Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov
written 1928-1940, published 1973

“The devil only knows…”

The first novel I’ve read since finishing my Master’s degree in English was, perhaps appropriately, The Master and Margarita. Although I didn’t enjoy every moment of the reading, I do think it is a good book because I keep thinking about it and making connections days later.

The novel is about the devil. His name is Woland. He has a three part retinue made up of Koroviev, Azezello, and a large black cat called Behemoth. These three make up the unholy trinity, except of course it doesn’t quite line up, since God “The Father” is himself a part of the Christian Trinity, and here Woland is separate from it. This troubles me somewhat, as one interested in Christian symbolism, but it’s not, I think, as important as the book’s message, which is (I think) that the devil – i.e. an opposing force to God - is not a horrible tragedy, but necessary.

How can “evil” be necessary? In the Master and Margarita Bulgakov demonstrates that sometimes “bad” can be a force of “good,” and vice versa. For example, in writing a novel about the contentious Christian figure, Pontius Pilate, the Master performs an act of “good.” In loving Margarita he commits “evil,” because Margarita is already married. Yet, both writing and love bring the Master pain and happiness. One action is considered “right” and one “wrong,” but their results do not accord to their supposed moral values. The novel questions what moral value really means – an extremely appropriate and telling approach, considering the climate of censorship in which Bulgakov, in Soviet Russia, wrote.

The fact that the novel begins with and continually returns to Pontius Pilate was a source of confusion and (mostly) enjoyable intrigue for me. Looking back at the book as a whole, I have an idea as to why Bulgakov chose Pilate to make this point. In the Bible, which is more or less populated by characters whose moral status is clear and known (especially in the Old Testament) Pilate stands out as someone both extraordinarily important, and as someone whose morality remains ambiguous. Pilate, of course, was the Prefect of Judaea when Jesus was put to death on the cross. Though the Bible (and the Master’s novel) portrays Pilate as sympathetic to Jesus (Ha-Nostri, in Bulgakov’s text) one feels compelled to cast judgment on him since, however unwillingly, he carries out the public’s request to release another prisoner, and instead crucify Jesus. In the Bible Pilate infamously washes his hands in front of a crowd of onlookers, perhaps attempting to absolve himself symbolically of his role in the death.

According to the characters in Bulgakov’s text, Pilate’s crime is cowardice: he lacks the courage to admit his beliefs and defy the public’s, and the government’s, wishes. So, should Pilate be sent to Hell? Bulgakov seems not to think so. Neither do I. Our reasons, I think, are similar; Pilate’s “bad” action was ultimately an essential cause of the “good” that came out of it –that is, the resurrection of Jesus and his triumph over death. For the premise of the Christianity of the New Testament to work, Jesus must die, otherwise he cannot rise from the dead to “conquer sin” and offer eternal life to his followers. Hence Pilate (or if it hadn’t been Pilate, someone else) had to allow Jesus to be killed. Good and evil are intertwined; one cannot exist without the other. Thus, in a sense, one is in fact composed essentially of the other. The Bible suggests this, though many Christians forget it. If we cannot tell what action is really good, and which is really bad, The Master and Margarita compels one to wonder – does the world have any meaning, order, or logic to it? Or is everything merely a great game of absurdity? What do you think Bulgakov is saying?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I said, this book isn't for me, but I am glad you liked it. Carry on.....I like reading what you write! :)

  3. Don't worry, mom. It's called "mostly" novels, not all! I do read non-fiction too, so keep checking in and pretty soon I'll have something up on the kind of lit you're more interested in. :) Thanks for reading!

  4. I just feel lazy for choosing not to finish it!! And since I didn't finish it I can neither contest nor make an informed concurrence with your argument---though I really did enjoy it. It resonates with a dichotomy I have been interested in since last summer after reading Dylan Thomas's "Devil Incarnate." It puts the concepts of good and evil in completely relative terms, and when you consider that both are necessary, it certainly makes the evil seem more benign....especially if one of it's primary purposes is to enhance those things that we value.

    here's a link to it if you're interested (it's ony three stanzas).

  5. Thanks for sharing the poem, Jess! The relativity of good/evil is also something I'm very interested in as a Buddhist. Well, in Buddhism such things don't actually exist at all! :) Everything just "is." I think this is what Bulgakov was dealing with in Soviet Russia, where there seemed no rhyme or reason to the censorship and bureaucracy of the government; it became all too clear that people did not agree on the meaning of things. Maybe you could even link this theme back to DaDa - that absurdity is definitely at play in M&M. I wonder if Thomas was reacting to strict religious values of his day that also seemed absurd? I love these lines the best:

    "The wisemen tell me that the garden gods
    Twined good and evil on an eastern tree;
    And when the moon rose windily it was
    Black as the beast and paler than the cross."

    Not either/or, but both/and. Thank you for making that connection! Now, go finish the book. ;) OR, check out Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; that will be my next post.