The Master and Margarita  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Master and Margarita is a Russian novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, woven about the premise of a visit by the Devil to the fervently atheistic Soviet Union. Many critics consider the book to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, as well as one of the foremost Soviet satires, directed against a suffocatingly bureaucratic social order. The book was written until the author's death in 1940 and first published as a single volume in 1967.

Allusions/references to other works

The novel is heavily influenced by the Faust legend, particularly the first part of the Goethe interpretation and the opera by Charles Gounod. Also the work of Nikolai Gogol is a heavy influence, as is the case with many of Bulgakov's novels. The dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri is strongly influenced by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's parable "The Grand Inquisitor" from The Brothers Karamazov. The novel references Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in the luckless visitors chapter "everything became jumbled in the Oblonsky household". The theme of the Devil exposing society as an apartment block, as it could be seen if the entire facade would be removed, has some precedents in The crippled devil (1641) by the Spanish Luis Vélez de Guevara (famously adapted to 18th century France by Lesage's Diable boiteux).

Plot summary

The novel alternates between two settings. The first is 1930s Moscow, which is visited by Satan in the guise of "Professor" Woland or Voland (Воланд), a mysterious gentleman "magician" of uncertain origin, who arrives with a retinue that includes the grotesquely dressed "ex-choirmaster" valet Koroviev (Fagotto) (Фагот, the name means "bassoon" in Russian and some other languages, from the Italian word fagotto), a mischievous, gun-happy, fast-talking black cat Behemoth (Бегемот, a subversive Puss in Boots, the name referring at once to the Biblical monster and the Russian word for Hippopotamus), the fanged hitman Azazello (Азазелло, hinting of Azazel), the pale-faced Abadonna (Абадонна, a reference to Abaddon) with a death-inflicting stare, and the witch Hella (Гелла). The havoc wreaked by this group targets the literary elite, along with its trade union, MASSOLIT (a Soviet-style abbreviation for "Moscow Association of Writers", Московская ассоциация литераторов, but possibly interpretable as "Literature for the Masses"; one translation of the book also mentions that this could be a play on words in Russian, which could be translated into English as something like "LOTSALIT"), its privileged HQ Griboyedov's House, corrupt social-climbers and their women (wives and mistresses alike) – bureaucrats and profiteers – and, more generally, skeptical unbelievers in the human spirit.

The second setting is the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, described by Woland talking to Berlioz and later echoed in the pages of the Master's novel. It concerns Pontius Pilate's trial of Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Иешуа га-Ноцри, Jesus the Nazarene), his recognition of an affinity with and spiritual need for Yeshua, and his reluctant but resigned submission to Yeshua's execution.

Part one of the novel opens with a direct confrontation between the unbelieving head of the literary bureaucracy, Berlioz (Берлиоз), and an urbane foreign gentleman who defends belief and reveals his prophetic powers (Woland). Berlioz brushes the prophecy of his death off, only to have it come true just pages later in the novel. This fulfillment of a death prophecy is witnessed by a young and enthusiastically modern poet, Ivan Ponyrev, who writes his poems under the alias Bezdomniy (Иван Бездомный – the name means "Homeless"). His futile attempt to chase and capture the "gang" and warn of their evil and mysterious nature lands Ivan in a lunatic asylum. Where Ivan is later introduced to The Master, an embittered author, the petty-minded rejection of whose historical novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ has led him to such despair that he burns his manuscript and turns his back on the "real" world, including his devoted lover, Margarita (Маргарита).

Major episodes in the first part of the novel include a satirical portrait of the Massolit and their Griboedov house;Satan's magic show at the Variety Theatre, satirizing the vanity, greed and gullibility of the new rich; and Woland and his retinue capturing the late Berlioz's apartment for their own use.

Part two of the novel introduces Margarita, the Master's mistress, who refuses to despair of her lover or his work. She is invited to the Devil's Walpurgis Night midnight ball, then made an offer by Satan (Woland), and accepts it, becoming a witch with supernatural powers. This coincides with the night of Good Friday since the Master's novel also deals with this same spring full moon when Christ's fate is sealed by Pontius Pilate and he is crucified in Jerusalem. All three events in the novel are linked by this.

Learning to fly and control her unleashed passions (not without exacting violent retribution on the literary bureaucrats who condemned her beloved to despair), and taking her enthusiastic maid Natasha with her, Margarita enters naked into realm of night. She flies over the deep forests and rivers of Mother Russia; bathes and returns with Azazello, her escort, to Moscow as the anointed hostess for Satan's great Spring Ball. Standing by his side, she welcomes the dark celebrities of human history as they arrive from Hell.

She survives this ordeal without breaking, and for her pains, Satan offers to grant Margarita her deepest wish. Maragarita selflessly chooses to liberate a woman from her eternal punishment she had met from her night at the ball. The woman was raped and had later suffocated her newborn by stuffing a handkerchief in its mouth. Her punishment was to wake up every morning and find the same handkerchief lying on her nightstand. Satan grants her first wish and offers her another, citing that the first wish was unrelated to Maragarita's own desires. For her second wish, she chooses to liberate the Master and live in poverty and love with him. Neither Woland nor Yeshua think her chosen way of life for Master and Margarita's likes. Azazello is sent to retrieve them. The three drink Pontius Pilate's poisoned wine in the Master's basement. Master and Margarita die, though their death is metaphorical as Azazello watches their physical manifestations die. Azazello reawakens them and they leave civilization with the Devil as Moscow's cupolas and windows burn in the setting Easter sun. The Master and Margarita, for not having lost their faith in humanity, are granted "peace" but are denied "light" – that is, they will spend eternity together in a shadowy yet pleasant region similar to Dante's depiction of Limbo, having not earned the glories of Heaven, but not deserving the punishments of Hell. As a parallel to the Master and Margarita's freedom, Pontius Pilate is released from his eternal punishment when the Master finally calls out to Pontius Pilate telling him he's free. And so he may finally walk up the moonbeam path in his dreams and up to Yeshua, where another eternity awaits.




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