The Master and Margarita
Bulgakov’s Devil: Not so evil after all: Gnostic Elements in The Master and Margarita
The devil is a common literary icon. This enemy of God has generally been established as an unwavering representation of evil—a figure out to trick and torment his arch-nemesis and readers alike. Whether making pacts with mortals to sell their souls or raising armies against Heaven, literary representations of the devil have been largely concerned with religious themes, quite often concluding with a crescendo of either God’s heroic defeat over evil or Satan’s tragic ‘fall’. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, however, complicates the role and characterization of the devil, a foreign “professor of magic” visiting Soviet Russia who is clearly established to be Satan on earth, unleashing his inherent wickedness on other characters. Though Bulgokov’s character of Woland is the devil per se, it is the purpose of this wicked role that can lend to readers a new reading of the text. This paper will seek to analyze three major characters of the novel along Gnostic parameters: Woland, Yeshua and Margarita. In doing so, Woland can be read as a counter-part of God: a figure representative of the dualistic quality of dark. By this understanding, Woland is the dark to the character of Yeshua Ha-Notsri’s “lightness.” In a Gnostic system that is defined by oppositions rather than connotations, Woland becomes a device, much like Yeshua, to serve a higher end. The ultimate purpose of this paper will prove that though Woland may be the “devil,” a Gnostic interpretation of the text will allow readers to take a step away from the typical horned enemy and towards a role more characterized as a “co-conspirator:” a character that walks the thin line of a literary (and Gnostic) balancing act, and even an apologist for the existence of the spiritual realm.To interpret Woland along Gnostic lines, it is crucial to identify the general Gnostic elements that run prevalent in Bulgakov’s text. Though there are a variety of Gnostic sects, there are key elements that remain common to each. Once identified, readers can clearly see this ideology at work in The Master and Margarita. According to Dr. Denova’s article, “The Gnostic Cosmology,” “The most important feature of Gnostic thought is the radical dualism that governs the relation to God and the word, and correspondingly, man and the world” (Denova 1).
Woland himself is the messenger of this Gnostic theme of dualism in the novel, describing the necessity of “good” and “evil” as mere pole and anti-pole, stating,What would your good be doing if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it? After all, shadows are cast by objects and people. There is a shadow of my sword. But there are also shadows of trees and living creatures. Would you like to denude the earth of all trees and all the living beings in order to satisfy your fantasy of rejoicing in naked light? You are a fool” (Bulgakov ¬¬“The Fate of the Master and Margarita is Decided”).As Woland himself says, one cannot know light without first recognizing shadows; these two dualistic forces are co-operative and co-dependent. As a result of this inherent dualism, there is a clear separation between the physical and spiritual worlds: the spiritual is seen as a realm of light and the physical as a realm of darkness. Further, the Gnostic universe works to focus on man’s distinct separation from God himself. This “transmundane” God is physically and figuratively hidden from those in the physical world, completely unknowable by natural concepts; he cannot be discovered without “revelation.” In the Gnostic view, man is composed of a body, soul and spirit. The body, resultantly, is part of the physical world. Importantly, though, the soul of man is alleged to contain the pneuma (spirit), also called the divine spark. This spark, a piece of the divine realm that has “fallen” and become trapped in the physical realm, comes to play a major role in Bulgakov’s novel. Along with the idea that the common goal of Gnosticism is to “release” this spark back to where it belongs. Denova describes this spark as a latent spiritual element that is present in all men. However, this divine spark can only be awakened and liberated through knowledge (gnosis). One who achieves this knowledge of the divine that is present within himself is said to be “saved,” and in doing so, releases his divine “inner self” back to the realm of light—where it had fallen from originally. This bizarre process is easier said than done. Recalling that man is ignorant until undergoing a revelation, there of course must be a lynch-pin in this process. Enter: Woland and Yeshua. Even vague outline of this Gnostic cosmology sheds light on the allegory of Woland [the devil; darkness] and Yeshua [the bringer of light; Jesus Christ] as images of Gnostic go-betweens for these opposing realms, with Woland being the primary agent of the ‘dirty work’ on earth. Thus, while Woland exploits the unenlightened people in the physical realm, Yeshua does the opposite in the Master’s novel—he brings the spiritual to the physical world, and the knowledge that comes with it. Bulgakov’s character of Yeshua fits the exact description of what Gnostic savior is: “He is a messenger from the world of light who penetrates the barriers… awakens the spirit from its earthy slumber, and imparts to it the saving knowledge ‘from without’” (Denova 2).
Additionally, according to this definition, the character of Woland is also not simply the devil on earth, but a symbol of a humankind that is existent “from without.” According to A.C. Wright’s article, “Satan in Moscow: An Approach to The Master and Margarita,” “Woland regards darkness as the other side of light, to which he is not opposed: there is no indication that he wants to thwart God’s purposes or even bring about man’s damnation” (Wright 1163). This argument that Woland is not in fact a “damning devil” but rather a co-conspirator type of figure can be readily interpreted from many of his physical acts throughout the novel. It particular instances, Woland’s primary objective is to prove the existence of the outer realm, and much as he snaps at Berlioz for proclaiming God does not exist early in the novel, readers can witness a symbolic parallel incident: his magic show. For example, in George Bengalsky’s introduction of his magic at, he states to the audience, ‘Well, as I was saying, you are about to see a very famous artist from abroad, M’sieur Woland, with a session of black magic. Of course we know, don’t we… ‘Bengalsky smiled confidently, ‘that there’s no such thing really. It’s all superstition—or rather Maestro Woland, with a is past master of the art of conjuring, as you will see from the most interesting part of his act in which he reveals the mysteries of his technique’ (Bulgakov “Black Magic Revealed”). These lines contain huge Gnostic symbolism that bolsters this type of reading of Woland. First, Bengalsky’s statement that Woland is a professor “from abroad” is precisely who the Gnostic Woland is—a visitor from the spiritual realm. Further, it is significant that as Bengalsky so emphatically insist, just as Berlioz mentions about Christ in the opening pages, that Woland’s magic simply does not exist and that Woland will in fact reveal the mysteries of a technique of trickery. However, Woland uses his magic act to do the opposite, refusing to show the “technique” his technique and instead performing all too realistic acts, physically decapitating a man, and refusing to explain the “trick” to the audience. Woland’s entire magic act can be viewed as a microcosm for his goal in being on Earth. Like the magic act, Woland is not out to harm the people (as even Bengalsky gains his head back); he simply exists to shed “light” on the existence of the realm beyond. If his “black magic” is indeed real, so then, by implication, is its counter-part just as valid and legitimate. In a Gnostic world, Yeshua is indeed the savior who is directly opposed to Woland, as he represents the spiritual realm and provides knowledge of its divine saving quality. Yet he is a savior in a different form: he is the one who brings a way to obtain this spiritual knowledge and thus “unveils” eyes in darkness; his presence alone in the does not make him a savior himself. This fact is represented symbolically: the Master’s text in itself is null without readers having a way to seek the information held within it. As readers can see, Yeshua’s mere presence is not enough to gain salvation. For example, Yeshua’s dedicated follower Levi Matvei is constantly inscribing Yeshua’s words, but when Pilate asks to see the parchment, Levi cannot make sense of the words written on it. It is Pilate himself who needs “awakened” through Yeshua’s words—Yeshua himself, as evidenced by Pilate’s original role in his crucifixion, is not enough to grant salvation. The fact that Yeshua is not readily recognized and interpreted while on Earth is also a testament to this uniquely Gnostic “mysterious savior.” As Bulgakov writes while Yeshua proceeds up the hill to his crucifixion through the crowd, “There was one man, but few could see him” (Bulgakov “The Final Adventure of Koroviev and Behemoth”). Again, this draws the focus not to Jesus the man, who is not relevant in the grand Gnostic scheme, but the knowledge of beyond that he brings to those receptive to the message. The fact that Levi is transcribing nonsense when attempting to write Yeshua’s words and that few could actually see Yeshua perfectly fits the bill of the savior according to the Gnostic Secret Book of John. John states, “There is no way to say, ‘What is his quality?’ or ‘What is his quantity?’ for no one can know him. He is not someone among other beings, rather he is far superior” (Ehrman 147).
