The Master and Margarita as a Product of its Literary Precursors

My previous post discussed the first category of Bulgakov scholarship, which focuses on the novel as Bulgakov’s personal commentary of Soviet life. I divided theme into five categories to show the various ways scholars explored The Master and Margarita this topic. This post continues to the second category of Bulgakov scholarship: The Master and Margarita as a product of previous literary traditions. According to scholars, this category shows Bulgakov’s desire to remain in the pre-revolutionary Russian literary tradition in which he was born.

Andrew Barratt describes Bulgakov as a “maverick figure” whose deliberate pre-revolutionary appearance identified him as a man from another age and “a guardian of older cultural values.” When “proletarian caps and jackets” were the fashion trend for the “new writing fraternity” in the Soviet Union, Bulgakov favored “well-tailored (if rather threadbare) suits, immaculately laundered linen, and…a monocle.”[1] J.A.E. Curtis notes, in looking at The Master and Margarita in light of the literature that influenced its narrative and style, scholars highlight Bulgakov’s desire to keep continuity with the pre-revolutionary Russian literary tradition he inherited from the works of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, and Tolstoy.[2]

While scholars identify various literary sources as outside influences on The Master and Margarita, most point Goethe’s Faust.[3] However, Curtis argues that while The Master and Margarita borrows from Faust, the novel itself is not Faustian: “Woland is not Mephistophelean, he is not mischievous, he is not a tempter, and he is not concerned to win the Master’s soul; the self-assured Margarita is no twentieth-century wronged Gretchen; and the Master, unlike Faust, hungers neither for experience not for power.”[4] Laura D. Weeks agrees that while The Master and Margarita represents a “creative reworking of the inherited text” any analogy made between it and Faust is ultimately “misleading.”[5] Critics suggest Bulgakov used the literary influence in his effort to “understand the problems of good and evil, and of guilt and responsibility in the interplay between the individual and the State.”[6]

Scholars also point out Bulgakov’s use of symbolist and romantic elements to further demonstrate his indebtedness to this pre-revolutionary tradition. Barratt describes symbolism (1890s-early 1900s) as an “intellectual rebellion,” rooted in the novels of Dostoyevsky and the philosophical works of Vladimir Solovyov, that expressed “dissatisfaction with philosophical materialism and scientific rationalism.”[7] George Krugovoy categorizes The Master and Margarita as “among the best esoteric and occult novels of the Russian Symbolist prose written before the Revolution of 1917.”[8] Common features The Master and Margarita shares with the Symbolists include: themes of Jesus, demonology, rites of passage [9] exposure of ‘real’ reality, the artist as mediator, an interest in Dostoevsky, and the use of a protagonist who “is sacrificed to the evil power which rules ‘this’ world.” [10]

Curtis describes Bulgakov as a twentieth century Romantic [11] who accepted his place as the “suffering artist” in accordance with Romantic understandings of the author.[12] Common themes Bulgakov shares with the Romantics are: the insertion of the author into the work or an awareness of the writer’s presence within the story, interests in the individual rather than the collective, concerns with personal freedom over social issues, a portrayal of the individual as a dreamer not a reformer, and a concern with aesthetic regulations, which, for the Soviet writer comes as an experience of censorship. W.J. Leatherbarrow notes that the Romantic dream occupies the center of The Master and Margarita and emerges from Bulgakov’s dissatisfaction and his desire to affect the life responsible for this dissatisfaction.[13] Religious elements also freely appeared within Romantic literature as symbolic or metaphorical systems whose “terminology and concepts” were easily adapted to describe individual experience.[14]

Next time: The Master and Margarita as Bulgakov’s philosophical and theological exploration of the human condition.



[1]  Andrew Barratt, Between Two Worlds: A Critical Introduction to The Master and Margarita (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 312.

[2]  J. A. E. Curtis, Bulgakov’s Last Decade: The Writer as Hero (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 18. See also: Susan Amert, “The Dialectics of Closure in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita,” Russian Review 61, no. 4 (Oct., 2002): 599-617; Barratt, Between Two Worlds; Curtis, Bulgakov’s Last Decade; George Krugovoy, The Gnostic Novel of Mikhail Bulgakov: Sources and Exegesis (Lanham, N.Y.: The University Press of America,1991); Riitta Pittman, The Writer’s Divided Self in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991); Katherine Sirluck, “The Master and Margarita and Bulgakov’s Antiauthoritarian Jesus,” in Jesus in Twentieth-century Literature, Art, and Movies, ed. Paul C. Burns (New York: Continuum, 2007), 75-108.

[3] Barratt provides a detailed discussion of Faustian themes in The Master and Margarita (Between Two Worlds, chapter 8). See also Andrew Barratt, “The Master and Margarita in Recent Criticism, in The Master & Margarita: A Critical Companion, ed. Laura D. Weeks (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 113-21.

[4]Curtis, Bulgakov’s Last Decade, 170.

[4]  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),22-3.

[6] J. A. E. Curtis, Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov, a Life in Letters and Diaries. (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 1992), 230.

[7] Barratt, Between Two Worlds, 318. While scholars frequently cite the Dostoevskian influence on Bulgakov, and Curtis has described The Master and Margarita as a work of disaffection, according to Barratt, Bulgakov is connected to Vladimir Solovyov only through his father, Afanasy Ivanovich Bulgakov, a member of the Vladimir Solovyov society. Despite this association with the elder Bulgakov, Barratt asserts that Solovyov’s influence on Mikhail Bulgakov is indirect and relatively low (315-20).

[8]Krugovoy, The Gnostic Novel, 3.

[9] Krugovoy, The Gnostic Novel, 6.

[10] Barratt, Between Two Worlds, 317. Similar themes carried into early twentieth century Russian literature as well and are noticeable in the work of Symbolist authors, such as Bely, Blok, Merezhkovsky, Rozanov, and Ge’s (318).

[11] Curtis, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, 188-208.

[12] Curtis, Bulgakov’s Last Decade, 207.

[13] W.J. Leatherbarrow, “The Devil and the Creative Visionary in Bulgakov’s ‘Master i Margarita’,” New Zealand Slavonic Journal, no. 1 (1975): 30.

[14] Weeks in Weeks, Critical Companion, 48.

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