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Hebraic Antecedents in The Master and Margarita: Woland and Company Revisited

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


In the years since the appearance of The Master and Margarita a large body of critical literature has been devoted to a search for unity, or rather a search for the key that unites the novel's three disparate realms, with their separate settings, casts of characters, levels of language, and characteristic narrative voices. One approach has been to search for formal unity using the novel's structural elements (narrative modes, setting, time-space coordinates). Another approach has been to search for thematic unity by tracing the moral and philosophical threads that run through the novel as well as the literary antecedents of each of the characters. Some critics have reached the conclusion that there is no unity—that the novel is in fact a faulty, fragmented piece of writing.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 1984

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1. See especially the following articles by Barbara Kejna-Sharratt: “Narrative Techniques in The Master and Margarita,” Canadian Slavonic Papers, 16 (1974): 1–13; and The Tale of Two Cities: The Unifying Function of the Setting in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita ,” Forum for Modern Language Studies, 16 (1980): 331–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Pearce, C. E., “A Closer Look at Narrative Structure in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita,” Canadian Slavonic Papers, 22 (1980): 358–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an interesting analysis of Bulgakov's manipulation of time in the novel see Beattie, Bruce A. and Powell, Phyllis W., “Story and Symbol: Notes toward a Structural Analysis of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita ,” Russian Literature Triquarterly, 15 (1976): 219–51.Google Scholar

2. The best attempt to identify the antecedents of the characters in the novel and the sources Bulgakov used is Utekhin's, N. P. article “ Master i Margarita Bulgakova: ob istochnikakh deistvitel'nykh i mnimykh,” Russkaia Literatura, 22, no. 4 (1979): 89109 Google Scholar and the article to which his is a polemical response, I. F. Belza, “Genealogiia Mastera i Margarity,” Kontekst (1978), pp. 156–248. One should also consult the various articles by M. Chudakova dealing with Bulgakov's personal library. Chudakova's articles are very valuable by virtue of her access to the remains of Bulgakov's personal library in the manuscript division of the Lenin Library (books with the author's notations and comments of E. S. Bulgakova about what her husband was reading). See, for example, her Uslovie sushchestvovaniia,” V mire knig, \2 (1974): 79–81 Google Scholar. The list of sources, both actual and assumed, is too long to give in full; it seems to have been an eclectic mixture of “classics” such as The Jewish Antiquities of Josephus Flavius, the Annals of Cornelius Tacitus, the works of Philo of Alexandria, and relatively recent historical research (S. A. Zhebelev, Evangelii kanonicheskie i apokrificheskie; F. E. Delektorskii, “Kritiko-bibliograflcheskii obzor Drevnerusskikh Skazanii o Florentiiskoi Unii,” published in June 1895 in Zhurnal ministerstva narodnogo prosveshcheniia). Of great importance seems to have been a dissertation by a coworker of Bulgakov's father, N. K. Makkaveiskii, Arkheologiia istorii stradanii Gospoda Iisusa Khrista, published in 1891 in the Trudy Kievskoi Dukhovnoi Akademii. Chudakova lists the Brokgaus-Efron entsiklopedicheski slovar’ as the starting point for Bulgakov's research in demonology, and Florenskii's, P. Mnimosti v geometrii (Moscow: Pomor'e, 1922)Google Scholar as the source for Bulgakov's treatment of time and space in the novel.

3. Delaney, Joan, “ The Master and Margarita: The Reach Exceeds the Grasp,” Slavic Review, 31 (1972): 89100 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4. Pope, Richard W. F., “Ambiguity and Meaning in The Master and Margarita: The Role of Afranius,” Slavic Review, 36 (1977): 16 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5. How else are we to understand the apocalyptic vision of chapters 31 and 32, if not as an attempt at a resolution on all the novel's various planes? This attempt is then brilliantly parodied in the epilogue.

