The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita


Mikhail Bulgakov

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Themes and Colors
Courage and Cowardice Theme Icon
Art and Authenticity Theme Icon
The Ambiguity of Good and Evil Theme Icon
Love and Hope Theme Icon
The Danger and Absurdity of Soviet Society Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Master and Margarita, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Art and Authenticity Theme Icon

The Master and Margarita sets up a contrast between art that is authentic and that which is phoney. Just as the novel begins by depicting a Moscow completely lacking in courage, the novel also depicts artists belonging to the group Massolit as almost entirely inauthentic. This is evident in the simple fact that the writers seem to spend more time gorging themselves on food at Massolit headquarters than they do actually writing. But the implications of the writer's behavior, and even the simple fact that Massolit headquarters has such fine food to offer writers, implies an even deeper inauthenticity. In Soviet society, the only way for any writers’ association to exist, much less to be granted the sort of resources that Massolit has, is to have the favor of the government—and the only way to gain such favor is to ensure that every writer in the group writes thing that always meet the ideological approval of the government. Put another way, the writers of Massolit are not producing literature; they are producing work that might superficially seem like literature but is in fact no more than propaganda. This contrasts with art created by the master, underscoring the novel’s position that genuine, meaningful art must be authentic—that is, a product of its creator’s intellectual independence, emotional vulnerability, and personal sacrifice.

This situation is implied in the conversation between Berlioz, the head of Massolit, and the poet Ivan Homeless at the beginning of the novel, in which Berlioz chastises Ivan for recently writing a poem that made Jesus seem as if he were a living person. Berlioz's criticism is in part ideological, as Soviet doctrine at the time was anti-religious and so writing about Jesus as a real person would be seen as problematic. But this ideological criticism results in Berlioz chastising Ivan for succeeding in one of the main aims of writing: that is, bringing something “to life.” The novel thereby implies that Berlioz's criticism is ludicrous, and that following Berlioz's advice could only ever produce bad or inauthentic art.

The novel, of course, goes on to introduce Woland (though not yet by name at that point), who insists that Jesus was in fact a real person, and who then predicts that Berlioz will soon be decapitated. And soon after, Berlioz is decapitated after slipping on some oil and falling under a tram. Put another way: Berlioz, who advises Ivan against creating a living character, himself soon after ceases to be a living character. The novel's gleeful judgment of Berlioz, and of the sort of artists who are a part of Massolit, is clear.

In contrast to the Massolit writers, the novel holds up the master as representing authenticity in art, both in the artist’s struggle to produce the work and in the importance of the work itself. When the master tells the story of the writing of his novel, it is a tale of sacrifice. The master is thus marked out as different from the Massolit writers, with their cushy food and "writing retreats" that seem like little more than vacations. In fact, the master gives so much of himself to his novel that it almost kills him. When misguided critics, led by Latunsky, accuse the master of “Pilatism” and ruin the master’s reputation, the shock is too much for him to bear. The master removes himself from the Massolit-led literary society and voluntarily enters Dr. Stravinsky’s psychiatric clinic. In this way the novel shows that the master’s idea of art, then, is so different from the dominant idea of art in Soviet society that it makes him technically “mad.”

However, while Soviet society may have shunned the master's art, the novel itself makes clear that it is his art which is true and authentic. First, the novel does this through Margarita’s devotion to him (and his book). No other artist in the novel produces work that so touches any other character. The novel also shows the power of the master's work through the fact that Woland and his gang are both aware of and respectful of it. In fact, Woland states that “manuscripts don’t burn.” Woland is saying here that, though the master thought he was done with his artistic life (which culminated in him throwing his work into the fire), the authenticity of his work preserves it—it is timeless and will outlast the Soviet society that currently can't appreciate it. In fact, the novel seems to imply that the fact that the master's work isn't appreciated in Soviet society is a kind of mark in its favor, as that society—with its government-sanctioned Massolit—neither wants nor can comprehend true art.

That Bulgakov's own work was censored in the Soviet Union further suggests that his sympathies lie with the master. In fact, Bulgakov finds a way in The Master and Margarita to link the novel he is writing with the novel that the master is writing. The master’s novel is about Pontius Pilate. The Pilate story also crops up intermittently but sequentially throughout The Master and Margarita, sometimes as part of the master’s text but also as told by Woland or even dreamed by Ivan Homeless. The master states at one point in The Master and Margarita that he always knew which lines would end his novel: “the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate.” Bulgakov then ends The Master and Margarita with the same line. In doing so, Bulgakov gives the master the final word, and suggests that perhaps the entire book—all of The Master and Margarita—belongs to the master.

The possibility of this being an analogy for Bulgakov’s own censored position within the Soviet Union can’t be ignored; true art, the novel seems to say, will always finds its way to the outside world. In addition, within the world of the novel, when the master completes his novel, it results in Pontius Pilate finally being freed from his millennia of torment and gaining peace. The novel, then, suggest both that true art can't be stymied, and that through the life it grants its characters that it can have an actual impact on the world. The novel both asserts the enduring strength of true art, and its enormous power.

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Art and Authenticity Quotes in The Master and Margarita

Below you will find the important quotes in The Master and Margarita related to the theme of Art and Authenticity.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The foreigner sat back on the bench and asked, even with a slight shriek of curiosity:

‘You are - atheists?!’

‘Yes, we’re atheists,’ Berlioz smilingly replied, and Homeless thought, getting angry: ‘Latched on to us, the foreign goose!’

‘Oh, how lovely!’ the astonishing foreigner cried out and began swivelling his head, looking from one writer to the other.