Though Bulgakov’s description above describes the physically crowded conditions of the scene, these lines can again be interpreted through alternative meanings—especially when readers know that this unrecognizable Gnostic savior is so typical of the cult. “The supernatural realm, for Bulgakov, is beyond man’s exhaustive knowledge; man can approach it only through metaphors, analogies, symbols…” (Wright 1063) adds Wright. This notion helps to explain why so few can understand what seem to be ridiculous plot strands of the novel, and also why these characters, especially their words, have such a symbolic rather than literal significance. Though Yeshua came to show the existence of the spiritual realm to people in darkness, but, like Pilate, the people must use these words to “release” themselves from the darkness. Following the argument that Woland and Yeshua are Gnostic symbols for light and dark, Woland and Yeshua can be seen no longer simply as “God versus the devil” but rather, opposite but equal forces. Thus, Woland’s sheer existence is yet another example of the existence of the spiritual realm: he proves through his darkness that there exists an opposite force in Yeshua. He may be the “devil,” but he certainly is not out to refute the existence of God; rather, he reaffirms it. This argument is most poignantly expressed in Woland’s own words as he is debating God’s existence with Berlioz. ‘Look, professor,’ said Berlioz with a forced smile, ‘With all respect to you as a scholar we take a different attitude on that point,’ ‘It’s not a question of having an attitude, ‘ replied the strange professor. ‘He existed, that’s all there is to it.’ ‘But one must have some proof. …’ Began Berlioz.‘There’s no need for any proof,’ answered the professor’ (Bulgakov “Never Talk to Strangers”). In no other scene is Woland’s mission so explicitly stated. He is more concerned with providing the “shadow” to the divine’s light, instead of convoluting it. Wright’s article again agrees with Woland’s positioning as this figure in the Gnostic argument and that Woland’s presence is crucial for the recognition of the spiritual realm. He states, Essentially, man is seeking freedom from the tyranny of knowing only what is good, a process that leads to Gnosticim and the worship of a power of evil as a liberation from such tyranny… Once man is free to know good and evil, the concept of the devil seems bound to expand to take care of man’s desire for such knowledge: there is no escaping the logic in this process, neither in popular tradition nor in The Master and Margarita. (Wright 1165). According to this interpretation, the “devil” is not simply an enemy of God; rather, he is a fixture in showing that God is indeed present. As Woland stated, how can one know one without the other? As God is absent in the physical realm of Gnosticism, Woland, together with Yeshua, must be agents and representations of the spiritual realm beyond. Consequently, “Any outlook which denies the ontological reality of the supernatural therefore pathetically inadequate to explain the reality of the human condition.” And even the devil himself will tell readers that (online article). This definition, then, is Woland’s primary function: one that serves a far more noble purpose than simply being an evil deceiver. To also show this dualistic “opposite and equal” representation of Woland and Yeshua, take the examples in which Woland and Yeshua seem to contain an equal amount of knowledge—knowledge that other characters cannot contain or grasp. The many lines in which characters are asked to explain events, responding with “The devil only knows,” though a popular figure of speech, are ironic and in actuality quite literal. These reactions, which always occur in Woland’s presence, occur repeatedly throughout the novel, on over ten separate occasions. This continued statement that the devil does indeed “know” shows that, like Yeshua, Woland also possesses an omniscient knowledge. When Berlioz is run over by a train at the beginning of the novel, for example, Woland shouts “Shall I send a telegram at once to your uncle in Kiev?” shocking Berlioz, who cannot understand how Woland possessed this knowledge of his family members. Though a small event compared to later events of the novel, this scene shows his character’s unworldly foresight. Though Woland is he is in the evil and “ignorant” physical world, he always knows more than the characters in it. Looking at Yeshua and Woland as mere figures on separate poles begs further reasoning. One can deduce that Woland’s representation of darkness also puts him much more in touch with the physical realm throughout the novel, since, as Gnostics postulate, the entire world is in fact in darkness. Woland’s dual connection from the spiritual and the physical realms can be read in a description of him. “His right eye, with a golden spark in its depths, piercing anyone it turned on to the bottom of his soul; and the left, empty and black like the narrow eye of a needle” (Bulgakov “The Master is Released”). These lines are a perfect representation of Woland not as evil or even below Yeshua’s character of “good,” but as a necessary object for the understanding of what, as he stated earlier, good is. Woland is both in darkness (or physical reality) yet possesses the enlightening truth of the spiritual realm that Yeshua does. On the other pole, Yeshua’s function in the novel must be to provide the “light” that Woland is opposed to. Pilate’s final words in the novel also elucidate a major Gnostic characterization of Jesus. Throughout the Master’s novel, readers witness Pilate’s internal struggle with how he is to handle Yeshua and the consequences of his crucifixion. Readers can clearly see that Pilate was haunted by his decision to kill the man that, as Pilate begins to realize, was not perhaps even a man after all. Pilate is constantly stating “Even at night, in moonlight, I have no rest,” (Bulgakov “The Master is Released”) indicating that even in the darkness of the physical world, Pilate is not, in fact, ignorant. He was awoken by Yeshua’s message in the Master’s text. Furthermore, almost simultaneously as Pilate is declared to have gained light and the consequent knowledge that comes with it, he utters a statement that is truly Gnostic in its roots regarding Yeshua’s execution. The Gnostics have a truly unique definition of Jesus’s death. Whereas mainstream Catholics declare that Jesus’s death on the cross was truly the act of a man dying, Gnostics appropriately separate the man Jesus from the “divine spirit” of Christ. Thus, according to this view, while viewers of the crucifixion physically saw Jesus the man die, Christ, the true spirit, did not, and was instead released back to his home in the spiritual realm. Consequently, the crucifixion is often considered a “trick” of the eye—there is no bodily death and subsequent resurrection—there is a clear separation between body and soul. Pilate’s final recognition of the true knowledge of Yeshua is perhaps one of the most persuasive elements of The Master and Margarita that one can make in a Gnostic argument. As the Pilate set off along that path of light,He was walking with Banga, and the vagrant philosopher beside him. … They disagreed entirely, which made their argument the more absorbing and interminable. The execution, of course, had been a pure misunderstanding: after all this same man, with his ridiculous philosophy that all men were good, was walking right beside him—consequently he was alive. Indeed the very thought of executing such a man was absurd. There had been no execution! It had never taken place! This thought comforted him as he strode along the moonlight pathway (Bulgakov 278)Pilate’s statement shows his knowledge of Yeshua’s true purpose. Yeshua the person is not relevant when compared to the knowledge that Pilate gained of the divine realm, and, quite literally, Yeshua led Pilate down the “path of light.” Pilate’s “restless” spark could now be released. Through Yeshua, he was able to accomplish every Gnostic’s goal of departure from the physical world and reunification with the light. The Master’s words, “you are free! He is waiting for you!” not only complete the book, but complete Pilate’s own journey down the moonlit path to the light of the divine, a path that Pilate had been attempting to walk since Yeshua’s death. Conversely, Woland poses the critical question as to why the Master should not also “go into the light” as Pilate had. Unlike Pilate’s awakening to the existence of the spiritual realm, the Master is said to have “not earned light, only peace.” This concept again illustrates that divine knowledge of the light of the spiritual realm is not something that simply exists, it is something that all people in do not simply obtain by remaining, as the Master did, completely within the “darkness” of the physical universe. The Master’s close relationship with Woland shows that he was not fully “awakened,” from the darkness and thus, did not “earn” the light. Woland here operates to tear the physical realm out of their delusion. His evil acts serve not to trick and victimize, but exist to show the existence of the opposite. The Master ultimately fails; he only sees Woland’s world. As Gnosticism teaches, access to the realm of light is the ultimate of man’s aspirations—but it has to be gained, and to do so it demands great efforts in life. As evidenced by his attempt to burn his text of knowledge, the Master failed because he gave up.Up to this point, Bulgakov’s text gives significant clues for a Gnostic reading of the characters of Woland and Yeshua; yet the most powerful figure in the novel that almost assuredly gives it a Gnostic translation is that of Margarita. One of the most prominent figures in Gnosticism, and almost exclusively unique to this sect is the figure of Mary Magdalene. Gnostics believe that it is Mary who Jesus revealed his “hidden” teachings to, as she was the most prominent woman in the movement of Jesus’s ministry: the keeper of a vast amount of divine knowledge. This parallel is overwhelming in Bulgakov’s novel. As the heart of the novel’s “teachings” lies in the text of the Master’s book, it is no coincidence that Margarita, the woman who saved the Master’s burned book, is also the “keeper” of the divine teachings of Yeshua. Thus, just as both Yeshua and Woland are required for the knowledge of the spiritual realm to enter the world of Moscow, a vessel to receive such privileged information must also exist: Maragarita is the only person outside of Woland who has access to the Master’s text. On a physical level, the very relationship between the Master and Margarita and Jesus and Mary Magdalene is quite similar. Though the historical Mary Magdalene has been falsely labeled as a prostitute, Jesus of Nazareth met the woman through a cleansing her of sins, as she came to him as a scorned member of society. The Master’s own description of his first encounter with Margarita is quite reminiscent, as he also refers to Margarita’s own isolation stating, “She was carrying some of those repulsive yellow flowers. … She had a look of suffering and I was struck less by her beauty than by the extraordinary loneliness in her eyes” (Bulgakov “Enter the Hero”). As the Master continues his story of how he and Margarita fell in love, the parallels to Mary Magdalene are again quite significant. Although there is little basis for the theory that Jesus of Nazareth was actually married to Mary Magdalene, Gnostic gospels have labeled her as Jesus’s “companion” and “favorite apostle” and have even alleged that Jesus kissed Mary on the mouth. This unique relationship is characterized in the Gospel of Philip:He loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples […]. They said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness” (Ehrman 187).The Gospel of Philip sheds light not simply on the physical relationship between Jesus and Mary, but on Mary’s role in the transmission of the secret knowledge that Gnostic gospels are centered around. Though the Master is no savior, merely a “transporter” of the gnosis brought via Yeshua through his novel, it is still appropriate that Margarita draws parallels to Mary Magdalene in this relationship. Gnostics are not concerned with Jesus, only the knowledge he imparts. Likewise, the Master and Margarita are agents in delivering this knowledge in Bulgakov’s novel. This argument that makes Mary Magdalene and Margarita “vessels” of gnosis, are also bolstered by the lines in her own gospel (also never published in the canon and deemed heretical by the church) that specifically state that she held information that no other apostles had access to. According to the Gospel of Mary, Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them. Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you. And she began to speak to them these words: I, she said, I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to Him, Lord I saw you today in a vision. He answered and said to me, Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. For where the mind is there is the treasure (Ehrman 284). Though most of the Gospel of Mary has been lost, it is significant that Jesus indeed was said to have proclaimed to Mary information withheld from others, and that Mary, through her own Gospel and contact with the apostles, was the agent to spread these truths. In The Master and Margarita, Margarita reads the charred remains of the Master’s story of Yeshua and Pilate. Alone in the Master’s house, she is the only person in the novel who both knows and can save this information. In looking at these parallels, Wright’s essay explains that it is not simply the existence of the manuscript that is relevant, but in knowing what to do with the words contained within. “What happens today has happened before, an idea remains from generation to generation, no matter by whom it is expressed. The Master’s life work is his novel, which he burns and which is saved largely through Margarita. Christ’s “life work” is reported (in its essence if not in its detail) by Matthu Levi in a parchment… But manuscripts do not burn. Neither the Master’s lifework nor Christ’s is destroyed” (Wright 1169). Therefore, armed with the knowledge in the Master’s novel, readers can witness Margarita’s repeated exposure to the spiritual realm as represented by Woland throughout the course of Bulgakov’s novel. Her sheer unwavering belief in Woland’s ability to allow her contact with this other realm is a testament to this; yet Margarita’s case is complicated. Having both knowledge of Yeshua from the Master’s text and knowledge of Woland, Margarita repeatedly decides to work along with Woland, albeit for a good cause. The narrator’s opening lines in describing Margarita reveal her inclination to believe in the spiritual realm as physically represented by Woland and textually through Yeshua in the Master’s novel. “Gods, gods! What did this woman need? This woman, in whose eyes there always flickered an enigmatic little spark? This witch with just the slightest cast in one eye… I do not know” (Bulgakov “Margarita”). Bulgakov’s insistence on the fact that Margarita’s divine “spark” that was lit, yet also calling her a “witch” is evidence that Margarita was indeed on the pathway to gnosis in her fundamental knowledge of the existence of both the dark and the light of the spiritual realm, which as Gnostics contend, is the primary basis in one’s ultimate choice to follow the path to the light. A further example that Margarita is dangerously close to choosing the pathway to light after experiencing the darkness Woland exposes her to is again stated symbolically. As the description of Woland earlier utilized the metaphor of a needle in the brain to categorize the dark, Margarita experiences the opposite of this in the lines, “the nagging pain in her temple, which had troubled her all evening… disappeared as though someone had drawn a needle out of her brain” (Bulgakov “Margarita”). As a vessel of gnosis, like Mary Magdalene, Margarita is not so ignorant as her Soviet counterparts: she clearly knows of the spiritual, yet her deep interactions and reliance on Woland show that Margarita, in order to complete her mission of reuniting with the Master and his book, perhaps was forced to divulge in the darkness. However, by the conclusion of the novel, Margarita’s objective has been completed. Like Mary Magdalene, she exclusively saved the Master’s script and the knowledge within, serving as a connection between the two realms—a unique individual who had experience of both the darkness and light. Yet, perhaps identically like Mary Magdalene, Margarita cannot be taken to the light; as Jesus left Mary on Earth armed with his teachings, Margarita also remained away from the light of the spiritual realm. A vessel of the saving information, she herself cannot be directly saved by it. The ending of the novel can be interpreted a variety of ways. However, there is an interesting shift in that Matthew Levi, speaking “from Him,” as “[he] is his apostle” is working directly in cooperation with Woland. Levi states, “‘He has read the Master’s writings… and asks that you take the Master with you and reward him by granting him peace.’” When Woland asks why Levi would not simply take the Master with him to the light, he responds that “He has not earned light, he has earned rest… He asks you also take the woman who loved him and who has suffered for him’” (Bulgakov “The Fate of the Master and Margarita is Decided”). Margarita, [and the Master] like Mary Magdelene’s suffering in her condemnation for spreading Jesus’s words, has completed her role in aiding to the eventual gnosis of Pilate through saving and completing the Master’s text; yet in order to do so she had to go through darkness. Again giving readers an ambiguous interpretation that mixes Margarita’s own personal pathway between darkness and light, at the end of the novel Margarita both cries out “The Great Woland!” thanking him for saving her to be reunited with the Master and his script, yet at the same time clings onto the saving knowledge in the Master’s book as they are forced out of their building. Almost simultaneously as she is praising Woland, Margarita interjects to the Master, “But the novel, the novel!… take the novel with you wherever you may be going!” The Master replies. “‘I can remember it all by heart, … Don’t worry, I shall never forget anything again’” (Bulgakov “On Sparrow Hills”). Here, it looks as if both the Master and Margarita are fully aware of the spiritual realm in the Master’s text, yet are too far intertwined with Woland to choose one path: their path has been chosen for them. By Margarita’s reliance on Woland to reunite with the Master and finish his text, she in a sense sacrificed herself to the dark in order to release the light of Yeshua and Pilate’s story found within. The explicit denial of the Master and Margarita into the pathway of spiritual enlightenment occurs in lines, “Am I to follow him [down the pathway to light]?” the Master asks Woland. Woland responds by telling the Master, “No. Why try to pursue what is completed?” Woland’s words signify that the Master and Margarita are well aware of Yeshua’s saving knowledge present in the Master’s text. Though they both again were aware of the world beyond theirs, both the Master and Margarita had to stick by Woland, remaining in darkness. Their remaining in Woland’s dark world was necessary in bringing about the salvation of Pilate, but by consequence, they themselves will not enter the light. However, Woland explains that the Master and Margarita are not to revert back to their physical lives either. As he disappears down his own path or darkness, the Master and Margarita are truly given their peace: a home wherein they can be together and alone. This ending for the title characters shows their true purpose: vessels of a mix of good and evil and the sole possessors of the story of a “savior” who can bring others into the light. Like Mary Magdalene, Margarita suffered with the Master and his novel ultimately saved Pilate. However, neither the Master nor Margarita are Gnostic heroes. They had the tools to be “enlightened” in Yeshua’s tale, but ultimately their conscription to Woland puts them square in the middle of light and dark. “As for their psyche, it had undergone great changes,” (Bulgakov “Time to Go”) the narrator speaks. However, readers are never told what changes these are. The Master and Margarita, knowing thoroughly the existence of this spiritual outside world, uniquely do not gain access to the light as Pilate had, nor the dark abyss that Woland descends to. Yet as matter in Gnosticism is evil, the Master and Margarita do not deserve to stay in the darkness of their physical surrounding. Their new home in a land of peace is an appropriate option to the darkness of abyss, light of the Savior, or ignorance of the physical world. As go betweens for the saving knowledge of Yeshua and deep interactions with the darkness of Woland, both the Master and Margarita are uniquely both dark and light. Appropriately, The Master and Margarita ends on a type of decrescendo, as the events of the world(s) throughout the book conclude and readers are left with an image of the ever darkening night, leaving them where they began. “Night overtook the cavalcade, spread itself above them and threw out here and there in the saddened sky white specks of stars. Night grew more dense, flew side by side with the riders, catching their cloak, pulling them off, uncovering deceptions” (Bulgakov, “Absolution and Eternal Refuge”). The darkness, here, appears as a constant from the beginning of the novel until the end. Like Woland, it is a vital part of nature—without it, one could never truly see the difference that light is. According to this Gnostic interpretation then, Woland is no enemy of life, he is merely set in opposition to it; he must exist there. Furthermore, he actually promotes the spiritual realm. Woland provides evidence that there is more. His aim is not to annihilate, but to reveal a higher order and the existence of God. Therefore, he can be interpreted as the mirror of evil. He shows humanity’s real face and exposes greed, corruption, egoism and so forth. Woland and his entourage are not very restraining in their efforts. Two people die, some are driven insane, and physical property is completely destroyed. This, however is Woland’s way of working good through evil. Certainly, his primary element is evil, but his evil is necessary because only its existence and man’s knowledge of it can liberate man to “escape” back to the spiritual realm, where he ultimately belongs. As the very being of matter is seen as evil in Gnosticism, Woland is consequently the devil—there is no real dispute to that, even in a Gnostic reading of the text. However, as the character of the devil, one cannot ignore the historical literary interpretations that are so often connected to the term. The Master and Margarita certainly does not need to be complicated further, but as the novel itself shows readers, all is not what it appears at face value. Bulgakov’s establishment of Woland and Yeshua—though operating in completely different “worlds” within the text—as “opposite but equal” forces instead of quintessential enemies between heaven and hell gives the novel Gnostic undertones. His insertion of Margarita as a divine vessel in transporting a type of gnosis through the Master’s text is an overwhelming parallel to the Gnostic heroine Mary Magdalene. In this reading of the text, then, Woland becomes much more than God’s horned adversary, he is a crucial fixture in illuminating God’s cause. In a dualistic Gnostic universe aimed to separate the spiritual realm from the physical, light from dark, one must understand the dark in order to achieve the light. This is his release to the spiritual realm: the chief goal of every Gnostic. Thus, keeping Gnostic elements in mind while reading this novel, readers can also release themselves from the conventional chains surrounding “good versus evil” in literary representations of the devil. Woland may be the devil alive and well in the USSR, but a reinterpretation of his function, rather than his mere presence, can be enough to shake up common characterizations of the devil in literature. In The Master and Margarita, removing Woland from a stereotypical role, then, creates a refreshing reading of the text that is particularly Gnostic: without darkness one cannot know light; consequently, without Woland, characters cannot ‘know’ Yeshua. After all, Woland may not be the devil always conspired against, but a co-conspirator, one who works with God, not against him.
