The Master and Margarita is a wonderfully inventive tale, at times humorous, at times hauntingly creepy, always thought-provoking.
It is set—and was written—in the Stalinist period of Soviet history. Author Mikhail Bulgakov was a prominent writer in that period who then fell out of favor with the regime. The Master and Margarita was not published until the 1960s, well after his death.
Certainly the book functions largely as a satire of Stalinist Russia. But I don’t know that it does so in a simplistic way, where there is a clear one-to-one correspondence between each character and some real person, between each major incident and something that happened in real life. There may well be some of that, but at least as I read and reacted to the book, it was looser than that, more a matter of trying to capture the general feel of life during that time in that society, or of creating situations only vaguely analogous to real life that raise some of the same moral and political issues and such.
The book is often described as going back and forth between two stories—one set in the Stalinist Soviet Union, and the other being the story of Pontius Pilate condemning Jesus to execution. But I think that’s a little misleading insofar as it implies the stories are of roughly equal prominence. In fact, the Soviet story is something like 80%-85% of the book, with all the Pilate material adding up to only the other 15%-20%.
The book opens with Satan, in the guise of the mysterious foreigner Mr. Woland (“Woland” being an archaic German word for a devil, and the name of one of the demons in Goethe’s Faust) arriving in Moscow and striking up a conversation on a park bench with a couple of Soviet literary professionals—an editor and a poet. He is bemused by their insistence, in keeping with Soviet ideology, that there is no God and no Satan (i.e., no him). He tells them that he was present when Pilate and Jesus faced off, and relates what happened. (This is the first interlude where the story shifts to almost 2,000 years in the past. Later the Pilate story will be continued as another character’s dream, and as excerpts from a novel written by still another character. Though the story has all these different sources, each part is pretty much consistent with the other parts.) He, accurately, foretells the death of the editor, which totally freaks out the poet.
But this is just the start of his mischief. Throughout the book, he and his minions wreak untold havoc. The victims are mostly Soviet bureaucrats and artists or literary figures. They experience various supernatural pranks, see their homes burned down, have their careers ruined, and in some cases are killed in bizarre ways.
The title characters don’t even appear until the second half of the book, and I don’t know that they end up having more total pages devoted to them than various other characters (certainly they have a smaller role in that sense than Woland and his primary demonic assistants), but the author, in placing their names in the title of the book, apparently regarded them as the central figures in the story.
The Master is a writer (“Master” being a nickname, like for a literary master). The draft of his Pilate book was not well received by the relevant Soviet authorities, so he is in deep trouble.
Margarita is the married woman with whom the Master is having an affair. Such is the depth of their romance that Margarita is willing to do basically anything to save him. This “anything” turns out to include making a deal with Woland (Satan).
My favorite character, at least for humor purposes, is one of Woland’s assistants, a demon named Behemoth who takes the form of a large cat that walks and talks and behaves like a human being. He first appears when Ivan—the poet from the park bench—is chasing after Woland to confront him about the death of the editor:
Having lost one of his quarry, Ivan focused his attention on the cat and saw this strange cat go up to the footboard of an ‘A’ tram waiting at a stop, brazenly elbow aside a woman, who screamed, grab hold of the handrail, and even make an attempt to shove a ten-kopeck piece into the conductress’s hand through the window, open on account of the stuffiness.
Ivan was so struck by the cat’s behavior that he froze motionless by the grocery store on the corner, and here he was struck for a second time, but much more strongly, by the conductress’s behavior. As soon as she saw the cat getting into the tram-car, she shouted with a malice that even made her shake:
“No cats allowed! Nobody with cats allowed! Scat! Get off, or I’ll call the police!”
Neither the conductress nor the passengers were struck by the essence of the matter: not just that a cat was boarding a tram-car, which would have been good enough, but that he was going to pay!
I laugh out loud every time I read that last sentence.
But as funny as it is, I think there’s something more going on here. There are numerous scenes like this, where there’s something decidedly “off” about characters’ reactions to evil, violence, or just things that are so blatantly bizarre as to be surreal. It’s not that they don’t notice them; they typically are upset and alarmed by them. But not in the way or to the degree you’d expect. It’s like they recognize such occurrences as being objectionable and/or unusual, but not nearly as objectionable and/or unusual as a reader can see they are. They still generally find ways to fit them into their worldviews as things that it is at least conceivable can happen here and there. And the few characters who struggle the most to accept them tend to end up in asylums or otherwise become non-functional.
I take it the idea is that reality in the Soviet Union was so contrary—mostly in bad ways—to anything anyone had ever experienced that it can only properly be represented in fantasy. People had to adjust in whatever ways they could to having just about everything they had ever come to think of as normal turned upside down, and they learned that to oppose it or object to it too strenuously was not in their self-interest. So perhaps you raise an eyebrow and mutter a little something at the latest Stalinist atrocity or absurdity, but then you put your head down and get on with your life.