6. Krugovoi, G., “Gnosticheskii roman M. Bulgakova,” Novyi zhurnal, 134 (1979): 4781.Google Scholar

7. The first to identify Woland as the Satan of the Old Testament was Colin Wright, A. in his “Satan in Moscow: An approach to Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita ,” PMLA, 88 (1973): 1162—72CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Although the present article covers some of the same ground as Wright's (see especially his p. 1164), there is a crucial difference in approach. What I am attempting to provide is a comprehensive reading of the novel, a philosophical framework in which the novel's binary structure (light-dark, good-evil, sun-moon, truth-lie) resolves in unity. To see Woland and company in the Old Testament Hebraic context, in which Satan is simply an extension of God's all-embracing nature, and the New Testament characters in the novel as thematically related to Woland (justice versus mercy, the Law versus Grace) accomplishes this. Wright, having identified Woland as the Satan of the Old Testament, rejects this identification in favor of the psychological significance of the figure of Satan as the son who both imitates and rebels against his Father. He makes the connection with the Faust theme in the novel and concludes with a discussion of gnosticism, and in particular “the heresy of Manichaeism with its dualistic view of good and evil” (Wright, p. 1165). Thus, he obviously does not see the Hebraic element as a unifying factor, and he leaves the novel's dualism unresolved.

8. The amount of critical attention given to Woland testifies to the fact that his is a pivotal role. It is instructive to note that it was originally Woland, not the Master, who was the hero of the novel. See Chudakova, M., “ The Master and Margarita: The Development of a Novel,” Russian Literature Triquanerly, 15 (1976): 177209 Google Scholar

9. Wells, L. S. A., “The Books of Adam and Eve,” The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), p. 135.Google Scholar

10. Wells, “Books of Adam and Eve,” p. 126.

11. Charles, R. H., “The Martyrdom of Isaiah,” Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, p. 160 Google Scholar.

12. Bulgakov, Mikhail, Master i Margarita (Frankfurt/Main: Possev-Verlag, 1971), p. 359 Google Scholar. All future references will be to this edition, hereafter cited as M. i M. The translations are my own.

13. In his Essentials of Demonology Langton gives a brief description of Satan as he appears in the Rabbinic literature. Langton, Edward, Essentials of Demonology (London: Epworth Press,1949), p. 55.Google Scholar

14. Pope, Marvin H., Job, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1965), pp. xxiixxiii.Google Scholar

15. Freehof, Solomon B., Book of Job (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1958), p. 8.Google Scholar

16. Pope, Job, p. 10.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid., pp. 10–11.

20. M. i M., p. 453. The relationship between Woland and the “heavenly powers” in this scene is fraught with ambiguity. Matthew Levi's use of the word prosit ( “On tebia prosit “) suggests that Woland is not a subordinate receiving an order but an equal receiving a request. Bulgakov himself deliberated over this point for many years. In earlier versions of the novel Woland was clearly God's servant; witness the following exchange between Woland and the Master from the version of 1933–1934:

“I have received instructions concerning you. Very favorable ones. In general I can congratulate you—you have succeeded. I was ordered …”

“Can they really order you?”

“Oh yes. I was ordered to take you …”

(M. Chudakova, “The Master and Margarita: The Development of a Novel,” p. 195.)

In the revisions to the 1938 version which form the basis for the novel as we know it, Bulgakov rejected this explicit relationship in favor of one which is more subtly defined. Woland remains in the service of God, however. In the scene mentioned above, the difference between the first and second exchanges reveals that leshua Ha-Notsri is not “asking” Woland, he is conveying an order through Matthew Levi and couching it in polite language, which accords well with the figure of Ha-Notsri as Bulgakov has drawn him.

“He asks that you also take the one who loved him and suffered for him,” Levi addressed Woland, for the first time entreating [him] (v pervyi raz moliashche). (Emphasis mine.)

“For the first time “—that is, whereas previously he was not entreating, this time he is. Why? Because Margarita is one of the “sinners” of the novel, who by rights should be punished. We as readers-tend to forget this fact because of our emotional involvement with Margarita's story, an involvement due chiefly to the lyrical-romantic narrative voice Bulgakov has assigned to it. Bluntly speaking, she is an adulteress whose sin is aggravated by living a lie with a man she does not love. Moreover, she has temporarily sold her soul to the devil and is therefore under his power. Woland and company do not, in fact, hold her entirely blameless. During the ball, Korov'ev indicates to her the Lady Tofana, responsible for the poisoning of countless husbands of beautiful young Neapolitans, and makes the following pointed remark: “It does happen, my queen, that one's husband bores one.” But because of Margarita's all-powerful love, love of the Master and love of the truth (which in the novel is identified with Christ), Christ intercedes for her. Thus, we are brought back to our biblical model from Zechariah: the angel of justice (Satan) confronted by the angel of mercy. And in both cases justice gives way to mercy, the Law gives way to Grace.

