The Master and Margarita as Bulgakov’s Commentary on Soviet Life

My previous post introduced scholarship on The Master and Margarita. I noted that critical attention focused on three themes: the novel as personal commentary, the novel as a continuation of non-Soviet literary influences, and the novel as an examination of the human condition. This post presents the first theme in the list: the novel as Bulgakov’s personal commentary of Soviet life. I have divided this theme into five categories to show the variety of approaches scholars took to explore The Master and Margarita as Bulgakov’s commentary of Soviet life.

Satire: Using the elements of Carnival and Menippean satire from the formalist literary theory of Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), early critics read The Master and Margarita as a satirical critique of the Soviet Union.[1] According to Bakhtin’s theory of carnival, which uses “an atmosphere of horseplay, crude humor, farce, and revelry” in a narrative, the author aired her/his grievances by turning “social and moral order on its head.”[2] Menippean satire uses a mixture of literary styles (i.e., historical, mythological, philosophical, and fantastical) that distort time and space, and allow the alternate realities to exist (in the form of illness and dreams). Through this technique, an author may “target society’s institutions and authority figures without fear of retribution.”[3] Using carnivalesque farce and a Mennipean mixture of literary styles, scholars suggest Bulgakov commented on Soviet culture and artistic censorship, indirectly responding to his critics and flying under the radar of state literary censors. An extension of this satirical approach is a view of the novel as a Roman-a-clef, which uses fictionalized names, people, and places to help the author’s social commentary escape the censors.[4] Looking at The Master and Margarita as a Roman-a-clef leads to a view of the novel as Bulgakov’s social critique life in the Soviet Union.

Symbolic Elements: Scholars examined the text’s use of allegory, fairy tale, and myth as another means for Bulgakov to comment on Soviet life without detection. Laura D. Weeks notes that The Master and Margarita has been read as a twentieth century “allegory of Russian intellectual history” where Margarita represents the “prerevolutionary intelligentsia,” Pontius Pilate embodies the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and Yeshua depicts the “true proletariat.[5] Weeks, Leslie Milne, and Sona Hosington point out that aspects of the novel’s characters and plot arcs correspond to elements of fairy tales. For example: one central and frequently nameless hero or heroine to whom all other characters relate, characters who represent good and evil,[6] and the need for characters to undergo a series of tests during their quest,[7] real characteristics place in fantasy action, a high improbability of action that derives satisfaction from the tale’s “supernatural character,” a mix of “content and style” that creates humorous events, action that “lacks motivation,” and the suspension of natural laws.[8] Finally, scholars such as Pavol Bargár and Edythe C. Haber examine the narrative’s mythical elements as expressions of the presence of the divine.[9]

Autobiographical Features: Many contemporary scholars examine The Master and Margarita as Bulgakov’s fictional portrayal of his difficulties as an author in the Soviet Union.[10] Some read the character of the Master as Bulgakov’s self-portrait, and point to similarities between the Master’s narrative and Bulgakov’s life. For example: the Master’s meeting and falling in love with a married woman, the Master’s profession as writer, the Master’s habit of burning manuscripts,[11] and the devastating critical reception of the Master’s novel.[12] Scholars have interpreted autobiographical features of Bulgakov’s work in the historical context of his life in critical biographies,[13] or in light of Bulgakov’s late father’s work (a lecturer in ancient history and Western European religions at Kiev Theological Academy), whose historical references and research interests they suggest influenced the novel’s Yershalaim narrative.[14]

Culmination of Work: As Bulgakov’s final piece, scholars have read The Master and Margarita as the culmination of his lifetime of work, and point to themes of the novel that reflect ideas and principles that emerged at the start of Bulgakov’s writing career. Maria Kisel identifies such themes and motifs as “the Soviet insistence on rationality and scientific proof,” issues of participant versus observer, the “incongruous combination of bureaucracy and supernatural elements,” “the absurd, slavish reliance on bureaucratic processes in the Soviet system,” and the idea of “magic money.”[15] Haber finds abnormal mental states and hallucinations appearing throughout Bulgakov’s works,[16] while A. Colin Wright observes conflict between the spiritual and the material world,[17] and characters motivated by greed, cowardice, and the need for security.[18] This category of interpretation suggests that Bulgakov wrote the novel as a means of tying together a lifetime of concerns and observations on Soviet life.

A Soviet Novel? Scholars have also examined the extent to which The Master and Margarita represents a Soviet novel.[19] Based on Katerina Clark’s definition of the Socialist Realist novel as “a young man’s quest for consciousness,” Weeks locates the Soviet nature of the novel in the character of Ivan Bezdomny, who moves from a naïve poet to a wise history professor at the novel’s end.[20] For Andrew Barratt, the novel’s Soviet nature lies in Bulgakov’s use of satire (a genre fixed in the realities of post-revolutionary Russia), and in Bulgakov’s reference to the New Testament, which has “a special place in the religious debate of the 1920s.”[21] Kisel suggests that the novel is meant to guide the “ignorant Soviet reader” through “a wider historical and cultural reality beyond the conventions of Soviet life.”[22] When seen as a Soviet novel, scholars suggest The Master and Margarita alludes to Bulgakov’s reflection on social debates of the 1920s Soviet Union and demonstrate his desire to bring readers increased awareness concerning Soviet life.

Next time: The Master and Margarita as Bulgakov’s effort to keep continuity with non-Soviet literary influences.

___________

CITATIONS:

[1] Laura D. Weeks, “‘What I Have Written, I Have Written’,” in The Master & Margarita: A Critical Companion, ed. Laura D. Weeks (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 18-19.