One thing that occurred to me in connection with the destructive antics of Woland and his minions is that I think of Satan stories as typically requiring the corrupted person to come at least halfway to meet the Devil, so to speak. That is, the Devil tempts, but you have to actually give in to that temptation for him to get you. You have to succumb to greed, vanity, selfishness, envy, whatever, in order to lose your soul.
But that doesn’t seem to be true in The Master and Margarita. It’s not like only the people who give in to their darker sides, or the people who explicitly enter into some kind of bargain with Woland, suffer at his hands. The bedlam seems more indiscriminate.
I can think of two possible reasons for this, or interpretations of this.
One is that even if the characters who come to grief in the book don’t seem to have behaved unusually badly and so brought it on themselves (not that they’re all angels, but some of them seem to only be flawed to the run-of-the-mill extent we all are as humans), perhaps the idea is that their participation in the Soviet system in and of itself constitutes their having sold their souls.
I remember in a sociology class I took in college on totalitarianism, one of the most striking points the professor made was that whereas in Hitler’s Germany the last thing you wanted to be was a Jew or a member of some other powerless, unpopular minority, in the Stalinist Soviet Union it was Communist Party officials themselves who were most at risk of execution, torture, Siberian prison camps, etc. Obviously that’s an oversimplification or exaggeration—think of all the millions of ordinary Ukrainians and such that Stalin purposely starved to death—but certainly being a Party member, an “insider,” was very hazardous to one’s health. As was said of the French Revolution, “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”
So just accepting a position in the Soviet bureaucracy could be seen as an indication of corruption and as making one vulnerable to the whims of the Devil, or Stalin.
The other thought I had is that even if Woland doesn’t fit perfectly with the typical depiction of Satan (in requiring the sinner to make a free willed choice to succumb to temptation in order to become fair game), he still fits Stalinist society quite well in that there was a great deal of chaos, randomness, and unpredictability to the suffering and destruction. There was a limit to how much rhyme or reason one could find in the oppression. Everyone was vulnerable to some degree, or so it must have felt.
I also found it interesting how readily Margarita goes over to Woland’s side (in one of the few instances where a character does voluntarily enter into a bargain with the Devil). Yes, at first she’s reluctant, and she reacts to the prospect of entering into a bargain with Woland with considerable trepidation, seemingly realizing the extraordinary price she is committing to pay in order to save her lover. But while she initially glumly cooperates with what Woland requires of her, as soon as she rubs some kind of magic ointment into her skin (which basically turns her into a witch—riding around on a broom, the whole shebang), any negative feelings she has about selling her soul drop to maybe 10% of what they had previously been.
Then her maid decides she’d like to get in on the action and so also spreads herself with the magic cream so she can become a witch. And she manifests even less misgivings than Margarita—really none to speak of. The transformation is all benefit and no cost in her eyes.
So what is this meant to represent? Maybe that under the Stalinist regime—and you can make the case that this is true to some extent in any society, since all societies require various moral compromises to get by—even if a person might well initially react against the idea of doing certain immoral or dishonorable things they feel pressured to do to achieve their ends (e.g., informing on a neighbor, letting a superior take sexual liberties, paying bribes, etc.), due to our very human reluctance to condemn ourselves as bad people, they would quickly make their peace with it and spin it as really not so bad, as something that “everyone does,” as just part of “life.”
Further, it may be that while Margarita might have some conscience (based on “bourgeois values”) that needs to be overcome, some expectation that you should be able to have a decent life without having to sell out and do terrible things, someone like her maid never developed such a conscience or such expectations because she is of the class that would surely get the short end of the stick in any alternative system anyway. To people already on the bottom, any opportunities created by the Soviet system might as well be grabbed, because it’s not like playing fair or playing by the old rules ever got them anywhere.
The typical Stalinist atrocities—the whisking away of people in the middle of the night never to be heard from again, the torture, the mass killings, the brutal incarceration in supposed mental health facilities, etc.—happen largely off screen in The Master and Margarita, or are only hinted at in playful or allegorical ways. It might be mentioned in passing, for instance, that a certain person disappeared, with perhaps the implication that it’s some sort of mystery with a possible supernatural explanation, but then no more is said of it. The characters themselves, as noted above, seem to know not to raise too much of a stink about it, but to mostly treat it as just one of those things that seems to happen nowadays.
The exception to the general rule of Stalinist phenomena being only implied is that some characters end up in asylums (whereas no one is explicitly said to have been executed, sent to Siberia, tortured, etc.). But rather than being forcibly taken there and held against their will—as happened in real life—they typically ask to be taken to such facilities after being overwhelmed by the craziness and havoc unleashed by Woland, and while there they are treated reasonably well by sympathetic mental health professionals rather than being tortured by sadistic jailors.
