Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Master and Margarita, Part 2

After finishing the last page of this story and putting the book back on the shelf, many readers will come away from this novel feeling perplexed. Was it inspirational, or depressing? It shows the human spirit facing inhuman obstacles and sometimes overcoming them. That’s inspiring. But it also shows the human spirit being crushed by them. And that’s depressing. The tone of the whole novel is at once playful and serious.

Let’s consider its playful aspect first. Margarita is turned into a witch. She flies off into the night on a broomstick. No big deal. Harry Potter does it all the time. But M. does it naked. That’s something you won’t see at Hogwarts. Plus, the Master and Margarita witches are young and attractive, not like those old hags causing all that trouble in Macbeth. Macbeth witches are just plain weird. Not only are they foul and not fair, they say strange things such as “Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine/And thrice again, to make up nine.” This is apparently a spell witches need in medieval Scotland. But in early 20th century Moscow, all Margarita has to do is rub on special ointment and poof! She’s transformed into a beautiful witch.

Informed American readers have seen beautiful witches before. The TV show Bewitched gave us the prototype model in the 1960’s. Samantha was a suburban witch, complete with dorky husband Darren (normal), cute young daughter Tabitha (witch), and disapproving mother-in-law, Endora (witch). Of course they behaved themselves like good suburban witches. They dressed modestly and blended in with the rest of the suburbanites. The classic witch, however, is the famous Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz: long black dress, pointy black hat, scraggly hair and scary fingernails. Margarita is much more like Samantha. But beware – she’s still a witch – and staunchly on the side of those diabolical powers running loose in Moscow. Don’t mess with these guys.

Now for the other side of the novel - it raises several serious issues, most of which I’m not much qualified to comment competently upon. The Soviet equivalent FBI and CIA look like Keystone Kops when dealing with outside (foreign) influences. The absurdity of documentation and official “papers” is self-evident. There’s documentation for everything, so everyone is stuck with mountains of yucky paperwork. Another serious issue in the novel is the role of the artist in a suffocating bureaucratic environment. Can the arts ever flourish under such a system? It’s easy to understand why the USSR establishment didn’t want its citizens reading this book.

But the questions that concern me most don’t have so much to do with the novel’s politics as with its theology. The old formula used to be: good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. Simple and easy to remember. But Bulgakov’s conception is much more complex. For example, the Master and Margarita don’t go to Heaven. Instead, they end up spending eternity in a nice quiet cottage listening to Schubert every evening. This is Hell? On the other hand Pontius Pilate does make it to Heaven eventually, even though he condemned Yeshua to death. Or consider this reflection from the book: “the one who loves must share the fate of the one he loves.” Think about it. To love is to commit one’s self to an alternative fate. Margarita goes to Hell to share the fate of her lover, the Master, and Pilate’s faithful dog spends two thousand years with a depressed and schizophrenic master before finally following him along the path of light to Heaven. Is this fair?

So, in the end are good people rewarded and bad people punished? If not in this world, at least in the next? Who knows? In Bulgakov’s world people muddle along the best they can but are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. There may or may not be a Heaven or a Hell, but Bulgakov’s Moscow is for sure a tough neighborhood to live in. Even without the witches.

-- RDP


Post a Comment

<< Home