‘In our country atheism does not surprise anyone,’ Berlioz said with diplomatic politeness. ‘The majority of our population consciously and long ago ceased believing in the fairy tales about God.’

Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

Any visitor finding himself in Griboedov’s, unless of course he was a total dim-wit, would realize at once what a good life those lucky fellows, the Massolit members, were having, and black envy would immediately start gnawing at him. And he would immediately address bitter reproaches to heaven for not having endowed him at birth with literary talent, lacking which there was naturally no dreaming of owning a Massolit membership card, brown, smelling of costly leather, with a wide gold border – a card known to all Moscow.

Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 13 Quotes

He suddenly wiped an unexpected tear with his right sleeve and continued: ‘Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck us both at once. As lightning strikes, as a Finnish knife strikes! She, by the way, insisted afterwards that it wasn’t so, that we had, of course, loved each other for a long, long time, without knowing each other, never having seen each other, and that she was living with a different man ... as I was, too, then ... with that, what’s her ...’

Page Number: 140-141
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 21 Quotes

Naked and invisible, the lady flier tried to control and talk sense into herself; her hands trembled with impatience. Taking careful aim, Margarita struck at the keys of the grand piano, and a first plaintive wail passed all through the apartment. Becker’s drawing-room instrument, not guilty of anything, cried out frenziedly. Its keys caved in, ivory veneer flew in all directions. The instrument howled, wailed, rasped and jangled. With the noise of a pistol shot, the polished upper soundboard split under a hammer blow. Breathing hard, Margarita tore and mangled the strings with the hammer. Finally getting tired, she left off and flopped into an armchair to catch her breath.

Related Characters: Margarita, The Master, Latunsky
Page Number: 237-238
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 24 Quotes

‘But tell me, why does Margarita call you a master?’ asked Woland. The man smiled and said:

‘That is an excusable weakness. She has too high an opinion of a novel

I wrote.’

‘What is this novel about?’

‘It is a novel about Pontius Pilate.’ Here again the tongues of the candles swayed and leaped, the dishes on the table clattered, Woland burst into thunderous laughter, but neither frightened nor surprised anyone. Behemoth applauded for some reason.

‘About what? About what? About whom?’ said Woland, ceasing to laugh.

‘And that - now? It’s stupendous! Couldn’t you have found some other subject? Let me see it.’ Woland held out his hand, palm up.

‘Unfortunately, I cannot do that,’ replied the master, ‘because I burned it in the stove.’

‘Forgive me, but I don’t believe you,’ Woland replied, ‘that cannot be: manuscripts don’t burn.’ He turned to Behemoth and said, ‘Come on. Behemoth, let’s have the novel.’

The cat instantly jumped off the chair, and everyone saw that he had been sitting on a thick stack of manuscripts. With a bow, the cat gave the top copy to Woland. Margarita trembled and cried out, again shaken to the point of tears:

‘It’s here, the manuscript! It’s here!’ She dashed to Woland and added in admiration:

‘All-powerful! All-powerful!’

Related Characters: Woland (speaker), Margarita (speaker), The Master (speaker), Pontius Pilate, Behemoth
Page Number: 286-287
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 32 Quotes

Here Woland turned to the master and said:

‘Well, now you can finish your novel with one phrase!’

The master seemed to have been expecting this, as he stood motionless and looked at the seated procurator. He cupped his hands to his mouth and cried out so that the echo leaped over the unpeopled and unforested mountains:

‘You’re free! You’re free! He is waiting for you!’

The mountains turned the master’s voice to thunder, and by this same thunder they were destroyed. The accursed rocky walls collapsed. Only the platform with the stone armchair remained. Over the black abyss into which the walls had gone, a boundless city lit up, dominated by gleaming idols above a garden grown luxuriously over many thousands of moons. The path of moonlight so long awaited by the procurator stretched right to this garden, and the first to rush down it was the sharp-eared dog. The man in the white cloak with blood-red lining rose from the armchair and shouted something in a hoarse, cracked voice. It was impossible to tell whether he was weeping or laughing, or what he shouted. It could only be seen that, following his faithful guardian, he, too, rushed headlong down the path of moonlight.

Related Characters: Woland (speaker), The Master (speaker), Pontius Pilate, Banga
Related Symbols: The Moon/Moonlight
Page Number: 382
Explanation and Analysis:

‘Listen to the stillness,’ Margarita said to the master, and the sand rustled under her bare feet, ‘listen and enjoy what you were not given in life — peace. Look, there ahead is your eternal home, which you have been given as a reward. I can already see the Venetian window and the twisting vine, it climbs right up to the roof. Here is your home, your eternal home. I know that in the evenings you will be visited by those you love, those who interest you and who will never trouble you. They will play for you, they will sing for you, you will see what light is in the room when the candles are burning. You will fall asleep, having put on your greasy and eternal nightcap, you will fall asleep with a smile on your lips. Sleep will strengthen you, you will reason wisely. And you will no longer be able to drive me away. I will watch over your sleep.’

Thus spoke Margarita, walking with the master to their eternal home, and it seemed to the master that Margarita’s words flowed in the same way as the stream they had left behind flowed and whispered, and the master’s memory, the master’s anxious, needled memory began to fade. Someone was setting the master free, as he himself had just set free the hero he had created. This hero had gone into the abyss, gone irrevocably, the son of the astrologer-king, forgiven on the eve of Sunday, the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the equestrian Pontius Pilate.

Related Characters: Margarita (speaker), The Master, Pontius Pilate
Related Symbols: The Moon/Moonlight
Page Number: 384
Explanation and Analysis: