The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Mikhail Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita in the last years of his life but was unable to do the final editing. The novel was not published in the Soviet Union until 1966. It was published abroad the following year in two versions, official and unexpurgated. A third translation, more faithful to the original, was published in 1995. The novel mirrors Bulgakov’s fate of a dissident hounded into silence and internal exile.

On a warm spring afternoon in a Moscow park, Berlioz, the editor of a leading literary journal, and Bez-domny, a poet, meet a foreign-looking stranger accom-panied by two odd characters and a huge tomcat. The stranger is Woland, a professor of black magic and the incarnation of the Devil. The writers are astounded by his familiarity with their lives and with personalities from several centuries. Woland predicts that Berlioz soon will be run over by a streetcar. In the first of four chapters devoted to the Jerusalem story, Woland tells them about Pontius Pilate’s encounter with Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus Christ) and about Pilate’s obsession with truth and his feelings of guilt concerning Christ’s fate.

Berlioz is decapitated by a trolley, and Bezdomny is placed in a mental institution when he tries to tell his fellow writers about it. Woland and his retinue settle in Berlioz’s apartment and proceed to wreak havoc among Muscovites, sending some thousands of miles away as philistines, inducing others to fight...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Moscow. Capital of Russia around the time the Soviet Union is being formed. Appropriately, this novel about spiritual values opens at Patriarch’s Pond in Old Moscow, named after the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Thereafter, the capital city combines recognizable topography from Moscow’s center—Spiridonovka Street, the Kiev Railway Station, the Aleksandrovsky Gardens, Skaterny Lane—with occasional arbitrary changes in street locations and other details. Ultimately, most facets of the Devil’s visit to the city reveal how communism under the Bolsheviks reduces its citizens to hypocrisy, bribery, blackmail, spying, and denunciation by thwarting their “normal desire to live a decent, human existence.”

Griboyedov house

Griboyedov house (gree-bo-YE-dof). Home of the literary organization MASSOLIT, apparently Mikhail Bulgakov’s version of an actual literary headquarters of the 1920’s-1930’s called Herzen House. Bureaucratic inequities, envy, and self-interest dominate the scene. MASSOLIT’s members enjoy such perks as summerhouses and fine meals at the gourmet restaurant.

Dramlit house

Dramlit house. Eight-floor dwelling trimmed with black marble and gold letters in which Margarita destroys the apartment of the unscrupulous critic who ruins the Master, a Soviet writer who has written a novel about Jesus and Pontius Pilate.

Variety Theater

Variety Theater. Theater on Moscow’s Sadovaya Street that is the site of a magic spectacle hosted by the Devil and his crew to probe the audience’s spiritual state. The Devil concludes that modern Muscovites are ordinary humans, weak yet compassionate, whom the housing shortage has “soured.”

Devil’s headquarters

Devil’s headquarters. Apartment number 50 at 302A Sadovaya Street in Moscow that is initially a home shared by the MASSOLIT chairman and the manager of the Variety Theater. It becomes the Devil’s center of operations for...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Stalin Era
Bulgakov's writing career, particularly the twelve-year period between 1928 and 1940 when he worked on The...

(The entire section is 936 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

This book uses a complex version of the story-in-story structure, weaving the narrative about Pontius Pilate in...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Master and Margarita, which at an early stage may have been entitled A Fantastic Novel, is above all, a flight of fancy. As...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1968: Viewing the Vietnam War on television, Americans became more and more suspicious of their government. Atrocities, such as the...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Explain why you think that Woland's associate Behemoth is presented as a cat, while Pilate's closest companion is his dog. List the...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Three of the most obvious influences on Bulgakov's writing of The Master and Margarita are the Bible, the Faust legend and the works...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Many of the stylistic devices employed in The Master and Margarita, such as grotesquerie, dark satire and the fantastic can be found...

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The fantastic quality of The Master and Margarita has lent itself well to adaptation for stage and screen. There have been two film...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The Master and Margarita was adapted for video in 1988. This version was directed by Alexandra Petrovich and released by SBS.


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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

This book's use of fantasy elements to lampoon social behavior is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's ever-popular Alice books, Alice's...

(The entire section is 318 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor, Vintage...

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(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Sources for Further Study

Barrat, Andrew. Between Two Worlds: A Critical Introduction to “The Master and Margarita.” Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1987. Astute examination of various interpretations dealing mainly with the Gnostic message and the appearance of the mysterious messenger Woland. Extensive select bibliography and index.

Curtis, J. A. E. Bulgakov’s Last Decade: The Writer as Hero. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Study of Bulgakov’s literary profile. Contains a discussion of The Master and Margarita. Good bibliography of primary and secondary...

(The entire section is 235 words.)