Book Reviews/The Master and Margarita

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Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita
Course Metadata
SchoolLanguage and Literature
DepartmentLiterary Studies

Master And Margarita

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Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita.....

Character Descriptions

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Woland (Satan)

Members of Woland's Entourage

  • Behemoth
  • Koroviev
  • Azazello
  • Hella

The Master


Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov (Bezdomny)

Major Themes

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  • Spiritual vs. Material Worlds- Man, in society, prefers to rely on himself and thinks he can ignore spiritual issues. "But what troubles me is this," Woland says to Ivan Homeless, "if there is no God, then, you might ask, who governs the life of men and, generally, the entire situation here on earth?" "Man himself governs it," Homeless replies. Bulgakov's novel, however, is his argument against Homeless's claim. It is an attempt to demonstrate that man does not govern the world as he believes. Woland and Yeshua represent the spiritual in the two parallel plots. Pilate tells Yeshua that his life hangs by a hair that he can cut, but Yeshua responds, "There, too, are you mistaken... You must agree that the hair can surely be cut only by him who had hung it?"

The novel makes it clear that earthly power is fleeting and one can die, like Berlioz, at any moment.

Characters who ignore the spiritual are confronted with it in an uncomfortable way.

According to A. Colin Wright, "In the end, it is the spiritual that triumphs, out of necessity, for it is eternal." Woland, the manifestation of the spiritual within the novel, is the ultimate arbitrator of justice. He ensures that the Master and Margarita fulfill their deepest desire, to share in each other's fate. Ultimately, this leaves the reader with a fundamental optimism "Everything will turn out right. That's what the world is built on," Woland tells Margarita.

  • Absurdity
  • The State- Through the parallel plot structure, Bulgakov constantly reinforces the harmful and damaging power retained by "The State." In the biblical story, Pilate represents the state. He imposes.... In modern Russia the state fosters a specific attitude in citizens. Foreigners are treated with suspicion, busybodies are rewarded.... Evil is inherent in dictatorial power and that citizens intimidated by this power will go against their moral principles. "In both Moscow and Jerusalem," says critic Ellendea Proffer, "tyranny is maintained through spies, denunciations, and simple fear. As for Pilate himself, he is the precursor of the judges of the Stalin years who presided over the great show trials."
  • Truth- The theme of Yeshua's way, the way of truth and justice, is presented in The Master and Margarita as a lost secret which must be "rediscovered." The main seeker of truth in the novel is The Master. He succeeds in discovering the true story of Pontius Pilate however the greater desire for truth in the midst of soviet Russia remains after the novel's conclusion.
  • Literature and Writers

Allusions to Faust MASSOLIT

Composition History

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Trained at the University of Bulgakov spent some of his formative years practicing medicine in provincial villages. These experiences inspired him to begin writing one of his earliest works, Notes of a Young Country Doctor. In 1918 Bulgakov returned to Kiev and then enlisted in the White Army in the Russian Civil War as a field doctor. At the beginning of 1920, however, he abandoned his career as a doctor to devote himself to writing. In 1921 Bulgakov moved to Moscow. He worked as a journalist writing humorous sketches and short novels. His novel The White Guard(1924) was one of the first serious works to describe the Civil War and one of the only works published under the Soviet regime which sympathetically portrayed the White cause and its supporters. Bulgakov also wrote a play, Days of the Turbins based on White Guard which premiered in Moscow in 1926. As the Soviet Union became more ideologically rigid in the late 1920s, Bulgakov's works came under attack and in 1929 all his plays were banned.

Sometime towards the end of his life, Bulgakov mentioned to a friend that he was working on "just a little trivial thing." This "little thing" became the apex of his literary career, sealing him into the cannon of great Russian authors.

Bulgakov began working on the novel that became Master and Margarita in the winter of 1928-29. Through the examination of Bulgakov’s correspondences, it seems as though the original inspiration for ‘’’Master and Margarita’’’ was the concept of the gospel according to the devil. The first version of the novel was finished in 1929 under the title The Consultant with a Hoof. This manuscript made no mention of neither The Master nor Margarita as characters. Bulgakov destroyed this first draft in 1930 when he became convinced of the hopelessness of a literary career in Soviet Russia. A year later he re-started work on the novel. The 1931 version contained development of the magical aspects present in the finished work and the character of Margarita was briefly mentioned. A third version from 1932 was the first complete work but still was distinctly different from Bulgakov’s final product. Bulgakov continued to rewrite sections of the third version from 1934-36 until the start of 1937 whereupon he wrote approximately 60 pages of a fourth version before abandoning that as well. In the fall of 1937 he started yet another version, now titled The Prince of Darkness which he also left unfinished. Finally, also in autumn of ‘37 he started again from the beginning on a sixth version entitled, The Master and Margarita.

