Three Things I Learned from The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita Cover

I don’t recall where I first came across The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, but when I read the book description, I knew I had to have it. I won’t go into the details of the novel since its breadth is vast and includes dozens of fascinating characters, not the least of which are Woland and his bizarre retinue. Here is a highly condensed plot summary that I adapted from Wikipedia:

Satan appears in Moscow at the Patriarch Ponds in the guise of “Professor Woland,” along with a retinue that includes the grotesquely dressed valet Koroviev, a gun-happy, fast-talking black cat Behemoth, a fanged hitman named Azazello, and Hella, a beautiful female vampire. As soon as they arrive, they begin wreaking havoc. First up on the list is the murder of Berlioz, the head of the literary bureaucracy Massolit.

Major episodes in the novel’s first half include a satirical portrait of Massolit and their Griboyedov house; Satan’s magic show at the Variety Theatre, satirizing the vanity, greed, and gullibility of the new Russian elite; and Woland and his retinue taking over the late Berlioz’s apartment.

Part two introduces Margarita, the mistress of an embittered author, known as the Master, who has written a book about Pontius Pilate. She refuses to despair over her lover or his work and vows to remain with him rather than going back to her husband. Later, she is invited to the Devil’s midnight ball, where Woland offers her the chance to become a witch with supernatural powers.

As a reward for serving as hostess of the ball, Woland grants Margarita a wish, which he had expected her to use to release her lover—but which she spends instead on Pontius Pilate, freeing him from his shackle of guilt and infamy and allowing him, at last, to walk alongside Jesus, whose philosophy he so admired. Then, thanks to Woland, the Master and Margarita “die” only to leave civilization with the Devil as all of Moscow’s cupolas and windows burn in the setting Easter sun.

Okay, let’s get started.

Never Accept Anything from the Devil
Most people know this, but that doesn’t stop an audience at the Variety Theatre from taking Koroviev’s irresistible offer of free money and new clothes and running into the street, where the clothes suddenly vanish, and the money turns into strips of blank paper—or worse, foreign currency, which is illegal.

The corollary to this advice is, never get into an argument with the devil—especially over something you know nothing about. Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz learns this lesson the hard way at the beginning of the novel when he attempts to tell Woland that Jesus never actually existed, thus promoting the state’s official atheist position. Irritated with this pompous ass, Woland arranges for Berlioz to die in a freak accident with a tram, where he is quickly dispatched by beheading.

Totalitarianism Makes Everyone a Crook
During the period in which the novel was written, Bulgakov was living in the Soviet Union under Stalin. As the author described it, pretty much everyone was conning everyone for money, power, position, or a combination of all three. People were hoarding rubles under mattresses and foreign currency in hidden compartments.

Because decent apartments were so hard to come by in Moscow, people resorted to all kinds of deception. Styopa, the director of the Variety Theatre and Berlioz’s roommate at Bolshaya Sadovaya 302-bis, had denounced at least five innocent people as spies just so he and Berlioz could acquire their spacious apartment.

Russians Are as Nutty as We Are
The characters portrayed in the novel are not only colorful but easily recognizable. They long for love and money. Husbands cheat on wives, and wives on husbands. They insult one another and kiss up, depending on the circumstances. They overeat and overdrink. They gossip. And some end up in the loony bin.

The Master is residing there, along with a frustrated young poet who goes by the name of Homeless after attempting to chase the devil and catch him for killing his friend Berlioz. George Bengalsky, the master of ceremonies at the Variety Theatre, also ends up in the asylum after having his head torn off, then put back on, when he had the audacity to suggest that what Koroviev was doing onstage was nothing more than tricks and deception.

The Master and Margarita was written between 1928 and 1940 and is as fresh today as when it was first published in the 1960s. The humor is sharp—sometimes caustic, which is necessary to depict the frustration of living as a “citizen” under Stalin. There’s an especially poignant tone that reflects the sorrow of being an artist in a heartless, atheist state. The novel is a gem that in a highly entertaining way gives everyone their due, including the devil.