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...
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On a warm spring afternoon, two Russian writers meet in a Moscow park. One of them, Berlioz, is the editor of a leading literary journal; the other is a poet named Ivan Bezdomny, who has been reviled for writing a poem about Jesus that depicts him as if he had really existed. The two writers are discussing atheism, the official Soviet policy, when they are joined by a strange, foreign-looking person who asks them provocative questions and gives even more provocative answers to their questions. He even prophesies about their immediate future, telling them, for example, that Berlioz will die before the day is over. In the ensuing philosophical debate, he tells them the story of Pontius Pilate. By the end of the afternoon, Berlioz has been decapitated by a streetcar. Bezdomny ends up in a mental hospital because no one would believe his story about the strange visitor.
The visitor, who has the German-sounding name Woland, professes to be a professor of black magic. He is actually an incarnation of the Devil, and he is accompanied by a black cat named Behemoth, a naked maid, a disreputable clown, and an evil trickster. Woland and his minions proceed to play tricks on the Soviet literary and theatrical establishments and on the ordinary people of Moscow. Various people are packed off to places thousands of miles away, their vices dramatized, their moribund consciences awakened or called to answer, and their philistine natures exposed.
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