21. Pope, Job, p. 10.

22. M. iM., p. 290.

23. Ibid., p. 356.

24. Ibid.

25. Rivkah Schärf-Kluger, Satan in the Old Testament (Evanston, III.: Northwestern University Press, 1967), p. 10.

26. M. i M., p. 452.

27. Ibid., pp. 16–21.

28. In discussing how textual purity usually contains “disguised rhetoric,” Booth mentions epigraphs as a form of authorial intrusion and begs us “not to forget the rhetoric of titles.” Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 100–101.

29. M. i M., p. 322.

30. Ibid., p. 362

31. Wilfrid J. Harrington, Understanding the Apocalypse (Washington: Corpus Books, 1969), p. 8.

32. Ibid., pp. 15–22.

33. Ibid., p. 122.

34. Ibid.

35. Charles, R. H., “The Book of Enoch,” Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, p. 242.Google Scholar

36. M. i M., pp. 473–74.

37. Ginzberg, Louis, The Legends of the Jews, vol. 5 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1925), p. 44.Google Scholar

38. Korov'ev's most important function in the novel may lie in the realm of parody. While none of the attributes of Goethe's Mephistopheles can be said to apply to Woland, they do apply to “the magician, regent, sorcerer, translator, or the devil knows who after all, in a word—Korov'ev.” It is revealing to compare Korov'ev's many roles with those of Mephistopheles—a “singing master” conducting the drunkards in Auerbach's Keller, a magician in the court of the Emperor in Part II, the “court jester” or “fool” in the heavenly court (in the Prologue God refers to him as der Schalk), and so on.

39. Of Azâzêl's origins Langton says that he was probably “a Semitic God of the flocks who was later degraded to the level of a demon under the influence of Yahwism” (Langton, Demonology, p. 46). The Jewish Encyclopedia also stresses the ancient origin of the figure: As a demon of the desert, it seems to have been closely interwoven with the mountainous region of Jerusalem and of ancient pre-Israelitish origin.” The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1902), p. 366.Google Scholar

40. Charles, “Book of Enoch,” pp. 191–95.

41. Ibid., p. 192.

42. Ibid., p. 193.

43. Patai, Raphael, The Hebrew Goddess (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1967), p. 208.Google Scholar

44. Ibid., p. 208.

45. Ibid., pp. 209–211.

46. Ibid., p. 212.

47. Ibid., p. 222.

48. To a large extent Bulgakov has succeeded in estranging the Christian mythos by accenting certain pagan details in the setting of the Pilate chapters and by the use of Hebraic and Aramaic place and proper names. The use of Old Testament names, some more familiar to us, like Behemoth, some less familiar, like Azazello, who in earlier versions of the novel was called Fiello, would seem to be a logical extension of this estrangement in the Moscow chapters, yet one more link between Moscow and Ershalaim.

49. With one important difference: Eikhenbaum stresses that this should be done without satiric or didactic intent, which intent Bulgakov definitely had. Eichenbaum, Boris, “How Gogol's ‘Overcoat’ is made,” in Maguire, Robert, ed., Gogol from the Twentieth Century (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 288.Google Scholar

50. Theirs is primarily a reign of obedience through fear, with Woland the judge and his suite the executioners. For a more detailed look at the relationship between Woland's justice and the Law, as well as his relationship to the New Testament characters in the novel, see Laura D. Weeks, “Black Magic and its Complete Exposé: A Reexamination of the Role of Woland in The Master and Margarita,” Master's thesis, Stanford University, 1978, chapter 4: “Of Law and Grace.” One of the best pieces ever written on New Testament parodies and parodies of Christian doctrine and ritual in the novel is Ericson, Edward E., Jr., “The Satanic Incarnation: Parody in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita ,” Russian Review, 33 (1974): 2036.CrossRefGoogle Scholar