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Literature / The Master and Margarita

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"I am part of that force which wills forever evil and works forever good."
Goethe's Faust, as quoted in the novel's epigraph

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 . 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:

  • All Part of the Show: Woland and his retinue put on a magic show at the variety theatre as a way of testing the mettle of Moscow's citizens. The audience assumes that everything they see is just a clever conjuring trick, even the parts like the theatre's master of ceremonies getting his head removed after he annoys Korovyev.
  • Anger Montage: The newly-empowered Margarita discovers the apartment of one of the critics responsible for ruining the Master's reputation and goes to town on it, smashing, burning, splashing ink around, overflowing the sinks until the floor collapses into the apartment below, and smashing all the windows.
  • Answers to the Name of God: A Soviet bureaucrat shouts, "The devils take me," having been thoroughly exasperated by Behemoth and Korovyev. Being more or less devils, they enthusiastically agree and promptly "take" him, leaving behind his empty animated suit. (One English translation has him saying "Damn me", with the same result.)
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Many if not all of the people in Moscow who fall victim to Woland's retinue had it coming one way or another, usually over the sins of envy or greed. For instance, Likhodeyev, whose relatively cushy apartment they steal for the duration of the visit, is implied to have obtained it by shopping the previous occupants to the secret police. To be fair, the punishment they take is usually rather mild; said Likhodeyev, for example, simply gets transported to a remote location to keep him out of sight.
    • A special place is taken by Freida, one of the damned souls in Woland's ball. Sins of many guests are mentioned, but she's the only one whose punishment is casually, cheerfully retold by Fagotto. After giving birth to her involuntarily conceived son, Freida choked the baby to death by shoving a handkerchief in his mouth. In Hell, she finds that same handkerchief near her bed every single morning, no matter how hard she tries to get rid of it. By the time Freida meets Margarita, she's desperately telling the queen her name over and over in an attempt to make herself noticed. Margarita then personally requests for Freida to be forgiven.
  • A-Team Firing: During a showdown between Behemoth and the Moscow police, a firefight ensues in which nobody gets injured — in a tiny room. Behemoth is just messing with the cops, and so uses his demonic powers to make sure bullets either disappear, or at least don't hurt anyone.
  • Bedlam House: Averted with the insane asylum the Master and Ivan find themselves in, which is clean, staffed with and managed by competent professionals, and very well appointed considering there's a housing crisis at the time. The Master emphatically likes the place, especially since his alternative would be the streets.
  • Bigger on the Inside: Woland's apartment at times, particularly during the carnival of the dead, when it expands to include a reception room with a sweeping staircase and several lavishly-decorated ballrooms, any one of which is larger than the entire apartment. One of his offsiders says that this is easy to achieve when you are "familiar with the fifth dimension."
  • Bittersweet Ending: The master and Margarita are reunited and live happily ever after — for a certain value of "live", since Woland takes them away to a world of their own in a sequence which heavily implies that they've died and carries the message that a love like theirs could not survive in the everyday world. Most of the other people who were caught up in the events, if they weren't killed outright, make some degree of recovery, but all are marked for life.
  • Brought to You by the Letter "S": Margarita made the Master a cap with the letter "M" on it.
  • Buffoonish Tomcat: Behemoth, the demon cat, is very often the Butt-Monkey and Plucky Comic Relief among Woland's retinue, constantly getting told to shut up by everyone and being the target of comical abuse like getting his ears pinched for talking too much. He even gets crap from a mortal human like Margarita.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Voland introduces himself by cheerfully prophesying the imminent death of a random citizen and continues in a similar vein throughout the novel.
  • Casting Couch: One of the victims of Korovyev's karmic trickery is a senior bureaucrat in Moscow's theatre scene who has been carrying on an affair with an actress in return for getting her better parts. At the moment this is revealed, he is accompanied by a young woman he has introduced as a cousin from out of town, but her reaction to the revelation implies that she's another actress he's being carrying on with the same way at the same time.
  • Casts No Shadow: One of the signs that there's something up with the undead Varenukha is that he doesn't cast a shadow.
  • Cats Are Mean : Subverted. Behemoth is working for the Devil and takes the form of a cat while pulling all sorts of nasty pranks, but the epilogue makes it clear that cats in general aren't mean and it's a bad thing when people take out their fear and anger about Behemoth onto normal cats.
  • Chain of Deals: Woland describes a man who had a three-room apartment, put a divider on it to make it four rooms, traded it for a five room apartment, and then traded that for two three-room apartments.
  • Characterizing Sitting Pose: Woland tends to sit with one leg tucked underneath him. Being Satan in human form, he couldn't care less about social norms.
