Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2354
Mikhail Bulgakov lived and worked in a world in rapid transformation, with the traditional and the revolutionary, the tragic and the comic, the mundane and the fantastic, and the secular and the religious continually colliding. His writing reflects these juxtaposed opposites, and this makes it difficult to place him in a literary category. Many of Bulgakov’s works are marked by complex plot structures and narrative techniques that weave together different levels of storytelling. The plays, stories, and novels he produced also show the variety of his literary influences. They combine, in different degrees, the grim satire of early nineteenth century Russian author Nikolai Gogol and the moral realism of the late nineteenth century master Fyodor Dostoevski. Bulgakov was an admirer of science fiction, and his imaginative flights were inspired by the English author H. G. Wells. His early theological background led him to bring biblical themes and concepts into his work.
All of Bulgakov’s work, even the most fantastic, contains a large element of autobiography, but it is always autobiography that mixes episodes in the external world, perceptions, and thoughts. A Country Doctor’s Notebook, for example, is a series of fictionalized vignettes of his own experiences as a medical man in the countryside. It consists of tragicomic stories told by a first-person narrator. This narrator is an introspective individual, much given to spending time in his own thoughts, which superimposes an individual psychology on a world of events. Realistic enough to document early nineteenth century medical practices, the observations occur in the mind of a narrator readily stimulated to fantasy.
The White Guard similarly grew out of Bulgakov’s own life. The Turbin family, around whom he structured the tale of the coming of war to Kiev, was based on Bulgakov’s own family. Aleksei Turbin is clearly based on Bulgakov himself. In the novel’s alternation between scenes of home life and battle scenes, the writer offered his own experience of the impact of history on the life of a single family and the life of a city. Again, however, the autobiography goes beyond historical realism and enters into a psychological level. The novel shuttles rapidly across scenes and episodes, at times possessing a cinematic quality. Bits of disconnected dialogue and sound effects accompany this scene-shifting. The overall effect is one of a world that is shattering around the lives at the center of the story; it is an autobiography that tries to recount how it felt to be in a city at war.
Satire was another characteristic of Bulgakov’s work, one that coexisted with his autobiographical inclination. It was through satire that another trait was expressed most forcefully—the use of imaginative fantasy. Some of the satire can be seen in his humorous approaches to country life in A Country Doctor’s Notebook. However, the contradictions and bureaucratic character of Moscow life in the 1920’s after the civil war moved him more toward writing in the satirical vein. The short stories he published in the mid-1920’s, such as “Diavoliada” (“Diaboliad”) and “Rokovye iaitsa” (“The Fatal Eggs”), brought together the sharp satire of Gogol with twentieth century science fiction. Influenced by the fiction of Wells, the latter story tells of a Russian zoologist who invents a ray that enables creatures born of eggs to increase their size and reproductive rate. Russia is affected by a disease that wipes out its chicken population, and eggs are imported from other countries to replace them. The ray is applied to the eggs to increase productivity, but by mistake the eggs treated are those of reptiles rather than chickens and the country is attacked by an army of giant snakes and crocodiles. The Soviet worship of ever-increasing productivity and efficiency and the problem of unforeseen consequences are here mocked in the guise of science fiction. The satire was also pronounced in many of Bulgakov’s plays; The Crimson Island, for example, satirized Soviet censorship.
The Heart of a Dog
First published: Sobache serdtse, wr. 1925; pb. 1968; reliable text, 1969 (English translation, 1968)
Type of work: Novella
After transplanting human organs into a stray dog, a scientist is troubled as the dog takes on human characteristics
The Heart of a Dog is often regarded as science fiction or satirical fantasy. The novella tells the tale of Sharik, a stray dog who has been brought in for experimentation by the scientist Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky. The experimenter specializes in transplanting the organs of animals into humans and vice versa.
