The novel opens on a cold winter's day in Moscow in the year 1924. A dog is perishing in a gateway from both the cold and burn marks that have been left on his left side by a cook who threw boiling water at him. The dog laments his condition at length, but mentions a variety of things like his hatred for a particular person who sings "Celeste Aida" from a balcony, as well as a different cook in the Prechistenka who offered dogs scraps and saved many lives.
A young woman typist suddenly passes the dog in the gate. The dog thinks to himself about how this woman, a normal member of the Russian working class, is unable to feed herself well on anything besides cheap corned beef from the public mess hall. Moreover, he notices her lace panties and thinks of her aggressive lover who will not allow her to wear anything warmer. The woman addresses the dog briefly as "Sharik" (little ball), but she eventually flees the gateway on account of the cold and an encroaching stomachache.
Across the street, Sharik notices a gentleman leave a shop. As he approaches, Sharik notices in his eyes that this is a man of true character and grace, not just an average proletarian. Sharik, noticing that the man has a package of sausage in his pocket, tries to get the man's attention. Eventually, the man notices Sharik, offers him some Krakow sausage (also addressing him as "Sharik" while he does so), and asks Sharik to follow him when he realizes that the dog does not have a collar. On the way to the man's apartment, Sharik scares off a stray tom cat in order to "protect" the gentleman he is with. Upon arriving to the man's place on Obukhov Lane, Sharik initially is worried about the doorman driving him out, but he is shocked to find that this doorman, Fyodor, will not dare challenge the authority of the gentleman. The gentleman, named Philip Philippovich, then ascends to his apartment with Sharik, but on the way, he is told by Fyodor about some new tenants who have moved into the building. The news of these tenants, who plan to erect partitions and move more people into the building's apartments, angers Philip Philippovich and causes him to wistfully think of different times.
Chapter 2 opens with a brief discussion of Sharik's cognitive faculties—specifically, his ability to read. Sharik first learned to associate colors of signs with certain materials sold in shops, and then learned to associate shapes in the signs' lettering with those materials when this became insufficient and faulty. We hear of a variety of associations that Sharik has made in order to survive on the streets, like how stale hams hanging in a store's window mean groceries are sold at that location.
Our attention then shifts back to Sharik in the narrative present, just as he arrives with Philip Philippovich at his apartment. Sharik remarks that the man's card has an odd profession listed (heavily implied and later revealed to be "professor"), and he mentions that this profession and the man's smell are distinctly non-proletarian. The man welcomes Sharik into the apartment by calling him "Mr. Sharik," and the dog is amazed to see the luxuries in the man's foyer (13). A woman appears and gently chides the professor for having brought home a mangy dog, but the professor simply tells this woman to get Sharik into the examination room. As the woman, named Zina, obligingly leads Sharik to the exam room, Sharik begins to recognize the medical sights and smells, and he thinks that he has been tricked into a dog hospital. He launches himself at the examination window, shattering the glass, and causes a stir as he tries to escape. The professor and Zina attempt to stop Sharik, but eventually another man comes in with a noxious liquid that knocks Sharik out.
When Sharik comes to, he notices that his side has been patched up. He also notices the injured leg of the man who knocked him out, and thinks to himself that he must have bitten him. The bitten man asks the professor how he could have possibly gotten such an unruly dog to follow him. The professor replies that it was through kindness alone; other domination styles (such as by fear), he remarks, will never work on a dog or any other living thing. Zina comments on how the professor has fed Sharik sausage of too high quality, but the professor rebuffs her sharply and disappears into his office with Sharik in tow. Once in his office, the professor takes on an even more dignified air, and Sharik notices a strange owl sitting on a twig protruding from the wall. The bitten man, named Dr. Bormenthal, who Sharik notices is extremely handsome and young, assists the professor and brings in his patients. The professor's patients are sundry and strange. A man comes in with green hair; the professor has seemingly helped this man reverse his aging process and appear much younger than he actually is. Following this man, an older woman comes in and wants to have children, so the professor says that they will transplant a monkey's ovaries into her.
