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Witchcraft in Literature 101: Satire in "The Master and Margarita"


Witchcraft takes on many forms and perspectives in various works of literature. It finds its origins in folklore and myths, it carries the traits of gothic and horror, but it is also used in satire and comedy, and undoubtedly plays a major role in fantasy. The mystical and supernatural have always been associated with all things dark, scary, and evil. However, the representation of witches and magic has developed through time, leaving outdated stereotypes behind. The aesthetics of horror, the weird, grotesque, and everything else different from normal reality have switched from being repulsive and feared to being attractive. Eventually, witches transform into the protagonists of the story and make witchcraft seem appealing.

Witchcraft in Literature 101 will be divided into seven different chapters:

  1. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Satire in The Master and Margarita

  2. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Social Commentary in The Witches of Eastwick

  3. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Gothic Tendencies in Lives of the Mayfair Witches

  4. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Feminism in Witches Series and Good Omens

  5. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Wonders of Magic in Harry Potter

  6. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Retelling Mythology in Circe

Witchcraft in Literature 101: Satire in "The Master and Margarita"

Traditionally, witches, demons, and other supernatural creatures in fiction work either as the agents of the unseen supernatural realm or as antagonists in a story concerning Good versus Evil. However, Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940), a famous Russian novelist and playwright, decided to take a different approach creating his most fantastic novel. The Master and Margarita (1967) was proclaimed a literary masterpiece immediately following its appearance (Laudon, 1983, p. 4), and it has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Bulgakov's famous novel switches the perspective on the usual function of witches and demons within the genre and uses supernatural elements to satirise the flaws within the hegemonic culture. The Master and Margarita is a complex philosophical work, incorporating historical, religious and supernatural aspects, and can be considered as “metaphysical satire” (Petro, 2015, p. 49). The author included many symbolic and occult motives in his work and borrowed from various sources: “…Goethe, freemasonry, Boehme, alchemy, and the Kabbalah that point to a deeper understanding of Bulgakov’s vision of a spiritual quest for inner development and rebirth” (de la Cour, 2005, p. 180). Bulgakov was an admirer of Nikolai Gogol’s literary heritage, which can be seen in certain elements of folklore and magical realism in the novel. On the whole, the novel is multi-layered and rich, which often makes it widely misunderstood.

Figure 1: The artwork to "The Master and Margarita" (n.d.).

Satire was Bulgakov’s favourite form of reflection on Soviet society, which he extensively expressed in his literary work. He wrote several short stories that belonged to the genres of science-fiction or satirical fantasy, such as Heart of a Dog (1925) and The Fatal Eggs (1925). In his writing, Bulgakov often critiqued bureaucracy, the regime of Soviet Russia and its people, and as a result, his works were rarely published. He often struggled as a creative and sharp-minded individualist in the USSR, and this sense of frustration is present in The Master and Margarita as well. During his life, Bulgakov was mainly known for his numerous theatre plays. The stories related to the Devil or other occult themes were rejected by publishers and returned to the writer. Bulgakov started working on The Master and Margarita in 1928 and kept revising it until his death in 1940. The novel reflects deeply on the time in which it was written and on the life of its author. From the beginning it was planned as a novel about the Devil; the first versions had such names as Engineer’s Hoof and The Black Magician. The first manuscript of The Master and Margarita, with its final name, was burned by the author himself; the actual novel is composed of the restored notes, completed by Bulgakov’s wife after the writer’s death. It remained unpublished due to the strict Soviet censorship until 1966-1967 but eventually made Mikhail Bulgakov world famous.

Figure 2: Koroviev, Woland, and Behemoth (Nabokov, 2006)

The novel is structured as two parallel plots: the modern world in 1930’s Moscow, where the Master and his beloved Margarita live, and the time of Christ’s Crucifixion, with a focus on the figure of Pontius Pilate. Also, the novel includes a “book in the book,” as the story of Pilate is the Master’s manuscript that he writes and later burns; this, in turn, reflects Bulgakov’s creative process on The Master and Margarita. Despite such a complex structure and eventful plot, Bulgakov had chosen the figures of Margarita and the Master and their love story as the main focus of the novel, even though “these characters are not highly visible in the novel” (Laudon, 1983, p. 4). The story begins when one day the Devil and his cronies arrive in Moscow, and this supernatural interruption creates chaos in the organised structure of the city and its overly-rationalised society.

