By: Mikhail Bulgakov
When the devil arrives in 1930s Moscow, his antics wreak havoc among the literary elite in the world
capital of atheism. Among his retinue are a host of odd characters including a talking black cat, an
assassin, and a beautiful naked witch who all create mayhem for those they encounter. Meanwhile, the
Master, an author of an unpublished novel about Jesus and Pontius Pilate, languishes in despair in a
psychiatric hospital, while his devoted lover, Margarita, decides to sell her soul to save him. Studded
with scenes ranging from a giddy Satanic ball to the murder of Judas in Gethsemane, Margarita’s
enduring love for the Master joins the strands of plot across space and time.
This novel is a dark comedy, philosophical allegory, and biting, satirical critique of Stalin and the
Soviet Union. Per the novel’s introduction, the Master appears to be a self-insert character on the part
of Bulgakov which is why the Master has such misadventures with getting his novel published. The
Master and Margarita was printed posthumously, and Bulgakov never believed it would get published at
all going so far as to instruct his wife to burn his manuscript after his death. Fortunately, his wife did not, which leads me to the review.
I’ve found with several novels also translated into English that the diction comes across as formal and
sometimes confusing. The nice part about the 50th-anniversary edition is that the translators Richard
Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky added notes giving context for readers like me who are not familiar with
historical Russian figures or Russian culture.
However, even with the notes, I still went and checked Wikipedia once I finished the story to make sure I
didn’t miss plot details. Much like with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the
conclusion was so strange that it felt almost incomplete. It felt too open-ended, yet I didn’t miss
anything per the synopsis of what others experienced reading this story. Even now, I couldn’t tell
you why the characters such as the Master or Margarita got the conclusion they did or what they did to
deserve it. Perhaps we aren’t meant to know. While frustrating, I recognize that not all stories have
satisfying conclusions, but it did reduce my original rating from 5 stars.
The part of the narrative focused on the crucifixion of Jesus was one of the most confusing segments,
but I recognize that it likely wasn’t meant to be taken as a literal recounting of what “actually
happened.” The reader can interpret Bulgakov’s depiction of Biblical history more as a philosophical
discussion on his hatred of cowardice above all other human vices. The aspect I enjoyed about the
retelling of Jesus’s crucifixion is that no matter who is retelling it, it’s always told in the same style. One
part is told by Satan, one is told by the Master verbally to another character, one is read by Margarita in
the Master’s novel, and so on. This setup makes it feel as if Bulgakov’s depiction of this major historical
event is in fact the real one rather than the story we have heard countless times from the Christian
One last note. the Russian names and locations are difficult to remember let alone pronounce and keep
straight. Some characters also have similar names but seemingly random nicknames. I have a feeling
that they seem random to me because I am not Russian, but they would make sense to a native Russian
reader. I’m an uncultured American, but I did my best to follow along and understand and felt like I did for the most part. The story was weird but those tend to be my favorites because I never know where the story will take me. In this case, I went to Hell and back, so that was pretty cool. Though I seem to be missing my handbasket.
Overall rating. 4.5