What is Boiling in a Retort? The Fatal Eggs and A Heart of A Dog as Laboratory Experiments

Elena Mikhailik, University of New South Wales

In 1926 Victor Šklovskij dismissed the success of Bulgakov’s “Fatal Eggs” as the “success of an opportunely used quotation.” Since then “The Fatal Eggs” and “The Heart of a Dog” have been discussed mostly in terms of their satirical message.

However, if we consider the motif structure of The White Guard and The Master and Margarita, it could be argued that while the motif capacity of the two satirical novelettes is unequal to that of Bulgakov’s major works, it still seems to maintain many of the basic motifs of Bulgakov’s prose (e.g. motifs of home, death, betrayal, responsibility, professional work, of the besieged world-city, of the fury of the elements, of the urban phantasmagory, aggressive Soviet newspeak and the ever-present classic arias). Especially prominent in the novelettes are motifs of catastrophe.

That motif structure gains yet another dimension through the highly visible system of literary references Bulgakov employs. While the eggs of “The Fatal Eggs” are presented as a straightforward science fiction text, a local replica of “The Food of the Gods” by H. G. Wells, “The Heart of a Dog” could be perceived as a twentieth-century Soviet echo of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And The Master and Margarita, among its plethora of literary reminiscences, contains aggressive references to Goethe’s Faust, eighteenth-century picaresque novels, medieval legends of the devil, the New Testament and its apocryphal versions, and ancient Jewish demonology. It seems that the more complex and detailed Bulgakov’s description of the brave new revolutionary world grows, the more archaic become the literary sources he draws on.

In this paper I will examine the motif structure and intertextual “packaging” of “The Fatal Eggs” and “The Heart of a Dog” in their relationship with the corresponding structures of The White Guard and The Master and Margarita. I suggest that Bulgakov used his two satirical novelettes as a kind of a testing ground, a laboratory where he tried to catch the essence of the catastrophe he depicted in The White Guard, to determine the nature of a post-catastrophic society and to develop artistic devices capable of representing both that catastrophe and that society. I demonstrate that the novel The Master and Margarita incorporated the results of those experiments, and on a certain level in itself was created as a much larger experiment, as an attempt to take a bird’s-eye view of the retort basking in the light of Professor Persikov’s miraculous red ray—an experiment that questions not only the normality, but the reality of Moscow in the thirties.