“Say as last—who art thou?” / “That Power I serve which wills forever evil yet does forever good” (Bulgakov, 2014, p. 7). This epigraph to the novel provides one of the most significant themes in it: the relationship between the forces of Good and Evil, though, in its unconventional way. Bulgakov clearly sympathises with the supernatural characters, specifically with the Devil, represented by Woland. When Woland is introduced for the first time, he obviously stands out from the crowd with his appearance. He is described as “a foreigner”, wearing an expensive suit and carrying a walking stick with a knob in the shape of a poodle’s head (Bulgakov, 2014, p. 16). His eyes have different colours: one black and the other green. Woland introduces himself as a professor of black magic, on which account he was officially invited to Moscow. This can be seen as another satirical remark, as it is mentioned that he was invited to Moscow for a consultation on the topic.

While absorbing some of the common features and fictional characteristics of Satan, Woland does not conform completely to the traditional concept of the Devil. Indeed, he is neither mischievous nor seductive, nor in a battle with forces of Good—in fact, ironically, he is very disappointed to hear that people do not believe in the existence of Jesus and in God. Woland’s character is obviously opposed to the rationalism and logical world of the Soviet reality, and through the novel his powers prove to not be bound by the rules and limitations of the normal reality. Just like the epigraph to the novel rejects the conservative black-and-white thinking which was typical for Soviet mentality, Bulgakov's Devil represents the dual nature of reality within himself. In the novel Woland acts as an observer, and his role is to look into human souls and to judge what each deserves. In this way, he expresses the satirical voice of the author, who criticises people for their narrow beliefs and the lack of spirituality.

Figure 3: Woland and his retinue (IrenHorrors, 2018)

The Master and Margarita aims its satire firmly at Soviet society, which is “corrupt and decaying without any acknowledgement of the power of the spiritual, unseen world” (de la Cour, 2005, p. 180). Woland and his company visit to Moscow lasts for a very short time; however, it causes a significant amount of stress to its rigidly rationalist system. Within a few days they create total chaos by beheading a few people, sending a dozen of the officials into the asylum, causing trouble and disturbances at the Variety theatre, distributing fake money, disturbing the work of the government agencies, occupying and then burning down the flat, a store, and the Griboedov’s restaurant. However, most of these troubles are caused not by the Devil himself, but with a help of his retinue. Koroviev, a Devil's assistant, uses his powers to read people’s fates and mainly to reveal people’s secrets and vices to Woland's judgment. His character is very impudent and repulsive, satirising those in the novel who are rude and intrusive themselves. Behemoth, who appears as a huge black cat, is a Woland's jester. In order to mock and destroy social hierarchies, the cat often mimics humans, enjoying eating at the restaurant, drinking alcohol, wearing a bow tie, or shooting with his gun. Azazzelo, a demon with terrifying appearance, serves as a hitman, bringing death upon the convicted. The last of Woland’s companions is Hella, who is both a witch and a vampire. She does not cause much trouble compared to the rest of the retinue, though she prefers to walk around completely naked, demonstrating her superiority to the society's propriety. All of the Woland's companions represent playful irony, which they embody through their mischievous acts, their mockery and tricks. However, they do not act as the typical demons, but more as the extensions of Woland’s power, whose mission is to highlight human flaws and to serve justice.

Later on, the true reason for Woland’s arrival to Moscow is revealed while his retinue organises the annual "Satan’s Spring Ball" where eventually Margarita takes on the role of the Queen. Margarita belongs to the normal reality, though she is described as being unhappy in her life. Her later transformation into a witch may be due to the fact that she does not wholly belong to the natural world and her demands might be met only in the supernatural (Laudon, 1983, p. 207). It is significant that Margarita, not the Master, decides to bargain with the Devil. When she takes Woland’s invitation and becomes a Queen at Satan’s Ball, she plays an important role in the celebration of the springtime full moon, as the Ball “is concerned with divine justice instead of worshipping the powers of darkness” (Beville, 2009, p. 157). In this sense, “Margarita is a parody of the Gothic heroine, saving her knight from tyranny by making alliances with supernatural forces” (Beville, 2009, p. 157). She joins the Devil’s league and becomes one of his devoted companions during this night.

Figure 4: Margarita the Queen (Simeckova, 2014).

