One of the most important characters of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, also known as “John the Homeless.” He appears from the very beginning to the end of the novel as a major character, but his character and journey are fascinating enough to make a huge impression on many of the bigger themes of the novel. A poet and atheist in the beginning of the book, Ivan transforms by the end of the novel into a wise, God-fearing man who has given up poetry, but is pretty much at peace and still has his own dreams of Pilate. Through his various encounters, Ivan learns a lot about himself, his relationship with the world and his fellow man, teaching readers about the problems of atheism as a philosophy. Ivan acts as the audience identification character for the novel, learning to doubt the system that he has poured so much of himself into, as well as his art – nonetheless, he also learns that there is always good in the evils of the world; moreover, he understands that the life of everyone including himself can change drastically when guided by the forces of good and evil.
Ivan learns many things over the course of the novel, as the changes he undergoes within the plot of the novel are the dramatic and hard to master for him. In his first chapter, his meeting with the satanic character Professor Woland gives him a very clear sense of doubt about to his own accomplishments and artistic value. At this point, Ivan is a poet, someone who wants to give a lot of insight into the human condition, though it seems even the narrator is unsure about Ivan’s motives:
“It was hard to say exactly what had made Bezdomny write as he had--whether it was his great talent for graphic description or complete ignorance of the subject he was writing on, but his Jesus had come out, well, completely alive, a Jesus who had really existed, although admittedly a Jesus who had every possible fault” (Bulgakov 9).
In these lines Bulgakov describes not only Ivan`s point of view about the Christianity and Jesus; but the complete view of the whole Soviet nation. Despite the fact that everyone in USSR was atheist and had to be it, everyone pictured Jesus, as an alive person and not a mythological hero. Everyone was raising the religious questions of whether the Christianity was good or bad and whether the existence of any religion is real. Ivan didn`t exactly know why he has written such a poetry; apparently, the theme was simply “ordered” by his management. Even in this prescribed antireligious work, Ivan acts like a creative person and not like an atheist; therefore, he`s told to revise his creation. Ivan’s poem of Christ is seen as realistic and detailed, in spite of Ivan’s atheistic views. He and his editor Berlioz are both atheists, which is one particular point of disagreement when Professor Woland arrives in Moscow with his friends and engages them in a talk. Ivan’s poetry was commissioned by the party, which he has trouble with in order to get “an understanding of the deeper issues of life and death” (Balasubramanian 1). Because of his struggles, he ends up writing a poem that glorifies Jesus and implies he really existed, though he was meant to be critical of Christianity: “you have written a marvelously satirical description of the birth of Jesus, the son of God But according to your story the nativity really took place!” (Bulgakov 10).
Ivan’s encounter with Woland allows him to have his first moment of doubt in the way things are. The aggressively atheist mindset Bulgakov writes about for many of the characters of the novel, including Ivan, is to clearly show how the Russia of this time was intellectually and spiritually bankrupt – he did not believe Jesus was a myth, and was offended at those who would say otherwise (Kidder 3). By denying the five proofs of the existence of God, Berlioz and others like him placed man before God in terms of who controls men’s lives. This has the effect of making Ivan doubt his own skill and reputation as a poet: “Suddenly what had delighted him yesterday as proof of his fame and popularity no longer gave the poet any pleasure at all” (Bulgakov 14). This starts him on a quest over the course of the novel to increase his sense of consciousness and awareness of the nature of the universe.