  • Civilized Animal: Behemoth, when in his black cat form, walks on his hind legs, speaks good Russian, and engages in human pastimes like playing chess and shooting at people with tommy-guns. Most Soviet citizens who encounter him are understandably freaked out, but are soon distracted by something else, like the appearance of Woland prophesying their death, or the large sums of fake money given to them by Korovyev. In a humorous example, however, a ticket inspector doesn't care about Behemoth's speech (or his size, for that matter), and is only concerned about the rules barring cats from the public transport.
  • Crowd Song: Played with; one of Korovyev's pranks involves enchanting a group of people to break into spontaneous crowd songs every few mintues.
  • Cruel Mercy: once a year, Woland holds the grand ball for both the living witches and for sinners in Hell, where they are supposed to take a rest from their torment and have an evening of enjoyment. Some of them may even be absolved if the queen of the ball so wishes. One of the souls named Freida spent centuries trying to get the queen to grant her pardon, effectively making her torture harder.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The book plays with this trope repeatedly. Woland has a key scene near the end where he's called the "sovereign of shadows" and responds that, like the shadows, he's a necessary part of life; everything, animate and inanimate, has a shadow: if you want to be rid of the shadows, the only way is to also be rid of everything else in the world.
  • Deader than Dead: The fate of Berlioz. Since Berlioz arrogantly denied the possibility of a supernatural soul or spirit, Woland destroys his soul as well as his body, thus denying Berlioz the possibility of an afterlife.
  • 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, who appears on the first page and is the main viewpoint character for the first six chapters. 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 entitled Enter the Hero, and Margarita doesn't show up in person until the halfway mark.
  • Deliberately Painful Clothing: Margarita wears a huge metal medallion at Woland's ball (the TV series also add razor-sharp steel shoes and a spiked crown mocking the Crown of Thorns). The metal keeps cutting her skin, making every moment painful, but she never complains, because it is the sign of her as the Queen. She was promised that the ball would be harmless; no one said it would be ''painless''.
  • Demythification: The Master's approach to Jesus in his Pontius Pilate novel. Nothing unambiguously supernatural occurs, and Yeshua is characterized as a philosopher who speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven only as a metaphor and is misunderstood by his followers.
  • Devil in Disguise: Satan disguises himself as a professor and magician, calling himself Woland, while visiting Moscow.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Woland; Ivan tries to warn people about his true nature, but the atheistic Soviet society mean people simply can't accept he's Satan.
  • Double Speak: Toward the end of the master's novel, Pilate summons the head of his secret service and informs him that he has reason to believe that one of Yeshua's followers is planning to murder Judas in revenge for him shopping Yeshua to the authorities. The head of the secret service (correctly) understands this as an instruction to have Judas killed in such a way that it appears to have been done by one of Yeshua's followers.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: For everyone but the literary critics. The Master and Margarita get reunited, probably for all eternity. Pontius gets saved from Development Hell and can at last reconcile with Yeshua. And Woland realizes that Rousseau Was Right and admits that even in a society he considered worthy of nothing but mockery and ridicule, there are some souls whose plight may touch even the Devil's heart.
  • Enter Eponymous: The chapter in which the Master is introduced is titled "Enter the Hero".
  • Epigraph: See the quote at the top of the page; it sets the main theme for the rest of the novel. (It's originally from Goethe's Faust.)
  • 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. Though it helps that Soviet Russia is supposed to be about putting capitalism behind itself as backward, the same way it puts belief in beings like Woland's entourage behind them as backwards.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Master deliberately abandoned his name and goes only by the title bestowed on him for the quality of his writing.
  • Evil Redhead: Azazel and Hella, two of the members of Woland's retinue.
  • Exact Words:
    • In the opening chapter, Woland foretells Berlioz that the latter's death will be by beheading. Berlioz assumes murder, possibly a foreign intervention; Woland then specifies that this demise will be carried out by women. Berlioz dies the moment he leaves the park: slipping on a puddle of oil spilled by a girl named Anna, he falls under a trolley and his head is cut off by its wheel; the last thing he sees is the horrified face of the woman trying to stop the trolley she's driving to no effect.
    • Woland's magic act promises a display of black magic followed by its exposé. At some point, one of the spectators demands the exposé, but fails to specify that he means exposé of the magic. His own infidelity is exposed instead, lampshaded by Korovyev.
    • Woland says Margarita may wish for anything of him in return of serving as his hostess on the ball. So when Margarita uses that wish to get a woman pardoned of her eternal punishment, he gives Margarita another chance to wish for something, because, as he said, he didn't do anything, it was Margarita who forgave that sinner.
