Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Master and Margarita

Go To

"I am part of that force which wills forever evil and works forever good."

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 :

  • Action Girl: Margarita, after her transformation into a witch.
  • Affably Evil: Woland.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Lampshaded with Behemoth's fake death.
  • All Part of the Show
  • Asshole Victim: Many of these in Moscow.
  • 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.
  • Author Appeal: Bulgakov's portrayal of the Soviet writer society; arguably also the theology, which he took interest in.
  • 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 ballroom.
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • 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
  • Chase Scene
  • Dark Chick: Hella.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The book plays with this trope repeatedly.
  • 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 entitled Enter the Hero, and Margarita doesn't show up in person until the halfway mark.
  • Deliberately Painful Clothing: Margarita wears a huge metal medalion at Woland's ball. It keeps cutting her skin, but she never complains, because it is the sign of her as the Queen.
  • 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.
  • Devil in Disguise: Satan disguises himself as a professor and magician, calling himself Woland, while visiting Moscow.
  • Dumbass No More: Ivan the poet in the epilogue.
  • 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.
  • Enfant Terrible: Behemoth, a feline version.
  • 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. 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.
  • Evil Redhead: Azazel and Hella.
  • Exact Words: 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.
  • Faking the Dead: Behemoth.
  • Fanservice: Hela 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.
  • Fan Disservice: All female guests at the Satan's Great Ball are naked. And they were chosen and invited for their evilness, not for the youth and beauty. Also, when people see Hela 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.
  • Five-Man Band: Woland, Behemoth, Korovyev, Azazel and Hella.
  • 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 "Ratkiller".
  • Heroic BSoD: Ivan the poet - although he is not the hero, but rather a Jerk Ass who eventually redeems himself - when he realizes Woland is Satan.
  • Intellectual Animal: Behemoth, though he is actually a demon in the form of a large black cat.
  • 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."
  • Loveable Rogue: Korovyev and Behemoth.
  • Lou 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Mega Neko: Behemoth.
  • Mind Screw
  • Mismatched Eyes: 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".
  • 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.
  • Naked Apron: Hella wears this when she's not completely naked.
  • 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.
  • Noble Demon
  • 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.
  • Off with His Head!: Berlioz the atheist is decapitated in a streetcar accident.
    • The master of ceremonies at the variety show who insists 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.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Hella.
  • 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.
  • Psychotic Smirk
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Dr. Stravinsky of the asylum.
  • Red Right Hand: Woland's Mismatched Eyes, Azazel's walleye and protruding fang, and Hella's scar.
  • Right-Hand Cat: Behemoth.
  • Rousseau Was Right
  • Rule of Cool
  • Rule of Funny
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: Particularly to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's drama of Faust.
  • Show Within a Show: The Master's novel.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter: Matthew Levi; it accomplishes nothing.
  • Smug Snake: Lots of bureaucrats and high-ranking functionaries in the Moscow storylines, Caifas in the Jerusalem storyline.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Literally - it's this book which inspired the Rolling Stones song, after all.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • Talking Animal: Behemoth.
  • 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 Brute: Azazel.
  • 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.)
  • Too Soon: In its home country, at least.
  • The Trickster: Korovyev and Behemoth.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Moscow and Yershalaim.
  • Undying Loyalty: Matthew to Yeshua.
  • 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.
  • You Are Worth Hell: Pilate's dog, Banga, shares his master's punishment out of love for him.
  • You Can't Go Home Again

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.
  • 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 Film of the Book: Well, the television series of the book, but much of that still applies.
  • Leitmotif: Woland has a pretty awesome one, complete with Ominous Latin Chanting (and a few abracadabras thrown in for good measure).


Example of: