The acts of the devil Woland and his retinue in Moscow seem, at first sight, to be carried out for no reason. From the beginning, when Woland predicts the unlikely circumstances of Berlioz's beheading, to the end, when Behemoth stages a shoot-out with the entire police force, there seems to be no motivation other than sheer mischief. Much of what happens seems to be absurd. But when you look deeper into it, it doesn't appear to be that absurd. Or at least not more absurd than reality itself.
Absurdism is a philosophy holding that humans exist in a meaningless, irrational universe, that it is impossible to explain in a rational way why there is life and that all efforts meant to explain the essentials of the universe are doomed to fail. According to the absurdists human suffering is the result of wasted efforts of individuals to find a reason or a meaning in the absurd kloof chasm of existence. At first sight The Master and Margarita seems to have absurdist characteristics.
After a while, though, their trickery reveals a pattern of preying upon the greedy, who think they can reap benefits they have not earned, just because they served the power without asking questions. For example, when a bribe is given to the chairman of the tenants' association, Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, Woland tells Korovyev to «fix it so that he doesn't come here again». Bosoy is then arrested, which punishes him for exploiting his position. Similarly, the audience attending Woland's black magic show is delighted by a shower of money only to find out the next day that they are holding blank paper, while the women who thought they were receiving fine new clothes later find themselves in the streets in their underwear. These deceptions appear mean-spirited and pointless, but the victims in each case are blinded by their interest in material goods and dropped all previously cherised moral values as soon as they had the opportunity to benefit from it.
Absurdity in real life
Bulgakov's life was highly influenced by Stalin's regime, which also can be called absurd. The following story is only one of the dozens of examples.
Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) once ordered to arrest a mine director. The mine had collapsed and Stalin suspected the director of sabotage. «Sabotage» is a word that was often used in the Soviet Union when megalomaniac projects appeared to be unfeasable. The director was interrogated and tortured, and he «confessed». He would have acted under orders of the German government. When the chief of police reported this, Stalin didn' believe it. Because, for one reason or another, he was convinced that not the German, but the French government was the culprit.
So he ordered to «interrogate» the director again. This time, the man «confirmed» Stalin's version. What's more, he recognized that he had tried to mislead Stalin by first blaming the Germans for it. Such examples were common practice in the Soviet Union in that time.
The people often reacted in an absurd way too. It can be seen in many situations in the novel, sometimes in the details. When, for example, Woland calls Mogarych - the man who had taken the master's basement when he was in the psychiatric hospital - he was «in nothing but his underwear, though with a suitcase in his hand for some reason and wearing a cap». It looks like an absurd detail, but it refers to the fact that under the Stalin terror many soviet citizens had always a suitcase ready with the most necessary things, just in case of un unexpected visit from the secret police at night.
Your guide through the novel
In this section are explained, per chapter, all typical notions, names of people and places, quotations and expressions from the novel with a description of the political, social, economical and cultural context.