    • Matthew, when send by Yeshua, requests that the Master is finally given peace. When Woland sarcastically asks why not grant him light (i.e. entry to Heaven), the messenger coldly replies that the Master does not deserve the light; he deserves just peace. Woland promptly sends Azazel to murder both the Master and Margarita and grant them peace in Hell, which is as close to paradise as they both could ever get.
  • Expospeak Gag: Played for Drama to reinforce the Demythification both in the Pilate chapters and in modern ones. Bulgakov refers to most of the characters and locations using obscure synonyms, literal translations, and other roundabout descriptions to strip away the Biblical context implied by their familiar names.
  • Fanservice: Hella the witch is naked for most of her scenes (although see below for how that's sometimes not a pleasant sight) and Margarita and Natasha, once they become witches, spend most of their time naked as well. The TV series conveniently covers their privates with whatever the particular scene allows - from shadows to an apron - but leaves everything else in plain sight.
  • Fan Disservice: All female guests at the Satan's Great Ball are naked as part of the strict dress code. And they were chosen and invited for their evilness, not for the youth and beauty. Also, when people see Hella they're either disgusted by the fact that she's wearing nothing but an apron — these foreigners!!! — or terrified because she looks so unnatural and is about to attack them.
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: Most of the Soviet officials deny that anything supernatural or even terribly out of the ordinary is happening as Woland and his minions wreak havoc across Moscow, because to do so would contradict both atheistic Communist ideology and make them appear incompetent.
  • Flaying Alive: At one point during her stint as a naked witch, Margarita apologises to the demon Azazello for being unclothed in front of him, and he reassures her that he's totally fine with it, for he's not only dealt before with women with no clothes on, but even women with no skin on.
  • 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's henchman Korovyev 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.
  • Genre Blindness: The Master holds Beriloz in contempt for not recognizing that a strange German gentleman who speaks esoterically about religion and calls himself Woland is the Devil; he says a seasoned literary critic ought to have known better, but forgives the more innocently ignorant Bezdomny.
  • Giant Mook: Centurion Marcus Maribellum ("Ratkiller") is described as "a head taller than the tallest soldier of the legion and so broad in the shoulders that he completely blocked out the still-low sun".
  • God-Karting with Beelzebub: Woland is not evil, just tricky and likes to tempt mortals into traps. And though he does not meet God or Jesus 'onscreen', they're neutral at the very least. Woland punishes sinners, mocks atheists and obviously supports Christian worldview, and he fulfills Jesus's request on the Master's fate.
  • Gone Swimming, Clothes Stolen: Happens to Ivan during his pursuit of Woland after Berlioz's death, meaning that when he later attempts to warn the authorities about Woland he's doing so dressed in not much more than underwear (and somebody else's underwear at that), which doesn't help their impression of his mental stability.
  • Good Needs Evil: Woland asserts this to Matthew Levi near the end:
    "You spoke your words as though you denied the very existence of the shadows or of evil. Think, now: where would your good be if there were no evil and what would the world look like without shadow? Shadows are thrown by people and things. There's the shadow of my sword, for instance. But shadows are also cast by trees and living things. Do you want to strip the whole globe by removing every tree and every creature to satisfy your fantasy of enjoying bare light? You're a fool."
  • Hangover Sensitivity: The scene where Stepa Likhodeyev meets Woland may be the best description of hangover and its effects in the literature.
  • Headache of Doom: Pilate's headache before Yeshua's execution can be considered as an example.
  • Heroic BSoD: Ivan the poet — although he is not the hero, but rather a Jerkass who eventually redeems himself — when he realizes Woland is Satan.
  • If Only You Knew: Many characters make mentions of the Devil rhetorically, often right in front of Woland, without knowing who he is.
  • I Gave My Word: In return for hosting Woland's ball, Margarita chooses to ask for Freida, a damned soul she met at the ball, to be forgiven — but while she does feel sorry for Freida, Margarita mostly does it because she gave Freida hope that she could help her, and if the woman is cheated she'll feel no peace for the rest of her life.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Azazel boasts that he can not only shoot anybody through the heart at will, but through a specific chamber of the heart nominated in advance, and demonstrates that he can shoot a specific pip out of a playing card that's hidden under a cushion while facing the other direction and shooting back over his shoulder.
  • Intellectual Animal: Behemoth, though he is actually a demon in the form of a large black cat.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: One of the characters tells the police that the author of his troubles is Woland and that Woland is staying in the apartment of the late Berlioz, which is supposed to have been sealed up while his death was investigated. However, when the police go to check, the apartment is empty and the seals (which the audience saw being broken when Woland and his retinue moved in) are intact.