Cowardice and Consequences in “Master and Margarita”
In Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita, many types of sin and corruption are exemplified in both Moscow and Yershalaim: people are rude and curt to others for no reason, accept bribes, act and speak hypocritically, spy and betray others, and so on. In Moscow, each person who commits these sins is punished by Woland, the arbiter of retribution. The sheer volume of attention given to the sin of cowardice in particular and its consequences makes it possible to assert that Bulgakov considers cowardice to be the worst vice of all. Cowardice certainly is the worst of the sins that the characters in Bulgakov’s novel commit; however, it is only cowardice at the expense of others that Bulgakov judges and punishes the most severely, and committing this sin does not mean that one cannot be granted absolution. Thus, it is difficult to claim it as an “ultimate” sin.Two very important characters are presented in The Master and Margarita as antitheses of the cowardice that reigns in both Moscow and Yershalaim: Margarita and Yeshua. When looking at the cowardice of the other characters, it is important to examine Margarita and Yeshua first; they provide the models for good behavior against whom Bulgakov measures the cowardly characters. In the Moscow part of the story, Margarita is an example of complete bravery in the face of extreme odds. If cowardice is tolerance of a system of evil out of fear for one’s personal well-being, then Margarita defies this at every turn. Although she is married to a very important man (who is, moreover, kind and honest and handsome), has the entire floor of a house to herself, her own garden, plenty of money, and never has to work, she turns away from it all freely. (Bulgakov 187) She is of royal blood (Bulgakov 215), and this kind of behavior is what gives her that distinction: other people, wanting to keep their status and get more for themselves, lie and betray for the desirable things that Margarita willingly gives up. She refuses to conform to the system that says she should be ecstatic with her position in life and instead gives up that position to gain what her heart desires. She shies from nothing in her pursuit of that desire, not even Satan’s ball, becoming a witch, baths of blood, or the devil’s retinue. She is merciful to Frieda (Bulgakov 241) and devoted to the Master, for whom she offers to (and essentially does) sell her soul. (Bulgakov 190)Her counterpart in bravery in Yershalaim is Yeshua. Perhaps even more so than Margarita, he is the antithesis of cowardice. He lives out his last minutes crucified to a post where he is blistered by the sun, tortured by flies, and in tremendous pain—and most important of all, he has risked this plight out of his own convictions, submitting to the torture of crucifixion willingly. (Bulgakov 150) He refuses to adhere to what society demands of him; even when Pilate gives Yeshua a chance to lie about what he has said about Caesar, Yeshua refuses and admits to what he has done. (Bulgakov 22) Most of all, the power that sustains him throughout all of this is never even postulated as divine. In the chapters in which Yeshua is interrogated and tortured, there are no miracles, no triumphant entries into Yershalaim, no disciples (only one scraggly tax collector), and no mention of the resurrection. Bulgakov brings Yeshua’s level of bravery onto a plane where all men and women should be able to reach. He is brave without the benefit of divinity or crowds and defends his unshakeable sense of truth with only his own strength of spirit to bolster him.There are three characters or types of people that can be contrasted with Margarita and Yeshua, both in Moscow and Yershalaim: the critics and members of Massolit, Pilate, and the Master. The critics, and members of Massolit like Berlioz, are examples of the kind of cowardice Bulgakov condemns: for fear of losing their positions and ways of life, and for fear of condemnation, these people believe one thing but spout the other, to the detriment of those around them. Latunsky and the critics who condemn the Master and essentially ruin his life secretly admire what he has written; the editor clearly is impressed with the Master, asking why he has never been heard of and where he comes from, but says the novel cannot be published. (Bulgakov 119) The critics do not say what they want to say—that the Master’s novel was good—because they are afraid of the consequences. (Bulgakov 121) Other types, such as Berlioz, say things they do not believe: Berlioz makes arguments that are inexcusably ignorant for a man of his education, but does so because he needs to toe the party line. (Bulgakov 223) It is clear what Bulgakov thinks of these characters’ cowardice when he compares their revelries at Gribodeyev to Satan’s ball. The celebrations are eerily similar: at midnight the band strikes up and plays loudly and dissonantly, people dance wildly and with abandon, someone shouts “Hallelujah.” (Bulgakov 49-50, 224-5) Even the quote, “O gods, my gods, poison, give me poison” is reminiscent of the most cowardly character of all, Pilate. (Bulgakov 50) The people at Satan’s ball are criminals and evil-doers, and those members of Massolit at Gribodeyev are compared to them. They have material goods because they have capitulated and decided to live within the confines of a system that demands the sacrifice of conscious and moral truth; they choose to live, because of their fear and cowardice, lives of petty interests, materialism, greed, envy, betrayal, competition, and corruption.Massolit has its parallel in Yershalaim with Pilate, although his cowardice is even more extreme, judging by his punishment. He embodies, perhaps, the most dangerous type of cowardice: one that longs for good but betrays it by failing to oppose evil. Just as divinity is absent from Yeshua so that his goodness is more pronounced, so is any influence such as Woland absent from the interrogation and condemnation of Yeshua by Pilate. While Woland does claim he was there, the reader never sees or hears his presence; thus, Pilate’s betrayal is the result of his own choices. (Bulgakov 34) The Procurator is left face to face with Yeshua, depriving him of any justification for his actions. Pilate does have sympathy and compassion; he does not want to destroy Yeshua for nothing, and is in fact prepared to save Yeshua and hide him in his home. (Bulgakov 21) However, this sympathy is for nothing. Pilate wants, more than to help Yeshua, to keep his position and to not anger those in power. He fears Caesar’s power, making sure to talk loudly about Caesar’s greatness and refusing to release Yeshua once he learns that Yeshua has disrespected Caesar. (Bulgakov 22-3) He is intensely afraid of informers and of losing his career and his position in life. (Bulgakov 24) He makes one last feeble attempt to help Yeshua, but yields before Kaifa and, knowing the terrible crime he is committing against his conscience and sense of truth, consents to the execution of Yeshua. (Bulgakov 28) His cowardice forces him to spit in the face of his own knowledge of good and evil, and he becomes nothing more than a tool for evil wills. His terrible sin can be seen in his punishment: even after the traces of the execution are washed away in the storm, Bulgakov extends Pilate’s torment of his own conscience to eternity (until he is absolved by the Master); for two thousand years, Pilate has not been able to find eternal rest because of the torture his own mind inflicts on him as a result of his sin. (Bulgakov 323)However, there is a final example of cowardice in Moscow—one that contradicts the notion of cowardice as the greatest sin—and it is the cowardice of the Master. His cowardice is of a different kind than that of Massolit and Pilate in that it harms no one but himself. The Master is not a moral weakling who betrays others out of fear of losing his position in life, the things he desires, or having it easy. Instead, the Master is amazed, discouraged, embittered, and ultimately beaten down by the treatment his honest creation has received from editors and critics. (Bulgakov 119-121) According to him, what has happened to him because of his novel has effectively ended his life. (Bulgakov 118) What he desires because of the fear and cowardice caused by this treatment is not to maintain a position, receive favors or things, or even be comfortable. What he wants is to renounce his role as the voice of truth, retreat, and no longer have a need for “big plans.” (Bulgakov 125) He refuses Margarita’s offer to have his novel published (Bulgakov 250), is broken and gives up on writing, and says: “I no longer have any dreams, or inspiration either.” (Bulgakov 249) Unlike the other characters guilty of cowardice, this fear of the Master’s does not come for fear of losing any material goods; it is simply, as Margarita says, that “they have ravaged his soul.” (Bulgakov 310). While he is guilty of cowardice, it is not the kind of cowardice Bulgakov condemns. He a passive, broken victim, guilty of betraying and hurting only one person: himself.While cowardice, especially of a certain sort, may be the worst sin, this is not to say that it is without forgiveness, mercy, or absolution. The Master’s absolution is easy to explain away: after all, if it is true that the Master’s cowardice is of a much lesser degree than Pilate’s, he deserves the peace that is given to him. (Bulgakov 305) He receives no punishment for his cowardice, and