The Most Concise Master and Margarita Summary
The Master and Margarita was written between 1928 and 1940 by Mikhail Bulgakov, the famous Russian novelist and playwright. This novel is considered one of the most remarkable Soviet-era satires. Interestingly, it was first published in a book form in Paris, 27 years after it was completed and long after the author’s death. Bulgakov centers his famous novel around the devil who pays a visit to the Soviet Union, which was in those times tightly controlled by atheists. Before 1973, The Master and Margarita could only be found in heavily censored and shortened form in Moscow Magazine. When Soviet glasnost policy unfolded in 1989, the book was published with additional text.
The legend of Faust strongly influenced this literary masterpiece. In The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov explores such themes as the freedom of religion, good and evil, conspiracies. The novel had a great impact on Europe and inspired the production of many theater plays, movies, animated films, TV-series, ballets, operas, etc. The Master and Margarita is included in Le Monde’s 100 most memorable books of the century.
Brief Master and Margarita Summary
The novel has three lines of action that are interlaced with one another: a Satan’s visit to the Soviet Union, (namely Moscow), a love story between a writer and a woman named Margarita, and the crucifixion of Jesus approved by Pontius Pilate.
There are two main settings in The Master and Margarita. The first one is Moscow in 1930, where Satan appears as a peculiar gentleman, a foreign theater expert with a specialty in magic. He chooses the German name and introduces himself as Professor Woland. Satan has a company of minions: a valet named Koroviev-Fagott, a huge black cat Behemoth who can talk, a naked witch Hella, and a demon called Azazello. Satan and his accomplices wreak chaos in the literary and theatrical institutions and play tricks on ordinary people. They intend to reveal people’s materialistic nature and anti-Soviet greed. The satanic crew performs a series of destructive tricks and a magic show that tells what is behind the curtain in the Soviet Union: the global hunger for material things; hoarding gold; unfaithfulness; suppression of thought, manipulation, pervasive informing on people, and so on. With this setting, Bulgakov masterfully satirizes Soviet life in the 1920s and 1930s.
The second setting is in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), around the time of Jesus’s crucifixion (the Aramaic name is Yeshua). Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, decides the fate of Yeshua Ha-Nozri, who is suspected of rousing public rioting in order to overthrow the Emperor. Yeshua’s radical compassion for mankind intrigues Pilate, and deep down, he doesn’t want to execute him. However, he is forced to condemn Yeshua to death so that any repercussions could be avoided.
The novel opens with the first set. Two writers, Mikhail Berlioz and Ivan Homeless (his true name is Ponyrev) discuss the poem written by the Homeless. Berlioz is a bureaucrat, a chairman of the writers’ union called Massolit, and he thinks that Ponyrev depicts Jesus too realistically in his writing. According to Berlioz, Jesus never existed. In the middle of their dialogue, a “strange professor” suddenly interrupts them. This professor is Woland, Satan. A strange foreigner tries to convince Berlioz that Jesus was real and that he himself witnessed his execution. Apart from that, a mysterious guest tells Berlioz that his head will be cut off later that same day. Woland then narrates the first part of Pilate’s story.
Woland’s prophecy came true as Berlioz slipped on sunflower oil and got decapitated by the tram. Ivan Homeless attempts to catch the company of evil tricksters – but fails. In hysteria, he tries to tell other writers from Massolit about what happened that day, but this whole story only leads him to Dr. Stravinsky’s insane asylum.
The next day Satan and his entourage appear in Styopa Likhodeev’s apartment when he wakes up in the morning. Likhodeev is the director of the Variety Theater. Woland explains to Likhodeev that he approved their performance at the theater. To prove it, Woland presents an agreement with Likhodeev’s signature on it. Mysterious guests manage to get rid of the director by magically sending him far away to Yalta and take over his apartment.
People from the Variety Theater, Grigory Rimsky, and Ivan Varenukha, try to find out what happened to Styopa Likhodeev and what the Woland’s evening magic show is all about. They receive telegrams from Yalta, supposedly written by Likhodeev. It is extremely confusing, as Styopa couldn’t physically manage to get to Yalta in such a short time – they saw him in the theater the previous day. Woland instructs Hella, the naked witch, to turn Varenukha into a vampire.
In the evening, Professor Woland and his strange minions perform at the Variety Theater. Muscovites are completely amazed by their show. The evil crew makes money fall down from the ceiling and bestows fashionable items on women. They decapitate and re-capitate Bengalsky, the host of the show.
Meanwhile, in the asylum, Ivan Homeless meets a man who is known as the Master. He is a writer who lost his mind after the rejection of his novel about Jesus and Pontius Pilate. The Master got so frustrated that he burned the manuscript and stopped writing. He became estranged from everything, including his lover, Margarita.
