Master and Margarita

by Mikhail Bulgakov

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Critical Evaluation

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The Master and Margarita was Mikhail Bulgakov’s crowning achievement. He had previously written other acclaimed novels, short stories, and plays, but this novel established him as a major writer of the twentieth century. Despite Bulgakov’s politically enforced silence in the early 1930’s and his debilitating illness and premature death, his work had a significant impact on Russian as well as world literature.

Many of Bulgakov’s previous writings anticipate features of The Master and Margarita. His telling but nonaggressive satire and a sophisticated humor are evident in his short stories; a flair for dramatics enlivens his plays; and philosophical connotations can be found in almost all his works.

The entire action in The Master and Margarita takes place on four days, from Wednesday to Sunday of the Holy Week, a significant choice of days. In addition to being a satire on Soviet life in the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s and a love story, this “tale of two cities” is also laden with philosophical overtones. This tone is struck at the very outset by Bulgakov’s use of a motto borrowed from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, part one (1808): “Say at last—who art thou?”/ “That power I serve/ Which wills forever evil/ Yet does forever good.” The motto relates to the Devil, commonly recognized as the source of all evil, and to Woland who, together with his retinue, commits acts of violence and vengeance but also reunites the Master and Margarita and forces the Muscovites to face up to their shortcomings and sins. The basic ethical question of good and evil thus becomes the focal point of the novel, with a Manichaean twist of equality between good and evil. By painting the Devil in colors other than black, and by using Jesus Christ’s ethnic name, Yeshua, and making alterations in his age and the account of his crucifixion, Bulgakov urges his readers to abandon the customary, dogmatic, and political way of thinking.

Bulgakov raises another philosophical question, posed by Pontius Pilate to Jesus: What is truth? Without presuming to answer this age-old question, Bulgakov is here addressing the Soviet’s usurped monopoly on the truth and their brutality to those who question that truth. To underscore the fact that there is no one truth, Bulgakov tells the Crucifixion story in three narratives—Woland’s, the Master’s, and Bezdomny’s. He shows that everything has more than one side to it, and that looking from only one angle leads to atrophy and death.

Bulgakov poses yet another important question, that of reality, by allowing Woland and his retinue to perform supernatural acts that undermine the Soviet axiom of materialistic reality as the only permissible one. The meaning of the supernatural happenings in the novel lies not in their logical explanation, however, but in the allowance that some other reality—supernatural, spiritual, irrational, or mystical—also exists. To this end, Bulgakov tells the Jerusalem story in a straightforward, realistic manner, without mythical or supernatural elements, whereas the Moscow story is replete with unreal and supernatural details. Bulgakov seems to ask, If today’s reality cannot be explained without resorting to the supernatural, although the events of two thousand years ago are crystal clear, how valid is a reliance on reason and facts? In fact, Bulgakov uses the Jerusalem angle not to give yet another account of the Crucifixion but to entice the reader to abandon dogmatic thinking of any kind.

In this novel, Bulgakov is engaged in an ongoing argument with the Soviet rulers. Nowhere is this clearer than in the statement, repeated in several passages, that cowardice is the greatest sin. This sin lies at the...

(This entire section contains 1030 words.)

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core of Pilate’s behavior (hence the emphasis on him, and not on Christ), it figures in the betrayal of Jesus by Matthew, and it constitutes the chief failure of the Master. The author’s own stakes in this altercation are obvious from his biography. His longstanding battle with the Soviet bureaucracy and his resignation to his fate lead to a conclusion that Bulgakov was trying to assuage his own guilty feelings for having been bullied into at least superficial submission to the authorities.The Master and Margarita was written during the final and most painful period of Bulgakov’s life, while he was enduring internal exile. Indeed, at least some aspects of The Master and Margarita are based on personal experiences. Like the Master, Bulgakov was hounded into intellectual obscurity by literary and political dogmatists. Margarita is modeled after his second wife, who encouraged him to persevere and did much of the copying work after Bulgakov lost his eyesight in the last years of his life. Just as the Master’s novel was rescued from the fire, Bulgakov’s novel was preserved after his death by his wife. Both Bulgakov and his character the Master had to rely on faith in basic goodness.

This complex novel has given rise to many equally complex interpretations. Andrew Barratt, for example, has promulgated the theory that the novel’s main postulates are based on the Gnostic philosophy of the second century, a precursor of the third century Manichaean movement. According to this philosophy, a supernatural being periodically comes to Earth bearing a message that, if properly deciphered, promises the possibility of divine illumination. The message is recognized by only a small number of people in whom the divine spark has not been totally extinguished by the conditions of earthly existence. According to this interpretation, Woland can be regarded as an emissary. His messages are that life is imperfect and must be accepted as such; that good and evil will coexist forever and that evil exists to help human beings recognize what good is; that human striving toward the good leads to suffering and death, but ultimately to life, the only life worth living; and, finally, that cowardice is the greatest sin.

No one interpretation answers all the questions posed by the work, a riddle-novel as the author himself called it. Bulgakov died before giving it its final form, but even as it stands, The Master and Margarita remains one of the most thought-provoking, intriguing, and amusing novels in world literature.


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