Woland presents himself as a kind of conjuror, an expert in black magic, and in one of the major scenes in the novel he and his assistants put on an extraordinary magic show at the Variety Theatre in Moscow, which predictably soon descends into chaos. For instance, Behemoth—the cat—rips a theater bureaucrat’s head off (though he is kind enough to later put it back on). Woland causes massive amounts of money and luxury clothes and such to materialize and then distributes them to the thrilled audience members, who soon discover to their chagrin that within hours or days it all disappears or changes into something else, leading to embarrassing incidents where they are suddenly walking in public in their underwear, and to conflicts such as with cabbies when they hand over what they thought was money and find that it is now waste paper.
I take it this is meant to represent a society built largely on propaganda, on ideology, on lies. People in the Soviet Union had to get used to the “official” version of things rarely matching reality. Whether it be their legal rights (as I recall, the Soviet constitution was actually really good—on paper—as far as the rights it guaranteed to its citizens), the proper procedures for obtaining a certain apartment, how the country was faring in the present war, what you were to be paid for a certain job, etc., it was all illusions and bullshit, and if you let yourself believe it you’d be like the deluded theater patrons waltzing about in their underwear because their impressive garments turned out to have no objective reality.
But what of this recurring story of Pontius Pilate and Jesus? How does that fit? What’s that doing in the novel?
First of all, it doesn’t pretend to be faithful to the Biblical version of the events it depicts. There’s plenty of overlap, but it not only adds new elements to the story, but contradicts some of what’s in the Biblical account.
But as far as what it all means, I’m frankly not sure. I can speculate about one theme or one purpose this material might have, but even if I’m right that’s probably just one of multiple reasons this story within a story is included in the book.
Maybe the story has to do with people in authority having or lacking the courage to do what’s right. Pilate is depicted as being quite intrigued by Jesus, and as not being at all convinced that he has done anything for which he deserves to die. At the same time, he is a firm believer in the system of the Roman Empire, in his authority and the authority of those above him, and he is not the kind of person who has made it as far as he has in life by rocking the boat, by taking a chance on saintly weirdos, by not doing what is expected of someone with his job.
So, with misgivings, he goes along with the execution of Jesus, but he then tries to mitigate his guilt. For instance, although Judas was in effect working for the authorities by informing on Jesus, Pilate arranges to have him killed. (How he does so is quite interesting. It’s very much a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” thing. He explains to the head of the local secret police in detail how he expects the followers of Jesus to retaliate by murdering Judas, and he orders him to be sure not to let anything like that happen. The head of the secret police soon returns to report very apologetically that Judas was murdered in very much the manner Pilate had anticipated, and that, alas, he and his men had failed to prevent it. Pilate basically thanks him for doing his best, and tells him to blame the “failure” on some underling and punish him for it.) He attempts to behave in a kindly fashion toward Jesus’ disciple Matthew.
But it is to no avail. He is still racked with guilt about what he did, and after he dies he is punished for it, and he finds out that basically the only thing remembered about him throughout the world even thousands of years later is that he is the person who sentenced Jesus to die.
Maybe this is a message to all the Soviet officials who knew that how they were treating their fellow man was wrong, yet who didn’t have the courage to say no, but instead tried to evade responsibility by convincing themselves that they were only doing their job, or that it was justified to mistreat others in a case where refraining from doing so would mean that they themselves would be mistreated similarly, or worse.
That happened, after all. The Stalinist officials who ordered torture and such often found that the next day they were the ones being thrown into torture chambers. Generally this happened in a virtually random fashion—a matter of not guessing right what you needed to do to stay on the good side of Stalin and those currently calling the shots for him—but certainly if you were to openly defy your orders and refuse to cooperate with this system of incarceration and torture you’d be signing your own death warrant.
So I suspect Bulgakov is addressing those who realize that to not do the regime’s dirty work would mean at best giving up the perks one currently enjoys in one’s position of relative authority, and likely giving up one’s life, and in response adopt the position “I’m not obligated to be that kind of hero or martyr; that’s asking too much,” and warning them that if they cop out like that, they will be judged, certainly by themselves if not by a higher power.
Then again, in the end Pilate is indeed forgiven. So there’s that little message of hope that though you’ll suffer for your lack of courage, ultimately the Christian power of peace, love, and forgiveness will prevail.
But there is so much going on in The Master and Margarita, so many different layers, that I’ve still only mentioned a small fraction of the things worth commenting on.
In contrast to more conventional, realistic depictions of the Soviet Union under Stalin that I have read (e.g., the nonfiction Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg and the fictional Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler), a good portion of The Master and Margarita is just flat out funny. What I found, though, is that the surreal versions of oppression represented by the destructive mischief of Woland and his cohorts was funniest early, and then over time weighed on me and became more sinister as I thought about living in a nightmarish time and place where things made that little sense, and where some bizarre misfortune like having your head suddenly ripped off your body by a giant talking cat could befall you at any moment.
The Master and Margarita is a rich, valuable book, deserving of being regarded as one of the classics of the 20th century.