  • Lemony Narrator: Most of the narration is third-person omniscient, but every now and then the narrator instructs the reader to "please note" some particular detail; or comments on how the real events he's describing were later mis-reported In-Universe; or goes off on satiric or downright strange asides:
    "And at midnight a vision appeared in hell. A handsome, dark-eyed fellow with a dagger-shaped beard stepped out onto the veranda in full dress and cast an imperial glance over his domain. They said, the mystics did, that there once was a time when this handsome fellow wore a broad leather belt with pistols instead of a tailcoat, and tied his raven hair with red silk, and the brig he commanded sailed the Caribbean under a black flag with skull and crossbones.
    But no, no! The seductive mystics lie, the Caribbeans of this world are gone—desperate marauders do not sail across them, chased by corvettes, and cannon smoke does not hang low over the waves. There is nothing, and there never was anything! The stunted linden tree over there is all there is, and the iron fence, and the boulevard beyond it... And the ice melting in the little bowl, and someone's bloodshot bull-like eyes at a neighboring table, and it's awful, awful... O gods, my gods, give me poison, poison!"
  • Line-of-Sight Name: "Korovyev" was an unofficial name of one of the streets (Yermolayevskiy pereulok) around the pond, where Woland's retinue first appears. The name (literally "cows'") fell out of use when cows stopped grazing around the pond, but was still well-known in the 1920s. The park that replaced the pasture is the most likely place for the story to start.
  • Living Clothes: A man unwisely uses the expression "devil take me" while Woland's crew are looking for mischief to do, and immediately disappears — leaving behind his clothes, which carry on moving around as if he were still inside them.
  • Losing Your Head: During Woland's magic show, Behemoth rips off Bengalsky's head. Bengalsky's severed head is conscious and horrified by the ordeal. They soon put his head back on with him being no worse for wear.
  • Loveable Rogue: Korovyev and Behemoth. While Hella is an energetic witch and Azazel is a dour assassin who brags of being able to shoot a person and hit the exact chamber of their heart, Korovyev and Behemoth are far more cheerful, and prefer messing with people's lives through giving them seemingly valuable objects that turn out to be something entirely different once the glamour is lifted from them.
  • Louis Cypher: In German folk legend, Woland is an old nickname for the Devil, and Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust goes one time by this moniker.
  • Mad Eye: Woland's left eye is green, and his right eye is black. The green eye is described as "completely mad", and the black eye is "dead and expressionless".
  • Magical Barefooter: Margarita, after she becomes a witch. Sometimes she wears clothes and sometimes she doesn't, but she clearly demonstrates a disregard for shoes.
  • Magical Counterfeiting:
    • The money thrown to the audience at the Varieties theatre turns into random items the next day.
    • In a variation, the bribe Korovyev gives to the apartment block's administrator turns from rubles to dollars, just in time for the authorities to show up and arrest the administrator for having illegal foreign currency.
    • Combining both, when the evening's receipts are delivered to the bank the next day, they become the currencies of several Central European states.
  • Magicians Are Wizards: Professor Woland is a magician who performs a magic act. Given that he is actually the devil, this act involves real magic, but the audience is convinced there must be some trick behind it and demands him to reveal his secret.
  • Maid Of Sexy: Hella, as Woland's handmaiden, sometimes wears a maid's cap and apron. And nothing else. Natasha, once she becomes a witch, grows supernaturally attractive.
  • Man of Wealth and Taste: Woland, who may have inspired Mick and Keith to write that tune, mostly appears as a wealthy, educated, and flamboyantly dressed foreigner.
  • The Master: The title character of this novel falls under the exception about teachers and maestros, since he is called "the master" because of his literary achievement rather than because of any desire for power. Far from being a villain, he is one of the most good and kind-hearted characters in the book.
  • Meaningful Echo: When the Master is telling his life story to Ivan, he mentions that he knew long before he reached the end of his novel what the final words would be, and tells Ivan what they are. When we finally get to read, the Master's novel does indeed end with those words (more or less, depending on the translation) — and so also does The Master and Margarita end with the same words.
  • Meaningful Name: Many alluding to the Bible, music, or Faust myth:
    • Berlioz composed the opera The Damnation of Faust.
    • Behemoth is a mythical monster from the Bible — specifically, from the Book of Job, another story about the Devil walking the earth and testing people. But "behemoth" is also the Russian word for the hippopotamus, and thinking of him as a large cat called "Hippo" captures the side of him that is part of the novel's comic relief.
    • Griboyedov House is a play on the real-life Herzen House (both Griboyedov and Herzen were prominent 19th-century literary and political figures). The scene where Ivan appears at Griboyedov House parodies a scene in its eponym's play Woe from Wit.
