The Master and Margarita is a highly philosophical book that explores the meaning of “good” and “evil,” and how these concepts relate to life as it is actually lived. Moreover, the book makes a very specific point that good and evil do not exist independently from one another, but that each in fact requires the other. Good and evil exist in a continuum, informing and coloring each other, each bringing the other into existence. Morality, the novel seems to say, is far more complex than a simple divide between good and evil. Bulgakov even opens the novel with a quote from Goethe’s Faust, which is suggestive of Woland’s complex role and the novel’s overall argument about morality: “…who are you, then? I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”
The Master and Margarita subverts the traditional notion of the devil as simply the embodiment of evil. Woland is a complicated figure, and while he evidently delights in causing havoc in Moscow, he doesn’t seem to engage in violent or cruel behavior for its own sake. Instead, his targets tend to be those who are most prone to “sinful” or “evil” behavior in the first place. That said, it is explicitly stated that Woland is Satan, and accordingly the reader must balance the traditional idea of the devil as evil with Woland’s actions in the novel. While Woland and his gang show evident glee and ingenuity in their reign of terror of Moscow, their targets are quite specific: those who are materialistic, greedy, and/or charlatanistic. In this sense, Woland’s purpose in Moscow bizarrely aligns with the one of the novel’s other key arguments: the vital role authentic art plays in showing society to itself. Like an artist might do, Woland and his gang create spectacle in order to highlight the compromised morals of the Moscow populace.
While they do this in many different ways, it is foregrounded by the “black magic séance” show that they put on at the Variety theater. In this, Koroviev, one of Woland’s principal assistants, makes it rain money, drawing the Muscovites’ greed into full view. He then conjures a fashion boutique on stage, causing a stampede of women to come up and take as much as possible. But the money, once taken out of the theater, becomes foreign currency or simply bits of paper (the first being illegal, the second being useless). The expensive clothes and shoes similarly disappear once the women are out on the street, leaving them naked and causing immense chaos. The victims fall foul of these antics because they too easily give into their worst instincts, and greed and pride, two of the “seven deadly sins,” are shown to be alive and well in Moscow. While there is undoubtedly a hostile streak in the actions Woland’s and his gang here, the result is the exposure of the people’s most “sinful” attributes. Ultimately, the citizens of Moscow learn little from the experience, explaining away what’s happened as being the work of a gang of “hypnotists” and “ventriloquists.” But Bulgakov clearly wants the reader to view these explanations as foolish, and to take on board the message that everyday life is full of “little evils” that it takes strength to avoid.
Rather than the simple aim of spreading in evil through the world, Woland’s key principle seems to be demonstrating that evil does—and always will—exist. Not only that, but that evil is inherently necessary, a part of the complexity of morality and life itself. He thus takes on a kind of ceremonial role—ambassadorial, even—both in the antics described above and in the novel’s centerpiece: Satan’s Ball. The attendees of this incredible, phantasmagoric party all have something in common (Margarita aside): they all committed acts of evil in their life time. The purpose of the ball is best implied by Woland himself, in a later conversation with Yeshua’s disciple, Matthew Levi: “Kindly consider the question: what would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look life if shadows disappeared from it? Shadows are cast by objects and people … Do you want to skin the whole earth, tearing all the trees and living things off it, because of your fantasy of enjoying bare light?” The ball can thus be explained as a ceremonial tribute to evil, an annual honouring of its critical importance in the world. Through Woland’s words, Bulgakov suggests that good and evil are co-dependent, and rather than being separate, are part of a spectrum that ultimately provides life with its richness, fullness, and meaning. Without evil, good would be meaningless; to deny it would be to deny life’s complexity and therefore life itself.
The Ambiguity of Good and Evil ThemeTracker
The Ambiguity of Good and Evil 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.
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.’
‘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! ...
And then the bedroom started spinning around Styopa, he hit his head
against the doorpost, and, losing consciousness, thought: ‘I’m dying...’
But he did not die. Opening his eyes slightly, he saw himself sitting on something made of stone. Around him something was making noise. When he opened his eyes properly, he realized that the noise was being made by the sea and, what’s more, that the waves were rocking just at his feet, that he was, in short, sitting at the very end of a jetty, that over him was a brilliant blue sky and behind him a white city on the mountains.
Not knowing how to behave in such a case, Styopa got up on his trembling legs and walked along the jetty towards the shore.
Some man was standing on the jetty, smoking and spitting into the sea. He looked at Styopa with wild eyes and stopped spitting.
Then Styopa pulled the following stunt: he knelt down before the unknown smoker and said:
‘I implore you, tell me what city is this?’
‘Really!’ said the heartless smoker.
‘I’m not drunk,’ Styopa replied hoarsely, ‘something’s happened to
me... I’m ill... Where am I? What city is this?’
‘Well, it’s Yalta...’
Styopa quietly gasped and sank down on his side, his head striking the
warm stone of the jetty. Consciousness left him.
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!’
Here the two robbers vanished, and in their place there appeared in the front hall a completely naked girl – red-haired, her eyes burning with a phosphorescent gleam.
Varenukha understood that this was the most terrible of all things that had ever happened to him and, moaning, recoiled against the wall. But the girl came right up to the administrator and placed the palms of her hands on his shoulders. Varenukha’s hair stood on end, because even through the cold, water-soaked cloth of his Tolstoy blouse he could feel that those palms were still colder, that their cold was the cold of ice.
‘Let me give you a kiss,’ the girl said tenderly, and there were shining eyes right in front of his eyes. Then Varenukha fainted and never felt the kiss.
‘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!’
‘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!
‘Mikhail Alexandrovich,’ Woland addressed the head in a low voice, and then the slain man’s eyelids rose, and on the dead face Margarita saw, with a shudder, living eyes filled with thought and suffering.
‘Everything came to pass, did it not?’ Woland went on, looking into the head’s eyes. ‘The head was cut off by a woman, the meeting did not take place, and I am living in your apartment. That is a fact. And fact is the most stubborn thing in the world. But we are now interested in what follows, and not in this already accomplished fact. You have always been an ardent preacher of the theory that, on the cutting off of his head, life ceases in a man, he turns to ashes and goes into non-being. I have the pleasure of informing you, in the presence of my guests, though they serve as proof of quite a different theory, that your theory is both solid and clever.
However, one theory is as good as another. There is also one which holds that it will be given to each according to his faith. Let it come true! You go into non-being, and from the cup into which you are to be transformed, I will joyfully drink to being!’
Woland raised his sword. Straight away the flesh of the head turned dark and shrivelled, then fell off in pieces, the eyes disappeared, and soon Margarita saw on the platter a yellowish skull with emerald eyes, pearl teeth and a golden foot. The lid opened on a hinge.
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!
‘If you’ve come to see me, why didn’t you wish me a good evening, former tax collector?’ Woland said sternly.
‘Because I don’t wish you a good anything,’ the newcomer replied insolently.
‘But you’ll have to reconcile yourself to that,’ Woland objected, and a grin twisted his mouth. ‘You no sooner appear on the roof than you produce an absurdity, and I’ll tell you what it is — it’s your intonation. You uttered your words as if you don’t acknowledge shadows, or evil either. Kindly consider the question: what would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it? Shadows are cast by objects and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. Trees and living beings also have shadows. Do you want to skin the whole earth, tearing all the trees and living things off it, because of your fantasy of enjoying bare light? You’re a fool.’
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.