Recommended Read: The Master and Margarita
The Master and Margarita ignited my passion for novels when I first read it in high school about fourteen years ago. Unfortunately, it’s just one of those titles that falls under the radar a lot, that not many people have read or even heard about, even though critics consider it to be one of the best novels of the 20th century.
It’s an epic Russian classic by the inspiring author Mikhail Bulgakov. Inspiring because he knew the book would never see the light of day but wrote it anyway. The communist oppression under Stalin’s rule would never allow a work filled with such opposing ideas to and criticism of the Soviet Union to be published. In fact, if the book had been discovered, he would have faced a death sentence. Written around the years 1928 to 1940, the year he died, the novel was left unpublished.
At one point in the story, the devilish character Professor Woland states, “Don’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?” And so, Bulgakov’s masterpiece was finally published in 1967.
The premise is simple: What would happen if the devil—the actual Devil–came to communist Moscow in the 1930s? The answer is: a hell of a lot. Satirical, fantastical, and contemplative, the novel consists of three separate storylines: the devil and his retinue wreaking havoc throughout Moscow; a young woman named Margarita looking for her depressed lover referred to as the Master; and an alternative account of Pontius Pilate’s trial of Jesus (which the Master wrote).
Literature Meets Pop Culture
One of the most interesting things is how seemingly ahead of its time this novel was. Stephen King commented on the meeting of the literary world with that of the world of pop culture in a speech entitled Building Bridges, which raised the question of why can’t we have both types of storytelling in one book. Sometimes people feel compelled to separate the two as much as possible, to think literature offers quality, while pop culture offers sensationalism. That the two are mutually exclusive. If I remember correctly, King made an interesting point that both literature and pop culture bring something different but equal to storytelling, and that one is not inherently better than the other. The Master and Margarita is the perfect blend of literature and pop culture, and Bulgakov wrote his book some sixty plus years before Stephen King gave his speech.
Although both literature and pop culture are amorphous, somewhat hard to define words, there are some generalizations. Classically, a work of literature excels at form, style, and technical prowess, and it usually deals with not fantastical plots but fantastical emotions and feelings. Think: To Kill a Mockingbird. Some of the intriguing literary elements in The Master and Margarita include: profound themes such as with its biblical elements and those dealing with the nature of the artist; emotional struggles such as with redemption and temptation; political commentary and satire; complex story structure, wordplay, allusions, and a bevy of other items you could find by just leafing through a book on literary theory.
On the other hand, pop culture tends to be the opposite and generally is anything that appeals to mass or commercial society. Think: The Hunger Games. Some of the pop culture elements in The Master and Margarita include the incredibly high level of satire; the pulp-feel of certain scenes such as those involving beheadings and nudity; the over-the-top situations such as a demonic ball with the dead in attendance or when a spell is cast on citizens at a theater show; and the crazy, flavorful characters such as witches, vampires, and a giant cigar-smoking, gun-wielding talking black cat.
Don’t Miss Out
Bulgakov blends literature and pop culture expertly, making for an incredibly interesting, smart, fun, multi-layered, and engaging read that can be enjoyed again and again. But, I don’t think Bulgakov was actively seeking to blend these elements, but was just being a good storyteller, telling a good story. He wasn’t concerned with letting over-delineated schools of thought or extreme ideologies stop him. If you haven’t read this book yet, I hope you enjoy it. And if you have, I hope you enjoy it again. Fourteen years later, I’m still finding new things, and loving it as if I were reading it for the first time.
–Article by WordTrance creator, Michael DeCesaris
In addition to offering a thorough look at The Master and Margarita, this site offers annotations for each chapter, character lists, and a map of Moscow–all great resources to follow along with while reading this complex novel to help you get the most out of it.