THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov A brief synopsis
On a spring evening in Moscow, Berlioz, the Chairman of the literary society MASSOLIT, is out walking with the young poet Ivan. While discussing atheism, they are approached by a stranger – a man called Woland. Woland introduces himself as a professor of black magic, berates them for saying that Jesus Christ never existed and recounts the story of Christ’s final hours. Woland knows the true story because – he says – he was there himself. He describes Pontius Pilate, bothered by a headache, trying to save Christ (or Yeshua Ha-Nozri) from death. Woland finishes his bizarre tale by predicting Berlioz’s death in chilling detail.
Believing Woland to be mad, Berlioz hurries to report him to the Foreigners’ Bureau. On the way, just as Woland predicted, he slips and falls into the path of a speeding tram. Ivan arrives at the scene just in time to see Berlioz’s severed head rolling along the pavement. As he chases the professor through the city, the poet is hindered by Woland’s associates: Koroviev, Azazello and Behemoth, who is a huge black tomcat. After a madcap race through Moscow, the hysterical Ivan takes a swim in the river only to have his clothes stolen. Nevertheless, half dressed and raving, he makes his way to the MASSOLIT headquarters.
The evening party at MASSOLIT is interrupted first by the news of their Chairman’s death and then by the arrival of Ivan, who rants about the strange professor but cannot remember Woland’s name. A fight breaks out and the police are called. Ivan is escorted to a psychiatric clinic where he is tranquilized and diagnosed with schizophrenia and alcoholism.
While the poet is kept in the clinic, Woland and his bizarre companions cause chaos in Moscow. They move into the Chairman’s former apartment, spiriting his roommate Styopa off to Yalta. Styopa is the director of the Moscow Variety Theatre, and Woland uses his absence to set up a hellish black magic act there, despite the objections of the managers Rimsky and Varenukha. During the show, Koroviev rains down money on the audience and hands out beautiful, exotic clothes to the women in the crowd. When the compere explains their tricks as ‘mass hypnosis’, Behemoth the cat tears off his head, and then screws it back on when the audience protest.
That night, a stranger enters Ivan’s hospital room. When he hears Ivan’s story, the stranger informs Ivan that the mysterious professor Woland is in fact Satan. Ivan’s new companion is the Master, who, with the help of his lover Margarita, has written a novel about Pontius Pilate – a novel that strangely echoes Woland’s tales of Pilate and Yeshua. The Master, who was admitted to the hospital after breaking down when his novel was rejected by publishers, now longs to meet Woland. After speaking to the Master, Ivan sleeps and dreams of Yeshua’s crucifixion. The dream centres on Matthew Levi, Yeshua’s devoted disciple, who steals a bread knife from a local shop, planning to stab Yeshua to spare him the horror of death by crucifixion. Matthew arrives too late and is forced to suffer as he watches Yeshua die, but is then able to cut down the body and steal it away.
The scene turns to the Master’s mistress Margarita, who, not knowing that her lover is locked away in the hospital, believes she will never see him again. As she walks sadly through Moscow, she hears gossip about the magic show at the Variety Theatre. Suddenly she is approached by Woland’s ugly companion Azazello, with his red hair and single fang – he quotes from the Master’s novel and says he can take her to a man who will give her news of the Master. She agrees enhusiastically and Azazello gives her a pot of magic cream, telling her to rub it all over her body at half-past nine that evening and wait for further instructions.
Margarita does what he says: the cream transforms her appearance and turns her into a witch. Her telephone rings – it is Azazello telling her to leave through the window on the broom that has just flown into her bedroom. When she arrives at Woland’s apartment she is met by Koroviev, who explains that Woland is holding a grand ball for the undead, and that she is to be the hostess. The apartment transforms into a tropical jungle, a ballroom and then a jazz hall before suddenly the guests arrive, jumping out of coffins that fall through the chimney. Margarita greets them and learns that they all committed terrible crimes when they were alive and are still being punished. One woman, Frieda, choked her unwanted baby with a handkerchief; the handkerchief now haunts her wherever she goes.
The night is exhausting, and at the end of it Margarita can barely stand. Woland tells her that she has done well, and that he will repay her efforts by granting her a wish. Margarita begs a pardon for the haunted Frieda, which Woland grants, but then offers Margarita a further wish – one that is just for her. She asks for the return of her lover, and to be allowed to live with him quietly in his old basement apartment. At her word, the Master is magicked into the room and they leave together, although the Master is shaken by his ordeal and is afraid that their reunion cannot be real.
Back at the apartment, the Master sleeps while Margarita reads chapters from his novel. They describe Pontius Pilate in conversation with a mysterious cowled man, Aphranius, the head of his secret police. Aphranius informs Pilate of a plot to kill Yehudah of Kerioth – or Judas Iscariot – the man who betrayed Yeshua. Although Pilate instructs Aphranius to take every precaution to protect Yehudah, his true meaning is that Aphranius should arrange his murder. The chief of police carries out Pilate’s secret orders, and Yehudah is killed. Pilate dreams of peace, a peace in which he walks along a path of moonlight, deep in discussion with Yeshua Ha-Nozri. Back in Moscow, Margarita finishes reading as the dawn rises.
That day, investigators visit Woland’s apartment but he has escaped along with his companions. At sunset, he and Koroviev sit on a hilltop overlooking Moscow where they are visited by Matthew Levi. He tells them that Woland must take the Master and Margarita with him when he leaves Moscow, and should give them peace. Woland asks why the couple are not being taken into God’s light, and Matthew replies that they have not earned light, only peace. Azazello is sent to find the lovers. He invites them on a trip and offers them wine which poisons them. The Master and Margarita barely have time to realise they are dead before Azazello sets fire to the apartment, and the three of them ride away on huge black stallions. They join Woland and his entourage on a mountaintop, where Pontius Pilate sits bathed in moonlight: he has been sitting in this lonely spot for thousands of years. But in this mysterious moment, Pilate is set free and is at last allowed to walk along the moonlight path, accompanied by his beloved dog Banga. As dawn arrives, Woland sends the Master and Margarita to eternal rest in a small house over a little bridge, along a sandy road.