The Gnostic devil in Bulgakov's "Master and Margerita"

Essay, 2004

12 Pages, Grade: 96%, eqals 1,0


The Gnostic devil in The Master and Margarita

There is a consensus among scholars that, in his work The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov created a complex and multi-layered novel. On the first narrative level the reader is confronted with three interlinked plots. Secondly, the novel has a broad “mythical framework” which contains Biblical and Christian tradition; especially the role played by the devil throughout history is essential. Furthermore, The Master and Margarita is a parody of Soviet society, appareled with philosophical elements. This combination can lead to certain confusion, since the connections and interrelations are often obscure[1], e.g. the relation between the Moscow chapters, the Yershalaim chapters and the novel written by the Master: how are Woland’s story (Chapter 2)[2], Ivan’s dream (Chapter 16) and the Master’s novel (Chapters 25 and 26) related to each other, and how are they related to the Epilogue of the novel? How can it be that Ivan dreams and the Master writes about the same thing, an event that happened two thousand years earlier? These questions remain unclear[3]. Testa summarizes its complexity neatly when he says “[it] is a work of excruciating complexity, comparable, in its intertwining of realism and myth, tragic and ironico–grotesque episodes, divine and profane, antiquity and present time, only to Goethe’s Faust”(Testa 262).

Its relation to other works and traditions, namely the one mentioned above and the Bible, are vital for an understanding of the novel. In addition, a profound knowledge of Soviet society in Moscow of the 1930s and Bulgakov’s personal history and background would be necessary to provide a full understanding. This is hardly possible in a short essay, but this background is the basic cause of the multitude of approaches and interpretations and, accordingly, the confusion and contradictions.

The rich relations and borrowings from Faust and biblical tradition are obvious. But, of course, Bulgakov did not just copy these other stories and ‘recycle’ them to a new one. He does borrow characters and elements but he takes them out of their original setting and puts them in a new role: he reinvents them. This contributes highly to the characters complexity, as they inevitably are loaded with previous conceptions. This becomes very clear in the figures of Yeshua/Jesus and Woland/Satan and his entourage and also in their relation to each other. Bulgakov’s Yeshua, introduced in the second chapter of the novel, is by no means the glorified redeemer, as is how we tend to see Jesus Christ[4]. Bulgakov’s Yeshua does not have 12 disciples but one. For this one, Levi Matvei, Yeshua is the absolute center of his world. He writes down on a parchment everything Yeshua says and does, but “ nothing that was written there did [Yeshua] ever say”(p.16). This is due less to misunderstanding but more because of his fanatic adoration for Yeshua; that is, Levi Matvei depicts him as superhuman. Apparent from Levi Matvei’s behaviour, we can assume that, for him, Yeshua is the redeemer, the Messiah. Therefore he wants to glorify him and consequently puts Yeshua in the active role of a revolutionary and hero. It is Levi Matvei’s fault that people “muddle” up what Yeshua said and through this he is partly responsible for the accusations towards Yeshua. The result is Yeshua’s confrontation with his judge who appears in the persona of Pilate.

Levi Matvei creates a myth around Yeshua. Although it is not explicitly said, in The Master and Margarita Levi Matvei’s writings are the source for the later gospels and, henceforth, the resulting images of Jesus Christ are those which endure. One could even say his parchment represents The book of Q[5].We learn not only from Berlioz, but also from Woland “that absolutely nothing written in the gospels ever happened as an actual fact”(p.33), and the latter appears to be the ultimate source. This constitutes the connection between Levi Matvei’s writings, the gospels and consequently the myth of Jesus Christ in the modern world – which is here Soviet Moscow in the 1930s. Here the existence of Christ is denied. But as the Master’s novel and the conversation of Woland and Berlioz shows, the myth of Jesus is still present. Furthermore, Bezdomny is supposed to write anti-religious poems. Herein lies a fine irony, since even anti-religious literature keeps the religious elements present and alive.

There is no doubt that the Bulgakov’s Yeshua is related to Jesus Christ. But Bulgakov seeks to reinvents him and set him in a new light. We can also see this in the use of the name “Yeshua” and not “Jesus”. Yeshua has no apparent supernatural powers[6], but a very good intuition, sensibility and perception. The decisive aspect of the figure of Yeshua is, after all, that he is in the first place not presented as the Messiah, but as a very human wandering philosopher, albeit one of great eloquence. Though Yeshua believes in one god, he is in no way the revolutionary enunciator of the new kingdom of God; he talks about a kingdom of truth. He is afraid of physical pain and does not want to die at all. He even asks Pilate, with a somewhat naïve hope, to let him go. Finally, Yeshua’s death is not very sensational. Except for his disciple Levi Matvei and some soldiers nobody is there. The aspects mentioned above stand in crass contrast to Jesus depicted in the Gospels and the Jesus-myth.