The work moves with a constantly shifting perspective, jumping from the dog’s point of view to Preobrazhensky’s to that of an unseen narrator. It opens with the howling of the dog, who complains that he was scalded when a cook at the National Economic Council’s canteen spilled boiling water on him. Sharik recounts his misfortune to himself. He had been foraging in the garbage outside the council building when the cook threw the water out. The style shows some of what has been called “stream of consciousness,” as the dog thinks about the good life he could have enjoyed, rolling in the park, and about his present misfortune.
A girl finds the injured dog, and, without a break, the narrative slips from the dog’s thoughts to a narrator outside the story. Then it returns to the dog, who sees Preobrazhensky in the street and imagines what the man is thinking. Preobrazhensky puts a leash on the dog and leads him away. Thus, the opening of the story introduces readers to the main characters and the technique of juxtaposing internal monologues and physical descriptions.
The tale continues with Sharik watching the professor, who is seeing patients at his apartment. Sharik bites a man whom Preobrazhensky has been rejuvenating with transplants, and the dog sees a woman in whom the doctor promises to transplant monkey ovaries. The dog also watches as Preobrazhensky is visited by a house management committee threatening to install more residents in the doctor’s home. Preobrazhensky overcomes this problem by calling a powerful patient waiting for an operation and threatening to end his practice. The scientist dismisses the committee with sneering comments about the proletariat. In this way, the science-fiction elements of the story are placed alongside elements of Socialist Realism, sardonically portraying the redistribution of homes and rooms in newly socialist Russia, along with the corruption that accompanied these types of social experiments. Bulgakov is calling attention to the clumsy nature of economic and social experimentation in the same scenes in which he presents imaginary scientific experimentation.
Preobrazhensky eats well, and while sharing a meal with a fellow doctor he makes more derisive remarks about the proletariat and socialist ideals. The reader is never entirely sure whether Bulgakov might be agreeing, at least in part, with Preobrazhensky’s sentiments toward the new Russia. When the fellow doctor accuses Preobrazhensky of sounding like a counterrevolutionary, Preobrazhensky shrugs off the accusation and pays his friend for the bite that Sharik has inflicted. Sharik, however, is in for his own surprise. Doctor Bormenthal, Preobrazhensky’s associate, puts a cloth with a strange smell over the dog’s nose, and then the two men lift the animal onto an operating table. In an eerie operation, they replace the dog’s testicles and pituitary gland with those of a deceased man.
After the operation the narrative shifts again, starting as Preobrazhensky’s notes on the operation and then becoming a journal of changes in Sharik, who becomes gradually more human. The former dog begins to speak and then to wear clothes; eventually, his outward appearance is completely human.
As Sharik moves closer toward humanity, he becomes more of a bother to Preobrazhensky. Eventually, the dog becomes not simply human but a human along the lines of Soviet slogans, albeit with some canine traits, such as scratching for fleas. He renames himself Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov and styles himself as an agent of the Moscow Cleansing Department, which has the job of eliminating cats and other small animals. Eventually, Preobrazhensky has to turn his creature back into a dog in order to have any peace.
The Master and Margarita
First published: Master i Margarita, wr. 1928-1940; pb. 1966-1967, censored version; 1973, uncensored version (English translation, 1967)
Type of work: Novel
Satan comes to Earth in Moscow during the Stalinist period and turns a novelist’s mistress into a witch, thereby unintentionally saving the novelist from oppression
The Master and Margarita is generally regarded as Bulgakov’s best work and as one of the masterpieces of world literature. It incorporates the satirical fantasy of The Heart of a Dog but carries this to a higher level of sophistication and artistry. Bulgakov began writing the book in 1928 but reported burning the first version of the manuscript in 1930, after one of his plays was banned. He later wrote a second version and finally finished a draft of a third version in 1937, but he continued working on this last draft until his death.
