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A masterpiece of literature
on 3 March 2018
In the decades following the publication of The Master and Margarita, myriad critics have attempted to find a key to unlock the meaning of Bulgakov’s unfinished masterwork. Some viewed the novel as a political roman à clef, laboriously substituting historical figures from Stalinist Moscow for Bulgakov’s characters. Others posited a religious formula to understand the relationships between good and evil in the novel.
After giving myself time to think, I believe that any attempts to reduce the novel to a formula reflect some readers’ desire for neat, safe boxes to contain the world. This approach is at odds with the fear-ridden, desperate, and yet transcendent reality of Bulgakov’s experience in writing, revising, destroying, reconstructing, and then revising the novel, up to his death in Moscow on March 10, 1940. The Master and Margarita shows evidence of Bulgakov’s struggles to complete it, especially in part two, which illness prevented him from revising. I believe that the novel’s profound humanity stems from these imperfections, these facets not quite fitting neatly together, these jarring movements from scene to scene. In the end, The Master and Margarita is, by virtue of its own existence, a testament to the necessity of art in times of repression, and to the urgent need for artists to veer from cowardice and hold firmly to their commitment to living a true human life, with fantasy and reality combined, with history and invention feeding into each other, with good and evil providing the shadows and depth that make life meaningful and real.
One approach to The Master and Margarita that appeals to me is understanding it, in part, as a fairy tale. In the novel, Bulgakov threads together three different storylines, which intertwine, especially at the novel’s conclusion: the often slapstick depiction of life in Stalinist Moscow, seen in part through the antics of the devil Woland and his demonic helpers; the story of Pilate, with names and details transformed from the familiar Biblical versions; and the story of the Master and Margarita. The action takes place in a compressed time frame, so readers looking for character development will be disappointed. Instead, Bulgakov develops an extended allegory where flight equals freedom, where greed and small-mindedness are punished, and where weary artists are afforded some mercy and peace.
The Master and Margarita provided Bulgakov with a lifeline to the imagination in the midst of the stultifying culture of Stalinist Russia. There are healthy doses of wish fulfilment in the novel, especially in those sections in which Woland’s minions, Azazello, Behemoth, and Koroviev, wreak retribution for the petty-mindedness and greed inherent in this political and social system. There also is a desperate attempt to resist the Stalinist bent towards monotony and flatness, and instead to weave dizzying strands of magic, fantasy, and power into life in Moscow.
These attempts to use a story as wish fulfillment, criticizing a social order by turning it upside down in fiction, and recognizing how to use an audience’s sense of wonder as a fulcrum for change, resonate with the historical and cultural functions of fairy tales as described by scholars including Jack Zipes in The Great Fairy Tale Tradition and Marina Warner in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers. Magic and wonder force the reader to acknowledge other possibilities outside of a reality of political repression, poverty, and war. When fairy tales reveal challenges to misplaced authority, whether, in the guise of an evil queen or a greedy government official, they may take on one of two roles: a subversive threat to authority, or a valve to release the pressure of living under severe constraints. Perhaps most important, fairy tales remind their readers that life is miraculous and that certain freedoms, such as the freedom to imagine and dream, can be nurtured and honoured even under the most restrictive regimes.
For Bulgakov, the blend of the fantastical and the everyday in The Master and Margarita serves as his manifesto. Throughout his life, he fought to preserve the full human experience, not the two-dimensional totalitarianism in the Stalinist USSR, where human life was flattened of any sense of wonder, creativity, exuberance. Instead, he advocated for human life with all its shadows and colours, with a foundation in imagination and wonder. The freedom he sought was not simply freedom from communal housing or repressive government policies. Instead, he sought the freedom to imagine, to dream, to infuse his life with wonder, and to share his vision. For this reason, any attempt to read The Master and Margarita as a simple satire of Stalinist totalitarianism is misguided. Instead, Bulgakov sought to fly free along with his characters, and in doing so to tap into the universal human need for imagination, wonder, and freedom of the intellect and spirit.
Although Bulgakov universalized his quest for artistic freedom in The Master and Margarita, he drew inspiration and a sense of urgency from his experiences. A playwright, he faced censorship as his plays were banned and productions cancelled. He saw his fellow writers imprisoned for following their calling. (In response to one of these cases, Bulgakov destroyed one version of The Master and Margarita, which he later reconstructed.)
In desperation, between 1929 and 1930 Bulgakov wrote three letters to Soviet government officials, including Stalin, to protest his censorship and beg for a chance to practice his art, if not within Russia, outside it. In the final letter, dated March 28, 1930, Bulgakov movingly describes his ordeal, arguing that his duty as a writer is to defend artistic freedom, and pleading that being silenced is tantamount to death.
