Master and Margarita

by Mikhail Bulgakov

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What are some Biblical allusions made in The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov?  

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The first chapter of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is a good place to start when discussing Biblical allusions. Bulgakov uses both kinds of allusions, direct and indirect allusion. Allusion is defined by as:

a passing or casual reference; an incidental mention of something, either directly or by implication

Students most often encounter the indirect allusion such as, for example, the typical Biblical allusion: "He said he washed his hands of the whole matter." This is an indirect allusion relating to Pontius Pilot who disagreed with the crucifixion of Jesus and publicly washed his hands to symbolize his detachment from and denunciation of the crucifixion to come.

Bulgakov uses both indirect and direct Biblical allusions starting from the first chapter. An early example of indirect Biblical allusion is:

His gaze halted on the upper storeys, whose panes threw back a blinding, fragmented reflection of the sun which was setting on Mikhail Alexandrovich for ever;

The Biblical allusion centers on the word "sun" and is augmented by the preceding words "blinding ... reflection." The conversation between Berlioz and Bezdomny is about Jesus Christ, and, in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Jesus is identified as the Son of God: “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased” (Luke 3;22). He is also associated with blinding light through the transfiguration recorded in the Gospels:

he was transfigured before them; and his face did shine as the sun, and his garments became white as the light (Matthew 17:2).

As a result, anyone familiar with these portions of the New Testament would recognize this indirect allusion to Jesus Christ, especially since Jesus is the topic of conversation. Incidentally, the same quote also alludes to the end of Mikhail Alexandrovich's life through the idiomatic cliche phrase "the sun which was setting ... forever."

When a direct allusion is highly detailed and explicit, it is termed a reference, however, an example of a direct allusion is:

instead of the nativity or the arrival of the Magi you should have described the absurd rumours about their arrival. But according to your story the nativity really took place!

Here, Berlioz makes direct allusion to the recounting of the nativity, or birth, of Jesus and mentions the Magi who were visitors after the birth. The rest of Bulgakov’s story has further examples of Biblical allusions of both types. If one is acquainted with the Biblical source, then these will be fairly easy to spot. The strength of allusions--the ability to enhance the author's message or imagery--is also the weakness of allusions: The reader must know the source or the allusion is lost upon that particular reader and instead of clarity, the allusion produces confusion or obscurity.

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