    • Korovyev's alias "Fagot" (Fagotto) is Russian for bassoon. This may imply a further connection to the character Dr. Stravinsky, whose name is another musical reference. Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring opens with a famously difficult bassoon solo in the instrument's extreme upper register. Bulgakov often describes his character's voice as having a high, cracked, reedy timbre, like that of a bassoonist struggling to hit those high notes. In the novel, Korovyev/Fagot's actions cause several characters to check into the doctor's mental hospital.
    • Also, "Korovyev" is a street where the story starts, see Line-of-Sight Name.
    • Margarita is another Faust reference, but also hints at several historical figures, most notably the French queen Margaurite de Valois. Fagotto mentions that it's deliberate in-universe, as not only Woland wants the queen of his ball named Margarita, as is the tradition, but the titular heroine is also a distant descendant to Her Majesty.
    • Panayev and Skabichevsky, the aliases adopted by Korovyov and Behemoth when they appear at Griboyedov House, were 19th-century writers. Bulgakov may have intended the reference as a subtle Take That! since one critical edition describes both writers as "very second-rate," much like the members of MASSOLIT.note 
    • Stravinsky was a Russian composer; see the explanation for "Fagot" above. "Rimsky" may allude to another composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
    • "Woland" is a traditional German name for the Devil that's particularly associated with Faust stories.
    • Likhodeyev literally means "Evildoer".
  • Mega Neko: Behemoth is a cat as large as a hog.
  • Memetic Mutation: many, many catchphrases, but the most famous one is this gem regarding sturgeon delicacy in the theater buffet. Ever since, the expression was used everywhere regarding anything perishable.
    The sturgeon was second grade fresh.
    The second grade of freshness is nonsense! The only possible grade of freshness is the first, also the last. If the sturgeon is second grade fresh, that means tainted.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The Master is a writer of a particularly un-Soviet persuasion, just like the author himself. And many antagonists/victims of demonic pranks are politically motivated literary critics, the same sort of people who made Bulgakov's life miserable.
  • 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.
  • The Music Meister: Woland supernaturally makes a crowd of people sing involuntarily.
  • Naked Apron: Hella wears this when she's not completely naked.
  • Name and Name
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: see Meaningful Name, the demons are not even trying to conceal their true nature when they introduce themselves, but most characters only see it as weird, foreign surnames, even if they are literally named Woland ("Devil"), Azazel, Hella or Behemoth. On a lesser grade, Centurion Mark Maribellum, literally translated as "Ratkiller" (as in, exterminator).
  • 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.
  • Niceness Denial: When Woland tells Margarita that he will fulfill her only wish, she asks for Frieda — a woman who is tormented in hell by memories of how she killed her new-born child. Woland is disgusted by Margarita's mercy, but she quickly denies it.
    'No,' Margarita replied emphatically, 'I know that one can only speak frankly with you, and so I will tell you frankly: I am a light-minded person. I asked you for Frieda only because I was careless enough to give her firm hope. She's waiting, Messire, she believes in my power. And if she's left disappointed, I'll be in a terrible position. I'll have no peace in my life. There's no help for it, it just happened.'
  • Not Using the "Z" Word: Zig-zagged with Woland's identity throughout the early part of the novel. At first the narrator avoids saying outright that Woland is Satan — fair enough, since it's pretty clear from the start. However, it also stands out because of the many casual references to the devil in any other context. For example, the narrator often states "the devil only knows" some irrelevant minor detail, and many characters use phrases like "what the devil" to express surprise.note  This suggests that the narrator is going out of his way not to state the obvious, mirroring the increasingly-strained disbelief of the characters In-Universe.
    • Ultimately averted after the theater performance, when Woland and his entourage's supernatural abilities are revealed to the broader public. Woland hosts an event that's explicitly called Satan's Grand Ball. Elsewhere, when a character mutters "devil take me" in frustration, Korovyev is happy to oblige.
    • Downplayed in the epilogue, which returns to the early In-Universe point of view as the characters attempt to rationalize what happened. There are no direct references to the devil, though an investigation into the preceding events is described as "hellish." The narrator refers to "whispers of an 'evil power'" which he does not himself believe, calling them "preposterous rumors."
    • There is only one reference to Christ in the novel — in chapter 18, when a character mutters "for Christ's sake" in response to being harassed by Hella. Yeshua, the character, is always referred to by that name to distance him from Christ, the religious figure. See Expospeak Gag.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Pilate accuses Yeshua of this, and there is some evidence: When asked if he speaks any languages beside Aramaic, Yeshua replies that he also speaks Greek. He deliberately neglects to mention that he also speaks Latin, and so understands everything said in the courtroom.
