The Heart of a Dog

by Mikhail Bulgakov

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 288

The central conceit of this satirical novel is the idea of transplanting body parts—primarily from other animals into human beings, but also vice versa—and along with them, related qualities. Specifically, it concerns a dog, Sharik, who receives transplants of glands and sex organs from a human man. On the one hand it may be considered a philosophical meditation on the ethics of medical experimentation; on the other hand it is primarily a humorous political commentary.

Mikhail Bulgakov in fact began his career in the early twentieth century Russian Empire (contemporary Ukraine) studying medicine. While this fictional exploration of scientific morality, both published and censured in 1925, has much in common with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it veers away from earlier Romantic attitudes and toward religion and science. It is more at home with other twentieth century absurdist approaches to essential questions about human nature, such as Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, that present total man-to-animal transformations.

Set in the Revolution-era Soviet Union, the novel centers on one mad scientist, Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky, and his physician colleague, Bormenthal, who conduct the experiments on Sharika. The transplant of testicles and the pituitary gland turn Sharik into a man with well-developed socialist sensibilities and a strong critical streak. Although the scientists assume they can control their research subject—much like Victor Frankenstein—Sharik has a mind of his own and embraces the political ideas of his generation.

Now identifying as Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, he takes it upon himself to uphold revolutionary principles, to the extent of informing the authorities of Philip Philipovich’s counterrevolutionary ideas. The fanaticism of this convert is his downfall, however, as the doctor finally decides he can be safe only by turning Sharik back into a dog.

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