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...
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