Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1967 novel, The Master and Margarita can be characterized with many words: classic, satirical, political, offensive, masterpiece, atheistic and countless other contradictory terms. Whatever word selection each unique reader makes, there is always one word that seems to follow The Master and Margarita, controversy.
The controversy behind Bulgakov’s text begins at the root of the story’s two distinct settings: 1930s communist Moscow, Russia and Pontius Pilate’s court in Jerusalem. The settings are linked by one central figure serving as the text’s main character, the Devil. Here lies the second controversy. It appears that Bulgakov’s vision for his text is to serve as commentary on the godless politics of Stalin’s regime.
The wonderful thing about Bulgakov’s text is the “devil is in the details.” A reader quickly realizes that The Master and Margarita is a story within a story. As the devil ascends on Moscow, he is accompanied by a black cat, who walks upright, speaks in proper grammar and happens to have a fondness for Vodka and chess. Both are escorted by a supernatural witch. While in Moscow, the devil challenges the beliefs of “The Master,” a novelist, whose book about the trial of Jesus lands him in a psychiatric clinic. While hospitalized, he is questioned by Soviet police, meanwhile, his devoted disciple/lover, Margarita, gives her soul to the devil in order to save her beloved Master.
The changing settings, the copious characters, the multiple depths of various storylines and the satirical commentary can be confusing for a reader, as a reader has to keep track of several various points throughout the novel. Even the title seems to confound readers, as I asked a bookstore employee to assist in locating this novel, she instantly handed me a book detailing perfect Margarita recipes. What makes The Master and Margarita a worthwhile read after all these years? What makes the novel deserving of being dusted off and read instead of being pushed behind a book of perfect Margarita recipes?
Bulgakov never unequivocally declares The Master and Margarita a political commentary or a protest of his country. He simply presents the interwoven stories for the readers to decide for themselves. It is no wonder that so many contradictory terms can be employed to classify this novel. Some readers find utilizing the devil and comparing other characters to Jesus Christ atheistic, while today’s readers may view the novel’s political agenda as too abrasive.
It is also easy to imagine why Bulgakov burned the first manuscript of The Master and Margarita written in the 1930s. Subsequently, the phrase “manuscripts don’t burn” appears several times throughout the text. Here lies the true theme of The Master and Margarita. Whether Mikhail Bulgakov intended for his text to have a sweeping political agenda or to cause great debates, only the author truly knows. As readers continue to focus on the finer details of the novel, an infinite number of possible interpretations occur. Personally, I believe “manuscripts don’t burn” is Bulgakov’s main point. Thus making, The Master and Margarita more relevant now than ever.
Writers can physically take the time to light a match and watch their manuscripts heartbreakingly go up in flames. However, writers cannot ignite and destroy the ideas from which their manuscripts are based. Writers cannot shake the haunting sentiments their manuscript spark within their own creativity. Furthermore, a writer cannot burn the changes, debates and insightful new ideas that stem from readers enjoying their work. Each time readers open the pages of The Master and Margarita, they create their own understandings, which no one can incinerate.