I am part of that force which wills forever evil and works forever good.
First of all, this has nothing to do with any of the Masters from certain televisionshows, which the novel predates by more than twenty years. And now that we have established that, let's move on.This novel was written by Mikhail Bulgakov in 1928-1940, but only published in the Soviet Union in 1966-1967 in a severely Bowdlerised edition. It is notable for not having a single definite main character around whom most of the plot revolves, although the Anti-Villain may qualify.The main plot nominally follows Satan, who arrives with his Ragtag Bunch of Misfits in 1930s Moscow under the guise of a foreign Professor of the occult, Woland. His true intent is to host a periodic carnival of the dead. Much of the humor and social satire in the novel is derived from Woland and his henchmen exposing the numb-skulled bureaucratic officiousness of Soviet society. He is not truly evil, but some of his pranks prove humiliating to the faux aristocracy of the Soviet Union.On their way, they cross the path of MASSOLIT, a bureaucratic association of talentless writers pumping out trash mass-production literature extolling social order — in fact, the book begins with Woland's encounter with publisher Mikhail Berlioz and poet Ivan Bezdomnynote Bezdomny is a pseudonym meaning Homeless, a parody of the "socially minded" pseudonyms popular among the early Soviet authors in general, and poet Yakov Ovcharenko, alias Ivan Pribludny (The Stray), in particular. Woland is curious about the Soviet denial of religion and the supernatural and mocks Berlioz' atheism, giving him a warning which he chooses to dismiss. Shortly after, Mikhail dies in a freak accident and Ivan is commissioned into a madhouse due to realizing the truth about Woland and his involvement. Ivan then meets the titular Master, a nameless novelist whose novel about Pontius Pilate did not pass Soviet censorship, prompting him to burn it and leaving him emotionally crippled. Meanwhile, the Master's former love Margarita Nikolayevna, seeking reunion with him, agrees to act as the queen of Woland's upcoming carnival.The main plot is interleaved with chapters from the Master's novel, telling the story of Pontius Pilate and his encounters with the wandering philosopher Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus of Nazareth), his only disciple Matthew Levi and the betrayer Judas of Karioth. This storyline is united with the main one and resolved at once at the end, when the Master and Margarita grant Pilate his long-awaited spiritual union with Yeshua, whom he once doomed to crucifixion.Among Russian critics, this novel is one of the most favorite targets of the Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory syndrome, although a story featuring both Jesus and Satan as characters arguably had it coming. It has also seen a lot of adaptations, two of them in Russia (after the fall of the Soviet Union) and plenty abroad. The 2005 miniseries by Vladimir Bortko (famous for a massively popular 1988 adaptation of Bulgakov's earlier "Heart of a Dog") was perhaps the most faithful to the original text, although it was somewhat of a disappointment on the technical side, particularly in regards to questionable casting choices.
The book provides examples of :
Action Girl: Margarita, after her transformation into a witch.
A-Team Firing: During a showdown between Behemoth and the Moscow police, a firefight ensues in which nobody gets injured - in a tiny room. However, Behemoth's terrible marksmanship is established in an earlier scene when he tries to show off.
Author Appeal: Bulgakov's portrayal of the Soviet writer society; arguably also the theology, which he took interest in.
Deal with the Devil: Margarita accepts various magical formulae and attends a Satanic Ball in order to be reunited with her lover, the Master. Turns out better for her than these things usually do, but Satan is unusually sympathetic as well.
Decoy Protagonist: Ivan the poet. The Master and especially Margarita are introduced relatively late in the book — the Master first appears a third of the way through the novel, in a chapter entitledEnter the Hero.
Epigraph: See the quote at the top of the page; it sets the main theme for the rest of the novel.
Even Evil Has Standards: Woland and his entourage get quite persnickety about characters who take bribes, engage in officially sanctioned double-think about literary merit, show greed in the face of consumer goods, or other misdemeanors one might think small relative to being a demonic force of evil.
Foreign Money Is Proof of Guilt: One character gets arrested because the police find foreign currency in his apartment. He had accepted a bribe from Woland, in rubles. Woland then anonymously called the police, who found the currency, now mysteriously American dollars. At the time, possession of foreign currency was indeed a crime in the Soviet Union.
Literary Agent Hypothesis: Woland says it most blatantly in the first chapter, but the story of Yeshua itself suggests that the Gospels are portrayed in the novel as highly fictionalized Memetic Mutation of real events, which are themselves revealed through the Master's novel. Matthew Levi, in particular, is likely supposed to become Matthew the Evangelist, and Yeshua himself asserts this:
"No, no, Hegemon," the arrested man said, straining all over in his wish to convince, "there's one with a goatskin parchment who follows me, follows me and keeps writing all the time. But once I peeked into this parchment and was horrified. I said decidedly nothing of what's written there. I implored him: "Burn your parchment, I beg you!" But he tore it out of my hands and ran away."
Motive Rant: Totally averted — Woland and his pals never bother to explain their motivations when they behead, beat and kidnap people, burn a restaurant and, in general, wreak havoc. They're the devil and his servants, after all.
Narrator All Along: It is implied, at various times and depending on the translation that the Master/Woland/Berlioz wrote some/all/none of the book. Epileptic Trees spring up occasionally that suggest Behemoth, Azazel, Margarita, etc. are somehow in on this as well.
Selfless Wish: Margarita wants more than anything else for the Master to be returned to her, but when Satan offers to grant her one request, she instead asks for mercy for one of the damned souls she met at his ball.
Particularly choice moment of anti-bureaucratic Take That: a ticket inspector is quite unfazed by Behemoth's being a giant, biped, talking cat, but furious that he is breaking the regulation against cats on public transport. Even though he offers the right change for his fare.
Take That, Critics!: When Margarita transforms into a witch, she violently trashes the apartment of one of the critics who rejected and badmouthed the Master's novel. He is based on real Soviet critics that Bulgakov had to put up with. Unlike most examples of the trope, though, the kind of critics Bulgakov was condemning didn't find his works bad in a literary sense, but "ideologically incorrect".
That Came Out Wrong: In the original and translations to Slavic languages ("Bezdomny" means "Homeless"), Ivan's phone call to the MASSOLIT goes like "It's Ivan, the homeless! I'm calling from the insane asylum!" No wonder the conversation is short.