The first page of Bulgakov's original manuscript, "The Consultant with a Hoof"

Publication History

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A substantially censored version of Master and Margarita was published for the first time in the Russian journal “Moskva” in two installments: first in November of 1966 and then in January of 1967. The most heavily edited portions were Bulgakov’s discussion of the secret police in both Jerusalem and Moscow which was seen as subversive. After underground circulation, the complete, uncensored text was published in Paris in 1967. Two years later, in 1969, a German publisher put out an edition that italicized text that had been edited by soviet censors. The first unedited edition of the novel was published in Moscow in 1973 which became the official standard.

English Translations:

Mirra Ginsburg (Grove Press, 1967) Ginsburg's original translation was made from the 1967 Soviet text and therefore mirrors the censorship present in that version. It has since been updated, most recently in 1994.

Michael Glenny (Harper & Row, 1967)

Diana Burgin & Katherine Tiernan O'Connor (Ardis, 1995)

Richard Pevear (Penguin, 1997)

Michael Karpelson (Wordsworth, 2011)

Literary Significance

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Critic A. Collin Wright puts it best when he says "The Master and Margarita is not a tidy work, nor does it present a logically structured argument: like many a great book, ultimitely its greatness lies in its power to evoke responses intuitively from the reader."


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  • "Pilatus und Andere"(germ.)/"Pilot and Others"(eng.) A film from year 1972 by Andrzej Wajda, Polish director.

Study Questions

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  1. What function does the novel's epigraph, an excerpt from Goethe's Faust, serve? How does it relate to the overall themes in Master and Margarita?
  2. Satan in this work is not a "fire and brimstone" devil, but rather an erudite intellectual with a rag-tag group of followers whose antics reveal human vice and hypocrisy at every turn. Why do you think Bulgakov portrays divine evil this manner?
  3. What role does madness play in The Master and Margarita? Are those conscripted to the mad house insane, or is society? How does this reflect the Soviet practice of institutionalizing dissidents?
  4. Early in the novel we begin to see the conflict between Christianity, mythology, and atheism. How do these clashes perhaps lay the framework, or at least provide a resonating theme, for the rest of the novel?
  5. Why do you think Bulgakov waited so long to introduce the eponymous characters? Do you think that the Master and Margarita are the novel's heroes?
  6. How do we understand the character of Pontius Pilate?
  7. What is the connection between the parallel plots in Master and Margarita? What do you think Bulgakov is trying to say in juxtaposing the Christ story and (then) contemporary Soviet society under Stalin?
  8. What function does Bulgakov's inclusion of fantastic elements serve? In other words, why are there elements of fantasy in the novel and do they help us understand a deeper meaning?
  9. What is the role of humor in the novel?


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Barratt, Andrew. Between Two Worlds: A Critical Introduction to 'The Master and Margarita'. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987. Print.

Gillespie, David Charles. The Twentieth Century Russian Novel: An Introduction. Oxford: Berg, 1996. Print.

Hoisington, Sona Stephan. A Plot of Her Own: The Female Protagonist in Russian Literature. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1995. Print.

Milne, Lesley. Mikhail Bulgakov: A Critical Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.

Pittman, Riitta H. The Writer's Divided Self in Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita'. New York: St. Martin's, 1991. Print.

Proffer, Ellendea. Bulgakov: Life and Work. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1984. Print.

Wright, A. Collin. Mikhail Bulgakov: Life and Interpretations. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1978. Print.


Journal Articles

Bolen, Val. "Theme and Coherence in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita." Slavic and East European Journal 16.4 (1972): 427-437. JSTOR. Web. 13 May 2012. <>.

Cretu, Andrei. "“Memento Mori”: A Hypothesis On The Genesis Of Bulgakov's The Master And Margarita." Slavic And East European Journal 54.3 (2010): 434-452. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 13 May 2012.