Woland’s effect on Ivan is immense. He throws into question his ability to serve the state, his own opinions about God, and even spells doom for his friend Berlioz when he accurately predicts his death by car accident. Following Woland, Koroviev and Behemoth around the city because of his confusion and curiosity, he accidentally ends up in a mental hospital – this is of no direct fault of Woland and company, but their influence is definitely felt in these circumstances. Here, Ivan learns that the difference between the negative state and the idealistic visions of the Godly are difficult to bring together. His confession of Woland being from the same time of Pontius Pilate is one of the things that lands him in an asylum. Logic is often used to get him to continue staying at the hospital, but through this break he gets to meet the Master – a subversive author who sees visions of Pilate and is an enemy of the Soviet bureaucracy. Ivan’s relationship with the Master allows him to open his eyes to the corruption and unfairness of the Soviet elite. When Master simply asked Ivan why he had appeared there, in the asylum, he had told him that it was because of Pontius Pilate and Jesus. How funny it was for Master to hear that because he was put into asylum because of the same reason, as he had burnt the manuscript of his novel, which was put to a harsh criticism by his contemporaries. He asked Ivan whether he liked his poems, and Ivan replied “No”. Master told him “Destroy them in this case”. He appealed to Ivan`s creative potential and the willing to write something that he wanted and liked. Master was the embodiment of the inspiration and new wisdom for Ivan, as he has taught him that all the writings are the representations of the writer`s mind and soul and if an author doesn`t feel and doesn`t think equally to his writings, he cannot be considered a writer in any possible way.
Ivan’s encounter with Woland allows him to see that the conditions are not good in the asylum in which he is staying with the Master. To that end, he decides to do something about it, making several important speeches highlighting the need to improve the conditions for himself and others there. His two speeches are of varying tones, showing him growing and attempting to figure out how to be a leader and influence people – before his committal, the first speech is fairly hysterical, many people confusing him for a drunk: "Brothers in literature! Listen to me, all of you! He has appeared! Seize him immediately, otherwise he will create indescribable trouble” (Bulgakov 48). However, the second time is much better and more even-tempered, as he speaks in a psych clinic: “Very well then you'll pay for this yourselves I warned you, but as you will. At the moment I'm more interested in Pontius Pilate” (Bulgakov 93). Here, drugs and hypnosis are used to deal with his problems, helping to create a duality of identity that he must deal with over the course of the novel.
There are many parallels that can be found between Ivan and the Biblical character of John the Baptist, which is interesting because of the novel’s Biblical storylines. His life as a poet is rejected three times, the same number of times Peter denied Christ (Wells 3). He has many other similarities with other disciples of the Bible, making him the ultimate trainee and learner. he has to learn the rules of the world, according to Bulgakov, in order to succeed. This happens primarily through his relationship with the Master, which is that of mentor and mentee – Ivan learns a great deal from the Master, a necessary step on the path to consciousness. Despite the staff of the psych clinic not being interested in his own sense of history (like his witnessing of the death of his friend Berlioz), he attempts to keep up his own sense of history by writing down what had happened on the previous day, although he ends up failing.
Over the course of the novel, Ivan’s relationship with the Master changes, from loyalty to distrust – eventually rejecting the beliefs of the master and everything that he is connected to. At the novel’s beginning, Ivan is the master’s apprentice, just like Levi’s relationship to Christ. Ivan is naïve and innocent, picking up on the master’s ability to see prophecy. “Ivan acquires the curse of the master, the vision of the true poet” (Bagby 29). Ivan is also a confidant to the Master, who often discusses with him his love of Margarita: "We talked as if we had parted only the day before, as if we had known each other for many years" (Bulgakov 117). Like the Master, Ivan becomes linked to things beyond the normal or natural, almost becoming insane since he is able to learn about the supernatural but not understand it (though he is able to see it).
Ivan’s relationship with the Master shows that “both folly and genius have in common the misunderstanding with the general concepts of society,” making them two halves of the same whole (Belfjore 111). This is one of the central lessons of the book – to not take the state version of history and reality at face value, but to question it and find a greater connection to the divine and the unique. Even though Ivan becomes ‘cured’ after the psych clinic, he manages to take up the Master’s place in the outside of society, focusing more on the need to follow these visions in isolation (Wells 9). He never really leaves the asylum, even though the Master and Margarita are eventually allowed to leave with Woland and crew – they have to say goodbye to Ivan first.