his absolution is attained. However, Pilate’s absolution is more radical. Pilate commits the grossest type of cowardice in either Yershalaim or Moscow: he betrays his conscience and sense of truth by condemning an admirable man who is undeserving of death, simply because he is afraid of the material consequences if he does not. Despite this betrayal, in the end, Pilate is forgiven for his weakness; his punishment is not everlasting, and he is given what he wants: to walk down the path of moonlight to the light, where absolution and Yeshua wait. (Bulgakov 324) Because of the negation of Pilate’s punishment, and the peace given to the Master, it’s difficult to say that Bulgakov believed that cowardice was the ultimate sin: after all, ideas about absolute guilt and punishment do not really fit into a world where those who commit the worst sin are spared never-ending punishment. In closing, cowardice is rampant in both Yershalaim and Moscow: when the choice is presented to either follow the conscience or succumb to the pressures of party and society, most of the characters chose the latter, tolerating evil because they fear losing their positions, lives of relative comfort, and material goods. The constant reinforcement of this cowardice presents the reader with the idea that cowardice is the ultimate sin. The definition of cowardice, however, must be amended, because it is only a certain kind of cowardice that Bulgakov presents as the greatest sin: the kind of betrayal that harms others. In addition, since this type of cowardice can, in the end, be forgiven, it is hard to posit that it is the “ultimate” sin. It is certainly the worst presented in the novel, and the one that most characters in it are guilty of, but those who commit it are still able to receive mercy.
Sin and Redemption
In the Bible, as in The Master and Margarita, the reader has grown accustomed to despising Pontius Pilate, the infamous procurator of Judea. In both texts, it is Pontius Pilate who sentences Yeshua Ha-Notsri—a harmless, wandering preacher—to a painful death on the cross. Even more despicable, perhaps, is the fact that Pilate himself is plainly aware that Yeshua has done no wrong besides a minor technicality in a speech regarding Caesar. Although Pilate ultimately has the choice of letting Yeshua go, he fails to do so out of fear for his own political welfare. Yet, despite this arguably unforgivable moral failing, after reading the novel, the reader is nevertheless able to sympathize with the procurator. Through Bulgakov’s artful retelling of the Biblical story, the reader can better understand Pontius Pilate’s situation and the rationale with which he ultimately makes his fateful decision. Furthermore, Bulgakov extends the story beyond the scope of that in the Bible, revealing Pilate’s subsequent tormented regret and desperate attempts to right the wrong he had committed. The one-dimensional story character we encounter in the Bible is much easier to hate than the man we meet and come to know intimately in The Master and Margarita. Granted that Pilate’s confirmation of a completely undeserved death sentence is not exactly morally infallible, the reader must also examine the context in which he eventually came to make this decision. Right upon encountering Pilate in the novel, we find out that he is suffering from a massive, blinding headache. The crippling pain from this physical ailment grows to an extent where Pilate, at one point, hallucinates a cup of dark poison, yearning for a means of ending his agony, and, at another point, even has a vision of the head of Caesar replacing that of Yeshua. The situation is made no better by sunlight beating down on the courtyard. Bulgakov makes it clear that anyone in Pilate’s physical condition would have a little trouble acting completely rationally in order to fulfill his political duties. As if the physical torment of a severe headache were not enough, Pilate must also deal with the emotional voids in his life. He is a Roman procurator assigned to fulfill his duties in a far-off, foreign land. Having only a dog for company, he is even worse off than his biblical counterpart, who at least had a wife. Pilate’s only human companions are his sycophantic secretary, his brutal soldiers, and the condemned men whose death sentences he has the weighty decision of confirming or vetoing. In addition, if we were to look at Yeshua’s case in a purely legal and political perspective, we see that Pilate does not have much choice in respect to letting this preacher live. For one, Yeshua has certainly committed the unforgivable offense (and unhesitatingly attests to it) of speaking out against Caesar and his power to rule. There is only one way prescribed to deal with such an offense: death. A decision to spare Yeshua would come with some costly consequences. It is no coincidence that Pilate encounters the vision of Caesar’s head replacing Yeshua’s; he knows very well that any disobedience to Caesar would unquestionably carry detrimental results to his career, if not his life. Placed in this uncomfortable position where the wrong choice could mean life or death, it is clear that most, if not all, readers would have acted in exactly the same way. Although Pilate eventually is forced to confirm the death sentence, the reader can observe that he does take measures beforehand to try to save Yeshua. During the hearing, it is evident that Pilate does not wish for the innocent man’s death. He initially finds nothing meriting punishment and is even about to overturn the sentence before he reads the charges that Yeshua has spoken against Caesar. When addressing this particular issue, he attempts to signal to Yeshua by strategically drawing out the “not” in “Did you or did you not?” when he asks him if he had ever said anything about Caesar. Pilate even warns Yeshua plainly before he makes his statement that anything said against Caesar would result in a painful death. Even when Yeshua has begun his confession, Pilate attempts again to save him by strategically asking him if he had perhaps forgotten what he had said to Judas about Caesar. When this measure fails and Yeshua is condemned to die, Pilate makes one last attempt to save him, appealing to Kaifa to have Yeshua freed instead of Bar-rabban, reasoning that Yeshua’s crimes are not nearly as heinous as those of Bar-rabban. Thus, the reader cannot justifiably ignore the fact that Pilate did make repeated efforts to save him. During the course of the execution, it appears that Pilate still has not forgotten about Yeshua. Pilate arranges for a cup of anesthetics be offered to Yeshua shortly before the ordeal and when the executioner ends Yeshua’s suffering with a spear wound to the heart, telling him to praise “merciful Hegemon,” the reader cannot help wondering if Pilate had ordered the quick death, as well. Up to the last moment in Yeshua’s life we see that Pilate tries to minimize his suffering and bring him a quicker, less humiliating death. After the execution is over, Pilate makes a covert order to have Yeshua’s betrayer, Judas of Kerioth, killed. He makes this order under the guise that Judas is to be “saved” from his enemies (presumably, other friends of Yeshua) who are going to kill him that night for having betrayed Jesus for a few coins. One interpretation of this initiative on Pilate’s part (the “mercy killing” theory) is that he would also like Judas to have a quick death, as opposed to a death by his enemies. He thus orders his men to do it efficiently to reduce suffering, as Yeshua probably would have wanted it, if death was the only choice. Yet a darker interpretation of this killing is that Pilate is, in a way, taking revenge upon Yeshua’s betrayer himself, having his own men deal out justice to him. In this way, he lashes out at the one other person to be blamed, attempting to reconcile himself with Yeshua’s undeserved death. In either instance, the reader sees that Yeshua’s death still clings to Pilate’s conscience, an unexpected thing for a man who must have sentenced so many others to an equally painful death. That night, Pilate’s remorse and desperate regret manifest themselves. He is initially unable to sleep at all, having only his dog Banga to be there for him. When he does finally settle into an uneasy doze, he sees himself walking with Banga and Yeshua. In this dream, he and Yeshua are debating lofty matters with one another but both agree that the execution had been a “misunderstanding” and had never really happened at all and that cowardice is one of the worst vices. However, Pilate is shortly awakened, tormented by the light of the moon and Banga’s howling. He comes to realize that he has indeed executed an innocent man, a great man, and the only man who was able to understand him and help him. He comes to the realization that his cowardice and subsequent failure to stand up for what he knew was right has resulted in the loss of a friend and guide as well as the imposition of an everlasting burden on his conscience. In reflecting upon Pilate’s failure to stand up for what he knew was right, the reader initially finds it easy to regard him with animosity. However, through Bulgakov’s story of Pilate’s perspective, we see more clearly into the circumstances surrounding his decision. We also have the opportunity to see Pilate’s painful regret and the gestures he makes to make up for—if not right—his wrongs. Indeed, it is significant that he has sinned; it is more significant, however, that he has tried to redeem himself.
