Demons. Vampires. Witches. Literary critics. Just some of the eerie and menacing creatures that populate Bulgakovs sweeping novel. Written during the darkest days of Stalin’s regime, the book combines grotesque comedy with a sense of omnipresent menace and secrecy. Both a satire on soviet life and a tender examination of the human spirit, this is a book not to be overlooked.
The plot is a complex structure interweaving three stories: The Devils visit to Moscow with his Demons; A woman who sells her soul to save her lover; And the biblical story of Pontius Pilate, who had Christ executed. The third story weaves between the other two and provides a moral backdrop for the rest of the action.
The story of the Demons exploits is largely a satire of soviet life, told in the spirit of grotesque comedy. The Demons booze and gun sling their way through Moscow, savaging the literary Elite. The motive seems to largely be retribution: publishers have fallen in with government policy and suppressed religious literature. Throughout the book bewildered publishers are evicted, beaten up, harassed with menacing phone calls, and set on by Vampires. The action climaxes in a grotesque Seance in which the Demons punish greed and vanity; They give women elaborate dresses-which vanish, leaving the wearer in their underwear. The whole plot presents a picture of mundane reality interrupted by unexplained bouts of violence.
The story of Margarita is more complex and centered. It is a female Faust story centering on a demonic pact and its consequences-but Margarita is more complex and ambiguous than Faust. She represents the meeting point of good and evil, displaying good qualities at the most incongruous moments. True to form, she and her lover end up in purgatory, eternally hanging between good and evil. The couple represent all-too-worldly human love, both un-condemnable and un-savable.
The only equal to Margarita in moral dubity is also the only character to reach redemption: Pontus Pilate is the brutal and conflicted anti-hero of the “flashback” plot set in ancient Jerusalem. Travelling through the moral spectrum, his story is the high point of the book, being a fable of guilt, cowardice and redemption. The brutal comedy and the worldly love of the other two plots are set against the third, in which a character is his own tormentor. Pilates story provides a context for Bulgakovs moral that “cowardice is tha greatest human vice”.
In parallel, the three plots represent three examples of sin and retribution, determined by the levels of recognition. In the first plot, the literary elite are so desensitized to corruption, they are unconscious of having done anything wrong. Their bewilderment at the demonic attacks provides a lot of the comedy, but also defines the story. They represent a society gone morally blind.
The second story concerns guilt conscious but passive; Margarita makes her deal with her eyes open, absolutely complacent provided she gets what she wants. The lovers make no move towards redemption. There is no introspective debate in the story. The lovers do not recognise that they have done wrong, and so end up in purgatory. Margaritas story presents a moral passivity that Bulgakov considered dangerous, personally and socially the unwillingness to become conscious of wrongdoing.
Pilate, who spends most of the book in a miasma of guilt, is the only one to reach redemption. There is no compromise or Demonic punishment in his story, because Pilate faces his own wrongdoing. There are attempts to make amends, internal debates, and a final reward. Bulgakovs moral is that, individually and socially , we have to look our crimes full in the face. Then we can set them right.
“The Master and Margarita” may have political meaning, but it also has a far more permanent relevance. Bulgakov examines the moral ambiguity of human nature, the nature of sin, the importance of introspection. It is a lovely book, written with humour and intelligence, and deserves its place among the great classics.