[2] Weeks in Weeks, Critical Companion, 18. See also: Nadine Natov, “Structural and Topological Ambivalence of Bulgakov’s Novels Interpreted against the Background of Baxtin’s Theory of ‘Grotesque Realism’ and Carnivalization,” American Contributions to the Eight International Congress of Slavists 2 (Columbus: Slavica, 1978), 536-49; Leslie Milne, The Master and Margarita: A Comedy of Victory (Birmingham: Birmingham Slavonic Monographs, 1977); Yanina Arnold, “Through the Lens of Carnival: Identity, Community, and Fear in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.”

[3] Weeks in Weeks, Critical Companion, 19. See also: Ellendea Proffer, “Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita: Genre and Motif,” in The Master & Margarita: Critical Companion, ed. Laura D. Weeks (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 99. George Krugovoy, The Gnostic Novel of Mikhail Bulgakov: Sources and Exegesis (Lanham, N.Y.: The University Press of America,1991), 11. Andrew Barratt, Between Two Worlds: A Critical Introduction to The Master and Margarita (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 87-9. For an example of two Soviet critics (A. Vulis and V. Lakshin) who utilized Menippean satire in their approach to The Master and Margarita, see Weeks in Weeks, Critical Companion, 19.

[4] Weeks, in Weeks, Critical Companion, 20.

[5] Weeks in Weeks, Critical Companion, 20. Barratt notes that while Soviet critics resisted a reading of The Master and Margarita as a political allegory, Western critics welcomed it (Between Two Worlds, 97-9).

[6] Weeks in Weeks, Critical Companion, 24.

[7] Lesley Milne, Mikhail Bulgakov: A Critical Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 250.

[8] Sona Hoisington, “Fairy-Tale Elements in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita,” The Slavic and East European Review 25, no. 2 (Summer, 1981): 44-5.

[9] See Pavol Bargár, “Mythical Motifs in Literary Works: M. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and G. Orwell’s 1984,” Communio viatorum 51 , no. 1 (2009): 55-88; Edythe C. Haber, “The Mythic Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita and Arthur Drew’s The Christ Myth,” The Slavic and East European Journal 43, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 347-60.

[10] According to Barratt, analyzing The Master and Margarita from an autobiographical perspective (1) may cause the critic to insert autobiographical elements where the author did not or (2) may encourage a reading of the novel as an entirely self-conscious autobiographical work wherein everything becomes a reference to the author rather than fictional elements designed to further the narrative’s multiple plots (Between Two Worlds, 78).

[11] J.A.E. Curtis, Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov, a Life in Letters and Diaries. (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 1992), 8. Edythe C. Haber discusses Bulgakov’s early pieces in Mikhail Bulgakov: The Early Years (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), chapters three and four. For an April 1921 letter in which Bulgakov instructs his sister to gather together all of the manuscripts being kept by his mother “and put them in the stove” see also Mikhail i Elena Bulgakova, Dnevnik Mastera i Margarity, ed.s I. V. Andon’eva and V. P. Kochetov (Moscow: Vagrius, 1998).

[12] Edward E. Ericson, The Apocalyptic Vision of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1991), 96.

[13] J. A. E. Curtis, Bulgakov’s Last Decade: The Writer as Hero (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Haber, Mikhail Bulgakov; Milne, Mikhail Bulgakov; A. Colin Wright, Mikhail Bulgakov: Life and Interpretations (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1978).

[14] See: Weeks in Weeks, Critical Companion; Laura D. Weeks, “Hebraic Antecedents in The Master and Margarita: Woland and Company Revisited,” Slavic Review 43, no. 2 (Summer, 1984): 224-41; Edythe C. Haber, “The Lamp with the Green Shade: Mikhail Bulgakov and His Father,” Russian Review 44, no. 4 (Oct, 1985): 333-50.

[15] Maria Kisel, “Feuilletons Don’t Burn: Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and the Imagined ‘Soviet Reader’,” Slavic Review 68, no. 3 (Fall, 2009): 588-90. [16] Haber, Mikhail Bulgakov, 17-18.

[17] Wright, Mikhail Bulgakov, 261.

[18] Wright, Mikhail Bulgakov, 264.

[19]Barratt, Between Two Worlds, 313.

[20] Laura D. Weeks, “In Defense of the Homeless: On the Uses of History and the Role of Bezdomnyi in The Master and Margarita,” Russian Review 48, no. 1 (Jan, 1989): 48. See Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual, 3rd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

[21] Barratt, Between Two Worlds, 313.

[22] Kisel, “Feuilletons Don’t Burn,” 584.

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2 thoughts on “The Master and Margarita as Bulgakov’s Commentary on Soviet Life

  1. Dear Ancarroll,

    it is very good to see your intriguing website and articles on The Master and Margarita. For me personally, it was flattering to see a reference to my article (no. 9 – Pavol Bargár). Just a minor technical issue related therewith: Turcianske Teplice is not the name of the co-author, but the name of the town in Slovakia that I come from. It was stated in the journal as my then residence. If you could change this minor detail in your article, I would be most grateful. Looking forward to reading some more from you. Best, Pavol Bargár

    • Dear Dr. Bargar,
      Thank you for pointing out my error! I have corrected the mistake and updated the post. It’s wonderful to become acquainted with you. I enjoyed your article very much. I am looking forward to more feedback from you regarding this work-in-progress blog. Thank you again. Sincerely, Alexandra

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