History: Bulgakov started writing the novel in 1928. He burnt the first manuscript of the novel in 1930, seeing no future as a writer in the Soviet Union. The work was restarted in 1931. In 1935 Bulgakov went to Spaso House, the residence of U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union William Bullitt, which was transformed by Bulgakov into the ball of the novel. The second draft was completed in 1936 by which point all the major plot lines of the final version were in place. The third draft was finished in 1937. Bulgakov continued to polish the work with the aid of his wife, but was forced to stop work on the fourth version four weeks before his death in 1940.
Plot: The novel alternates between two settings. The first is 1930s Moscow, which is visited by Satan in the guise of "Professor" Woland, a mysterious gentleman "magician" of uncertain origin, who arrives with a retinue that includes the grotesquely dressed "ex-choirmaster" valet Koroviev (Fagotto the name means "bassoon" in Russian and some other languages, from the Italian word fagotto), a mischievous, gun-happy, fast-talking black cat Behemoth (a subversive Puss in Boots, the name referring at once to the Biblical monster and the Russian word for Hippopotamus), the fanged hitman Azazello, the pale-faced Abadonna ( a reference to Abaddon) with a death-inflicting stare, and the witch Hella. The havoc wreaked by this group targets the literary elite, along with its trade union, MASSOLIT (a Soviet-style abbreviation for "Moscow Association of Writers, but possibly interpretable as "Literature for the Masses"; one translation of the book also mentions that this could be a play on words in Russian, which could be translated into English as something like "LOTSALIT"), its privileged HQ Griboyedov's House, corrupt social-climbers and their women (wives and mistresses alike) – bureaucrats and profiteers – and, more generally, skeptical unbelievers in the human spirit.
The second setting is the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, described by Woland talking to Berlioz and later echoed in the pages of the Master's novel. It concerns Pontius Pilate's trial of Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus the Nazarene), his recognition of an affinity with and spiritual need for Yeshua, and his reluctant but resigned submission to Yeshua's execution.
Part one of the novel opens with a direct confrontation between the unbelieving head of the literary bureaucracy, Berlioz, and an urbane foreign gentleman who defends belief and reveals his prophetic powers (Woland). Berlioz brushes the prophecy of his death off, only to have it come true just pages later in the novel. This fulfillment of a death prophecy is witnessed by a young and enthusiastically modern poet, Ivan Ponyrev, who writes his poems under the alias Bezdomniy (the name means "Homeless"). His futile attempt to chase and capture the "gang" and warn of their evil and mysterious nature lands Ivan in a lunatic asylum. Where Ivan is later introduced to The Master, an embittered author, the petty-minded rejection of whose historical novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ has led him to such despair that he burns his manuscript and turns his back on the "real" world, including his devoted lover, Margarita. An author who had written a novel about the meeting of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus of Nazareth). Put away in a psychiatric clinic, where Bezdomny meets him. Very little is known about this character's past other than his belief that his life had no meaning until he met Margarita.
Major episodes in the first part of the novel include a satirical portrait of the Massolit and their Griboedov house;Satan's magic show at the Variety Theatre, satirizing the vanity, greed and gullibility of the new rich; and Woland and his retinue capturing the late Berlioz's apartment for their own use.
Part two of the novel introduces Margarita, the Master's mistress, who refuses to despair of her lover or his work. She is invited to the Devil's Walpurgis Night midnight ball, then made an offer by Satan (Woland), and accepts it, becoming a witch with supernatural powers. This coincides with the night of Good Friday since the Master's novel also deals with this same spring full moon when Christ's fate is sealed by Pontius Pilate and he is crucified in Jerusalem. All three events in the novel are linked by this.
Learning to fly and control her unleashed passions (not without exacting violent retribution on the literary bureaucrats who condemned her beloved to despair), and taking her enthusiastic maid Natasha with her, Margarita enters naked into realm of night. She flies over the deep forests and rivers of Mother Russia; bathes and returns with Azazello, her escort, to Moscow as the anointed hostess for Satan's great Spring Ball. Standing by his side, she welcomes the dark celebrities of human history as they arrive from Hell.
She survives this ordeal without breaking, and for her pains, Satan offers to grant Margarita her deepest wish. Maragarita selflessly chooses to liberate a woman from her eternal punishment she had met from her night at the ball. The woman was raped and had later suffocated her newborn by stuffing a handkerchief in its mouth. Her punishment was to wake up every morning and find the same handkerchief lying on her nightstand. Satan grants her first wish and offers her another, citing that the first wish was unrelated to Maragarita's own desires. For her second wish, she chooses to liberate the Master and live in poverty and love with him. Neither Woland nor Yeshua think her chosen way of life for Master and Margarita's likes. Azazello is sent to retrieve them. The three drink Pontius Pilate's poisoned wine in the Master's basement. Master and Margarita die, though their death is metaphorical as Azazello watches their physical manifestations die. Azazello reawakens them and they leave civilization with the Devil as Moscow's cupolas and windows burn in the setting Easter sun. The Master and Margarita, for not having lost their faith in humanity, are granted "peace" but are denied "light" – that is, they will spend eternity together in a shadowy yet pleasant region similar to Dante's depiction of Limbo, having not earned the glories of Heaven, but not deserving the punishments of Hell. As a parallel to the Master and Margarita's freedom, Pontius Pilate is released from his eternal punishment when the Master finally calls out to Pontius Pilate telling him he's free. And so he may finally walk up the moonbeam path in his dreams and up to Yeshua, where another eternity awaits.
Review: Ultimately, the novel deals with the interplay of good and evil, innocence and guilt, courage and cowardice, exploring such issues as the responsibility towards truth when authority would deny it, and the freedom of the spirit in an unfree world. Love and sensuality are also dominant themes in the novel. Margarita's devotional love for the Master leads her to leave her husband, but she emerges victorious. Her spiritual union with the Master is also a sexual one. The novel is a riot of sensual impressions, but the emptiness of sensual gratification without love is emphatically illustrated in the satirical passages. However, the stupidity of rejecting sensuality for the sake of empty respectability is also pilloried in the figure of Nikolai Ivanovich who becomes Natasha's hog-broomstick. The interplay of fire, water, destruction and other natural forces provides a constant accompaniment to the events of the novel, as do light and darkness, noise and silence, sun and moon, storms and tranquility, and other powerful polarities. There is a complex relationship between Jerusalem and Moscow throughout the novel, sometimes polyphony, sometimes counterpoint.
The novel is heavily influenced by Goethe's Faust, and its themes of cowardice, trust, intellectual curiosity, and redemption are prominent. Part of its literary brilliance lies in the different levels on which it can be read, as hilarious slapstick, deep philosophical allegory, and biting socio-political satire critical of not just the Soviet system but also the superficiality and vanity of modern life in general – jazz is a favourite target, ambivalent like so much else in the book in the fascination and revulsion with which it is presented. But the novel is also full of modern amenities like the model asylum, radio, street and shopping lights, cars, lorries, trams, and air travel. There is little evident nostalgia for any "good old days" – in fact, the only figure in the book to even mention Tsarist Russia is Satan himself. In another of its facets, perhaps showing a different aspect of Goethe's influence, the book is a Bildungsroman with Ivan as its focus. Furthermore, there are strong elements of Magical Realism in the novel.
Opening Line: “One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at the Patriach’s Ponds.”
Closing Line: “His ravaged memory quiets down, and no one will trouble the professor until the next full moon: neither the noseless murderer of Gestas, nor the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the knight Pontius Pilate.”
Quotes: “Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar's vile tongue be cut out! Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!”
“What would your good be doing if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it?”