After much effort I finally finished Mikail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (Russian, 1967), which a student recommended to me years ago when she heard that I was interested in exploring how and why the “devil” becomes female in literature. This, my seventh installment, presents what may seem at first a challenge to the rule that the devil is feminized or female, at least at some point, in most texts.
I generally enjoy reading Russian literature of the 20th century but my first dance with Bulgakov had me shooting in all kinds of directions. I was enamored with his satirical imagery that often bordered on surrealism. At times he painted such vivid pictures of the most ridiculous acts and people that I found myself pausing to imagine these images as they would appear in a film. Maybe one directed by Maya Duren or David Lynch.
While the imagery verged on the cinematic, the prose read, for me, very much like a play. The dialogue was so much like a tennis match that I couldn’t help but play out the conversations in my mind as if they were happening on the stage. So, Bulgakov comes packing some not-amateur flair.
On the other hand, on nearly every page of the text appears a phrase that was funny at first but then quickly became the bane of my reading experience. Characters are constantly interjecting remarks relating to the devil: “The devil take you!,” “The devil I did!,” etc. A subtle touch of irony would have been nicer than the gratuitous overuse of such phrases. I almost stopped reading the text because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Yes. Yes, this book is about the devil in Russia. Got it. Thanks.
My primary interest in the text was to understand how Bulgakov fashions the devil and gender. Unfortunately, he seemed not to take up the topic very interestingly. The devil is Woland, male. He has an entourage, mostly male except for a naked green witch. (The cat Behemouth reminded me lovingly of Hoffmann’s Tomcat Murr.) Gender matters in Master and Margarita because a woman is responsible for the first catastrophe and a woman is also responsible for the redemption of the soul. Margarita believes in “the master,” her extramarital lover: a writer who, much like Geoffrey Tempest, is undervalued during his time as a creative thinker adhering to “old-fashioned” ideas. Margarita believes in the master’s power of conjuring the story of Pontius Pilate. Bulgakov shifts his narrative between the story of the devil in Russia and the master’s story of the crucifixion. Caught between these two stories is the love story of Margarita.
Margarita can withstand Hell for her lover. In fact, she can even relish it. Woland likes this. The master, not so much. She, in many ways, becomes the devil for some shining moments. Like Hella (the female witch of Woland’s entourage), she performs devilry in the nude. Her mischief, though, is for avenging her lover, who has ended up (with most of the other characters) in the insane asylum. Margarita’s sins are the only ones forgiven — forgivable — in the text.
So, the devil has a soft spot for love. But he isn’t feminized nor does he slip into a performance of female-ness at any point in the novel that I could find. Then again, it was hard for me to stay focused. The text was arduous reading; it didn’t hold my interest well. Maybe Master and Margarita is an exception to the rule. But I don’t want to read it again to find out.