Mikhael Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita makes a powerful argument in favor of courage over cowardice, describing the latter as “the worst sin of all.” All three of the novel’s storylines—the visit of Woland (Satan) and his entourage to Moscow, the love between the master and Margarita, and Pontius Pilate’s condemnation of Yeshua (Jesus) to execution in Yershalaim (Jerusalem) two thousand years prior—combine to show the power of courage and the terrible consequences of cowardice.
If courage can be defined as a willingness to take a stand against something in aid of a greater good, most of the Moscow inhabitants of the novel fall well short. The antics of Woland and his gang draw out the populace’s self-interest, greed, and dishonesty, exposing a collective cowardice that strengthens the status quo and all its faults—and in Soviet society, there were many. Whether Woland comes to Moscow with evil intentions or not, the chaos he creates certainly highlights the most “sinful” side of society’s character.
Bulgakov exposes this moral cowardice in a number of ways. It plagues the distribution of housing, as shown by Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, chairman of the tenants’ association on Sadovaya street, who accepts a bribe from Woland’s assistant, Koroviev, to let them stay in the apartment. The state-approved writers are also cowards, more interested in fine food and holidays than in saying anything daring or genuine with their art. And there’s the obsessive bureaucracy that pervades Moscow where “dutiful” citizens are often trying to report one another to the shadowy secret police. This exposure of cowardice reaches a climax with Woland and his gang’s performance at the Variety theater, in which they make money rain down from the ceiling, causing the audience to fight with each other to snatch as much as they can. Moscow society, then, is utterly compromised by self-interested moral cowardice and the refusal to put one’s own comfort or security aside for anyone else.
Bulgakov fleshes out his comparison of courage and cowardice in the Pontius Pilate sections of the novel. Pilate, who must decide whether or not to approve Yeshua Ha-Nozri’s crucifixion, is at first guilty of a similar cowardice found in the Moscow narrative. Though deep down he wants to free Yeshua, intrigued by the latter’s radical compassion, he confirms Yeshua’s death because he is afraid of the consequences of doing otherwise. This is both an attempt to preserves his own status as Hegemon—self-interest—and a general fear of upsetting the hierarchy (Yershalaim is an environment held together by a delicate balance of power). Pilate regrets his decision and is plagued with guilt for two millennia, frequently dreaming of walking with Yeshua; in these dreams, the two men agree that the execution never happened and that “cowardice is the worst sin of all.” Yeshua, for his part, embodies true selfless courage, refusing to drink water from the executioner’s sponge and insisting it is given to one of his fellow dying men. Bulgakov, then, reinforces the idea that courage is about individual sacrifice for a greater good.
Bulgakov develops this conception of courage in the character of Margarita. She has a deeply held desire to help others which drives her on to find the master, though she doesn’t even know if he is alive. This courageous determination makes her willing to put herself at real risk by agreeing to host Satan’s Ball with Woland. Though, as mentioned earlier, Woland’s can’t be simplified as being “pure evil,” Margarita doesn’t know whether or not a pact with the devil might bring terrible consequences. Exemplifying her courageous desire to help others, she chooses to use a wish granted to her by Woland to free Frieda, a tortured soul at the ball, rather than fulfil her own longing to be reunited with the master. This selflessness, though slightly irksome to Woland, is rewarded by a second wish, which does bring the master back. Margarita’s courage gives vitality to the master, who in turn is able to free Pilate from his millennial purgatory. Courage in the novel, then, has a knock-on effect, positively benefitting all those who act selflessly. The Moscow inhabitants, for their part, go back to their old ways soon enough. Courage leads to redemption, salvation, love and hope; cowardice goes nowhere.
Courage and Cowardice ThemeTracker
Courage and Cowardice Quotes in The Master and Margarita
First of all, the man described did not limp on any leg, and was neither short nor enormous, but simply tall. As for his teeth, he had platinum crowns on the left side and gold on the right. He was wearing an expensive grey suit and imported shoes of a matching colour. His grey beret was cocked rakishly over one ear; under his arm he carried a stick with a black knob shaped like a poodle’s head. He looked to be a little over forty. Mouth somehow twisted. Clean-shaven. Dark-haired. Right eye black, left – for some reason – green. Dark eyebrows, but one higher than the other. In short, a foreigner.
‘And now tell me, why is it that you use me words “good people” all
the time? Do you call everyone that, or what?’
‘Everyone,’ the prisoner replied. There are no evil people in the world.’
‘The first I hear of it,’ Pilate said, grinning. ‘But perhaps I know too little of life! ...
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.
At the deceased’s desk sat an unknown, skinny, long citizen in a little checkered jacket, a jockey’s cap, and a pince-nez... well, in short, that same one.
‘And who might you be, citizen?’ Nikanor Ivanovich asked fearfully.
