The characters represent a mixture of those transcending time and the history-bound residents of twentieth century Moscow. Woland and his attendants are transcendental figures taking on local form to explore human evils in contemporary terms. By tempting citizens (as the Devil’s conventional task), Woland establishes the encroachment of the very values that the Soviet state has declared outlived. The interest of the character lies in the Faustian epigraph which introduces the novel: “‘Say at last—who art thou?’/ ‘That power I serve/ Which wills forever evil/ Yet does forever good.’”
Woland appears at first like the seedy devil in Ivan Karamazov’s nightmare in Fyodor Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880). He grows in stature, as the novel progresses, becoming a figure as impressive and ambiguous as John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Woland is the means by which moral order is asserted on earth, a sort of agent for good who works by exposing evil. He is linked with death, and just as, in the medieval mystery play, God sends Satan to call Everyman to account, Woland calls the venal Muscovites to account and brings rest if not absolution to the heroes. The disorder that he allows his assistants to create is irrelevant to his main purpose, serving the transcendental function that implies a kind of order which the state does not admit. Woland’s aristocracy arises from his own creative function: He is himself an artist, in tune with truth like all real artists. It is the falsity of Soviet institutions and the desertion of the search for truth that he punishes. He judges weak human beings as Yeshua will not.
Pilate in the novel-within-the-novel uneasily represents earthly power and demonstrates the despair that the earthly power without commitment to amoral order brings. Pilate’s headaches; his dependence on his dog for loyalty and affection; his hatred of Jerusalem, the city that he is condemned to rule; the cowardice which makes him unable to follow his own insights; and his guilt all help to mitigate the image of the elegant and cruel ruler who sends Yeshua to his death. Pilate has memories of his own past cruelties to haunt him, and he is a lonely, suffering man. Only Yeshua can reach through to the soul of the man. Pilate therefore tries to save Yeshua, who is too innocent politically to take the procurator’s hints. When the document is presented showing the prophet’s unwillingness to support Caesar, Pilate “has no choice” and must allow the Sanhedrin to have him. He cannot challenge the system that has produced him; political circumstance makes him unable to tell the Sanhedrin to withdraw the spurious charges against Yeshua. Yet “the greatest crime is cowardice,” and when rulers are not free to prevent injustice, they must learn from figures such as Yeshua.
Yeshua’s characterization is of great interest because of its humanization of the figure of Jesus. Bulgakov...
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