Warning: Spoilers for The Master and Margarita, and probably for Goethe's Faust and Stephen King's Needful Things.
All right, to begin with, I knew nothing at all about this book before reading it except that it had some relationship to the Faust myth, which is apparent enough just from the title. Obviously, then, I should have been prepared for something along supernatural lines – but I must admit that the degree of supernatural goings-on took me very much by surprise. I've never read any Russian fantasy or sci-fi before, and overall, I associate Russia with stark, harsh, utterly unornamented realism. Now, I had no problem seeing the Devil walking around Moscow wearing a gray suit and black gloves... but I've got to say, a hog-sized cat carrying a primus stove in its front paws is something I still haven't quite wrapped my brain around.
The main thing, though, is that I'm not sure I ever grasped what the actual theme was. So let's go into that for a moment.
For the first half of the novel, I thought the plot was a clever, albeit somewhat thinly-veiled attack on the Soviet government. The way people kept "disappearing" – leaving their homes or offices and then just never coming back – called Solzhenitsyn very much to mind. The Devil could make you just disappear. Your papers would disappear; no papers, no person. Threatening phonecalls, terrifying people into silence... "accidents" that conveniently removed people who held unsatisfactory views... well, it seemed very obvious, I thought.
But toward the middle and especially the end, we abandon all of the victims and take up with the villains, and suddenly it seems that the villains aren't really villains, but rather slightly buffoonish and morally questionable persons behaving according to their own strange laws. The Devil even seems to have his own code of honor, which prevents him from refusing Margarita her wish even after she consciously forfeits it out of guilt. The more we get to know the "bad guys," the more it starts to seem as if the "good guys" had it coming to them, or at least weren't interesting enough to be worth feeling sorry for, whereas the demons are an engaging lot, and after all rather likable.
Then there's the matter of the Master and Margarita themselves. The Master was not at all what I'd expected. He certainly didn't live up to his name; he was probably the single most unassuming character in the whole novel, and never really did anything at all. From his last words to Ivan Nikolayevich, I gather that he was supposed to be a kind of Christ parallel – humble and good and intelligent like Christ, but with a sort of postmodern directionlessness and faithlessness. And in that case, the fact that he completely contradicts one's preconceived notion of what a "Master" ought to be is very interesting. But... I'm not sure exactly why.
Margarita, on the other hand, is not humble or good or even, if I may say so, particularly intelligent. She's selfish and stubborn and vengeful and brazen. Because of her, I have a hard time making out who exactly the Devil is here to punish – the good, or the evil? Most of the time, he goes around screwing with anybody greedy or vain or otherwise sinful, but then along comes Margarita, and the Devil seems bent on giving her what she wants. Azazello explains that the Devil needs her because he has to have somebody named Margaret to host his party, and she's simply the only one who'll do – but that's a rather cheap plot device, if it's what Bulgakov really intended, and it really sounds more like an excuse than an honest reason to me.
It was interesting that Margarita got to play the role of Faust. But again, I'm not sure why. And after all, she isn't really a Faust. The Devil had it in for Faust all along, and all the wealth and knowledge and dances with Helen of Troy were just toys for Faust to play with while an eternal fire was being prepared for him in the abyss. But not so for Margarita. The Devil never gets her soul, nor does he seem to desire it; he sends her and the Master off to their dubious reward in the end, a sort of twilight compromise – another postmodernesque little symbol.
In the endnotes of the book, it's mentioned that Bulgakov originally intended for all of Moscow to burn at the end, instead of just a few buildings. I think it would have been a much stronger ending if he had burned the whole city. Just burning down the restaurant, the apartment, etc. was sort of anticlimactic and random, I thought. On the other hand, though, I liked the concluding chapter, which would have had to go if the whole city had burned; and Ivan couldn't have gone on to be a completely futile disciple, either. So maybe it was best as it was.
But what was the deal with Ivan, anyway? He was never the Master's disciple in any genuine sense, and only the Master's calling him a disciple makes the parallel even conceivable at all, as far as I can see. There seems to just be symbology running around everywhere, but none of it seems to be meaningfully connected... all these references and allusions, and they're very clever, but for the life of me I can't see anything behind them.
Now, Pilate is another story. I was fascinated with Pilate, who made the wrong choice and could never take it back, nor ever admit to himself that he had been mistaken; who dreamed of that moonlit path, of an eternity ascending to a light that isn't quite heaven. And Jesus, misunderstood and a little strange, but humble and forgiving. Levi Matvei was interesting too, especially when he appeared at the end, and it was obvious that although he and Satan couldn't even be civil to one another, neither of them was exactly wrong. Nor did either defy the will of his creator, after all.
I don't know. I'm trying to make sense of it, because there must be sense somewhere in there, amid Behemoth's bad jokes and Azazello's fang and Korovyov's cracked pince-nez, and Margarita's naked flailing about, and the Master's emo angsting, and Woland's lying around in his underwear with a promiscuous corpse-maid molesting his knee. I'm just kind of boggled by the whole thing.
As an aside, though, I noticed early on that Woland reminded me of a character from Stephen King's Needful Things. In King's book, this character, who later turns out to be a demon or possibly the Devil, comes into town and opens a shop called "Needful Things," where he sells what appears to be a variety of completely random and largely useless knickknacks. In reality, each of these knickknacks is tailored to irresistibly lure one specific person; there's something in the shop for everybody in town, something he or she simply can't live without. The demon is clever; rather than asking people to sign over their immortal souls in exchange for his items, he makes them a smaller bargain: they must agree to perform some seemingly slight mischief on someone else in the town, and to make it appear that the mischief was done by someone else. Ultimately, of course, this turns nearly everyone in the town against one another, and mischief becomes vengeance becomes crime and murder, and the demon sits back and watches while the town self-destructs. For the first three quarters of Bulgakov's book, Woland struck me as being very like this devil of Stephen King's – whose name, I discovered upon looking it up afterward, was Leland. So, no coincidence, then.
Now, King's book, like so many of his books, had a very intriguing and promising premise, but ended very stupidly. Bulgakov's, on the other hand, had a very... inscrutable premise. And an inscrutable ending, for that matter – but an ending that seems to deserve pondering; an ending with implications that I feel I've almost grasped... but not quite.
Well, anyway. I'll probably think of a million more things I wanted to say right after I hit "post" – something about my random attachment to the pirate restaurant-manager comes to mind, and how his name, Archibald Archibaldovich, strikes me as one of the funniest things in the whole book – but I'm going to stop rambling here, because I'm aware that I've made no point at all. I just wanted to talk about this book, because I've had such unanimous encouragement to read it, and heard so much praise for it... and now that I have read it, while I certainly don't dislike it, I also just don't really understand what it's supposed to... well, do.
So, anyway, if anybody has any insights, or just wants to chat about the book, I'd love to hear your thoughts.