Ivan shares with the Master the whole story about Woland with his evil gang and Berlioz’s death. The Master believes him and, in turn, shares his own story about landing in the asylum. The story is the following: the Master fell deeply in love with a woman whose name he refused to reveal at first (this was Margarita). It happened while they were both married. The couple lived together in secret. At that time, the Master was writing his novel about Pontius Pilate, which was later rejected by critics. This is why the Master destroyed the manuscript, gone mental, and ended up in the clinic.
Later, in his dreams, Ivan sees the next part of the story about Pontius Pilate. It is centered on Yeshua’s crucifixion, which is observed from a distance by one of his disciples, Matthew Levi. As Yeshua hangs on the cross, his executioner offers him some water to drink. Yeshua tells him that water should be given to one of the other men who is dying. As soldiers disperse, Levi manages to cut down Yeshua’s body and escape with it.
In the second part of the novel, the narrator promises to show the readers what true eternal love is and introduces the Master’s secret beloved, Margarita. The woman longs for her Master and reads the remains of his notes. In the Moscow storyline, it is now the third day, Friday. Margarita comes across Berlioz’s funeral, and we find out that his head has been stolen. At the funeral, Margarita meets Azazello, who invites her to a meeting with Woland. According to Azazello’s words, it may help her find the Master who is still alive. Margarita is given a strange cream and instructed to apply it to her body at midnight.
Margarita follows the instructions and the magical cream turns her into a witch with supernatural abilities. She flies over the city to her meeting with Woland. On her way, she destroys the residence of the Massolit writers – the bureaucrats who rejected the Master’s novel. Margarita’s housemaid, Natasha, also becomes a witch and joins her. Natasha rides the hog that is, in reality, Margarita’s neighbor, Nikolai Ivanovich. When Margarita arrives at the meeting, Woland asks her to be a hostess at the Satan’s Ball during the full spring moon. She welcomes guests who arrive from Hell – those who did bad things during their lives. The ball reaches its climax when Woland and Margarita drink blood from Berlioz’s head. As Woland turns the severed head into a cup, he teases Berlioz for atheism and sends him into non-being.
In return for Margarita’s service, Woland offers to fulfill her dearest wish. Instead of reuniting with the Master, her wish is to save one of the tormented souls that were present at the Ball. Woland is impressed by Margarita’s selflessness: he liberates the soul from eternal punishment and grants Margarita the second wish. This time, the woman desires to see the Master. The wish is fulfilled, and he instantly appears before her. The Master is stupefied – at first, he thinks he is still at the asylum. But soon, he feels joy because of reuniting with his beloved Margarita. Woland talks about his novel, and Behemoth presents it to the Master. “Manuscripts don’t burn,” says Woland. The Master and his lover are then returned to their apartment and their happiness.
In the couple’s love nest, Margarita reads the Master’s writing. The readers are returned to the story of Pontius Pilate. He plans to kill Judas, Yeshua’s betrayer. Judas is lured out from the city, and Pilate murders him. When Pilate meets Matthew Levi, Yeshua’s disciple, he finds out that Levi wanted to deal with Judas himself. It angers Levi that the fatal blow was Pilate’s. As Matthew Levi leaves, he asks for parchment, which he needs to write down Yeshua’s story and teachings.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, investigators try to figure out what is happening in the city. They blame everything on a group of hypnotists. Woland and his gang leave the apartment on Sadovaya Street, and Behemoth burns it down.
Then we see the merging of two storylines: Levi comes to Woland and tells him that the Master must be granted peace according to Yeshua’s wish. Azazello offers the lovers to drink poisoned wine (a gift from Woland). While poison kills the Master’s and Margarita’s earthly bodies, they are granted eternal life together. The couple, accompanied by Azazello, returns to Woland and his entourage. They all leave Moscow on horseback.
As the whole group flies away from terrestrial concerns, they meet Pontius Pilate, who has been watching the moon with his dog for two thousand years. Pilate feels overwhelming guilt for what happened to Yeshua. Woland asks the Master to finish his novel and set Pilate free. The Master does as instructed and tells Pilate that Yeshua awaits him. The Master finally finds peace. They live with Margarita in a small celestial cottage.
In the epilogue, we learn more details about the investigation of curious events that took place during Satan’s visit to Moscow. No trace of the evil gang is found. Unfortunately, many black cats are killed because of their supposed affiliation with the hypnotists. We also learn what happens to some characters. Ivan Varenukha and Styopa Likhodeev turn back to a kind of normal life but are still strongly disturbed. Ivan Homeless becomes a history professor, and though he explains the strange events with hypnotism theory, he gets extremely anxious when the full spring moon comes. When his wife sedates him with special injections, he dreams of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua. Sometimes the Master and Margarita visit Ivan in his dreams. They console him and tell that everything is as it should be.