In the first scene of the book, two Soviet atheist literary men, Berlioz and the poet Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov, who has the pen name Bezdomny, meet a mysterious magician named Woland on a park bench in Moscow. Woland, who is Satan in disguise, interrupts a discussion of theology, prefiguring the eruption of the religious and magical into materialist Soviet official reality that will run throughout the book. Woland predicts that Berlioz’s head will be cut off at a precise time later that morning. Numerous satirical references to Soviet life appear in the first chapter. For example, Berlioz is is the head of the MASSOLIT, a Soviet-style acronym for a writers’ organization that could be rendered in English as “Lottalit.” The initial chapter is entitled “Never Talk to Strangers,” which would not only be good advice for the two men meeting Satan but also reflects Soviet paranoid propaganda about public enemies.
Following Bulgakov’s technique of rapidly shifting setting, Woland begins talking about the meeting of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus the Nazarene), and the story jumps back centuries to this meeting. This same story will also be found in the rejected manuscript of the Master’s novel, and it will recur as a second level of narrative, or a story within a story, throughout the book. Drawing on his theological background, Bulgakov works apocryphal material about the life of Jesus into the narrative. The scene moves back to the three men in the park, where the two atheists are skeptical of Woland’s account of the Gospel. However, Woland’s authority seems to be verified when Berlioz is hit by a streetcar and beheaded, according to prediction.
Much of the rest of part 1 of the novel concerns the descent of Ivan Nikolayevich into madness, or confrontation with reality, until he is locked up in a hospital. There, in chapter 13, entitled “Enter the Hero,” Ivan Nikolayevich meets the mysterious Master. In delaying the introduction of the hero for so long and then announcing that he is bringing in the protagonist, Bulgakov is making a point of playing with novelistic conventions. Stories of Woland as a magician and his Satanic familiars are interspersed with the movement toward the entrance of the Master, as are episodes from the strange gospel of Pilate.
If Bulgakov delays in presenting the Master, he waits even longer to introduce Margarita, who enters only in the second half of the book. Margarita, who may have been based on Bulgakov’s third wife, Elena Shilovskaya, continues to support the Master and his novel, even in the face of his despair. She reaches a deal with Woland, or Satan, and becomes a witch, flying naked through the air. The climax of the novel occurs when Margarita attends Satan’s grand ball at midnight on Good Friday, a reminder of the Master’s novel about Yeshua and Pilate. At the ball she meets the great figures from history released from the ball. Offered one wish, she chooses to free the Master. Together, the Master and Margarita leave Moscow, its hypocrisy and corruption, with Satan.
Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel
First published: Teatralny roman, 1965 (English translation, 1967)
Type of work: Novel
A writer experiences hypocrisy and difficulty while attempting to stage a dramatic adaptation of his novel
Black Snow displays both the autobiographical and the satirical components in Bulgakov’s work. Written in the first person, it tells the story of Maxudov, the author of a novel who has been invited to write a play based on his novel, much as Bulgakov was asked to turn The White Guard into Days of the Turbins. The theater is clearly the Moscow Arts Theater of the 1930’s, guided by Konstantin Stanislavsky, the originator of method acting. Bulgakov skewers the character representing Stanislavsky, whom he clearly found difficult during his own days at the Moscow Arts Theater.
The novel opens with the chapter “How It All Began,” with Maxudov receiving a request for an interview from Xavier Borisovich Ilchin, the director of the Academy of Drama at the Independent Theater. With Bulgakov’s typical fondness for playing with plot structures, however, this turns out not to be the beginning, since the story then shifts back to a previous time, when Maxudov was the proofreader for The Shipping Gazette and had written an unpublished novel in his spare time. He was about to commit suicide when he heard a performance of the opera Faust in a nearby room and was interrupted by a magazine editor, who wanted to publish his novel. For several chapters, Maxudov tells the story of his novel’s publication and then suddenly returns to his meeting with Ilchin.
Instead of bringing success, the dramatization of Maxudov’s novel is an endless series of farcical frustrations. Ultimately, Maxudov does commit suicide by throwing himself off a bridge. The narrative ends in an uncompleted sentence. However, Bulgakov includes an afterword explaining that Maxudov did not finish his novel because of his suicide. Was the novel really unfinished, or was Maxudov’s failure to end the tale the real and intended ending of Bulgakov’s novel about a story about a play based on a novel?
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