Woland’s entourage prepares Margarita for the ball: Hella douses her in blood and rose oil and Behemoth rubs her feet; Koroviev hangs an “oval-framed picture of a black poodle” around her neck. She puts on golden-clasped slippers and diamond crown. Koroviev advises her to show deference to all of the guests and make certain not to ignore anyone. For this, he says, “the Queen” will be rewarded a hundredfold.
The mention of rose oil is a callback to the fragrant smell of rose that contributes to Pontius Pilate’s headache in chapter 2. The black poodle necklace, like Woland’s walking stick, is another reference to Goethe’s Faust. In Goethe’s work, the devil first appears to Faust as a poodle. Here Margarita learns for certain that with her role comes with reward.
With Margarita ready, Behemoth shouts “The ball!!!” Arm in arm with Koroviev, she is transported first briefly to a tropical forest before arriving in a lavish ballroom. An orchestra of around 150 men is playing a polonaise. On Koroviev’s instruction, Margarita stands by a wall of tulips and calls out to the conductor: “Greetings to you, waltz king!”
The ball takes place in a kind of parallel universe, conjured by Woland’s ability to control the fourth and fifth dimensions (it also takes up no actual real-world time). It is an extravagant sensuous occasion, linking Woland with the idea of indulgence and hedonism.
Margarita moves into the next room. Here, fountains spurt out jets of champagne as a jazz band plays “unbearably loud.” Margarita takes position at the top of a huge, carpeted staircase, with Azazello, Koroviev and Behemoth beside her. Margarita notices an “enormous fireplace” in the distance.
This builds the sense of extravaganza. The fireplace signals a portal between the party and hell—where the guests usually reside.
As it turns to midnight, coffins and gallows materialize from the fireplace. The human remains exit their coffins—or fall down from their gallows— and transform into well-dressed party guests, who start walking up the stairs. All of the guests that arrive and greet Margarita have committed some kind of terrible crime when they were alive, including Madam Tofana, who provided poison to women who wanted to poison their husbands in the 18th century.
The party, then, seems to be a ceremonial tribute to evil in the world. The guests who Margarita meets are mostly real historical figures. Because they are all already dead, Bulgakov can get away with naming them specifically. He couldn’t, for example, have written in Stalin as one of the attendees.
Margarita then meets a woman called Frieda, who is carrying a handkerchief. Koroviev explains that she carries this handkerchief because she used it to suffocate her child, which may have been the result of a rape, and since then, no matter how she tries to get rid of it, the handkerchief keeps reappearing on her bedside table. Margarita asks the whereabouts of the child’s father. When Behemoth interjects that “it wasn’t he who smothered the infant,” Margarita pinches his ear and scolds him for interrupting.
Bulgakov’s text is ambiguous about whether Frieda was raped or not. Assuming that she was, Frieda’s story is a comment on the cyclical nature of evil—the way evil begets more evil.
The guests keep coming in great numbers, with the women naked except for ornate headdresses and the men wearing tailcoats. Margarita grows exhausted, mentally and physically, from greeting so many macabre guests one after the other.
The dress code emphasizes the ceremonial atmosphere of the occasion.
Eventually the stream of guests starts to slow. When the last few, including two vampires, have arrived, Margarita is transported back to the room in which she had prepared for the ball. Hella and Natasha massage her with blood, reviving her. Koroviev appears, reminding “Queen Margot” to fly around the rooms so that “the honourable guests don’t they’ve been feel abandoned.”
Blood is both a representation of the macabre and of vitality. Margarita’s role seems to be chiefly centered around paying the guests respect and thereby honoring the role of evil in the world.
Back at the ball, Margarita sees that the musicians have all been turned into various animals, such as orangutans and mandrills. Behemoth performs a magic trick by turning champagne, spewing from a huge fountain, into cognac.
Behemoth revels the hedonism of the Ball. It seems he enjoys dazzling those around him, both alive and dead.
Koroviev tells Margarita that she has one last “appearance” to make. She climbs onto a platform in the ballroom. Woland, limping and carrying a sword, joins her as the crowd falls silent and a clock seems to strike midnight. Azazello holds a decapitated head on a platter—it’s Berlioz’s head, seemingly still living.
This represents the climax of the ceremony, and of Margarita’s royal duties. Berlioz becomes the figurehead (literally) for everything that Woland wishes to expose: cowardice and false knowledge. This also explains why the head was missing from the funeral.
Woland addresses Berlioz’s head, talking about Berlioz’s theory that when a person dies they go into “non-being.” He adds that another theory says each person will be given whatever accords with their faith. In that light, says Woland, he will grant Berlioz his “non-being.” He then raises his sword, causing the flesh to slough off from Berlioz’s head and a lid to open on its top. The head becomes a ceremonial cup.
The terrified Berlioz is granted a fate in line with his beliefs: but “non-being” as presented by Woland sounds more like a torturous state of meaningless existence rather than an actual cessation. Woland’s quip, which is based on a passage in the biblical book of Matthew, essentially means that individuals can have the illusion of choice but that ultimately they are all governed by the same eternal laws.
Just then, a final guest arrives: Baron Meigel. Woland introduces him to the audience as “an employee of the Spectacles commission, in charge of acquainting foreigners with places of interest in the capital.” According to Woland, the baron helped him arrange his trip to Moscow.
Baron Meigel works at the same institution as Prokhor Petrovich’s empty suit (chapter 17). He is tasked with surveilling foreigners under the pretense of assisting them, hence why he is also being punished by Woland.
Woland, however, is suspicious of Baron Meigel, thinking he is a “stool-pigeon and a spy.” Abaddon takes his glasses off and looks at the baron; simultaneously, Azazello shoots him. As blood spurts from the baron’s chest, Azazello fills the cup (Berlioz’s head). Woland raises a toast to everyone present, takes a sip, and passes the cup to Margarita. She too drinks the blood. Suddenly the entire ball melts away as a voice tells Margarita not to be afraid: “the blood has long since gone into the earth.” Margarita is transported to a “modest living room.” She goes out through the slightly opened door.
Abaddon’s look at the baron brings him instant destruction in the form of Azazello’s shot. The baron and Berlioz thus become the two sacrificial victims of the Ball, representing Soviet paranoia and “duty.” The voice Margarita hears—Woland’s— reinforces her sense of courage. By drinking from the same cup, Woland and Margarita seal their pact. She has assisted and now will learn if he is going to keep good on his vow to help her.