Although the letters provided Bulgakov with employment after receiving a favourable response and saved him from arrest or execution, he still faced his works’ being banned and suppressed. He devoted the last years of his life to revising The Master and Margarita, knowing he would not live to see it published, and sometimes despairing it would ever be read outside of his family circle. His widow, Yelena Shilovskaya, worked tirelessly after his death for decades, preserving his manuscript and finally seeing it published, in a censored version, in 1966 and 1967.
Some criticism of The Master and Margarita comes from the abrupt transitions and changes in mood among the three storylines: the actions of Woland and his minions in Moscow; the transformed story of Pontius Pilate, with some striking changes to the names of characters and the sequence of events which simultaneously make the narrative seem more historical and keep readers off-balance; and the story of the Master and Margarita, which includes Bulgakov’s central concerns about cowardice, artistry, duty, loyalty and love. I believe that Bulgakov purposefully constructed his novel so that the reader would be pulled from dimension to dimension. The effect, although jarring, is one of constant instability and surprise. The reader is immersed in a world where a Biblical past seems more historically based and less fantastic than 20th-century Moscow, where characters who are petty and greedy are meted out fantastic public punishments, at times literally on a stage, and wherein the end characters with the most substance and loyalty have their lives transformed through magic.
By carefully building this multifaceted world, with all the seams showing, Bulgakov forces us as readers to consider the intersections among these worlds. Bulgakov reveals how we cut ourselves off from the wellsprings of magic and wonder and invites us to join him in mounting a broomstick and riding off into the night sky, free from the constraints of our everyday lives.
Just as Bulgakov confounds his readers’ expectations of a unified and seamless world, so he also makes us question our assumptions about good and evil. A key character is Woland, the devil at the centre of the magical action. From his appearance in the first chapter, Woland presents an arresting and disconcerting figure. Woland immediately inserts himself into a conversation with Berlioz, the editor of a literary magazine and chair of MASSOLIT, a prestigious literary association, and Ivan, a poet also known by his pen name Bezdomny, engaging in a debate with them about the existence of God. Berlioz parrots many of the current arguments against the existence of God, but Woland deftly counters his arguments in a manner that veers between the charming and the sinister.
This debate introduces a theme that runs throughout The Master and Margarita: a cosmos in which good and evil each have their jurisdiction, but work together to ensure that people get the rewards or punishments that they deserve. In a famous passage later in the novel, Woland provides the following cogent description:
“You pronounced your words as if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of either shadows or evil. But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and from living beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You're stupid."
Throughout The Master and Margarita, Woland metes out justice to wrongdoers. However, he does not simply punish -- instead, he also rewards Margarita for her devotion, intelligence, loyalty, and bravery. He rescues the Master from his exile in the asylum and ultimately grants him and Margarita a destiny of peace and rest together. In doing so, Woland overturns our expectations. Bulgakov describes a world where good and evil powers work together to provide some justice and balance in our lives, in spite of the thoughtless and cruel ways that humans behave. As Woland tells Margarita at one point, “Everything will be made right, that is what the world is built on.” The true evil in The Master and Margarita does not rise from Hell but instead comes from the pettiness and greed of flawed, small-minded humans.
The Master makes his appearance relatively late in the novel, in chapter 13, “Enter the Hero.” However, he is not the traditional hero. He is a broken man, living in an asylum, remembering his love for Margarita, while at the same time turning his back on the art that Margarita loved, protected, and honoured: his novel about Pontius Pilate.
In a lengthy conversation with Ivan, the Master paints an idyllic portrait of his life with Margarita, who creates a cosy sanctuary full of roses and love, in which the written word is treasured and respected:
“Running her slender fingers and pointed nails through her hair, she endlessly reread what he had written, and then she sewed the very cap he had shown Ivan. Sometimes she would squat down next to the lower shelves or stand up on a chair next to the upper ones and dust the hundreds of books. She predicted fame, urged him on, and started calling him Master. She waited eagerly for the promised final words about the fifth procurator of Judea, recited the parts she especially liked in a loud sing-song voice and said that the novel was her life.”
However, this idyll comes to a crashing end when the Master completes the manuscript and looks for a publisher. He provides harrowing descriptions of his brutal treatment by the literary world in Moscow, as editors, publishers, and fellow writers publicly criticized him for his novel. These descriptions bear the pain of Bulgakov’s personal experience with censorship and rejection, culminating in the Master’s paralyzing fear of everything around him.