In the end, however, Yeshua gains light and even becomes the head of “the department of the metaphysical good” (Krugovoy 97). His disciple Levi Matvei and, though only after 2000 years, Pilate also gain light, what makes Yeshua to a redeemer figure in the end. I think that Yeshua gains light not so much because of his faith in the one God, but because of his faith in the good. He, the philosopher, claims that all people are good. He even continues to claim this after he has been beaten and under the threat of death. He includes Mark Ratkiller, who has beaten him up as well as the traitor Judas and Pilate, who becomes a secret admirer of Yeshua. The claim that all people are good relates to the concept of a divine spark, the small, godly realm of light in mankind. Yeshua also seems to stand somewhere out of this world. He is still subjected to it, as his fright of death clearly shows, but he already anchored in the spiritual realm. In his conversation with Pilate he shows fear; after all, he is still just a human being. But he is not frightened because of Pilate’s authority. It is as if he sees through the principles of the world and beyond, into a realm of a higher order. Yeshua realizes that Pilate cannot really harm him since he has realized that this world is not the limitation of existence; Yeshua’s claim of the goodness of all man sounds absurd, but it is his recognition of the divine spark and therefore the revelation of the realm of light to him. Even in the face of torment, injustice and death he retains his hold on this faith. He shows that freedom is not only a condition of being, dependent on outer circumstances, but a choice. We can say Yeshua gained knowledge or: Gnosis - the key to enter the realm of light.

We find the reinvention of Jesus into a new role is repeated in a similar way for Bulgakov’s Satan figure. But the figure of Woland is even more complex, as the tradition, role and function of the devil has changed over the times. Apart from the ‘classical’ devil, based mainly on the New Testament and fully formed in the Middle Ages, Bulgakov’s devil is obviously related to Goethe’s Mephistopheles in Faust, as the epigraph at the beginning on the novel makes clear. From the beginning Woland has a background, even before one line has been written about him. The resulting complexity and multi-referentiality of Woland lead to a broad spectrum of viewpoints upon him, briefly listed by Haberer: some see him as a classical devil figure, completely settled in the realm of evil; on the other side we find those who “find Woland quite a sympathetic character”( Haberer 383, Fn 7). Though the epigraph from Faust says nothing about Woland’s role as devil and his relation to evil, it shows that he is not in the tradition of the Christian Satan - he is not the opponent of God.

But Woland, in his role as devil, still belongs to and also represents the realm of evil. But what is this evil then? What is his nature? I would argue that Woland represents the spiritual realm on earth. He is, like Mephistopheles, an agent of God.


[1] See also Haberer 382-384: she briefly elaborates why and how there is so much confusion around the characters in The Master and Margarita.

[2] These and all further references refer to the edition of Vintage Books of Master and Margarita.

[3] I agree here with A.C. Wright’s view, that the Yershalaim chapters are factual, though there remain certain doubts. Wright also gives no clear explanation of how the episodes are related with each other (Wright 1168 f.). Furthermore as I think an absolutely clear answer can’t be given; every attempt for an explanation has to remain an assumption. However, most scholars identify the Yershalaim chapters with the Master’s novel. See also Ericson 26.

[4] This is from the perspective of the western world, where the roman-catholic and protestant churches dominate the view on Christ. Bulgakov might have had a view dominated by the Russian-Orthodox church. As I am not acquainted with that form of Christianity and its differences toward western Christianity, my analysis and conclusions are drawn under the background of the former.

[5] The book of Q is the designation for an assumed original source for the later gospels. It got lost, but there is hardly a doubt that it existed.

[6] Though it remains unclear why Pilate’s headaches stop.

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The Gnostic devil in Bulgakov's "Master and Margerita"
The University of Western Ontario
The bible and 20th century literature
96%, eqals 1,0
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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The essay is written in english. It is a comparative study of the devil figure in Goethe's "Faust" and the presentation of the devil in the bible. The focus lies on on Bulgakov's devil figuration, however. The essay also deals with the Gnostic aspects in "Master and Margarita". Most of the quoted literature is available in the MLA database.
Gnostic, Bulgakov, Master, Margerita
Quote paper
Marc Neininger (Author), 2004, The Gnostic devil in Bulgakov's "Master and Margerita", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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