Master i Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov
Russian novelist, playwright, biographer, and short story writer.
The following entry provides criticism on Bulgakov's novel Master i Margarita (1966-67; The Master and Margarita). See also Mikhail Bulgakov Criticism.
Master i Margarita (1966-67; The Master and Margarita), composed by one of the foremost writers of post-revolutionary Russia, is a complex narrative that weaves together several stories that, taken as a whole, argue against bureaucratic society's oppression of the artist. Bulgakov recognized the work as his highest achievement, and after burning an early draft of the manuscript, resumed work on the piece late in his life, dictating final revisions on his deathbed. Often likened to Goethe's Faust, The Master and Margarita is widely considered one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century Russian literature.
Plot and Major Characters
The Master and Margarita intertwines three stories: one concerning the character Woland; one revolving around the Master, a novelist, and his muse, Margarita; and the third retelling the last days of Jesus. Woland is often considered a devil figure and is generally compared to Goethe's Mephistopheles in his tragedy Faust. Woland creates havoc in the lives of the stupid, the scheming, and the avaricious of modern Moscow. The Master and Margarita share a comfortable home in a basement apartment in Moscow, but when the Master's novel is censured and a neighbor covetous of the apartment denounces him as ideologically unsound, their peace is disrupted. Margarita appeals to Woland for aid, and he eventually restores both the home and the manuscript to the Master. Within this narrative Bulgakov embeds the story of the Passion of Christ, which is the subject of the Master's novel. The work, based on a poem by Ivan Bezdomnyi, a schizophrenic, chronicles the last days before the execution of the soft-spoken philosopher Ieshua, depicting the decision of Pontius Pilate, the betrayal and murder of Judas of Iscariot, and the anguish of Matthew Levi. The novel is condemned, partially because of its treatment of Ieshua's death as historical fact rather than myth. Through his interweaving of these three stories Bulgakov creates a network of thematic parallels.
Although separated by more than a thousand years, the events occurring in Moscow and those set in ancient Jerusalem take place during Passover. This temporal relationship creates an overarching context for the philosophical issues at play in Bulgakov's work: the rational versus the irrational, good versus evil, illusion versus truth, the natural versus the supernatural. In Moscow's positivistic society such oppositions lead to the kind of schizophrenia that plagues Bezdomnyi and renders Muscovites unable to distinguish between black magic and political subterfuge. Bulgakov suggests a thematic link between the transcendence of these oppositions and the idea of home portrayed in the Master's apartment. Like Bulgakov's portrayal of the devil in Woland, his depiction of Jesus is equally unorthodox; although the character asserts the fundamental beliefs of orthodox Christianity, he complains that Matthew's writings about him are inaccurate. The main theme of The Master and Margarita, as presented in the story of the Master, is that of the artist's role in society. Despite Bulgakov's assertion in the novel that “manuscripts don't burn,” which affirms his belief that art will endure the vicissitudes of political repression, the novel's metaphysical ending seems to point to Bulgakov's own fears about the artist's ability to survive.
Bulgakov gave copies of The Master and Margarita to his wife and a close friend, and they remained closely guarded until Bulgakov's literary rehabilitation during Nikita Khrushchev's cultural thaw of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Master and Margarita was finally published in a heavily censored form in two installments in the journal Moskva in 1966 and 1967. It caused an immediate sensation and has sustained critical interest through out its history. Much attention has been given to the nature of Woland, Bulgakov's devil figure, who appears less an evil being in opposition to God than as God's counterpart whose task it is to punish the corrupt. Woland's relationship with the Master has been seen as a Faustian pact; indeed, references to Goethe's Faust permeate the novel. Two versions of the novel exist: the censored edition printed in Moskva, which eliminates much of the anti-Soviet satire, and the complete text. While there has been some controversy regarding their relative merits, both are considered valuable to a reader's understanding of Bulgakov's masterpiece.