The narrator describes what happens in Moscow in the aftermath of Woland’s visit. Rumors abound of “unclean powers,” which the “developed and cultured people” explain away as being the work of a highly-skilled “gang of hypnotists and ventriloquists.”
In the final chapter, Bulgakov continues the comedic foolery of the authorities in Moscow as they attempt to explain what’s happened. The reference to ventriloquism is specific to explaining away the talking cat, Behemoth.
Investigations continue. As well as Woland’s own victims, a number of black cats are exterminated by the police. A few citizens with a passing resemblance to members of Woland’s gang are detained mistakenly. A magician on a train is wrongfully arrested. The investigators conclude that the hypnotism/ventriloquism theory is the correct, ignoring any evidence to the contrary.
The slaughter of the cats demonstrates how far the investigators are from the truth.
The investigation is eventually closed, and years go by. Georges Bengalsky never returns to the theater, and weeps anxiously every spring full moon. Styopa moves to another town and becomes the manager of a food store. Rimsky takes a job at a children’s marionette theater, still afraid of the Variety. All of the characters who encountered Woland remain deeply affected by the experience. True to Woland’s prediction, Andrei Fokich dies of liver cancer.
Each character targeted by Woland is fundamentally changed; that is, they are scared to return to their old ways. But they don’t expressly “learn” something—they express no moral revelation—making the reader question whether Woland was motivated by exposing evil or the thrill of chaos—or most likely, both. Andrei Fokich is probably the character least deserving of his fate in the book.
Ivan becomes a professor at the “Institute of History and Philosophy.” Each spring full moon, he sits at Patriarch Ponds, on the same bench as when he met Woland. He feels sure that he “fell victim to criminal and hypnotists and was afterwards treated and cured.” Yet still the spring moon makes him anxious.
Ivan occupies two worlds at once. On the one hand, he buys into the hypnotism theory, perhaps because it is the easiest way for him to regain a sense of sanity and move on with his life. On the other, part of him is still fixated with Woland and the Pilate narrative; that fixation becomes bodily, outside of the confines of his rational mind, whenever the same time of year comes around. This emphasis on seasonality exemplifies the cyclical nature of good and evil described by Woland in chapter 22.
After sitting on the bench, Ivan’s spring full moon ritual takes him to a Gothic mansion in the lanes of the Arbat. Here he observes an elderly man with piggish features—Nikolai Ivanovich Bosoy—who stares at the moon longingly, regretting his decision not to fly off with Natasha forever.
Nikolai regrets trading in his ticket to the supernatural world and returning to the mundane and cowardly life that he lived before. Ivan doesn’t know him, of course, but can sense that he and the other man have something mysterious in common.
Ivan then returns home, where his wife watches over him as he weeps in his sleep—the same thing every spring full moon. She gives him an injection which calms him down. Ivan always dreams of the execution at Yershalaim, but once he is given his medicine, he imagines Pilate walking towards the moon with Yeshua Ha-Nozri.
Ivan attempts to live a normal life but always struggles at this time of year, needing sedation just as he did in Stravinsky’s clinic.
In this dream, Pilate implores Yeshua to tell him that the execution never happened. Yeshua promises that it didn’t. Banga follows faithfully behind the two men as they rise towards the moon. As a river of moonlight spreads in all directions, Ivan encounters the master and Margarita. Ivan asks if “it ended with that?” The master confirms that “it ended with that, my disciple,” as Margarita comforts Ivan. Then, light fills Ivan’s mind entirely. Each time, he wakes up calm and well, not thinking of Pontius Pilate again until the next spring full moon. The novel then ends with the same words that the master earlier said would end his novle: “the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate.”
Ivan’s dream echoes Pilate’s own dream about Yeshua, in which the latter two men agree that the execution never happened—Pilate’s way of replacing his cowardice with courage. As Ivan’s sedation kicks in, it informs the dream with a sensation of peace (linking it to the ending of the previous chapter). Margarita’s comforting of Ivan is also a way of comforting the reader, drawing the novel to a close and implying that, though the book is mysterious and resists easy interpretation, yet everything the reader needs is in there. The closing lines in a way give the novel’s ending to the master, suggesting perhaps that the entire story belongs to him and yoking together all of its different strands.