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The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)


    The novel is set in contemporary Moscow, first-century Judea and an unnamed place which can probably be equated to Hell. It follows Pontius Pilate during the days leading up to Jesus’ trial, an illicit love affair between an unusually talented and sensitive writer and an extraordinary woman, and a Mephistophelian figure who arrives in Moscow with his entourage in order to cause chaos. Bulgakov includes a quotation from Faust at the beginning of the text, “‘Say at last- who art thou?’/ ‘That Power I serve/ Which wills forever evil/ Yet does forever good.’” The novel is heavily influenced by Faustian concerns, for example thirst for knowledge, human limitations, the confusion of the supernatural with everyday life, madness, love and redemption; Bulgakov has even written in a Walpurgis Night. There is no central protagonist, however- it seems that the whole of modern humanity stands in for Faust.
    The character who corresponds to Mephistopheles is known as Professor Woland, although his true name is never revealed. His appearance is charming and knowledge of philosophy and history unparalleled; he behaves with courtesy towards all he meets, relying on his henchmen to scare and manipulate people. These consist of Koroviev, a tall man in a checked suit with broken glasses who introduces himself as a retired choirmaster, Behemoth, a giant black cat who walks, talks and enjoys playing tricks and starting fights, Azazello, a thug with a fang and a squint, and Hella, a beautiful witch with a scar across her neck. They target the theatre in particular, as a way of reaching a great deal of people all at once, but also so that Bulgakov is able to explore themes of illusion, and our instinct to constantly rationalise the inexplicable. This, he suggests, is our modern method of dealing with issues such as belief in God and the existence of evil, but also a way of blinding ourselves to our own flaws and justifying our own bad behaviour.
    The citizens of Moscow are totally hapless against Woland and his entourage, yet there is a sense that their own flaws have contributed to this. They are relentlessly caricatured as lustful, thieving, vain, selfish, bureaucratic and greedy; for example, Griboyedov House, supposedly a hotbed of artistic and literary talent, is in reality Kafkaesque in its incompetence and lack of humanity. As with Faust, The Master and Margarita is full of images to do with food and gluttony, describing feasts at the best restaurants and food halls in department stores, which contrast with the moral starvation of the citizens. Also, in a similar manner to Mephistopheles, Woland’s pranks vary from the amusing to the unnecessarily cruel. Thanks to him, formerly respectable and contented citizens are deeply traumatised and haunted by pain and bad dreams during the full moon. People are decapitated, and then have their heads reattached, are visited and tormented by Woland’s henchmen, have their homes and livelihoods destroyed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet there is a sense that some have been changed for the better by their contact with the devil; for example Ivan Nikolayich, a former poet, is left sadder and troubled but wiser, with deeper insight into the human condition. The Master, who has lost all sense of purpose and cannot even remember his own name, and Margarita, his desperately unhappy former mistress, are reunited through Woland’s doing, and manage to find peace of mind together. Griboyedov House, with all its hypocrisy and back-biting, is burned down by Koroviev and Behemoth, to allow a new building to be erected in its place. Even Pontius Pilate, the subject of the Master’s novel, is redeemed from his torment over condemning Jesus (Yeshua) to death, and is finally able to seek and receive forgiveness from him. Like Faust, all the characters who commit great and terrible sins are redeemed, whereas those who commit more petty and everyday sins are left to be punished on earth.
    The Walpurgis Night scene acts as the climax of a novel where so far the action has consisted of random, scattered events. It focuses on Margarita, who when we meet her is suicidally unhappy, despite having a superficially comfortable life. She is approached by Azazello, who at first repulses her for reasons she cannot fully describe, yet rather than attempt to explain him away as others have done, she accepts him at face value and has a conversation with him. It transpires that she has been selected as a hostess for the Devil’s ball, and because she feels she has nothing to live for without her lover, she accepts.  Using magic makeup she becomes ten years younger and more beautiful than ever, then flies through Moscow on a broomstick to find the ball, which takes place in a space that is neither real nor imaginary. Thousands of murderers, rapists, adulterers and other evildoers pour into it over the course of the night, and Margarita has to attend to them all, after which Woland offers her anything she desires. She chooses to be with the Master again and they literally fly off into the sunset, happily ever after. During this passage, however, the true natures of Woland, Behemoth, Azazello and Koroviev are physically revealed by the moonlight as they fly. While in Moscow they are clownish and grotesque, nothing more than jokers and thugs, in limbo they become much more chilling. For me, this is Bulgakov’s suggestion that most of the time, we cannot see things purely, being blinded by wishful thinking or denial or fear. At the same time, since the Master and Margarita are rewarded beyond their wildest dreams by being brave enough to recognise the Devil for what he is, it seems the dangers and rewards of being able to stare evil in the face are much greater than those we are ever likely to encounter in our earthly lives.

