Mikhail Bulgakov World Literature Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 2354 words.)