  • Offing the Offspring: One of the guests at Woland's ball (housing the most famous and evil sinners from the ages past) is Freida, a woman who stuffed a handkerchief in her newborn's mouth to muffle the cries and abandoned it in the forest, and is now haunted by that handkerchief in Hell. Upon hearing Freida's story, Margarita asks why the father of the baby (who is heavily implied to have raped Freida) was judged free of guilt by the heavens; Behemoth just shrugs and replies that the man definitely did not take part in the murder itself, even if he was the reason she got pregnant in the first place. Margarita, seeing how desperate Freida has become to end her torment, even requests her forgiveness from Woland, surprising the latter quite a bit.
  • Off with His Head!:
    • Berlioz the atheist is decapitated in a streetcar accident.
    • The master of ceremonies at the variety show suffers this after insisting that Woland's magic is nothing but clever tricks. His head is reattached at the insistence of the audience, but he is never the same again.
  • Only Sane Man: Ivan gets institutionalized after discussing his actual, literal meeting with Satan with a psychiatrist.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: In-universe, Woland's German accent is observed to come and go "without rhyme or reason". As the Devil, it's possible that he's doing it on purpose just to be disorienting.
  • Outside Ride: In one scene, Behemoth the cat who behaves like a human attempts to board a streetcar, only to be turned away by the conductress. Instead he hitches a lift on the back of the streetcar (which, the narrator notes, is exactly what a human would have done in the same situation).
  • Perspective Flip: The Master's novel has Pontius Pilate as its main character, who while cruel, is far from unsympathetic. Matthew the Evangelist is depicted as a somewhat crazy hanger-on of Jesus, and doesn't record his words very accurately.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Ruthless — if somewhat sympathetic — Pontius Pilate has a dog, the only creature he loves.
    • During her rampage in the apartments of the critics who ruined the Master's life, Margarita stops to comfort a little four-year-old boy who's frightened by all the commotion.
  • Prematurely Grey-Haired: Rimsky is prematurely aged by his ordeal the night after the magic show, including his hair turning completely white.
  • Prophecy Twist: In the first chapter, Woland predicts that Berlioz will soon be beheaded by young women of the Komsomol (Young Communist League). Berlioz laughs off this unlikely prediction, but leaving the meeting he slips on a puddle of oil (spilled by the local girl Anna) and falls in the path of a tram, which is unable to stop in time, and his head is severed; the last thing Berlioz sees in his life is the face of the driver of the tram, a young woman.
  • Red Right Hand: Woland's eyes, Azazel's walleye and protruding fang, and Hella's scar.
  • Rhetorical Request Blunder: Several people get in trouble from using metaphorical expression involving the devil while Woland is in town, such as the man who says "devil take me" as a rhetorical intensifier and immediately disappears. Margarita's first encounter with one of Woland's minions occurs immediately after she thinks that she would pawn her soul to the devil just to find out whether her missing love is still alive; it turns out much better for her than these things often do.
  • Right-Hand Cat: Behemoth is one to Voland. Having said that, he also has a human form.
  • Rock Me, Asmodeus!: The novel predates Rock & Roll, but the orchestra at Woland's ball features several historical celebrity musicians, including Johann Strauss as its conductor. Later, as the Master departs for the afterlife, Woland promises he can "listen to Schubert at night," among other perks.
  • Running Gag: Towards the end, the victims of Woland's gang begging to be locked in an armored cell.
  • Satan: Woland, literally.
  • Satan Is Good: Woland and his entourage go around Moscow punishing all sorts of terrible people and help a separated couple who're sincerely in love find each other again.
  • Self-Inflicted Hell: Berlioz, who believes in nothing, gets nothing after death.
  • 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. This surprises Woland, but he bends the rules a little and allows Margarita for another wish, which she is advised to think through better this time.
  • Serendipitous Survival: Happily for him, the critic Latunsky is not home when Margarita comes around seeking revenge for his hatchet job on the master. When Margarita later, drunk, asks Azazello to shoot the man in the heart, the demon almost complies; realizing what she just wished for, Margarita immediately sobers and yells at him not to actually go through the request.
  • Shared Mass Hallucination: In the end, the authorities explain away all the supernatural events of Woland's visit as conjuring tricks and hypnotically-induced hallucinations. This includes several cases of asserting that a large group of people were induced to hallucinate the same thing together, and in the case of Likhodeyev being teleported to another city miles away, asserting that everyone who saw him the other city was likewise hypnotised somehow by a hypnotist who was in Moscow the whole time. Given how most of the demonic magic fades away over time, this works and sounds plausible enough for the Soviet people.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Particularly to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's drama of Faust.
    • Mikhail Berlioz is named after Hector Berlioz, who wrote the opera The Damnation of Faust; when the Master deduces that the mysterious figure associated with the death of Mikhail Berlioz is Satan, he asks Ivan if he's familiar with the opera.