    “As to his teeth, he had platinum crowns on his left side and gold ones on his right. He wore an expensive grey suit and foreign shoes of the same colour as his suit. His grey beret was stuck jauntily over one ear and under his arm he carried a walking stick with a knob in the shape of a poodle’s head. He looked slightly over forty. Crooked sort of mouth. Clean-shaven. Dark hair. Right eye black, left eye for some reason green. Eyebrows black, but one higher than the other. In short- a foreigner.” (14)
    “ ‘I?’ rejoined the professor and thought for a moment. ‘Yes, I suppose I am German...’ he said.” (22)
    “There are no evil people on earth.”- Yeshua (33)
    “[Yeshua] had gone forever and there was no-one to heal the Procurator’s terrible, savage pains; there was no cure for them now except death... The Procurator was obscurely aware that he still had something to say to the prisoner and that perhaps, too, he had more to learn from him.” (41)
    “Boiled fillets of perch was nothing...! What about the sturgeon, sturgeon in a silver-plated pan, sturgeon filleted and served between lobsters’ tails and fresh caviar? And oeufs en cocotte with mushroom puree in little bowls? And didn’t you like the thrushes’ breasts? With truffles?” (65)
    “The vocalist was no longer singing- he was howling. Now and again the crash of cymbals in the band drowned the noise of dirty crockery flung down a sloping chute to the scullery. In short- hell.” description of the dancing in the restaurant at Griboyedov (68)
    “He didn’t have to push him! He can do things you’d never believe! He knew in advance Berlioz was going to fall under a tram... The fact is that the professor is... well, let’s be frank... he’s in league with the powers of evil... and it’s not so easy to catch someone like him.” (78)
    “I’ll tell you what has really happened to you. Yesterday someone gave you a bad fright and upset you with this story about Pontius Pilate and other things... Quite naturally people took you for a lunatic. Your only salvation is complete rest. And you must stay here” (102)
    “Suddenly, half-way down the staircase something else occurred to him- how had that interpreter found his way into the study past a sealed door? And why on earth had he, Nikolai Ivanovich, forgotten to ask him about it?” (109)
    “There was no doubt that some lunatic or practical joker was telegraphing from Yalta. But the strange thing was- how did this wit in Yalta know about Woland, who had only arrived in Moscow the evening before? How did he know about the connection between Likhodeyev and Woland?” (116)
    “He had to find an immediate, on-the-spot, natural solution for a number of very unusual phenomena” (117)
    “He’s a mysterious, superior being- that’s what makes it so interesting. Think of it- a man who knew Pontius Pilate! Instead of creating that ridiculous scene... wouldn’t it have been rather more intelligent to ask him politely what happened next...?” (127)
    “‘I am not so much interested in the buses and trams and suchlike... as in the more important question: have the Muscovites changed inwardly?” (133)
    “Immediately a cascade of white pieces of paper began to float down from the dome above the auditorium...  From all over the house, amid gasps and delighted laughter, came the words ‘money, money!’ One man was already crawling in the aisle and fumbling under the seats... From the dress circle a voice was heard shouting, ‘Let go! It’s mine- I caught it first!’, followed by another voice: ‘Stop pushing and grabbing or I’ll punch your face in!’”(134-5)
    “Then [it was] announced that because it was so late, the shop would close until to-morrow evening. This produced an incredible scuffle onstage. Without trying them on, women grabbed any shoes within reach.” (140)
    “Yesterday, at Patriarch’s Ponds, you met Satan... The man you were talking to was with Pontius Pilate, he did have breakfast with Kant and now he has paid a call on Moscow” (147)
“We walked in silence down that dreary, winding little street without saying a word, she on one side, I on the other. There was not another soul in the street. I was in agony because I felt I had to speak to her and was worried that I might not be able to utter a word.” (150)
     “I felt, especially just before going to sleep, that some very cold, supple octopus was fastening its tentacles around my heart” (156)
    “The wretched victim of her own rashness and vanity… could do nothing but hope to be swallowed up by the ground.” (162)