‘Hah! Nikanor Ivanovich!’ the unexpected citizen yelled in a rattling tenor and, jumping up, greeted the chairman with a forced and sudden handshake. This greeting by no means gladdened Nikanor Ivanovich.
‘Excuse me,’ he said suspiciously, ‘but who might you be? Are you an official person?’
‘Eh, Nikanor Ivanovich!’ the unknown man exclaimed soulfully. ‘What are official and unofficial persons? It all depends on your point of view on the subject. It’s all fluctuating and relative, Nikanor Ivanovich. Today I’m an unofficial person, and tomorrow, lo and behold, I’m an official one! And it also happens the other way round – oh, how it does!’
‘And so, now comes the famous foreign artist. Monsieur Woland, with a séance of black magic. Well, both you and I know,’ here Bengalsky smiled a wise smile, ‘that there’s no such thing in the world, and that it’s all just superstition, and Maestro Woland is simply a perfect master of the technique of conjuring, as we shall see from the most interesting part, that is, the exposure of this technique, and since we’re all of us to a man both for technique and for its exposure, let’s bring on Mr Woland!’
In a few seconds, the rain of money, ever thickening, reached the seats, and the spectators began snatching at it.
Hundreds of arms were raised, the spectators held the bills up to the lighted stage and saw the most true and honest-to-God watermarks. The smell also left no doubts: it was the incomparably delightful smell of freshly printed money. The whole theatre was seized first with merriment and then with amazement. The word ‘money, money!’ hummed everywhere, there were gasps of ‘ah, ah!’ and merry laughter. One or two were already crawling in the aisles, feeling under the chairs. Many stood on the seats, trying to catch the flighty, capricious notes.
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 ...’
Yeshua tore himself away from the sponge, and trying to make his voice sound gentle and persuasive, but not succeeding, he begged the executioner hoarsely:
‘Give him a drink.’
It was growing ever darker. The storm cloud had already poured across half the sky, aiming towards Yershalaim, boiling white clouds raced ahead of the storm cloud suffused with black moisture and fire. There was a flash and a thunderclap right over the hill. The executioner removed the sponge from the spear.
‘Praise the magnanimous hegemon!’ he whispered solemnly, and gently pricked Yeshua in the heart. He twitched and whispered:
At a huge writing desk with a massive inkstand an empty suit sat and with a dry pen, not dipped in ink, traced on a piece of paper. The suit was wearing a necktie, a fountain pen stuck from its pocket, but above the collar there was neither neck nor head, just as there were no hands sticking out of the sleeves. The suit was immersed in work and completely ignored the turmoil that reigned around it. Hearing someone come in, the suit leaned back and from above the collar came the voice, quite familiar to the bookkeeper, of Prokhor Petrovich:
‘What is this? Isn’t it written on the door that I’m not receiving?’
The beautiful secretary shrieked and, wringing her hands, cried out: ‘You see? You see?! He’s not there! He’s not! Bring him back, bring
Here someone peeked in the door of the office, gasped, and flew out. The bookkeeper felt his legs trembling and sat on the edge of a chair,
but did not forget to pick up his briefcase. Anna Richardovna hopped around the bookkeeper, worrying his jacket, and exclaiming:
‘I always, always stopped him when he swore by the devil! So now the devil’s got him!’
Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar’s vile tongue be cut out!
Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!
No! The master was mistaken when with bitterness he told Ivanushka in the hospital, at that hour when the night was falling past midnight, that she had forgotten him. That could not be. She had, of course, not forgotten him.
First of all let us reveal the secret which the master did not wish to reveal to Ivanushka. His beloved’s name was Margarita Nikolaevna.
‘No,’ replied Margarita, ‘most of all I’m struck that there’s room for all this.’ She made a gesture with her hand, emphasizing the enormousness of the hall.
Koroviev grinned sweetly, which made the shadows stir in the folds of his nose.
‘The most uncomplicated thing of all!’ he replied. ‘For someone well acquainted with the fifth dimension, it costs nothing to expand space to the desired proportions. I’ll say more, respected lady - to devil knows what proportions!
‘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
‘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:
He walked in the company of Banga, and beside him walked the wandering philosopher. They were arguing about something very complex and important, and neither of them could refute the other. They did not agree with each other in anything, and that made their argument especially interesting and endless. It went without saying that today’s execution proved to be a sheer misunderstanding: here this philosopher, who had thought up such an incredibly absurd thing as that all men are good, was walking beside him, therefore he was alive. And, of course, it would be terrible even to think that one could execute such a man. There had been no execution! No execution! That was the loveliness of this journey up the stairway of the moon.
There was as much free time as they needed, and the storm would come only towards evening, and cowardice was undoubtedly one of the most terrible vices. Thus spoke Yeshua Ha-Nozri. No, philosopher, I disagree with you: it is the most terrible vice!
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.
‘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.