The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov was one of seven children born to Afanasiy Ivanovich Bulgakov, a prominent Orthodox theologian, and Varvara Mikhailovna Bulgakov, a teacher. Looking beyond the religious environment in which he grew up, Bulgakov developed an early interest in theater and did well in his education, especially drawn to literature by writers such as Gogol, Pushkin, and Dostoyevsky. Bulgakov also trained as a medical physician at Kiev University and, shortly after marrying his first wife, Tatiana Lappa, served with the Red Cross in World War One. He then served in the Russian Civil War, during which he contracted typhus; the disease nearly killed him and made him decide to abandon his career as a doctor. In 1919, Bulgakov began writing for theater and also honed his skills by writing “feuilletons”—short and witty satirical pieces—for newspapers. Most of his plays in the 1920s were banned from production, considered too controversial and provocative by Stalin’s censors. Stalin did, however, procure Bulgakov work at a small Moscow theater and even personally enjoyed Bulgakov’s The White Guard. Around 1924, Bulgakov married again; by the end of the decade he almost left Russia, depressed by the poor critical reception of his work and ongoing battles with Soviet censorship. He married his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, in 1932; she was the inspiration for much of the “Margarita” character in The Master and Margarita. In the late 1930s, Bulgakov worked as a librettist and consultant at the Bolshoi Theater, but faced the same frustrations that had plagued him before. During these years he worked away on his “sunset” novel, The Master and Margarita, veering between confidence in its worth and hopelessness. He died in the Spring of 1940 from kidney problems, almost thirty years before this novel would first be published (thanks to the efforts of Yelena). 
Get the entire The Master and Margarita LitChart as a printable PDF.
The master and margarita.pdf.medium

Historical Context of The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita was a risky book for Bulgakov to write, which ultimately explains why it wasn’t published during his lifetime. The novel is consistently—and comically—critical of authorities and shows up the follies of a state exerting too much of an interfering influence on its people. Though the text never openly acknowledges that it’s set in Stalinist Russia, the clues are certainly there. Russia underwent almost unfathomable changes during Bulgakov’s lifetime, shifting from monarchic empire at the time of his birth to the Soviet era at the time of his death. Continuing Vladimir Lenin’s Communist project, Joseph Stalin rapidly increased the collectivization and nationalization of Russian agriculture and industry in an attempt to offer a riposte to the success of capitalism in the United States and elsewhere. Ultimately, this top-down approach had grave consequences as the state over reached and Stalin’s leadership became increasingly punitive, resulting in the deaths of millions of Russians and in the erosion of individual freedom (a definite target in Bulgakov’s novel). With censors quick to ban any work criticizing the state and its leadership, it never looked likely that The Master and Margarita could be published at the time. When it eventually was published, after a concerted and determined effort by Bulgakov’s third wife, Yelena, the book became an enduring example of how powerful and vital literature can be.

Other Books Related to The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita is a remarkably wide-ranging novel that mixes elements of political satire, dark comedy, magical realism, Christian theology, and philosophy into a unique whole. Its influences are many and its own subsequent influence is worldwide. In terms of Russian influences, likely candidates are the fantastical humor of Nikolai Gogol and the unflinching moral complexity of Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Pontius Pilate sections of the novel, in which Pilate wrestles with the guilt of approving of Yeshua’s (Jesus’s) execution, show a deep and erudite understanding of theology and Christian texts more generally. Goethe’s Faust, in which a knowledge-hungry scholar sells his soul to the devil, is especially important to Bulgakov’s novel and serves as a kind of framing device, providing the book’s epigraph. Critics have also noticed how much the book adheres to the principles of Mennipean satire, a Greek form that took great delight in mocking the airs and pretensions of everyday society—much like Woland and his gang.
Key Facts about The Master and Margarita
  • Full Title: The Master and Margarita
  • When Written: 1928-1940
  • Where Written: Moscow
  • When Published: 1967
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Fantasy/Farce/Romance/Satire
  • Setting: 20th Century Russia and Yershalaim (Jerusalem) c. AD 30
  • Climax: Satan’s Ball
  • Antagonist: Woland
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Master and Margarita

Alternate Titles. Bulgakov had numerous earlier titles for The Master and Margarita, many of which placed more emphasis on Woland’s role in the book than the two titular characters. These included “Woland’s Guest Performances” and “An Engineer’s Hoof.”

Rock and Roll. The novel was the inspiration behind The Rolling Stones’ 1968 hit, “Sympathy for the Devil.”