Monday, April 9, 2012

Religious Imagery in The Master and Margarita? Maybe?

(I'm a little uncertain as to what book to write about, as I see nothing much about Envy here, but I'll just touch on The Master and Margarita that we started with today, as I'm enjoying that so far.)

Throughout this course, we've covered a variety of different novels that have touched on various different subjects.  However, we have not really seen much in terms of religious writing (in either direction, for or against it), with the exception of in We with the One State religion concept.  With The Master and Margarita, we now get that in a very unique and borderline whimsical manner.  Instead of using societal religious figures, such as priests or clergy members, as plot devices, Bulgakov opts for the more absurdist, fantasy-oriented, fictional method of literally bringing Satan to life in the guise of Woland, while also focusing on The Master's manuscript, which is a revised version of Jesus' trial.  With that in mind, so far, this feels very little like religious criticism.  Instead, it feels like the religious imagery is only conjured merely because Bulgakov was feeling like being creative in a manner that would be objectionable to the orthodox church at the time.

In previous literature courses, the most I've ever seen of religion being involved in a novel is that it has either served the role of oppressor, or a main character has been a sort of Christ-like figure (both sides of the same coin, I guess...).  Thus, I find this new twist on the religious theme to be quite fascinating.  The way it is integrated so far makes me feel like this is more about a "good and evil" kind of theme that will be revealed in some manner.

The 20th century literature we've read so far has been a far cry from the 19th century material.  We've now covered dystopian societies, extreme satire, the presence of a "big brother" styled state, and now this unusual religious imagery.  What does this say about the state of Russian literature in the 20th century?  Despite the fact that this novel was withheld/restricted/censored/delayed/whatever, is it a sign of social or literary progress to see how writers seemed to really push boundaries more now than ever before, especially in terms of bringing in radically fictional elements into their works?  How did 19th century works lead to the incredibly different novels we're reading now?


  1. I agree that the twist on the religious theme is fascinating. However, religion has been commonplace, a part of the way of life in Russia during the 19th century. Bulgakov and post-revolutionary writers face a problem of how to re-introduce religion into literature since it (religion) did not exist or was discouraged during the communism. While the introduction of Satan via Woland may appear absurd, I think it is actually subtle way to introduce religion into this new situation. What do you think?

  2. I think that's quite a valid point. Indeed, the absurdity does sort of distract me from the fact that what is going on may really be religious commentary.

  3. It is true that religion has been an important part of Russian literature; however, I have to agree with Andrew that this novel by Bulgakov interesting shift in religious imagery. We can argue that majority of the literature, like in many other cultures, had religious themes or were created by religious figure. Also we can argue that most literate people came from religious background, thus it was accepted that most themes would have religious themes. However, considering the novels we have read, they had religious theme, but as Andrew mentioned the themes were mostly about the “good” and “bad” rather than religious conceptions. During the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great I feel like it was a period of strong Western cultural influence. Russian literature was dominated briefly by European classicism before shifting to an equally imitative sentimentalism. Secular prose tales (mostly picaresque or satirical) grew in popularity, specially the literature from Western Europe. However, the shift in religious themes became more prominent and debated was during the communist regime, where religion was not accepted. Most people blamed the communist era for the “death of God” and this book brings up very important theme as “who will rule”—man or God? Although religious themes were present in Russian literature, the post-revolutionary brought the importance of religion in their lives and society.

  4. I agree with Andrew in this post that this novel is definitely a new twist on the religious imagery we have seen so far in the course. Bringing in the absurd makes the novel seem far from reality, a break from what is happening during the time period, but subtly brings in social commentary. I think particularly interesting is the interactions between religious characters. Seeing Woland's views of Jesus among others gave us insight and stretched our minds from the clear "good" and "evil" concepts that have been so overused.