    • The scene where Rimsky has a ghostly encounter that begins at midnight and ends when the spectre is frightened away by a rooster greeting the dawn may be a shout-out to Hamlet, where the first appearance of the old king's ghost goes the same way.
  • Shown Their Work: Bulgakov dragged as many subtle details about accurate classical demonology into the book as the censorship at the time could possibly allow; each little detail about Woland and his retinue is an actual part of how demons were depicted, some of which include:
    • Satan's injured leg is said to have been fractured in his fall from Heaven.
    • Black poodle (which the head of Woland's cane is shaped like) is one of the symbols of the devil.
    • Azazel was the demon who taught mortal women the sinful art of painting their faces. Here, he's the one to provide the flight salve, and considering how it's supposed to be made, it can be quite a Nausea Fuel.
    • Even Fagotto's manner of clothing is consistent with the demonic habit of dressing in any way but what's considered acceptable in the region they appear in.
    • The ball has a fountain with champagne (a white sparkling wine). Demons and witches in the folk legends never drink red wine (the blood of Christ).
  • Show Within a Show: The Master's novel.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter: When Yeshua is executed, Matthew Levi spends some time yelling at the sky, denouncing God as cruel and worthless and demanding to be struck down; it accomplishes nothing.
  • Smug Snake:
    • Lots of bureaucrats and high-ranking functionaries in the Moscow storylines.
    • Caifas in the Jerusalem storyline.
  • Straw Critic: The victims of Woland's retinue include some of those, based on the real critics Bulgakov had to put up with (as well as literary bureaucrats and so on).
  • Symbolic Blood: at the finale of the ball, Woland drinks of baron's blood, and offers Margarita the same drink (though his tone and gesture do not really say she can refuse). Satan himself has to order her twice, but she only drinks after Fagotto calms her over the shoulder:
    "Fear not, my queen. Blood went into the earth, and where it was spilled, the grape vines have grown long ago".
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Margarita is married to a man who loves her and gives her anything she could want, but because she's so unhappy in her marriage and only wants to be with the Master, the reader sympathizes with her. It might be harder to sympathize with the Master, who is also married but can't even remember his wife's name, if not for his own sufferings.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Literally — it's this book which inspired the Rolling Stones song, after all. Woland is initially an antagonist, but turns out to have reasons for what he is doing, and by the end of it has earned Margarita's respect.
  • Take That!:
    • Towards Russian society; possibly also towards many individuals on whom the asshole victims were supposedly based.
    • 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.
    • Berlioz's "evil apartment" has the same address as a Real Life apartment where Bulgakov lived in the early 1920s, which he hated. Today the building houses a museum dedicated to the author.
    • The whole atheistic mindset of the early USSR gets a massive one over the course of the novel. Even faced with the demons themselves, people still firmly believe in the rationality and bureaucracy, try to pass it all as mass hypnosis and psychosis, and even launch a countrywide campaign telling that the events of the story were most definitely NOT caused by powers beyond. Needless to say, for most characters who actually met Woland, this explanation is far from convincing.
  • 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 as well as in editions chosing to translate the meaningful moniker ("Bezdomny" means "Homeless"), Ivan's phone call to the police goes like "It's Ivan, the homeless! I'm calling from the insane asylum!" No wonder the conversation is short.
    • Later, Ivan agonizes over a letter to the police trying not to make a similar mistake. When he tries to say he arrived at the Patriarch Ponds with Berlioz, he worries that they'll think he means either he was there with a walking dead man, or the 19th century composer of the same name. He eventually gives up.
  • The Nothing After Death: Berlioz, a convinced atheist, is sentenced by Woland to be briefly revived after death, only to hear that everyone gets an afterlife they deserve. Then he's reduced to ash and is sent to oblivion with no afterlife at all - just what he believed in - while his skull is made into a drinking cup.
  • The '30s: No, not The Great Depression — the Soviet thirties, when Stalin and his cadre of fanatics were consolidating their power. (Strictly speaking, the novel is ambiguous on its setting: Critics generally argue that the novel is a mashup of The Soviet Twenties (when it was begun) and the Thirties.)
  • The Trickster: Korovyev and Behemoth. In particular, they enjoy giving people lots of roubles that soon turn out to be worthless papers like used public transport tickets once their glamour wears off. Moreover, those people got off easy: in one case, an official was given a bribe of roubles, which was actually dollars. Sounds great (especially considering the commanding exchange rate advantage)...except for the Soviet laws barring anything to do with Western currencies as capitalist speculation and profiteering, so he gets in hot water as Korovyev phones the police to report the bribe (and even gives them the exact location of where the official stashed it before he even had time to get back home and place it there.)
