The
Master and Margarita is considered by many critics
one of the best novels of the twentieth century. This novel can “be reasonably
called the greatest novel to come out of Communist Russia, a work of magical
realism, a pre-apocalyptic novel, a love story, a biting political satire” (Murdoch) .

The book written
by Mihail Bulgakov has three main storylines. The first one is about a visit by
the devil to the Soviet Union. He disguises himself as “Woland”, an enigmatic
and peculiar magician. His appearance is hard to pin-point due to the fact that
he is described differently by every witness:

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One says he was
short, had gold teeth, and was lame in his right foot. Another says that he was
hugely tall, had platinum crowns and was lame in his left foot. Yet a third
notes laconically that he had no distinguishing features whatsoever… As to his teeth, he had platinum crowns on
his left side and gold ones on his right. He wore an expensive grey suit and
foreign shoes of the same colour as his suit. His grey beret was stuck jauntily
over one ear and under his arm he carried a walking stick with a knob in the
shape of a poodle’s head. He looked slightly over forty. Crooked sort of mouth.
Clean-shaven. Dark hair. Right eye black, left eye for some reason green.
Eyebrows black, but one higher than the other. In short- a foreigner. (Bulgakov)

Woland’s entourage
consists of Behemoth (a giant cat that is able to walk, speak and even take
human form), Koroiev (Woland’s assistant and a skilled illusionist), Azazello
(a demon-assassin) and Hella (Woland’s vampire maid). Together, they play
tricks on anyone that stands in their way. 

Alternatively,
Pontius Pilate’s Jerusalem and the fate of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth)
are presented in this novel.  Even though
these different stories don’t seem connected, their relation becomes apparent
when the third storyline, the love story between Margarita and the Master is
presented and everything fits together.

            The
novel itself is an allegory of good and evil, and could be considered protest
literature, due to its parallels between Woland and Stalin, but also due to it
being a response to the atheistic propaganda from the Stalinist era. Bulgakov
weaves in his book elements of political satire with biblical symbolism,
through the double-sided representation of the divine and the demonic. While
describing the events from the Gospel, the narrator focuses more on the human
nature of Yeshua (Jesus) rather than the divine one. This description does not
interfere with the soviet communist doctrine, because it does not hint to
divine power, thus resulting a pagan version of the Gospel.

On the other hand,
 (Yurchenko) notes that ‘the
novel’s elaborate structure, independence of events, mystical characters and
historical figures having philosophical conversations would not have pleased
the “new” reader looking for simplicity and practical recommendations in
literature’. Similarly, David  (Gillespie) believes that ‘The
novel eschews realism- both critical and socialist – from its very first
pages’, making it rather dissimilar from the dictated realities portrayed by
Socialist Realist literature, which had no room for anything mystical or
‘paranormal’.

            The Master and Margarita is also a
story within a story. At some point it is revealed that the tale of Yeshua is
part of the Master’s own burnt novel. He wants to liberate himself from the
criticism and the strain of the manuscript, hoping to feel purified through the
action of fire on the manuscript. Woland returns the manuscript to him, saying
“Don’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?” which became one of the most
memorable and important quotes from this particular piece of literature.  The burning of the manuscript also has a
biographical meaning, being derived from the author’s own experiences. It took
ten years to write the novel, during which several manuscripts were burned,
because they were considered very dangerous. The persecution by the regime
didn’t deter him, but instead determined him to finish the novel and rewrite a
number of chapters from memory, as Bulgakov explained, ‘I know it by heart.’
During this time, the author started thinking about different titles, all still
being centred on Satan – The Great Chancellor, Satan, Here I Am, The Black
Theologian, He Has Come, The Hoofed Consultant.

The action begins
in a park in Moscow, where Berlioz, the editor of a literary journal and the
president of the Massolit association, discusses the existence – or rather
inexistence of Jesus with Bezdomnîi, a poet. Both are atheists, due to the
Stalinist influence, and never shy away from including antireligious propaganda
in their writings. Their conversation is suddenly interrupted by be
intervention of an unusual man, a stranger, which shocks them by making some
grim prophecies, including Berlioz’s death. He also denies their atheistic
beliefs, by telling an anecdote about Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri.

            After
the bewildering conversation from the park, Moscow quickly becomes a grotesque
circus, engulfed in chaos. A bizarre trio with a vodka-loving cat takes up
residence in an apartment in Sadovaia Street. A magic show at the theatre
uncovers secrets from the personal life of the audience and many magic numbers
are meant to teach greedy people a lesson. It is raining money at some point,
while the ladies are trading their own dresses for new, trendy ones created
from Woland’s “magic”.  But as soon as
they leave the theatre, the vain ladies that traded their clothes are left with
nothing but their underwear. Similarly, the money turn into worthless pieces of
paper. Later, important people of the society start missing, and a mental
institution is inundated with instances of sudden insanity.

            During
all of this chaos, an unhappy woman, Margarita, is suffering for her lost love;
she is more than willing to do anything to bring back her lover – a writer
persecuted because of his novel- , which she knows nothing of anymore. This
desperate woman finds herself in the middle of evil, at Satan’s ball, where her
courage, loyalty and determination are tested. It is thought ny many that the
character Margarita is in fact based on Bulgakov’s wife and muse, Elena
Silovski.

            Woland’s
visit to Moscow is based on his wish to see how people of the present (1930)
Moscow are any different from the people of Yershalaim (Jerusalem) during the
trial of Yeshua.

He finally concludes that:

They are people
like any other people… They love money, but that has always been so … mankind
loves money whatever its made of … Well, they’re light-minded… well, what of
it… mercy sometimes knocks at their hearts … ordinary people … In general,
reminiscent of the former ones… only the housing problem has corrupted them…
The Muscovites remind me very much pf their predecessors. (Bulgakov)

Through Woland’s philosophical
reflections on the matter of human nature, Bulgakov is implying that people are
the same, regardless of country, time or the reign they are under. This is
illustrated by the parallel between the first and the second storyline. There
are a number of similarities between the two, the most important being the fact
that they both take place during the Holy Week, Monday to Friday. Another
important element is the moon, which is presented in both storylines, at
approximately the same “time”.

            An
important source of inspiration for The
Master and Margarita is Goethe’s play, Faust.
There are many references to this play; Bulgakov offers many parallels with
the story of Faust, pointing to a masterpiece and thus enlarging the
philosophical meaning of his own work.  Even
before we hear the name of Woland, we are told that he carries a cane with a
black poodle’s head. In the tragedy, when Faust invokes the “spirits between
earth and sky” (Goethe), a black poodle appears
and follows him. Later, the poodle transforms himself into a hippopotamus, in
Russian begemot—the cat’s name in the novel. Finally, when Faust uses magic,
the devil steps forward as a travelling scholar. In the novel he introduces
himself as a foreign “perhaps German” professor. (Stenbock-Fermor)

            The
Master and Margarita has been studied by the critics for a long time, in an
effort to uncover its hidden meanings and to identify any parallels between the
characters and the historical figures of the time. A consensus was never
reached, but one thing is for certain: in this extraordinary novel, with three
different storylines, Mihail Bulgakov ridicules the greed, vanity, corruption
and moral perversion of his coevals, while at the same time attacking the
atheism of Stalinist Russia in the 1930′. He builds a complex and ambiguous
allegory of good and evil, bravery and cowardice, love and sacrifice. The
infamous devil pact is also present in this novel, due to the fact that the
inspiration of this piece of literature lies within Faust, as presented earlier. When reading this amazingly unique
book, all that is left is to ask ourselves: “What would your good do if evil
didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows
disappeared?” (Bulgakov)