not to be anything especially terrible: all she has to do is host a ball on Walpurgisnacht for the denizens of Hell: murderers and poisoners, free-thinkers and adultresses, pimps and brothel-keepers, and the composer Johann Strauss. Although she finds it somewhat exhausting, she carries it out without trouble and Woland is satisfied. Again we are treated to some wonderful writing as Bulgakov tells us about the fantastic things at the ball, including a swimming pool filled with brandy and a troupe of accordion-playing polar bears. After this point, I probably shouldn’t go into too much detail about what happens, in case you don’t want the ending spoiled. But I will tell you that there is a sort of happy ending. Indeed, one of the interesting things about the book is that Satan is not portrayed as the ruthless trickster you might expect to him; he sticks to his word and gives Margarita what she wants. Even the various people who suffer as a result of his crew’s actions tend to have done something to deserve it first. And as for the heavenly counterparts of these demons, they are nowhere to be seen; well, Jesus appears in the Master’s story but he doesn’t really have much presence in the main narrative.

So, overall, what’s my opinion on the book? Well, it’s an entertaining, enjoyable story, for sure. Russians and Russia enthusiasts, especially, will find a lot that will appeal to them in the book, and perhaps will gain insight from reading it. The book can be appreciated in many different ways: at one time it’s comic, another time tragic, and other times intellectually stimulating. I’m not surprised that TMM is often considered the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century.

But would anyone consider it the greatest Russian novel ever? I don’t think so. You see, while I think TMM is a good book, perhaps even great, I do also feel that it is in a league below Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s best works. It may compare to Dostoyevsky’s lesser novels—Devils and The Idiot—but I remember War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov having a much greater impact on me. Those four books got into my head; they stayed with me; and I feel like I learned something from reading them. But TMM was just a story to me. It was good to read; it entertained me for a while; but it didn’t give me anything substantive to keep with me. Now that it’s ended, I can forget about it. I may be exaggerating a little here—I mean, writing this review is probably going to prevent me from forgetting it for too long. And this is just my own personal reaction to TMM; you may react differently, because you value different things in your reading; and who knows, maybe I myself will have a different reaction to it if I re-read at at some later point in my life, when the things that I value have changed. I think one of the things I missed in TMM was the 19th-century practice of being fully open about what was going on in characters’ heads. They hadn’t invented that rule about showing, rather than telling, back then. In War and Peace, Tolstoy regularly outright declares what his characters are thinking and feeling (although he also backs it up as with the actions that the characters take—I think a failure to do this properly is the real sin being warned against in “show, don’t tell”, rather than telling per se). By doing this Tolstoy is able to express certain nuances and subtleties of thought and feeling which are hard to express in any other way, and it makes the work a lot richer. TMM is not at all like this; things happen to the protagonists and we are left to ourselves to deduce what they are thinking or feeling. I don’t think we are really supposed to know the characters’ feelings and thoughts very well in TMM. It’s not a character-driven story; it’s driven by the spectacle of the story itself. So I guess I would make a little amendment to my statement that TMM is in a league below the great 19th-century novels. It’s not inferior in a simple sense, but it’s a story of a different nature; a kind of story that, perhaps, is less capable of having a great impact on its readers than a character-driven story.

But making these comparisons is kind of like complaining about getting a £4,000,000 salary rather than £5,000,000. It would be better, indeed, quite significantly better to have a £5,000,000 salary, but the £4,000,000 salary is nothing to complain about. In the same way, I would have liked to read a 20th-century rival to War and Peace, but even so, TMM is better than 99% of the books that are out there. If you haven’t read it, I would definitely recommend it. It’s worth reading.

  1. ^ As a student of linguistics, I feel compelled to point out that something interesting is going on with this sentence, grammatically, to do with the limits of the power of reflexive pronouns. To put it in terms that my mathematically-inclined readers will understand, I mean that Bulgakov wrote a book B about the process of Bulgakov writing B. I couldn’t think of any better way to write it.
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