The Master and Margarita has two main settings: 1930s Moscow and Yershalaim (Jerusalem) around the time of Yeshua’s (the Aramaic name for Jesus) execution. The book opens with the first of these, as two writers, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz and Ivan “Homeless” Ponyrev, discuss a poem written by the latter. Berlioz, who is the chairman of the writers’ union Massolit, criticizes Ivan for making Jesus seem too real in his writing. Berlioz explains why Jesus never existed but is interrupted by the arrival of a “strange professor,” who the reader later learns is Woland (Satan). This foreigner insists that Jesus did exist, and that he was there when Pontius Pilate approved his crucifixion. Even more mysteriously, the strange professor casually informs Berlioz that he will be decapitated that day. Woland then narrates the first part of the Pilate story.
In Yershalaim, Pontius Pilate, the Roman authority in the city, is presented with Yeshua Ha-Nozri, who is accused of inciting public unrest and wanting to overthrow the Emperor. Pilate is intrigued by Yeshua’s radical compassion for all of mankind and deep down is resistant to condemning him to death but is forced to do so in order to avoid the repercussions that would come with sparing him.
Back in Moscow, Woland’s prediction comes true as Berlioz slips on sunflower oil and falls beneath a tram, losing his head. Ivan tries to chase after Woland and his accomplices—Koroviev and the big black cat, Behemoth—but loses them. Through a comedy of errors, he ends up at Griboedev’s, the building housing Massolit, and tries to tell his fellow writers what’s happened. His hysterical manner and the fantastical nature of his story, however, land him in Dr. Stravinsky’s insane asylum.
The next day, Styopa Likhodeev, the director of the Variety theater, wakes up in his apartment on Sadovaya street. He has a terrible headache and is surprised to see a strange man in his room—Woland. The stranger seems to explain the events of the previous day, stating that Styopa had agreed to put on Woland’s black magic show at the theater, even producing a contract with Styopa’s signature on it as proof. Woland then introduces his entourage: Koroviev, a man with a single fang called Azazello, and a huge talking cat called Behemoth. Woland informs Styopa that they will be taking over his apartment. Styopa is then instantly transported thousands of miles away to Yalta.
The Variety theater’s financial director and administrator—Grigory Danilovich Rimsky and Ivan Savalyevich Varenukha respectively—try to find out both why Styopa isn’t there and more about the mysterious Woland’s planned performance. They are baffled by a series of telegrams from Yalta purporting to be written by Styopa, who couldn’t physically have travelled such a long distance since being at the theater the previous day. Woland sends Hella, a beautiful redheaded succubus, to turn Varenukha into a vampire.
That evening, Woland and his entourage perform at the theater. Their show amazes the Muscovites, as they marvel at the decapitation and “re-capitation” of Bengalsky, the hapless master of ceremonies. Koroviev makes money rain down from the theater and gives out the latest fashionable items to the Muscovite women.
At Stravinsky’s clinic, meanwhile, Ivan meets the master, a fellow patient. The master listens to Ivan’s story about Woland and believes him entirely, while also telling his own about how he ended up in the clinic. The master had met the love of his life (Margarita, though the master refuses to name her at this point) when they were both married. They lived together secretly while he worked in his novel about Pontius Pilate. When the critics rejected his work across the board, the master burned the manuscript, fled his apartment and checked into Stravinsky’s clinic.
Ivan later dreams the next part of the Pilate story. This section centers on the actual execution of Yeshua, which is watched from afar by his one disciple, Matthew Levi. When an executioner offers Yeshua a drink of water as he hangs on the cross, Yeshua insists it be given to one of the other dying men. Once the soldiers have dispersed, Levi cuts down Yeshua’s body and leaves with it.
“Book Two” of the novel opens with the narrator’s promise to show the reader a “true, faithful, eternal love.” The reader is then introduced to the master’s “secret wife” and true love, Margarita. She pines for the master and reads the charred remains of one his notebooks. Later that day (now Friday, the third day of the Moscow storyline) Margarita happens upon the funeral of Berlioz, whose head has reportedly been stolen. She meets Azazello, who sets up a meeting between her and Woland, hinting that this might help her find the master (whom he reveals to still be alive). He gives her a special cream to rub on herself at midnight.
