Why would the devil pay a visit to a contemporary city, and what sort of business would he conduct there? What seems a fanciful premise was perhaps less so for a persecuted writer in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Mikhail Bulgakov completed his novel The Master and Margarita just before his death in 1940, but it remained officially unpublished until 1966, whereupon it achieved the status of an underground masterpiece.
In the book’s first chapter, the devil appears briefly to Berlioz, a literary magazine editor, as “a transparent citizen,” a “phantasm” (p. 8) that disappears after Berlioz closes and opens his eyes. Then, in the midst of a conversation between Berlioz and Ivan, a poet, about whether Jesus was real or fictitious, the devil appears to both of them and joins their conversation, looking only unusual enough to be thought “a foreigner” (p. 10). He is troubled by their atheism and their corresponding belief that humans determine their own fate. Besides assuring them that Jesus did in fact exist, the devil predicts the precise manner in which Berlioz will die, and he turns out to be right. Slipping on spilled sunflower oil in the third chapter, Berlioz falls onto the rails of an oncoming tram-car, which severs his head. From this beginning, we might assume that Woland (the name Bulgakov eventually gives the devil) will perpetrate evil and, while he is at it, prove the powerlessness of humans to predict or control the future. But the novel’s epigraph, from Goethe’s Faust, has prepared us for something else; it is a question asked by Faust, answered by Mephistopheles: ” ‘…who are you, then?’/’I am part of that power which eternally/wills evil and eternally works good.’ ”
Insofar as Woland’s evil manifests itself in the sudden, menacing disappearance of various characters, as well as the deaths of Berlioz and Baron Meigel, he inevitably reminds us of how Stalin dealt with actual and potential political enemies. But Woland is also a force for good, as evidenced by his orchestration of the reunion of the novel’s other central figures—the master, an unnamed novelist whose manuscript has been publicly denounced and denied publication, and Margarita, his married lover. Moral ambiguity is central to the novel. As Woland says to Matthew Levi, “what would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it?” (p. 360).
The interconnectedness of opposing ideas or concepts, frequently demonstrated by strange reversals, is one of the principles upon which the novel is constructed. Near the middle of the book, the personal secretary for the head of the Commission on Spectacles and Entertainment of the Lighter Type describes an encounter between her boss, Prokhor Petrovich, and Koroviev, one of Woland’s retinue. Annoyed by Koroviev’s assertiveness, Petrovich quickly loses patience, shouting, “What is all this? Get him out of here, devil take me!” Koroviev is only too happy to oblige: “Devil take you? That, in fact, can be done!” (p. 189). Petrovich is thereafter nothing but a suit, though one which continues to go about Petrovich’s business and speak with his voice. This incident is but one example of a running joke in the novel—its characters invoke the devil in a figure of speech, only to have their words make even more literal than figurative sense. Like all deeply funny jokes, this one is in the service of a serious idea. The distinctions we draw between the literal and the figurative—or between good and evil, real and imagined, life and death, art and reality, the material world and the spiritual world—have a certain kind of utility. They bring order to the randomness and chaos of personal experience. But they also limit our sense of what is possible. What Bulgakov’s novel suggests is that when order is imposed externally—such as the extreme measures employed by Woland to emphasize human powerlessness or by Stalin to maintain political power—the personal experience of those upon whom order is imposed becomes so detached from reality that the feeling of randomness and chaos is heightened, not reduced.
If Woland, despite his resemblance to Stalin, is too complex to fit inside a simple framework of good and evil, so too are the master and Margarita. It may be tempting to see the master as a representation of the pure artist made to suffer in an environment that can accommodate neither him nor his art. But we are given to understand, though indirectly, that Yeshua (the name given to Jesus in the master’s manuscript) considered cowardice among the worst of vices, and we must ask if it is not cowardice that causes the master to try to burn his manuscript. Also, when considering what the master’s fate will be, Woland agrees with Matthew Levi’s assessment that the master “does not deserve the light, he deserves peace” (p. 361). Is peace a greater or lesser reward than light?
Margarita is even more complicated. Though her husband is “young, handsome, kind, honest, and adore[s] his wife” (p. 217), only the master makes her happy. It’s never entirely clear whether Woland or the police are responsible for the master’s disappearance, but a member of Woland’s retinue, Azazello, offers to reunite them if Margarita will agree to become a witch and host Woland’s ball. Woland’s power frightens her, but she alone among the novel’s characters uses it for her own—often altruistic—ends. Perhaps the most striking example is Margarita’s request, when Woland offers her a reward for hosting the ball, that Frieda be released from her eternal torment, the nightly appearance of the handkerchief with which she suffocated her baby. Unlike Faust, Margarita is happy to have made her bargain with Woland; when she wakes up the morning after the ball back in the natural world, everything is “as if it ought to have been so” (p. 331). Is it her love, albeit adulterous, for the master that prevails? Is it her commitment to the value of his art? Since she and the master leave this world at the end of the novel, what kind of triumph does she achieve?
In a sense, Bulgakov’s novel follows them. The final chapter concludes in the supernatural world, and the epilogue concludes in the novel’s material world. But both ultimately end with the last sentence of the master’s manuscript, as if to suggest that only in art do we ever find complete resolution. Throughout the novel, Bulgakov has exploited art’s capacity to represent the unassimilable, the unfathomable, the illogical. At the same time, he reminds us of its related capacity to fulfill dreams. The results elicit terror, laughter, sadness, and wonder.