    • When Woland leaves the mortal world with his retinue, he explains that Korovyev-Fagotto hates the trickster role; he was once a mortal knight who made a particularly bad joke about light and darkness, was executed for heresy and forced to serve Woland in Hell as the joker for centuries. He pays off his debt by the end of the story, and is restored to his original, noble and serious self.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Moscow and Yershalaim, with the book switching between the two at regular intervals.
  • Unflinching Walk: A comic example: Archibald Archibaldovich calmly walking out of the burning Griboyedov House after Korovyov and Behemoth's visit, with two logs of (admittedly rare and expensive) smoked sturgeon under his arm.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Behemoth the cat is first seen trying to board a streetcar, and offering the conductress the money for the fare. Nobody on the streetcar seems to find anything odd about this, and the conductress responds by shooing him away as if he were an ordinary cat.
    • A recurring theme of the novel is how rationality causes lack of compassion in people; they do not take the events seriously, and simply walk by many things that should have terrified them. After all, what's the big deal with people being possessed or bewitched if it can all be explained by them being mentally ill?
  • What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic?: In-universe, the powers-that-be in the literary world all assume that the Master's work is actually Christian apologia, because it has Jesus and Pontius Pilate as main characters. Given the political climate of the time, it doesn't turn out well for the Master.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Hella disappears from the story after Margarita is reunited with the Master, and isn't even present in Woland's retinue during their flight from Moscow. According to Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaya, Bulgakov's third wife, the author forgot to include her because he was never able to finish his novel properly.
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve:
    • Rimsky's supernatural encounter in the theatre office begins exactly at midnight; however, it ends with him being saved by a rooster's cry at dawn.
    • Woland's carnival of the dead begins precisely at midnight, although in this case it's played with by showing the hosts during the preceding hour making last-minute preparations in a way that undercuts the sense of occasion.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The epilogue details what happens to every character that Woland messed with in the years after the events of the story.
  • Witch Hunt: In the epilogue, people kill many black tomcats and go after people whose name sounds like Woland or Koroviev as a reaction to the events of the book.
  • Withholding Their Name: When the Master tells Ivan his life story, he withholds his name, saying that he's left it behind along with the person he used to be. When he's reunited with Margarita, she respects the choice and only calls him by his title (as does Woland, who presumably could use his real name if he chose).
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Woland's carnival of the dead begins precisely on the stroke of midnight and lasts for hours, but when it ends it's still midnight.
  • You Are Worth Hell: Pilate's dog, Banga, shares his master's punishment out of love for him.
  • You Cannot Grasp the True Form: Woland's demons appear in human form (or, in Behemoth's case, as a giant cat) to the general public. They reveal their true, completely inhuman form to Master and to Margarita as they depart together (only Korovyev has a human soul and a human form in the other world - that of a Medieval Knight executed for heresy).
  • You Have to Believe Me!: After his first encounter with Woland, Ivan the homeless attempts to warn the authorities but he's so stressed that he can't string a coherent narrative together — and the events he's trying to describe are so implausible to begin with — with the result that he gets committed to a mental institution for the rest of the novel. When Ivan begs the doctors to let him go, the lead psychiatrist just calmly allows him to walk away at any time if he believes himself to be sane; however, he correctly points out that the moment Ivan goes to the police and tells his story about the encounter with Satan, that's an immediate trip back to the asylum before he even finishes the tale.

The Bortko TV series provides most of the above, plus this :

  • California Doubling: Since Moscow doesn't look much like its 1930s self nowadays, they used the generally more well-preserved St. Petersburg instead. Several panoramas were shown as noticeably edited recordings of the said era.
  • Dawson Casting: In the book, Woland is described as looking "a little over forty". He was played by Oleg Basilashvili, who was about seventy at the time.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The "Soviet" segments of the story are depicted in sepia and the "Yershalaim" and "Woland's party" segments in color. When Margarita (in Soviet segment) applies the salve, she immediately becomes shown in color.
  • The Film of the Book: Well, the television series of the book, but much of that still applies.
  • Hotter and Sexier: many of the scenes featuring Hella, Margarita, Natasha and the ball guests were anything but sexy in the novel; the series makes them a much more pleasant sight.
  • Leitmotif: Woland has a pretty awesome one, complete with Ominous Latin Chanting (and a few abracadabras thrown in for good measure).
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Played with. Woland, when making first impression to several characters, deliberately speaks with an exaggerated German accent (to pretend being a foreign professor), almost laughable to a Russian speaker. However, the moment he becomes serious, he then speaks without a single flaw in Russian, his tone and voice becoming either threatening or benevolent. Sometimes he changes his voice/accent during the very same conversation, which is a sign of he's no longer in the mood for jokes and prolongations.