Later that evening, four guests show up at the professor's door. These are the new tenants that Fyodor mentioned, and though they all appear to be young men, one is in fact a young woman dressed like a man. The leader introduces himself as Shvonder, and he pushes the professor to talk about the rooms he has in his apartment. They mention that they are the new housing committee of the building, and they order the professor to relinquish some of his luxurious and numerous rooms to let other people move into the building. The professor refuses, and when Shvonder threatens to lodge a formal complaint against the professor, he calls Pyotr Alexandrovich (the housing committee head) on the phone and complains himself about these intruding guests. The professor then puts Shvonder on the phone with Pyotr Alexandrovich, which embarrasses him greatly. The woman persists in trying to get the professor (whose surname is Preobrazhenksy; literally "transfiguration") to yield, but Shvonder and the others are too embarrassed. The woman accuses Professor Preobrazhenksy of hating the proletariat, which he confesses to boldly. The housing committee then leaves in silence while Preobrazhenksy has Zina bring in his supper.
These opening chapters of the novel adeptly foreground and establish many of the central concerns of the novel. Moreover, through careful foreshadowing, rich imagery, and delectable irony, Bulgakov here not only crystallizes the novel's satirical tone, but also reveals the essential character traits of many of the story's characters.
The foreshadowing in these opening chapters is quite notable in hindsight, but it is likely to go unnoticed upon a first read of the novel. For example, when Sharik mentions how annoying it is to hear "Celeste Aida" sung from the balcony, we are later shocked to see that the person he was likely critiquing is Professor Preobrazhensky himself—later revealed to be a big fan of Aida. When Sharik is greeted at first by the woman in the gateway, readers have no way of anticipating that she will be seduced by Sharik as a human at the novel's end. While Sharik first encounters the professor by a sign which reads "IS REJUVENATION POSSIBLE?", we later see that this is no coincidence, since the professor's specialty and chief interests seems to lie in rejuvenation—specifically, the healing potential of transplants. Of course, however, this is not all. Professor Preobrazhenksy's very name references the eventual transformation of Sharik that will take place. His greeting that beckons the dog into his apartment on page 13 references the dog's eventual transformation into a man (albeit not a very genteel one). Finally, the professor's own patients and their interest in rejuvenation is an early cue that a similar procedure will be tested on Sharik. More than just adding elements of foreshadowing, however, note that many of these details also contributes to an air of facetiousness or absurdity in the text. By the time that all of these unlikely coincidences fall into place, and by the time that we as readers have had a moment to be struck by the oddity of the professor's preoccupations with opera and surgery, we are hit doubly by their comedic effect. Foreshadowing in the opening chapters thus works not just as a plot device, but also as a tool to establish the novel's prevailing mood and genre.
The imagery in the opening chapters, much like the chapters' foreshadowing, is also deployed variously, subtly, and successfully. Imagery of the harsh winters of Moscow provides us with a particularly desperate circumstance for Sharik; nonetheless, the ultimate goal of establishing the inhospitality of the season is not to make us focus on Sharik. Rather, we are made through Sharik's desperate eyes to see just how destitute the Russian populace is during the early Soviet period. For example, Sharik comments that the corned beef eaten by the typist is unthinkably disgusting, even to a dog in his circumstances. Moreover, the way in which Professor Preobrazhenksy is made to stand out to Sharik—based on his smell, bearing, and clothing—also reinforces his status as an exception to the rule, a relic of the bourgeois aristocracy made even more striking because the members of the impoverished proletariat greatly outnumber him. Finally, the description of Professor Preobrazhenksy's home focuses immensely on the luxury of the place; this, too, cements Professor Preobrazhenksy as an exception to the normal rules and functions of the Soviet state. In later chapters, too, imagery will be a key device by which Bulgakov establishes the traits of his characters and subtly critiques both bourgeois manners and proletarian ethics. Its deployment in these opening chapters, then, serves as a neat and handy introduction that cues readers to notice these later appearances of striking imagery.
One final thing that is particularly revelatory in these opening chapters is the use of irony. The strongest example of irony in these opening chapters comes in the scene where Shvonder and the others on the house committee approach Professor Preobrazhenksy about redistributing his property and wealth. Whereas they expect the professor to easily yield to the pressure and authority of the State, he rebuffs them viciously and calls their superior, who protects the professor despite his bourgeois excesses. This main irony—that the professor is protected by a State that ought to despise him—winds up fueling the main class conflict of the novel (i.e., between him and Shvonder), and it also drives several aspects of the main plot (i.e., Professor Preobrazhenksy becoming aware of the accusations that Sharik will later levy against him). Moreover, this irony is in itself an accusation against the Soviet state—showing that, despite its ideological purity and harsh governance, their philosophies are just as empty as the previous regime's.
In these opening chapters then, a solid groundwork has been laid for readers to understand both the plot and aesthetic project of the novel to follow. It is a fitting overture, a delicately crafted riddle answered in time, and a strong indictment of contemporary society, all in one.