The Devil in the Details

Ever wonder what would happen if the Devil visited your city?  Inexplicable events and general chaos would probably ensue, much like what happened in Moscow the week the Devil decided to visit.

That’s what Mikhail Bulgakov‘s controversial novel, The Master and Margarita is all about.  Sort of.  The Master and Margarita is about a lot of things, most of which my simple mind can’t even begin to comprehend.

The book is divided into two parts – the first part sets the stage for the bizarre events that will take the place in the novel, starting with the appearance of the Devil in a park.  After predicting a particularly gruesome event, Satan, in the guise of a professor/magician, with the help of his devilish henchmen – a tall clown-ish looking man, a huge bipedal black cat, a ginger man with fangs, and an almost always naked housemaid, wreak havoc to the residents of Moscow, and to the association of writers and theater administrators in particular.

Despite the title, the master and Margarita don’t really make an appearance until the second  half of the novel.  Heartbroken over the master’s sudden disappearance, Margarita, a rich, beautiful, married woman, strikes a deal with the Devil to get her lover (the master) back.  It was just her luck that the Devil happened to be in Moscow at the time and was in dire need of a woman named “Margarita.”

Sounds simple enough, right?  But wait, there’s more.  Divided in two parts, the novel is also set in two different cities, at two different times.  The main story, with the Devil and the master and Margarita is set in Moscow in the 1930s; the side story, about Ponitus Pilate, Jesus, and Judas, is set in Jerusalem.

Yes, you read that right – the side story really is about Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and company, as told, first, by the Devil to two unbelievers in the park, and later as the characters in the master’s controversial novel.

But if you think The Master and Margarita is just a story about the Devil and his demonic entourage, a desperate housewife looking for her lover, and a retelling of the crucifixion from the point of view of Pointius Pilate, then you’re wrong, because that’s not really what Bulgakov’s novel is about.

The Master and Margarita is really about the oppressive culture and society of the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule.  It’s a satire of Russian society – bureaucracy, social class, religion, corruption, censorship, etc.

Reading this without knowing anything about the culture of the Soviet Union, then and now, or of Stalin and his administration, not to mention trying to pronounce names like Griboedov,  Mikhail Alexandrovich, Grigory Danilovich Rimsky, Stephan Bogdanovich Likhodeyev, and variations of Ivan – Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, Ivan Savelyevich Varenukha, was enough to twist my tongue and addle my brain.

Though it would probably take a Literature major with a special interest in Russian Literature, and a working knowledge of Russian culture, history and government, to truly understand this deep, image-rich novel, “casual” readers could probably appreciate its superficial aspects, rich in magical realism, dark humor, and slapstick comedy.


My third book for the Chunkster Reading Challenge, 2012.

The Master and Margarita (1966) – Mikhail Bulgakov

Penguin; 564 pages

Personal rating:  2.5/5

12 thoughts on “The Devil in the Details

    • Wow, really? I liked it, but I don’t know if I can actually ever read it again. I think with what it really signifies, it’s not really light reading. I might want to read it again when if I ever learn more about Russia in the 1930’s under Stalin’s administration.

  1. I already have this on my list but I didn’t know there was a side story about Jesus and Pontius Pilate. You make it sound even better than I thought it was. Great review!

  2. I have a friend who re-reads this every few years and considers it one of her favourite novels, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Sometimes books that aren’t-really-about-what-they-seem-to-be-about are the best books ever, and sometimes they are just frustrating: or maybe I’m just a moody reader!

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