The Heart of a Dog was written midway through the most successful period of Bulgakov’s literary life, a few years before he was banned from publication. In the novel, he advances his critique of science gone wrong found in earlier stories such as “The Fatal Eggs” and points to the sweeping, fantastic social critique of his classic novel, The Master and Margarita (1967). In The Heart of a Dog, Bulgakov capitalizes on the contemporary curiosity and speculation surrounding the possibility of organ transplantation to create a cautionary allegory on the dangers of transforming the world, a society, or an individual overnight by revolution.
The Heart of a Dog is built on a premise similar to that of “The Fatal Eggs.” The experiment of an overreaching scientist goes awry, wreaking havoc on the surrounding populace. Unlike the earlier story, the satire of The Heart of a Dog is not directed solely at the mishaps and pretension of Soviet science. Instead, Preobrazhensky’s inadvertent transformation of Sharik is a means of addressing the larger issues of what it means to be human and to live responsibly in the society of others. The doctor believes that he has scientifically proven the physical location of human nature when the addition of human sex and growth glands transforms the dog Sharik into a man, but the nature of Sharikov’s behavior is clearly outside Preobrazhensky’s scientific empiricism. Sharikov is a man with the heart of a dog as well as a dog with the heart of a man. He is the worst of each, and the doctors scientific knowledge does not equip him to reckon with the consequences. The resulting episodes provide ample opportunity for Bulgakov to comment on the workings of society in general and the relatively new Soviet society in particular.
Bulgakov’s social satire works at several levels. Preobrazhensky is an ambitious technocrat in his own home and office but unable to control the physical, civic, or moral consequences of his creation. Sharikov is at once an innocent creature at the mercy of those with power and scientific knowledge and a miscreant citizen of the society into which he has been introduced. Although both the doctor and the dog represent larger elements of the new Soviet nation, both characters live and work in tension with the absurdity and officiousness that Bulgakov found in the Muscovite bureaucracy he knew. Bulgakov’s mockery of specific details of early Soviet life made him an easy target for censorship. It is in combination with an incisive view of human nature and motivation that the mockery in The Heart of a Dog becomes a strong social and scientific satire.