Musical Influences and Inspirations from The Master: Music and Meaning in Bulgakov’s Masterpiece and Beyond
“Music is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions, and if it’s in the bones, it’s in the bones” — Keith Richards From the beginning of time music has been a staple for mankind. Suzanne Boothby in her article “Does Music Affect Your Mood?” says that “from the drumbeats of our ancient ancestors to today’s unlimited streaming services, music is an integral part of the human experience” (Boothby). Music can be used as therapy, to invoke memories, and to even release dopamine which results in an elevated mood. Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece novel The Master and Margarita is filled to the brim with music. In the novel, one cannot go more than ten pages at any given time without some sort of reference to music. Unlike many other novels, The Master and Margarita essentially has its own soundtrack. When tracing and investigating the musical references, one begins to develop a deeper understanding of the work, which I presume to be aligned with Bulgakov’s authorial intent. Though I was unable to come across any hard evidence throughout my research, I hypothesize that Bulgakov was a musical connoisseur. Bulgakov attended operas frequently, enjoyed jazz music at the American Embassy parties, and even had “a picture of the bass Lev Mikhailovitsk Sibiryakov on his desk” (Vanhellemont) from Gounod’s opera Faust. The first part of my paper will focus on what and who in terms of music influenced Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita. Out of the multitude of musical references within the novel I have decided to mainly focus on these references: Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera Yevgeny Onegin, Vincent Youmans’s song “Hallelujah!”, Dimitri Timofeevich Lensky’s vaudeville “Lev Gurych Sinichkin”, and Dmitri Pavlovich Davydov’s “Slavnoye Morye”. When analyzing these references, I am going to explore what impact these references have in relation to how music moves the action of the plot, and also how the music chosen comments on the society or social structure of Soviet Russia in Bulgakov’s time. The second part of my paper will focus on musicians who have been influenced by Bulgakov and his masterpiece The Master and Margarita. The musicians and songs I have chosen to analyze are Patti Smith’s “Banga”, Franz Ferdinand’s “Love and Destroy”, and the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”. Through my research, I have found that not only do these songs reference the novel, but when analyzed for meaning they shed light on alternative aspects or theories pertaining to the overall meaning.
The first musical allusion of note is from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida. Aida premiered December 24, 1861 at the Khedivial Opera House in Cario. Verdi’s Aida is set in ancient Egypt and plays out through four acts (Green). Bulgakov loved Verdi’s opera “very much and quoted it often” (Vanhellemont). Throughout the novel, the exclamation “gods, gods!” appears ten times. The first words that Pontius Pilate speaks in the novel are “’Gods, gods, why do you punish me?’” (Bulgakov 17). This expression of “gods, gods” is derived from the libretto of Aida in the last stanza of Act I Scene I: Oh gods, have pity on my suffering! There is no hope for my sorrow. Fatal love, terrible love, Break my heart, make me die! Oh gods, have pity on my suffering! (Vanhellemont) There are several parallels that can be made between the libretto of Act I Scene I of Aida and The Master and Margarita. First, there is the obvious parallel between the libretto and Pilate’s character arc. In the novel, Pilate’s character becomes equated with suffering. Pilate’s suffering derives from his guilt of sentencing Yeshua to death. Even though Pilate was intrigued by Yeshua he still had to put him to death essentially because of politics or diplomacy. Herein arises the question of free will within the novel. In the libretto for Aida it is implied that free will is nonexistent and one’s fate is determined solely by the gods. Throughout The Master and Margarita the question of free will posed by Aida continuously resurfaces. For example, this unique portrayal of free will within the novel can be seen in Woland’s “death sentence” for the Variety Theater’s bartender Andrey Fokich Sokov. Herein, Woland relays the bad news that Sokov will die of liver cancer in nine months, but he is not acting as a puppeteer pulling the strings of Sokov’s life. If I had to infer, I would assume that it was Sokov’s own poor choices throughout his life that landed him the liver cancer, and not Woland. This type of free will plays out with Pilate as well. It was ultimately Pilate’s own choice to sentence Yeshua to death. One could argue that Woland was present in form of the swallow, and also in form of Pilate’s headaches. But, at the end of the day, Pilate’s choice was his own, and it was a cowardly choice because he was just being a sheep and doing what he was told. There is also a repetition of “gods, gods” (Bulgakov 383) at the beginning of chapter eighteen “Forgiveness and Eternal Refuge” in which Pilate’s ultimate fate is discussed. In this chapter, the unholy brood come across Pilate and Banga in hell. Pilate and Banga are tormented with insomnia at the sight of the full moon. About this Woland says, “’If it is true that cowardice is the greatest sin, the dog is not guilty of it. The only thing the brave dog feared was storm. But, then, those who love must share the fate of those they love’” (386). In this quote, Woland is implying that it was Pilate’s cowardice that landed him in hell and not the gods. “’Cowardice is the greatest sin’” and by being a sheep for his government and not thinking for himself Pilate displayed cowardice. It turns out though that Pilate is not the only one guilty of cowardice. At the end of the novel Margarita is forced to share her fate with the master in hell because “’those who love must share the fate of those they love’” (386). Similar to Pilate, the master displayed cowardice by giving up, checking out mentally, and not fighting the system. Even though it was Margarita’s choice to save the master and she displayed great bravery in her rescue, she is still condemned to spend eternity in hell because of his great sin of cowardice. The second important musical reference that surfaces in The Master and Margarita is to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera Yevgeny Onegin. This reference occurs in chapter four when Ivan is running through Moscow chasing after Woland and the gang. While he is running all the “windows were open. In each window there was a lamp under an orange shade, and from all windows, all doors, all gateways, roofs and attics, cellars and courtyards, came the hoarse blasts of the polonaise from the opera Yevgeny Onegin” (57). The reference then continues over to the following page: “he was inexpressibly tormented for some reason by the ubiquitous orchestra accompanying a heavy basso who sang of his love for Tatyana” (58). In this quote Bulgakov describes the “first scene of the third act of this opera, in which Onegin meets the prince Gremin. Gremin was married to Tatyana, which whom Onegin had flirted himself” (Vanhellemont). Tchaikovsky’s opera is based on the Alexander Pushkin novel of the same name. Pushkin’s novel and the opera are a staple of classical Russian culture, and act as a symbol of old ways or nostalgia within the novel. The polonaise for Yevgeny Onegin acts as the perfect action-packed, thrilling, and brilliant soundtrack to accompany Ivan. To have this classic Russian polonaise playing while Ivan is frantically running is ironic. Ivan, Berlioz, and their fellow writers openly mock and reject the culture that Yevgeny Onegin represents. In a more symbolic reading of the scene, Ivan is not only running because of Woland and the crew, but he is also fleeing from the classic Russian culture. Yet, the polonaise attempts to appeal to Ivan’s humanity or sympathy with the reference to the “basso who sang of his love for Tatyana” (Bulgakov 58). Bulgakov’s inclusion of this line is intriguing. It implies that the opera is attempting to appeal to Ivan and call him to reconcile with is roots or the classical roots. Additionally, it is of great importance that the polonaise is coming from “all windows, all doors, all gateways, roofs and attics, cellars and courtyards” (57). The borderline excessive listing of platforms of sound reinforces the standardization of Soviet society at the time. Not only do all of the citizens have the same program, that is playing the same song, but also all of the people appear to be listening to their radios at the same time. Though this scene is comical and light, it retains a serious undertone when taking into consideration censorship and the Soviet experiment. Next, I will be discussing American composer Vincent Youmans’s song “Hallelujah!”. Throughout the novel, “Hallelujah!” is alluded to on three separate occasions. For this section, I will first list all of the references and their context within the novel, and then I will analyze the effect of the song as a whole on the commentary of the novel. The first allusion surfaces in chapter five “The Affair at Griboyedov’s”. While the MASSOLIT writers are dancing a man’s voice “no longer sang but howled, ‘Hallelujah!’ The clashing of the golden cymbals occasionally covered even the clatter of the dishes which the dishwashers were sending down the chute into the kitchen. In short, hell” (66). “Hallelujah!” begins playing directly before the writers of MASSOLIT learn the fate of their leader Berlioz. The second reference of this tune surfaces after doctor Kuzmin’s run-in with Sokov in chapter 18, “The Luckless Visitors”. After arriving at home Kuzmin heard the phonograph playing “Hallelujah!” and a sparrow flew in and “limped on its left foot, obviously clowning and dragging it, moving in syncopation—in short, it was dancing a fox trot to the music of the phonograph like a drunk in a bar” (231). The third references arises in chapter 23 at “Satan’s Great Ball”. In this chapter, there is a two-page sequence (pages 278-279) where there is a duel between the deceased Johann Strauss conducting a classical polonaise and a jazz band belting out “Hallelujah!”