Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 999
The Master and Margarita presents three interlaced lines of action, which are integrated and are mutually enlightening: a visit by Satan to Moscow, a Faustian love story of a writer and his Margarita, and Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus to execution. The Moscow and Jerusalem episodes have parallels, and the love story connects the two.
In the first story, Satan, in the form of a foreign expert in theater (magic is his specialty), visits Moscow in the spring of 1920. Satan takes the German name of Woland. He and his minions—a black cat named Behemoth, a naked maid named Hella, a disreputable clown named Koroviev-Faggot, and an evil trickster called Azazello—play tricks on the Soviet literary and theatrical establishments and on the ordinary people of Moscow in order to reveal their victims’ anti-Soviet greed for material things. A magic show in a theater and a series of destructive tricks around town reveal and satirize real elements of Soviet life in the 1920’s and 1930’s: the hunger for consumer goods; gold-hoarding; sexual hanky-panky; the jockeying for special treatment; the suppression of literature; the humorlessness of the bureaucracy; and the pervasive informing on friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.
The satanic crew finds a writer’s girlfriend and persuades her to serve as the hostess for the annual Satan’s ball, which she agrees to do in order to earn the freedom of her lover, who is in a mental institution. Woland then demonstrates his links with the timeless supernatural world when he produces a copy of the Master’s burned manuscript. The Devil knows its contents and says that he has talked to Pilate himself. According to Woland, “Manuscripts don’t burn.”
The action of the Master’s novel constitutes the second plot of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel. Interpolated in the Moscow sequence, this novel-within-a-novel relates in fresh terms the New Testament account of the Passion in first century Jerusalem. Yeshua (Jesus) has been betrayed to the Jews by Judas. Pilate, while submitting to his role as Roman procurator and to the political pressure of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, nevertheless tries to keep Yeshua from incriminating himself. Yeshua, while not in the least eager to suffer or die, refuses to admit that any temporal power has jurisdiction over him. He tells Pilate that “all power is a form of violence exercised over people and...the time will come when there will be no rule by Caesar nor any other form of rule. Man will pass into the kingdom of truth and justice where no sort of power will be needed.” The procurator naturally cannot release a man who so challenges Caesar, and the execution of Yeshua is accomplished in a moving chapter featuring Matthew the Levite’s arrival too late to relieve Yeshua’s pain, just as Margarita came too late to keep the Master from destroying his manuscript and taking himself off to the asylum. Diverging from the biblical story, Arthanius, chief of the Roman secret police, attempts to assuage Pilate’s guilt for his part in the execution of Yeshua by arranging the murder of Judas. The frustrated Pilate wishes to speak further to the strangely comforting Yeshua but must wait until the end of the novel and his own death before their conversation can be continued.
The love story of the writer and Margarita is the third line of action, one with resonances of Faust’s being saved by his Marguerite, though here it is the Marguerite figure, not the Faust figure, who sells her soul to the Devil.Margarita, unhappy in her materialistic life with her successful Soviet technocrat husband, meets and falls in love with the writer she comes to call the Master. His novel is written only because he wins from a lottery enough money to quit his museum job. Nevertheless, his novel is rejected before publication, and then he becomes the victim of vicious literary attacks, which culminate in his madness. He goes to the asylum willingly, realizing that he is ill. Late in the book, the truth emerges that his persecution is in fact the result of a secret denunciation by a man who wanted the writer’s apartment.
In the asylum, the Master meets Ivan Bezdomny, a young poet who has similar problems with critics because he has written a poem depicting a lifelike Jesus, as if he had really existed, when the official policy is atheist. Bezdomny is in the asylum, however, because of his account of his unbelievable encounter with Woland and his accomplices. Woland has predicted the death of a high-ranking member of the literary elite, and the man dies as scheduled. (Bezdomny is engaged in a discussion of atheism with the official when Satan appears at the beginning of the novel.) The cohorts of Satan lead the poet on a wild chase across town. Only writers and lovers can see the satanic figures for what they are; the melee is seen by ordinary people as a series of incomprehensible events. In a society based on reason, there is no Devil, and no God, and Bezdomny must be judged insane. In an epilogue, Bezdomny recovers his freedom, but he never writes again.
Margarita makes her deal with the Devil in order to be able to find and ransom her beloved. She becomes a witch and does some joyous damage of her own to the malevolent critics before meeting her commitment at Satan’s ball. While presiding over the ball, she encounters the pain of all human misdeeds throughout history. In her compassion for a woman who has murdered her own child, Margarita yields her right to ask Woland for the Master’s release, but Woland nevertheless grants that wish as well and allows the lovers rest and peace and life together in death at the end of the novel. Soviet agencies achieve a rational explanation for all the irrational events, and only the full moon troubles the spirits of the imaginative ones left to live in the Soviet world.