From being unhappy, despaired and helpless in her mundane life, Margarita goes to being powerful and strong in the supernatural realm. Her transformation into a witch grants her freedom from her misery. The motif of freedom is very important for her character, as the author shows that witchcraft helped her transform into her true self. She chooses spiritual life and sublime feelings over a materialistic and trivial existence. The scene of Margarita’s flight on the broom, naked and invisible, is an embodiment of her social freedom (Domanico, 2017, p. 48). This act reveals the problem of women’s existence under the male gaze. Margarita's actions and behaviour demonstrate her freedom from the repressive Soviet social norms, where women had a submissive role, despite the supposed equal rights of all people. The novel was primarily banned because of its representation of female nudity, though Bulgakov purposefully presented it as something natural, as opposed to the rigid Soviet morals. Witches, as women with knowledge and power, have always been the subject of false, misogynistic stereotypes, as reflected in many works of literature and the popular media. The Master and Margarita is a unique example of a novel in which the male writer grants his female protagonist with power, beauty, kindness, and invisibility. Thus, she is liberated from the patriarchal standards that represented the dominant gender ideology within Russia at the time of writing, consequently satirising the Soviet status quo.

Magical realism as a literary direction was a natural response of some artists to the totalitarian regime (Domanico, 2017, p. 24), though many fantastic and symbolic elements can be found in the novel. During the scene of the Sabbath on the lake, Margarita meets other witches, a goat-legged man, mermaids and singing frogs. Margarita’s flight and baptism can be seen as a spiritual quest and a return to nature, which made her feel a "connection to the universe that did not exist from her home in Soviet Russia” (Domanico, 2017, p. 50). Bulgakov noticeably contrasts the fantastic realm to the reality of Moscow. The image of the Ball is quite infernal and filled with supernatural elements as well, like Woland’s undead guests being walking corpses, witches, vampires, and the rituals of bathing in and drinking human blood (Beville, 2009, p. 158). Bulgakov also satirises the traditional notion of witchcraft through the figures of Woland and Margarita. Their relationship in the novel is very important, as it contradicts the stereotype of witches being the Devil’s servants or lovers. Margarita is presented as neither: she is asked to be a hostess at the ball and she is promised a reward. In the end, it is the Devil, in the face of Woland, who grants Margarita supernatural abilities and power, and sets her free. It is also he who takes Margarita and the Master with him to “eternal peace.” The novel's end can be seen as the escape of the Master and Margarita from a world where they did not belong. By rejecting rigid categorisations of Good and Evil, and the traditional representation of witchcraft, Bulgakov presents a new and controversial way of thinking within Soviet reality.

Figure 5: Woland and Behemoth contemplate Moscow (Alimov, 1975).

In The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov aims to satirise the conservative and materialistic Soviet society and those citizens who subscribe to the regime’s narrowly rationalised socio-political ideology, in which there is no room for spiritual values. Bulgakov's focus on the spiritual, as opposed to the material conditions of existence, contradicts the Soviet's ideology. For him, the role of imagination can be seen as a tool for the development of the human spirit. While sympathising with the irrational, creative and free supernatural forces, he mocks those working-class people who hold firmly to the ideologically prescribed social standards and taboos within Soviet culture. The whole novel is filled with astute critical commentary and heavy irony. It is often very humorous, yet reveals very serious flaws within Soviet reality. On the whole, Bulgakov uses supernatural elements to represent the idealistic spiritual realm as opposed to the struggle and strife of normal reality. The Master and Margarita is a great work of satire, where the role of witchcraft is to critically reflect on Soviet reality, seeking the answers to its issues in metaphysical and mysterious aspects.

Bibliographical References

Bulgakov, M. A. (2014). The Master and Margarita. Vintage Magic.

Beville, M. (2009). Gothic-postmodernism: voicing the terrors of postmodernity. Amsterdam; Toronto: Rodopi. no. 43,145-170.

de la Cour, A. (2005). An Interpretation of the Occult Symbolism in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Slavonica,11(2),179–188.

Domanico, J. M. (2017). Margarita as Supernatural Woman: Bulgakov's Subversion of the Superfluous Man in "The Master and Margarita" (Publication No.10286352) [Thesis, University of Denver]. ProQuest Dissertation Publishing.

Laudon, B.E. (1983). LIGHT AND DARKNESS IMAGERY AND THE DEMONIC ELEMENT IN MIXAIL BULGAKOV'S "THE MASTER AND MARGARITA" (RUSSIA) [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Petro, P. (2015). Modern Satire: Four studies (Reprint 2015). De Gruyter Mouton. Vol. 27, 47-72.

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1 Comment

The reading of this article was revealing about the satirycal subtext of the novel that too often isn't fully considered.

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Anna Artyushenko

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