Two literary men meet at Patriach’s Ponds one spring evening in Moscow. They are the plump and pompous Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, editor of an important literary journal and chairman of Massolit (the Moscow writers’ union), and the younger poet Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, who writes under the pseudonym “Homeless.”
Bulgakov’s opening is meant to lure the reader into a false sense of security with its seemingly mundane scenario. That Berlioz and Ivan are writers immediately sets up the role of art in society as a key concern.
The two men buy refreshments from a kiosk. Berlioz is disturbed by the sight of an extremely tall, thin and apparently “see-through” citizen who appears to be levitating just above the ground. Berlioz tells Ivan about the sight, explaining it as “something like a hallucination” and exclaiming dismissively, “Pah, the devil!”
Berlioz’s apparition creates a sense of foreboding and gently hints at what will happen to him later in the chapter. Here, as throughout the novel, citizens invoke the devil as an expression while adhering to the Soviet Union’s official policy of atheism. Bulgakov thus suggests a disconnect between what people say and do that is developed more fully as the novel goes on.
Berlioz talks about Ivan’s latest poem, an “anti-religious” consideration of Jesus. In Berlioz’s opinion, the entire thing needs re-writing, as Ivan has unwittingly brought Jesus to life—when they both know, says Berlioz, that Jesus never existed. In a display of erudition, Berlioz compares the story of Jesus to a host of other religions, demonstrating, in his view, that Jesus was, and still is, just a variation on a fictional theme.
Berlioz embodies the old proverb that “a little learning can be a dangerous thing.” He is an erudite man but naively believes he knows all of the answers to life. His criticism of Ivan is highly ironic and a sly dig by Bulgakov at bad writing; he ought to be praising Ivan for bringing a character to life. Given that he is the chairman of Massolit, his foolishness doesn’t bode well for the other writers.
A foreign-looking man, wearing an expensive suit, a beret, and carrying a stick “with a black knob shaped like a poodle’s head,” sits down on the next bench down from Berlioz and Ivan. As Berlioz continues to chastise Ivan for making Jesus seem “that he really was born,” the stranger interjects politely, explaining that it is a subject that he is very interested in.
The foreign-looking man is Woland, though his identity is not revealed to the reader until much later. There is a trope running through the novel about “foreignness,” creating an atmosphere of paranoia befitting the Soviet setting. The poodle-headed walking stick is a reference to Goethe’s Faust, a work which exerted a great influence on Bulgakov’s and similarly involves a visitation from the devil.
As Berlioz and Ivan try to figure out where he is from, the stranger expresses his amazement that Berlioz thinks of Jesus as made-up. He asks if it follows that the two men also don’t believe in God; replying that they are “atheists,” the man cries out, “Oh, how lovely!” The man shakes Berlioz’s hand, thanking him for providing “very important information.”
The stranger asks Berlioz for his opinion on the “five proofs of God’s existence.” Berlioz dismisses these; Ivan exclaims that Immanuel Kant deserves to be imprisoned for his proofs. The stranger laughs, explaining that he had breakfast with Kant only recently. As the man probes further about what the other two believe governs human life and the universe, Ivan states that “man governs himself.” The stranger points out that mankind is, in the grand scheme of things, a very recent addition to the universe. He asks whether, were a man to slip and fall under a tram-car, could he really be said to be governing himself.
The “five proofs” refers to five logical arguments made by 13th Century Catholic scholar St. Thomas Aquinas. The reference to Kant concerns his “sixth proof,” which, crudely put, is that mankind’s morality and pursuit of happiness prove the existence of God and the afterlife. Even though Kant was writing three centuries before the setting of Bulgakov’s novel, for an eternal being like Woland that would seem like no time at all. Woland is trying to intimate that there are forces beyond man’s understanding—ironically, the two writers he converses with are not interested in the mysteries of life.
As they discuss the issue of mortality, the stranger seemingly predicts how Berlioz will die, telling him that his “head will be cut off … by a Russian woman.” He also mentions something about “sunflower oil.” Ivan and Berlioz think the stranger is mad as he goes on to imply that Berlioz’s death will prevent Berlioz from attending an important meeting at Massolit that evening.
The casual manner with which Woland informs Berlioz of his impending death is meant to contrast with the self-inflated “importance” of Massolit. Woland’s prediction of Berlioz’s death also raises interesting questions about his role—he doesn’t actively cause the death, but he does have foreknowledge of it.
Much to Ivan’s shock, the stranger address him by his name. The man explains that he has read Ivan’s poems. Berlioz and Ivan pull aside to discuss whether the stranger might be a spy. They consider asking him to show them his identity papers.
Ivan is surprised to meet someone who knows his poems—this is not the only time in the novel that this happens and suggests that, deep down, Ivan knows his poems are bad and inauthentic. Berlioz and Ivan’s aside develops the atmosphere of paranoia and hints at the bureaucratic tyranny of the Soviet regime.
Having somehow comprehended what Berlioz and Ivan were saying, the stranger produces his passport, invitation to a consultation in Moscow, and his personal business card (on which his name appears to begin with “W”). He explains that he is a professor specializing in black magic and that he can speak many languages. He is in Moscow, he claims, to look over some tenth-century manuscripts. He then tells them matter-of-factly that Jesus did indeed exists and begins to tell them a story as “proof.”
Woland again demonstrates his supernatural abilities to by answering the question of his identity before it has even been asked. There is a carnivalesque trickster side to his character—he enjoys deceiving people, but usually does so with a purpose. He is not in Moscow simply to commit evil deeds, but to create a spectacle (mirrored by the idea of black magic). Unfortunately for Ivan, he doesn’t get a proper look at the business card and so can’t remember Woland’s name in chapter 5.