    “Her arms, coloured deathly green, started to stretch as if it were made of rubber. Finally her green cadaverous fingers caught the knob of the window-catch, turned it and the casement oened… The cock crowed again, the girl gnashed her teeth and her auburn hair stood on end.” (168-9)
    “You are not an almighty God- you are an evil God! I curse you, God of robbers, their patron and protector!”- Matthew the Levite (190)
    “He genuinely mourned the death of his wife’s cousin but… being a practical man, he fully realized that there was no special need for his presence at the funeral. Yet Maximilian Andreyevich was in a great hurry to go to Moscow. What for? For one thing- the flat… Practical people know that opportunities of that sort never come twice.” (208-9)
    “I always think… that there’s something unpleasant lurking in people who avoid drinking, gambling and pretty women. People like that are either sick or secretly hate their fellow men.” Woland (219-20)
    “I’d sell my soul to the devil to know whether he’s alive or not” (236)
    “The anointing had not only changed her appearance... Margarita felt free, free of everything, realising with absolute clarity that what was happening was the fulfilment of her presentiment that morning, that she was going to leave her house and her past forever.” (244)
    “We shall see people who in their time wielded enormous power. But when one recalls how microscopic their influence really was in comparison with the powers of the one in whose retinue I have the honour to serve they become quite laughable, even pathetic” (267)
    “[Woland’s] eyes bored into Margarita’s face. In the depths of the right eye was a golden spark that could pierce any soul to its core; the left eye was as empty and black as a small black diamond, as the mouth of a bottomless well of dark and shadow.” (268)
    “Koroviev appeared and hung on Margarita’s breast a picture of a black poodle in a heavy oval frame with a massive chain.” (276)
    “The naked women mounting the staircase between the tail-coated and white-tied men floated up in a spectrum of coloured bodies that ranged from white through olive, copper and coffee to quite black. In hair that was red, black, chestnut and flaxen, sparks flashed from precious stones.” (284)
    “Margarita showed as little interest in the emperor Caius Caligula and Messalina as she did in the rest of the procession of kings, dukes, knights, suicides, poisoners, gallows-birds, procuresses, jailers, card-sharpers, hangmen, informers, traitors, madmen, detectives and seducers.” (285)
    “You should never ask anyone for anything. Never- and especially from those who are more powerful than yourself. They will make the offer and they will give of their own accord” (298)
    “Remove the document- and you remove the man” (306)
    “He was walking with... the vagrant philosopher beside him. They were arguing about a weighty and complex problem over which neither could gain the upper hand... The execution, of course, had been a pure misunderstanding: after all, this same man, with his ridiculous philosophy that all men are good, was walking beside him- consequently, he was alive.” (336)
    “There were no dead and no wounded. No-one, including the cat, had been hit. As a final test one man fired five rounds into the beastly animal’s stomach and the cat retaliated with a whole volley that had the same result- not a scratch” (362)
     “Think, now: where would your good be if there were no evil, and what would the world look like without shadows?... Do you want to strip the whole globe by removing every tree and every creature to satisfy your fantasy of a bare world?” (378)
    “You weak, faithless, stupid man! Why do you think I spent the whole of last night prancing about naked, why do you think I sold my human nature and became a witch, why do you think I spent months in this dim, damp little hole thinking of nothing but the storm over Jerusalem, why do you think I cried my eyes out when you vanished?” (385)
    “For ever... I must think what that means” (395)
    “How sad, ye gods, how sad the world is at evening, how mysterious the mists over the swamps. You will know it when you have wandered astray in those mists, when you have suffered greatly before dying, when you have walked through the world carrying an unbearable burden.” (398)
    “Don’t you want, like Faust, to sit over a retort in hopes of fashioning a new homunculus?” (402)
    “Cultured people took the viewpoint of the police: a gang of brilliantly skilful hypnotists and ventriloquists had been at work” (404)