Chapter 1: “Never Speak to Strangers”
As the story opens, it is a hot spring evening and Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, the chair of the board of a Moscow literary society Massolit, is walking near the Patriarch’s Pond with Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, a poet who uses the pseudonym “Homeless.” Berlioz is reprimanding Ivan for the poem he has commissioned for his magazine: it was supposed to deny that Jesus Christ ever existed, but instead it merely it vilifies him. Berlioz discusses common elements of religions through history as an extremely tall, thin, unusual-looking man approaches them. It is the philosopher Woland, whom the reader will later learn is the devil. They assume he is a foreigner until he asks to join their conversation in perfect Russian.
The stranger engages the two men and questions their atheism, invoking the writings of philosopher Immanuel Kant, among others, mentioning that he had recently had a discussion over breakfast with Kant. That and other bizarre comments lead Berlioz and Homeless to suspect that he is crazy. Woland points out that men are at times “unexpectedly moral,” meaning that they could die at any time, so they cannot accurately predict what they will be doing that very evening. He even foreshadows Berlioz’s death in chillingly accurate detail – but at this point, Ivan and Berlioz still assume he is just ranting.
Ivan dislikes Woland immediately, and accuses him of being insane. Woland calls Ivan by his full name, although Ivan has not yet revealed it, and produces a copy of his recently published verses. The two Russians pull away from the stranger to try to determine his identity. They decide he is some sort of spy, but when they return, Woland somehow has knowledge of what they talked about in their private conversation. He introduces himself as a Professor of black magic and history. He then reminds them that Jesus truly did exist, and embarks upon a tale recounting Jesus’ final hours.
Chapter 2: “Pontius Pilate”
The second chapter, which the reader knows is the story as told by Woland to Berlioz and Ivan, opens at the palace of Herod in Jeruslaem on the eve of Passover. Pontius Pilate, the Procurator of Judea, has been suffering from a severe headache and is extremely bothered by the smell of rose oil, which seems to be following him. Yeshua Ha-Nozri (which means Jesus the Nazarene) is brought before him, accused of inciting the people of Jerusalem to destroy the temple. Pilate questions Yeshua about these allegations. When Yeshua calls him “good man,” Pilate insists that he is to be called “Hegemon,” and orders the centurion Mark Rat-Killer to beat him.
The questioning continues, and Pilate becomes annoyed with Yeshua, who answers his questions honestly. Yeshua explains how Matthu Levi follows him around, scribbling on a parchment things that Yeshua has never said. Pilate is intrigued when Yeshua somehow knows about why is unhappy, both at this moment in time and with his life in general: he even knows that Pilate just wants to be with his dog. Pilate does not want to condemn Yeshua, but when he asks Yeshua about his conversation with Yehudah of Kerioth (Judas), he realizes he cannot free him. Yehudah had set him up, and asked him in front of hidden guards what his views were on state authority. When Yeshua said that he believed “that a time will come when there shall be neither Caesars, nor any other rulers.” Pilate knows that anyone who publicly and openly undermines the authority of Julius Caesar must be punished.
Along with the high priest Joseph Kaifa (Ciaphus), Pilate addresses the crowd gathered beneath the palace in Greek, and asks who the Sanhedrin (high temple) wishes to free on the eve of this great holiday: the robber Bar-Rabban or Yeshua Ha-Norzri? Although he has already confirmed Yeshua’s sentence himself, Pilate asks Kaifa three times to confirm that it is indeed Bar-Rabban who is to be freed. There is a private quarrel between the two men over this decision, but Pilate feels powerless to reverse it. Pilate takes a moment to speak to Aphranius, but the reader does not yet know the man’s name, only that his “face was half-concealed by his hood, although the sun’s rays could not possibly disturb him in this room.” The decision is announced, and Pilate, unable to look at the group of prisoners, leaves the scene as troops assemble to make preparations for the day’s executions.
Before the sighting of the stranger, who turns out to be Professor Woland, we encounter the first instance of the metaphor of a needle through the heart. Berlioz stops hiccuping from the apricot soda he has just imbibed, because “his heart thumped and dropped somewhere for a second, then returned, but with a blunt needle stuck in it.” He is overtaken by fear, since he is about to be approached by the devil, who will predict (and perhaps even bring about) his freak death.
The narrator uses the technique of direct address, and begins the confusing characterization of himself as a storyteller with a distinct personality, and unclear range of knowledge. Throughout the story there is incongruity between an omniscient narrator, who knows the characters’ thoughts, and a narrator who is a character himself with limited knowledge, sometimes only hearsay. In Chapter 1, he uses direct address to describe Berlioz’s reaction to the stranger: “Well, perhaps it was not so much that he liked him, but how shall I put it… was intrigued by him, I guess.”
Language that refers to the devil is used throughout the book, as if the characters somehow know whose presence they are in. In Chapter 1, it is also used to reveal to the reader who the stranger is before the two Russian men realize it. Homeless thinks to himself, “What the devil does he want?” And “The devil… have you ever!…”
In Chapter 2, the character of the secretary is used as comic relief during Yeshua’s hearing. His reactions serve as benchmarks in Yeshua’s testimony and the effect it is having. When Yeshua denies intending to destroy the Temple, the secretary is astonished. When Yeshua tells how Matthu Levi first called him a dog, but how he finds no offense in that term, the secretary looks to Pilate to see his reaction. When Yeshua talks about Pilate’s headache, the secretary stares at him “with bulging eyes;” when he begins to predict the storm and speaks to Pilate as an equal, the secretary “turned deathly pale and dropped the scroll on the floor.”
Chapter 2 introduces the world of Pontius Pilate, which exists in the stories of Woland, the devil, and as the manuscript of the Master. The two realities are combined, and the world seems to also exist simultaneously with the world of Moscow, where the main story takes place. Of course, Pontius Pilate’s world resembles the story of Good Friday and Easter in the New Testament of the Bible, but there are very important inconsistencies: for instance, Matthu Levi being a follower who makes up stories about Yeshua, rather than a relater of the truth.
The sun marks the days events, and will play an important role in the passage of time throughout the worlds of the different stories. In Chapter 2, it is personified as “scorching Yershalayim during those days with extraordinary fury.” When it becomes clear that Yeshua knows what is going on in Pilate’s mind, Pilate notices that “the sun was already quite high over the hippodrome, that a ray had penetrated under the colonnade and was creeping up to Yeshua’s worn sandals, and that he was trying to step out of the sun.” After Kaiyapha tells Pilate for the third time that he will not have Yeshua released, “the firey sphere was almost overhead.”