. In order to understand why “Hallelujah!” is referenced thrice, one must first analyze the lyrics: “Satan lies a waitin’ and creatin’ skies of grey (skies of grey), but hallelujah, hallelujah helps to shoo the clouds away” (Vanhellemont). The word hallelujah is in the traditional sense a praise to God, but in the context of the novel, it is used ironically as a call or beckoning for Woland/Satan. The first reference comes literally a page before the MASSOLIT writers learn of Berlioz’s death, which Woland meddled in and predicted. The second reference is after Woland meddled in Sokov’s life and told him he would die of liver cancer, and directly before the leech incident and the appearance of the odd Hella/Azazello/Behemoth/Woland creature’s arrival. And the third reference is only pages before Woland’s arrival at his own ball. Jazz essentially transforms into a symbol of the devil or the devil’s work within the context of the novel. It is interesting to consider the mere inclusion of jazz due to the fact that the majority of other music references are grounded in the classical or traditional. Bulgakov was first introduced to jazz through American embassy parties thrown at the Spaso House, the American embassy in Moscow. According to Anna Sorokina in her article “6 Secrets of U.S. Ambassador Residence in Moscow that Sound Like Myths”, Bulgakov was “hugely influenced by the 1935 Spring Festival” (Sorokina). The Spring Festival that Bulgakov attended was held on “April 24, 1935 at Spaso House [and] is legendary for being one of the most lavish parties ever held by the U.S. mission abroad… according to his wife, after the party he radically rewrote the chapter entitled ‘The Spring Ball of the Full Moon’ (‘Satan’s ball’)” (Sorokina). Jazz was something new and foreign to Soviet Society, so it is interesting that Bulgakov used it in association with the devil. I would go as far to argue that jazz, like Bulgakov, resisted the traditions of classical conventions, and this frightened people. It is also important to note that shorty after “Hallelujah!” is played all three times, people are taken away to the mental hospital. First is Ivan, then doctor Kuzmin, and then more obscurely the Master (after he died) visiting Ivan. Knowing that these people are carted away after hearing “Hallelujah!” forces me to think of jazz in a societal context. Unlike the predominant classical music of the time, jazz does not play by any rules. It is unpredictable, subversive, and ultimately threatening to classical music—just like an enlightened mind is to society. The succeeding, and possibly most strange musical allusion I will be discussing is the inclusion and inversion of Dimitri Timofeevich Lensky’s “Lev Gurych Sinichkin, or a Provincial Debutante” in chapter 12 of The Master and Margarita. Chapter 12 titled “Black Magic and Its Full Exposé” details the disorder that Woland and the gang cause through an extravagant magic show. In this magic show money falls from the ceiling, Bengalsky is beheaded and then re-headed, and women are awarded the finest clothing. While greed consumes and corrupts the citizens, Behemoth forces the conductor to play a march. In the Mirra Ginsburg translation of the text, the band strikes up a “half-absurd, half-blind, recklessly merry” tune with the lyrics: His very excellent excellency Loved domestic chicks. He always had under his wing Four, or five, or six. (Bulgakov 146) These lyrics are undeniably absurd, but they also vary per translation of the novel. The other translation of Bulgakov’s version of this tune comes from Pevear/Volokhonsky and goes like: His Excellency reached the stage Of liking barnyard fowl. He took under his patronage Three young girls and an owl!! (Vanhellemont) Now, the original words for the Dmitri Timofeevich Lensky song, translation by Kevin Moss are: His Excellency calls her his own and even patronage renders to her. (Vanhellemont) These versions paint three very different pictures. Clearly, Bulgakov’s version, despite translation, is meant to jest and even make a mockery of the original song. Still though, it initially seems odd for Bulgakov to place a piece of this nature directly at the conclusion of Woland’s magic show. Through my research and contemplation, I have come up with two intermingling theories for the placement and usage of “His Excellency”. First, the chaos and nonsense of the song’s lyrics mirror the chaos in Moscow caused by Woland. At the time when The Master and Margarita was being written, Russia was a Communist country. Communism advocated for the elimination of private property. When Woland and gang began throwing around money, garments, etc. everyone attending the show should not have gone wild because the Communist society in theory provides everything that citizens need. But, mass chaos erupted and the sheer greed of humanity prevailed. The absurdity of this song essentially acts as a parallel to the absurdity of Communist society. Intermingling with the absurdity of the lyrics, it is necessary to note that “His Excellency” is a march. According to Encyclopedia Britannica a march in musical form has an “even meter (in 2/4 or 4/4/) with strongly accented first beats to facilitate military marching” (Britannica). Yet, in this scene within the novel no one is marching—there is no order, only chaos. Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica also note that in the “20th century, Sergey Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky evoked the march for satirical purposes as well” (Britannica). With this information from the Encyclopedia Britannica, I would argue that Bulgakov used “His Excellency” to satirize the standardization or conformity of Communist Russia. Bulgakov saw people for the individuals that they were, and called attention to the absurdity of the Soviet experiment. To continue along the lines of Bulgakov’s critique of Communist society, an intriguing inclusion of “Slavnoye Morye” or in English “Glorious Sea, Sacred Baikal” occurs. “Glorious Sea, Sacred Baikal” is a song that was “thought up by prisoners from the Nerchinsk prison camp in Siberia around 1850. It was based on the poem ‘Dumy beglesta na Bakalye’ or ‘The Soul of the Fugitives in the Baikal’, which was written in 1848 by Dmitri Pavlovich Davydov” (Vanhellemont). In chapter 17, titled “A Troubled Day”, Vasily Stepanovich ventures to the Commission on Spectacles and Light Entertainment to report the events that occurred at Woland’s black magic show. However, Vasily is greeted by a man-less suit and a cursed staff. Said staff in a sort of mass hypnosis start singing together a “well-known exile song about the Baikal Lake in Siberia” (Vanhellemont). Between pages 205-208 the employees are unwillingly bursting into song: But suddenly they somehow automatically began the second verse. They were led by Kosarchuk, who may not have had a perfect ear, but had a rather pleasant high tenor. They finished it. The conductor was still absent! They dispersed to their places, but before they had time to sit down, they burst into song once more, against their own will. They tried to stop—impossible. They would be silent for three minutes, and again burst into song. Silence—song! They realized they were in trouble. (Bulgakov 208) The employees of the Commission on Spectacles and Light Entertainment only became desperately cursed after their leader Prokhor Petrovich proclaimed out of annoyance “the devil take me!” (204). Instead of only punishing Pertovich for using the devil’s name in vain, Woland punishes everyone. This punishment appears to be a well-defined comment on the structure of Soviet society. Though Stalin is in control up top doing whatever he wants, it is the common man that is being punished. An entire people are being condemned for the actions and decisions of one man. This train of thought once again conjures the concept of free will. It could be argued that no one in Soviet society, especially at a government job such as the fictitious Commission on Spectacles and Light Entertainment, or even MASSOLIT have any autonomy or free will. And, if one exercised their autonomy or free will and Stalin decided he did not like it, the end result is exile or death. The punishment for the employees of Commission on Spectacles and Light Entertainment could also be in part for their cowardice. It was Bulgakov’s belief that cowardice is the pitfall of man, and in his eyes, there is nothing more cowardly than giving in to the establishment and working for the man. These people are not only imprisoned to Woland, but they are also in a more practical sense imprisoned to their jobs and status within Soviet society. This sense of imprisonment is also ironic due to the fact that “Glorious Sea, Sacred Baikal” is a song that became popular from a prison camp. In addition, it must also be noted that the fate of the employees of Commission on Spectacles and Light Entertainment results in a stay at Professor Stravinsky’s hospital. Now, not only are their minds in a state of imprisonment, but also their physical bodies, which results in a complete level of hopelessness. There are no winners at this time in Soviet society. After taking the time to discuss what I deem to be integral music references in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, I am now going to switch gears a bit and explore three songs that were inspired by Bulgakov’s masterpiece. In this section I will be investigating Patti Smith’s “Banga”, Franz Ferdinand’s “Love and Destroy”, and the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”. What I have found through my research is that these songs not only reference The Master and Margarita, but they also provide a unique lens in which the novel can be analyzed. In 2012, legendary American rock singer Patti Smith released her album titled Banga. From