The Master and Margarita: My favourite characters (and what became of them)

Мастер и Маргарита by Михаил Афанасьевич Булгаков…. oh I’m so very sorry, I mean The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Afanaseyevich Bulgakov can justifiably be regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, apart from one of the foremost Soviet satires, caricaturing a majorly repressive bureaucratic social order.

The novel alternates among three settings. The first is 1930s Moscow, which is visited by Satan in the guise of Воланд, oh I mean Woland, a mysterious gentleman “magician” of uncertain origin, who arrives with a retinue that includes the grotesquely dressed “ex-choirmaster” valet Koroviev (Фагот…ok, Fagot), a mischievous, gun-happy, fast-talking black cat Бегемот, (Behemoth or a subversive Puss in Boots), the fanged hitman Азазелло (Azazello), the pale-faced Абадонна and the witch Hella (Гелла).

The plot of the novel works on various levels – three at least, including the 1930s Moscow where Woland confronts the unbelieving head of the literary bureaucracy, Берлиоз….Berlioz I mean) – an episode witnessed by a young and enthusiastically modern poet Иван Бездомный (Ivan Bezdomniy). His futile attempt to chase and capture the “gang” and warn of their evil and mysterious nature lands Ivan in a lunatic asylum. Here we meet the The Master of the title – an embittered author, the petty-minded rejection of whose historical novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ has led him to such despair that he burns his manuscript and turns his back on the “real” world, including his devoted lover Маргарита (Margarita)… and now the title is clear.

Other episodes in the first part of the novel include Woland’s magic show at the Variety Theatre, satirising the vanity, greed and gullibility of the new rich; and the capture and occupation of Berlioz’s apartment by Woland and his gang.

Part 2 introduces Margarita, and her invitation to the Walpurgis Night midnight ball but it is the second setting that proves Булгаков’s , so sorry, I mean Bulgakov’s superiority as a novelist. It is in the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, described by Woland talking to Berlioz and echoed in the pages of the Master‘s rejected novel, which concerns Pilate’s meeting with Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Иешуа га-Ноцри, …. Jesus the Nazarene for all of you), his recognition of an affinity with and spiritual need for him, and his reluctant but resigned and passive handing over of him to those who wanted to kill him.

But to know the rest, I suggest you read the book yourself.

I will confine myself to describing two of my favourite characters and their transformation at the end. The third I like is Pilate and I will discuss him separtely some day…. here I will just say in the novel, he also comes to a good end.

Behemoth is an enormous black cat (He is the second or third most famous cat in literature), capable of standing on two legs and talking. He has a penchant for chess, vodka and pistols. “Begemot” in Russian itself means hippopotamus in Russian as well as the Biblical creature (Book of Job 40:15 and the Book of Enoch I). His antics are priceless, specially when he boards the tram with a five-kopeck piece, his chess game and actions at the house of literature, when the police turns up at the apartment and finally at the department store.

Koroviev/Fagot is a purported “ex-choirmaster”, possibly implying that he was once a member of an angelic choir, or may be inspired by E. T. A. Hoffman’s character, Kapellmeister Kreisler. He is Woland’s assistant, capable of creating any illusions, and usually wearing a checked jacket, jockey cap, and pince-nez, which costume recalls that of the devil who appears to Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Unlike Behemoth and Azazello, does not use violence at any point. He partners Behemoth as both effortlessly and happily create mayhem at at the house of literature and the department store.

However, as they leave Moscow each of the members of Woland’s suite turns back into their original form.

Behemoth turns out to be not a cat but a lean youth who according to Woland was the best jester the world had ever known. This transformation may be inspired by the character Tyl Eulenspiegel from Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem or Charles de Coster’s novel of the same name, which was popular in Russia. This Flemish jester played jokes wherever he went but ended up badly…… (well he seems to have more in common with me than I had thought).

Koroviev turns out to be a knight in dark-purple who once made a bad pun about darkness and light. The inspiration for this character seems to come from Cervantes’ Don Quixote which Bulgakov adapted for stage in 1938. In the novel the knight Sanson, in order to force his friend Don Quixote to return home and give up being a knight, disguises himself as the Knight of the White Moon and challenges him to a duel. He beats Don Quixote, who when forced to return home cannot bear the collapse of his fantasies and dies. In this way Sanson becomes the unwilling cause of Don Quixote’s death. Bulgakov alters Cervantes’ name from Samson to Sanson or Sun-son, the son of the sun. Here Bulgakov plays on the themes of light and dark since the knight connected with the sun commits a dark deed while Don Quixote who had gone mad, and in that way is connected with darkness, actually comes across as a figure of light. The knight’s unsuccessful joke is connected with the theme of light and dark. This theme again plays in with the epigraph of the novel itself about willing evil but actually accomplishing good.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by talikatzman on December 27, 2009 at 18:55

    Hey,my perents are huge fans of the books as well,have you seen the movie adeption of it,my father said it made great justise to the books.I’m am a fictional writer,come to my site to see my work:)

    Reply

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