The Master and Margarita Summary
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The Master and Margarita is a Soviet-era novel by Russian novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov. Though written between 1928 and 1940, it was not published in book form until 1967. Centered around the devil paying a visit to the Atheist-controlled Soviet Union, it is considered to be one of the greatest Soviet-era satires. First published in a heavily censored form in Moscow Magazine, it was not published in its complete form until 1973, with a version containing additional text being released in 1989, after the beginning of glasnost. Heavily influenced by the Faust legend and exploring themes of good and evil, freedom of religion, and conspiracies such as Freemasonry, The Master and Margarita is incredibly influential in Europe. It has been adapted into live-action films, animated films, television miniseries, radio dramas, comic strips and graphic novels, theater productions, ballets, and operas. It has also been referenced in dozens of pop songs and classical compositions. It was listed as one of Le Monde’s 100 most influential books of the century.
The Master and Margarita alternates between two settings. The first is 1930s Moscow, where Satan impersonates a mysterious gentleman going by the name Professor Woland. Accompanied by a valet named Koroviev, a gun-toting black cat named Behemoth, and a vampire, ghoul, and witch, Satan and his fellow supernatural beings wreak havoc on the Moscow culture of the time. They target the literary elite, the trade union, and the corrupt social climbers and bureaucrats of the era. The second setting is Jerusalem in the time of Pontius Pilate, which is seen in “Woland”’s conversations with the bureaucrat Berlioz, and deals with the trial of Jesus and the devil’s growing understanding and sympathy for Jesus, as his execution approaches and the devil becomes resigned to his fate.
The novel opens with a direct confrontation between Berlioz and Woland, with the latter claiming to have prophetic powers. He predicts Berlioz’s upcoming death, and Berlioz brushes it off—only to die pages later. A young, modern poet named Ivan Ponryev witnesses the death, and he pursues the gang of supernatural beings and attempts to expose their evil nature, but his claims land him in an insane asylum. While imprisoned, he meets a man known only as the Master, an embittered author who went insane when his novel about the history of Pontius Pilate and Jesus was rejected. He burned his manuscript and sealed himself away, turning his back on his writing, the world, and even his lover, Margarita. In this first part of the novel, we also see Satan, in disguise as Woland, make his rounds of society as he sends up their vanity, greed, and gullibility. He scams his way into taking over the late Berlioz’s apartment for his own purposes.
In part two of the novel, Margarita is introduced. She has refused to fall into despair over the Master’s actions, and is invited to the Devil’s midnight ball, where Woland offers her the chance to gain magical powers. This takes place on Good Friday, when Jesus’ death sentence is shown in the Master’s novel. Margarita soon learns to fly, and exacts a brutal vengeance on the bureaucrats who condemned her lover’s novel. With the aid of her maid Natasha, she delves deep into the realm of witchcraft and eventually returns as the anointed hostess for Satan’s great Spring ball. She joins the devil to welcome some of the most notorious villains in human history as they arrive from hell. As a reward for her service, Satan offers to grant Margarita her deepest wish. She selflessly chooses to free a woman she met at the ball, because the woman did not belong in hell. Her crime was that she had suffocated her infant, who was conceived by rape. The devil is impressed by Margarita’s selflessness, and grants her a second wish as a reward. She chooses to free the Master and to leave her witchcraft behind, choosing to live in poverty but love with him.
The devil is not impressed that she chooses to leave the dark ways behind, and he sends his minion Azazello to retrieve Margarita and the Master. They are poisoned with Pontius Pilate’s poisoned wine, and sent to limbo to spend eternity together. In the end, the two storylines come together, for as Master and Margarita enter the realm of limbo, Pontius Pilate is released from his own damnation, when the Master calls out to him in the end of his book. Pontius Pilate walks out of hell and heads up a moonlit path to where Jesus is waiting, and finally enters his own eternity.
Mikhail Bulgakov is considered one of the most significant early Soviet writers. He is best known for The Master and Margarita, which was published after his death in 1940. He is also responsible for nine other novels and short story collections, ranging from chronicles of the post-revolution era to satirical short stories about the Soviet government. Also a playwright and a physician, he was instrumental in diagnosing the effects of syphilis on bones. A strong supporter of the monarchy and an activist against the death penalty in his lifetime, he is memorialized today with museums in Kiev and Moscow. His old house is now the Bulgakov House, a museum where major scenes of The Master and Margarita were set.
Multiple plots yield multiple meanings. Mikhail Bulgakov’s enduring topics, brought to their greatest formulation in this novel, are many. They include the connection between the real artist and transcendental truth (the Master’s novel is known to the transcendental figures); the fate of the artist, who is ordinarily at odds with society (the Master and Bezdomny suffer in society, but “manuscripts don’t burn,” and their work will last, though the artists themselves die); the necessity for perseverance in one’s work (the Master may achieve only rest, not absolution, because he ceases his writing); the failure of the idealistic aims of the revolution (the magic show reveals that the Soviet people are greedy for consumer goods); the importance of loyalty, generosity, love, and compassion in a world of suffering (Margarita’s choices represent ideal love); the imperative for courage in challenging violence (Pilate suffers purgatory for his failure); the abuse of power which is not based on faith (Mark Muribellum, Pilate’s strong man, has become inhuman in his practice of violence); the true creator’s hatred of hypocrisy, fanaticism, self-seeking, and lying (the man who informs on the Master is the nadir of human character); the acceptance of one’s fate and death (the lyrical epilogue on the coming of death communicates tragic acceptance); and humanity’s freedom of will (each of the characters chooses his behavior; responsibility always remains with...
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