her early days on, Smith has admitted to being inspired by Russian novels and novelists. The title song of the album, “Banga” is thoroughly inspired by Bulgakov’s creature-inclusive plot lines in Heart of a Dog, The Fatal Eggs, and The Master and Margarita. Smith’s insightful lyrics allow one to initiate a guided dive into the loyalty showcased throughout The Master and Margarita. The lyric “you can leave him twice, but he won’t leave you” (Patti Smith) is a clear reference to Pontius Pilate’s faithful mutt Banga. But, I would argue that Smith’s lyric could also apply to Margarita, especially because even though the master had left her, she did everything in her power—even selling her soul, to get him back. Hearing this lyric, I am reminded of what Woland says of Pilate and his pup: “When the moon is full, he is tormented, as you see, with insomnia. And it torments not only him, but also his faithful guardian, the dog. If it is true that cowardice is the greatest sin, the dog is not guilty of it. The only thing the brave dog feared was storm. But, then, those who love must share the fate of those they love.” (Bulgakov 385-386) This quote demonstrations a parallel between Banga and Margarita as they are both condemned to follow those they love into the depths of hell. Both Banga and Margarita did not abandon those they love, which is ultimately a great act of courage. Margarita literally went to hell and back to save the master, and Banga essentially did the same. With both Margarita and Banga there is a sense of courage within their blind loyalty. But, on the other hand their loved ones, Pilate and the master each exhibit great cowardice. The master exhibits cowardice by burning his manuscripts, giving himself up to the system, and secretly checking himself into a mental hospital so as to not rock the boat. Pilate exhibited cowardice by sentencing an innocent man to death because his government job forced him to do so. Yet, the irony is both the courageous and the cowardly all find themselves ultimately in hell. So, I wonder if both Bulgakov and Smith are warning one to be careful of whom they love, and to what degree they love—or possibly implying something like “do not love a coward who gives into the system because they will just drag you down to hell too”. In 2004, Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand released their song “Love and Destroy” on the B-side of their album Michael. “Love and Destroy” has an upbeat rock tempo with an incredibly catchy chorus. The lyrics of the song focus on aspects of Margarita’s experience on Walpurgis night. In the article “Reading the music: What Mick Jagger and Mikhail Bulgakov have in common” Alex Kapranos, the front-man of Franz Ferdinand explains what The Master and Margarita means to him: “Unlike many novels that explore the conflict between Jesus and Pontius Pilate and quickly become theological essays, Bulgakov introduces the Jesus-Pilate conflict and supporting events within a story set in the modern day Russia, complete with witches, sorcery, a Satan’s ball and accurate portraits of somewhat complex, contradictory and sometimes despicable Russian characters bred under absurd communist notions of utopian society” (RBTH). Though Kapranos’s take on the novel as a whole is interesting, the lyrics to “Love and Destroy” seem to focus more on Margarita and a notion of freedom from the oppressive, standardized Soviet society. The lyrics that stood out most for me from the song are in verse one and verse three. Verse one goes like: “I’m so free I could lacerate/ Rip the robes right off of my chest/ I fly high above the Muscovites’ sky/ I’m going to rip, rip, I’ll never rest” (Franz Ferdinand). What caught my attention with these lyrics was the violent word choice, the “lacerate” and the repetition of “rip”. This choice of words forces me to think of the pressures and constraints placed upon citizens of communist Russia. Herein, Margarita is violently attempting to rip herself away from said constraints, and it appears the only way to do that is by separating herself from Moscow by flying in the sky. The third verse goes like: “I’m so free as I meet you/ Welcoming back, the Queen of the ball/ It’s dark beneath the Muscovites’ sky/ But you give, you give me it all” (Franz Ferdinand). This verse allows me to believe that in Bulgakov’s satirized version of society, the only way to truly be free from the oppressive government is to literally become a witch and fly around naked. I realize that this is an exaggeration, but it provides an insight into how bad things really were, how constrictive and domineering Communist Russia really was. Analyzing The Master and Margarita through the lens of “Love and Destroy” makes me question if in Bulgakov’s mind Woland is the real savior and not Yeshua. In the context of the novel, Woland grants freedom to many. He frees Natasha by forever transforming her into a witch, he ultimately provides salvation for Pilot near the end of the novel, and Woland also frees both the master and Margarita by giving them all they ever wanted. Yeshua, in the context of the novel, literally does not doing anything. He dies and then disappears (more or less) from the storyline. Multiple roles appear to be inverted within the novel. For example, Margarita is not the stereotypical damsel in distress waiting for her prince charming, but rather she is the one who saves the master. By inverting these roles, Bulgakov fosters a sense of discomfort and distrust which ultimately can be reflected onto the society of the time. On December 6, 1968, uber-famous rock band The Rolling Stones released one of their greatest songs of all-time “Sympathy for the Devil”. “Sympathy for the Devil” was written by front-man Mick Jagger after his then girlfriend Marianne Faithfull provided him with a copy of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. There are many clear parallels to the novel in lyrics, especially in verse one and verse two. Verse one says: “Please allow me to introduce myself/ I’m a man of wealth and taste/ I’ve been around for a long, long year/ Stole many a man’s soul and faith/ And I was ‘round when Jesus Christ/ Had his moment of doubt and pain/ Made damn sure that Pilate/ Washed his hands and sealed his fate” (The Rolling Stones). The first two lines are a direct equivalent to Woland’s initial meeting with Berlioz and Ivan. In addition, the devil in “Sympathy for the Devil” shares the same feeling about Pontius Pilate’s fate. The lines in verse two are less closely paired with the novel: “I stuck around St. Petersburg/ When I saw it was a time for a change/ Killed the Czar and his ministers/ Anastasia screamed in vain/ I rode a tank, held a general’s rank/ When the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank” (The Rolling Stones). Though the lyrics here are not directly tied to any of the characters or plot like the lines in verse one, they are still “famous events from Russian history which are explicitly or indirectly commented on by Bulgakov in the novel” (Vanhellemont). What is arguably most interesting about “Sympathy for the Devil” is that it is written in first person narrative from the devil’s perspective. Yet, even though it is written from the devil’s perspective, the devil is not actively committing atrocities. But rather, the devil is just there on standby—to watch as fate takes its course. It seems that “Sympathy for the Devil” is implying that mankind incites its own downfall, not God or the devil. The atmosphere and “construction of the song fit also perfectly with the book. The band worked with rather unusual instruments… after a long process of (re)working it became a samba, which Jagger called ‘hypnotic’ and Richards called ‘insane’” (Vanhellemont). Almost in a trance itself, humanity is in a strong cycle of committing atrocities against one another. It happened in Bulgakov’s time, before Bulgakov’s time, and will continue to happen after Bulgakov’s time. In the novel, there are some events that are clearly perpetuated by Woland—such as Varenukha becoming a vampire, or Nikolai turning into a pig. But, at the novel’s close all previous issues perpetuated by Woland (that want to be resolved) are resolved. Woland does not condemn Berlioz or Sokov to death, but rather he just predicts it and watches as the inevitable occurs.
Ultimately, the numerous musical references that Bulgakov makes throughout The Master and Margarita allow readers to establish a better picture of Bulgakov’s intent for the novel. The music acts as a perfect soundtrack to accompany the action of the plot. In addition, the musical references specifically speak to the standardization of Soviet Russia and other terrible societal structures of the time. It is my hope that as time progresses, artists and musicians will continue to be inspired by Bulgakov’s masterpiece and continue to produce illuminating songs, such as Patti Smith’s “Banga”, Franz Ferdinand’s “Love and Destroy”, and The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”—which all contribute additional rich material in which one can analyze of the text.
“Banga”. Patti Smith. Banga. 2012. Boothby, Suzanne. “Does Music Affect Your Mood?” 13 April 2017. Heathline. 6 May 2018. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “March .” 4 March 2016. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 4 May 2018. Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. Trans. Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1967. Green, Aaron. “Verdi’s Aida: Synopsis.” 14 August 2017. ThoughtCo. 2018. “Love and Destroy”. Franz Ferdinand. Michael [Single]. Prod. Tore Johansson. 2004. “March (music).” 29 April 2018. Wikipedia. 4 May 2018. RBTH. “Reading the music: What Mick Jagger and Mikhail Bulgakov have in common.” 11 March 2016. Russia Beyond. 6 May 2018. Sorokina, Anna. “6 Secrets of U.S. Ambassador Residence in Moscow that Sound Like Myths.” 4 July 2017. Russia Beyond. 2 May 2018. “Sympathy for the Devil”. The Rolling Stones. Beggars Banquet. 1968. Vanhellemont, Jan. “Musical Themes of the Novel.” 2017. Master & Margarita. 2018.