Let me preface what I have to say with some comments about how I approach any book, including this one. I feel that a book should stand on its own. It should not require reading additional material in order for the book to become comprehensible to the reader. Nor should it require reading the analysis of an “expert” for the reader to be informed of the book's merits or what the reader should get out of it. So my comments only reflect reading the text itself, including the the introduction [Pevear and Volokhonsky translation] and footnotes. The latter two helped provide insight into the book, but I did not look at any of the links suggested in this thread. So to begin . . .
Overall I found the writing alternating between brilliant (most often in the chapters pertaining to Pontius Pilate) and rather tedious (e.g. I feel most of Chapter 21 could have been removed with no loss), but the book not only had no plot, but no consistent narrative. What I took away over all was an absurd satire of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, when ones life could be elevated or destroyed seemingly for no good cause, and Bulgakov's putting in writing his revenge fantasies against those who hindered his career.
Certainly the drawing in of the story of Goethe's Faust was obvious, but twisted around. Now it is Gretchen (Margarita) who makes a pact with Satan for the benefit of Faust (The Master). The Master is a rather passive figure thorough out, no? Not sure what I was supposed to make of all of that.
There were all sort of references in this book that I caught, but I guess I am just not literary minded enough to make sense of them. A couple of examples.
When Pontius Pilate is first introduced (Chapter 2) the point is made that he hates the smell of roses. Later when The Master first meets Margarita he tells her his favorite flower is the rose (Chapter 13) and still later in preparation for Satan's ball Margarita is doused with rose oil (Chapter 23). Meaning what if anything?
When Rimsky is threatened by zombies and vampires he is save not just by sunrise, but sunrise heralded by the cock crowing three times. An obvious reference to:
“Before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times”. Matthew 26:30-35
But what is the significance?
Like I say, of a literary bent beyond me.
I don't know if anyone else thought this might be so, but when I read Chapter 25 I thought Pontius Pilate might have been in part an allegory for Stalin. But not the Stalin as seen from the Western point of view, but a morally ambivalent Stalin as in Bulgakov's eyes.