In one of Ivan’s final scenes in the book, we see Bulgakov’s theme that good can be found in evil. Ivan becomes a professor at the Institute of History and Philosophy, a position similar to the Master’s. Ivan is confronted by the full moon, which troubles him: “What wouldn't I give to find out his secret, to know who the Venus is that he lost and now tries vainly to catch by waving his arms in the air” (Bulgakov, 409). The full moon, by this point, is heralded by evil events, such as Judas being murdered by Pontius, Christ dying, and more. In his vision, he sees a soldier with no nose kill Gestas, a thief who was crucified alongside Jesus, something that reminds him of the evil that exists in the world. However, because of Gestas’ slow death, the fact that he is still alive points to a merciful delay in his death, which can be seen as good. Furthermore, this goodness is underlined by the vision in which Pilate makes amends with Christ and is given forgiveness in eternity. This scene showcases one of Bulgakov’s primary points in the novel, taught through Ivan – “there is a force to which we are all drawn which is good, compassionate and forgiving if we can only love selflessly and endure suffering” (Bagby 30). Ivan’s eventual openness to the divine and his ability to make peace with who he is allows him to find a better way to live with these visions.
In Ivan’s experiences, Bulgakov hopes for readers to learn quite a few things. First off, Bulgakov wishes the audience to see Ivan’s inner goodness, and the value of his artistic mind – “the poet is cursed in a bureaucratic world of pettiness and cowardice, but eternally rewarded in the next world for his qualities of goodness and honesty, compassion and understanding” (Bagby 29). To that end, Ivan’s change from cowardly fool to wise sage with the ability of prophecy is interesting, rewarding him for correcting the character mistakes he has at the beginning. At the same time, Ivan’s own negativity and doubt still happens to show up even after making these discoveries, since he just tells himself that “his extraordinary experiences were caused by ‘hypnotist-criminals’ and that he has now been cured of their insidious influence” (Kidder 16). Still, despite this, the presence of (and his belief of) his visions suggests that the spiritual part of him will always be there.
Ivan’s journey is one where he learns from the mistakes of his elders and achieves his own sense of consciousness. In the beginning, he basically works for the state. In his own sense of rebellion, he becomes institutionalized by that same state after having his whole belief system thrown into doubt. Through his interactions with the Master, his beliefs are made true, and the reader is allowed to learn more about faith, spirituality and courage through his encounters with the Master than anything really learned from Ivan. He also gets a greater appreciation for the finality of death, especially as life is linked to the narrative of a story: “Of course. It has ended. and everything has an end . . . I'll kiss you on the forehead and everything will be as it should be” (Bulgakov 409). This seems to give him a bit of peace at the end of the novel, since he resigns himself to finding happiness in the moments between his visions. He finally has his peaceful life on earth, when Master and Margarita have their peace in the outer world.
In conclusion, Ivan is educational for readers reading his tale in The Master and Margarita. According to Wells, Ivan “functions both as one of the novel's chief icons and as the bearer of one of the novel's central thematic concerns, the elaboration of Bulgakov's vision of history” (Wells 2). He is definitely an audience identification character, through which the ideas of the characters (and the author himself) can be shown and absorbed into the audience’s experience. At the beginning of the novel, he is an insecure poet who is not sure about the truth of God. By the end, his exposure to the Master gives him the ability to become more conscious of the world around him, and be open to the nature of God. Ivan’s consciousness grows over the course of the novel, always rejecting his life as a poet in favor of a more spiritually fulfilling life with the Master. Even though he is still sort of unhappy at the end of the novel, he is more aware of the spirituality around him than he was before, and has a greater understanding of the nature of life and death. Ivan’s journey basically teaches the reader that good can be found even in the toughest of troubles, and that it is always possible to find something good in your life – especially if someone is open to the possibility of the divine nature of God. Moreover, Bulgakov appeals to the readers to be more self-oriented in their ways of thinking and acting, as a person should not blindly follow the established rules, as there`s much more beyond these rules. As it was also discussed above, the balance of good and evil depicted in the novel make the readers also consider that a person`s life is always in his own hands that are guided and balanced by the higher forces of good and evil, of God and Devil.
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