Finally, in a scene inspired by events in Bulgakov’s life, the Master attempts to destroy his manuscript. Although Margarita salvages some pages, this scene marks the end of her life with the Master, who turns his back on Margarita and his art. He describes himself as a man without a name or a future, marking time in the asylum. Bulgakov depicts the Master as a broken man, whose loss of spirit and cowardice in the face of adversity led him to lose everything of value in his life.
Margarita poses a stark contrast to the Master. When we finally meet her in part two, she is grieving over losing the Master, but she also shows herself to be intelligent, energetic, and fearless in her determination to find him and rebuild their life together. In doing so, Margarita is not taking an easy path. She is married to a successful husband who adores her. The two live in a large apartment with a great deal of privacy, a true luxury in Stalinist Moscow. She is beautiful, but she cannot put behind her deep dissatisfaction with her life, apparently perfect on the surface, but with no depth. She is living a lie. Her despair starts to break when she has a dream about the Master, which she views as a portent that her torment will soon come to an end. After rushing from her home, she has a fateful conversation with Azazello, whom Woland has tasked with inviting her to officiate as his queen at his ball. Margarita handles the interaction with spirit and courage, agreeing to follow Azazello’s mysterious instructions in hopes of learning the Master’s fate.
Margarita is transformed and embarks on a night ride, flying naked on a broomstick over Moscow. After wreaking havoc at the apartment of a publisher who had tormented the Master, and comforting a small boy who awakened, terrified by the destruction, she participates in a moonlight gathering of other magical creatures. Afterwards, she returns to Moscow in a magical car, “After all that evening's marvels and enchantments, she had already guessed who they were taking her to visit, but that didn't frighten her. The hope that there she would succeed in regaining her happiness made her fearless.” The night ride is a symbol of Margarita’s freedom and power.
Her fearlessness propels Margarita through her meeting with Woland and his minions, and a surreal evening as the queen of Woland’s midnight ball. Her devotion is rewarded by Woland, in scenes full of magic and moonlight. Although the Master crumbles in the face of adversity, Margarita becomes the ultimate hero and saviour through her courage and commitment to the Master and his art.
Throughout The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov uses key symbols to tie together the different chapters and storylines. Perhaps the most important symbol is the moon, which appears frequently in practically every chapter. The moon conveys a kind of otherworldly truth. Characters are bathed in moonlight at critical points in the novel, especially when making entrances, as when the Master first appears in Ivan’s hospital room. Moonlight imparts insight and truth even to the most delusional of characters. The moon lights the night rides of Woland, his companions, Margarita and the Master.
The moonlight also features prominently in the Pilate chapters, serving as a lynchpin between them and the rest of the novel. Pilate looks up at the moon for solace in the face of his agony from his migraines and his cowardice, with his faithful dog Banga as his sole companion. Bulgakov uses the moon to illuminate Pilate’s torment and his final peace, granted to him by the Master, his creator:
"[Pilate] has been sitting here for about two thousand years, sleeping, but, when the moon is full, he is tormented, as you see, by insomnia. And it torments not only him, but his faithful guardian, the dog. If it is true that cowardice is the gravest vice, then the dog, at least, is not guilty of it. The only thing that brave creature ever feared was thunderstorms. But what can be done, the one who loves must share the fate of the one he loves."
In response to Woland’s prompting, the Master stands and shouts the words that complete his novel, and end Pilate’s torture:
“The path of moonlight long awaited by the procurator led right up to the garden, and the dog with the pointed ears was the first to rush out on it. The man in the white cloak with the blood-red lining got up from his chair and shouted something in a hoarse, broken voice. It was impossible to make out whether he was laughing or crying, or what he was shouting, but he could be seen running down the path of moonlight, after his faithful guardian.”
Bulgakov follows this transformative scene with Woland’s gift of peace to the Master. As she did throughout the novel, Margarita remains by the Master’s side, his loyal companion through eternity. Bulgakov cannot give salvation to the Master, perhaps because of the enormity of his cowardice against art, perhaps because he has been so damaged by a hostile society. In these final passages, Margarita gives the Master, and the reader, a soothing picture of a peaceful life, perhaps one Bulgakov himself longed for:
"Listen to the silence," Margarita was saying to the Master, the sand crunching under her bare feet. "Listen and take pleasure in what you were not given in life—quiet. Look, there up ahead is your eternal home, which you've been given as a reward. I can see the Venetian window and the grape-vine curling up to the roof. There is your home, your eternal home. I know that in the evening's people you like will come to see you, people who interest you and who will not upset you. They will play for you, sing for you, and you will see how the room looks in candlelight. You will fall asleep with your grimy eternal cap on your head, you will fall asleep with a smile on your lips. Sleep will strengthen you, you will begin to reason wisely. And you will never be able to chase me away. I will guard your sleep."