The cream turns Margarita into a witch, and she flies over Moscow to meet Woland and his entourage. On the way, she destroys the official residences of the Massolit writers and is joined by her housemaid Natasha. Natasha, too, has become a witch, and rides a hog (which is really Margarita’s transformed neighbor, Nikolai Ivanovich). When she meets Woland, Margarita is tasked with being the hostess at his full moon spring ball—Satan’s Ball. Here she receives a long line of guests, all of whom committed evil acts during their lifetimes. At the ball’s climax, Margarita and Woland drink blood from Berlioz’s severed head. Woland addresses the head as he turns it into a cup, sending it into “non-being” (teasing Berlioz for his naive atheism).
In reward for her services, Woland offers to grant Margarita her deepest wish. Rather than choosing something to do with the master, she opts to save one of the tortured souls that she met at the Ball. Woland then offers her another wish, which Margarita uses to summon the master, causing him to instantly appear. The master is dazed at first, but soon overjoyed to be reunited with his love. Woland discusses his Pilate novel, which Behemoth then presents to the master; Woland utters that “manuscripts don’t burn.” The couple choose to live a life of impoverished happiness in their old apartment. The other characters too are returned to relative normality (except for Natasha who wishes to remain a witch).
In the lovers’ humble apartment, Margarita reads through the master’s manuscript, ushering a return to the Pilate story. In this section, Pilate orchestrates the murder of Judas, who betrayed Yeshua to the authorities and thus brought about his death. Judas is lured outside of the city, where, in fact, it is Pilate that deals the fatal blow. Pilate then meets with Yeshua’s disciple, Matthew Levi. Levi wants to kill Judas himself, but is angered to find out that Pilate has already done the deed. On leaving the palace, Levi asks for some parchment so that he can continue writing down the story and teachings of Yeshua.
It’s now Saturday in Moscow. Investigators try desperately to get the bottom of the strange occurrences in the city, explaining most of Woland’s activities away as the work of a gang of “hypnotists”; they blame the talking cat Behemoth, with whom they have a gunfight, on “ventriloquism.” When Woland and his entourage leave the Sadovaya apartment, Behemoth sets it on fire. Later in the day, he also razes Griboedev’s to the ground.
As the two storylines merge, Levi visits Woland to tell him that Yeshua requests that the master be granted “peace.” On Woland’s instructions, Azazello tricks the couple into drinking poison, which paradoxically kills their earthly bodies while also granting them eternal afterlife together. The master and Margarita fly off with Azazello and meet with Woland, who stands overlooking all of Moscow. They then soar away from the city on horseback with Woland and the rest of his entourage, who are now revealed in their true forms—Behemoth, for example, is actually a “slim youth” who is “the best jester the world has ever seen.”
As they fly noiselessly away from earthly reality, the group soon comes up Pontius Pilate, who has been sitting staring at the moon with his dog, Banga, for two thousand years. Pilate is wracked with guilt for not saving Yeshua. Woland instructs the master to set Pilate, the hero of his novel, free. The master grants Pilate his freedom, telling him that Yeshua is waiting for him. Pilate then travels up a path of moonlight with Banga to be with Yeshua. With his final act completed, the master is then given his “peace” (though not “enlightenment”) and lives eternally with Margarita in a small, ethereal cottage. The main part of the novel concludes with the same lines that end the master’s novel: “the fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate.”
In the novel’s epilogue, the narrator goes into more detail about the haphazard investigations into the events surrounding Woland’s visit. No trace of the strange professor or his entourage remains, and, unfortunately, a number of cats are killed due to people suspecting them of being affiliated with the gang. The narrator catalogues what happens subsequently to the minor characters (e.g. Styopa and Varenukha, all of whom go back to some kind of normality but remain haunted by Woland’s actions. Ivan becomes a professor of history and, though he too subscribes to the hypnotism theory as an explanation for his experiences, is always deeply anxious and agitated during the spring full moon. On those nights his wife calms him down with a sedative injection; Ivan then always dreams about Pilate walking with Yeshua, Pilate pleading with Yeshua to tell him that the execution never happened. Still in the dream, Ivan is then visited by the master and Margarita, who console him. As moonlight floods his face, Margarita tells Ivan that everything “will be as it should be.” The epilogue, too, ends with the same lines as the previous chapter.