The themes of science and scientific innovation dominate several works of Bulgakov, himself a well-known physician and academic. In Heart of a Dog specifically, two of the main characters are doctors—Professor Preobrazhensky and his assistant, Dr. Bormenthal. Moreover, the novel revolves around their experiment in transplantation—that is, moving the pituitary and testes of a 25-year-old man into the body of the dog Sharik. While this experiment was initially intended to test the rejuvenatory properties of organ transplant, however, the end result is the discovery of the hypophysis as a repository of both personal and anatomical information. The fact of the matter is, though Professor Preobrazhensky and Dr. Bormenthal wanted to test the limits of scientific progress, their choice to play God has unintended consequences—that is, the creation of the dubious and callous Polygraph Polygraphovich. This truth provides a great deal of evidence to suggest that Bulgakov rejects the overreach of science into the natural order of things and, by extension, the attempts of the Soviet state to reform humanity into a more efficient and community-based lifestyle. The fact that Professor Preobrazhensky and Dr. Bormenthal choose to return Sharik to canine form at the end of the novel underscores the weight of this point: even the scientist himself comes to spurn too much scientific advancement.
Class Difference and Class Tension
This theme is showcased throughout the whole story, most strongly in the comparisons made between Professor Preobrazhensky (and those in his immediate circle) and those he encounters within mainstream Russian society. While the professor dines on caviar, soup, and wine, for example, the female typist who struggles throughout the novel is only able to fill her stomach with cheap, trashy corned beef. Similarly, while the professor always dresses smartly, the proletarian Polygraph Polygraphovich dresses very gaudily and cheaply. More substantially, however, consider the tensions that underly the relationship between the professor—a bourgeois, old-money type—and the two important lower-class figures in the novel—that is, Polygraph Polygraphovich and Shvonder. In the professor's relationships with both these figures, there is constant angling on both sides to ensure that one is right, and the other is not. There is real hatred between the classes in the Russian society depicted in the novel, and it boils down to a turning point in history in which two ideas are colliding—the new, Bolshevik thought of the masses and the old thought of the aristocracy.
The Corruption of the Soviet State
One of the central themes discussed both explicitly and implicitly within the text is the corruption of the Soviet governing apparatus. Explicitly, the text shows us how corrupt the Soviet state is by demonstrating on multiple occasions how far the state is willing to go in contradicting itself ideologically—sacrificing socialist ideals in order to serve and protect those who are in its favor. For example, consider when Professor Preobrazhensky, a well-connected and famous surgeon both inside and outside of Russia, is able to manipulate the law in service of his own welfare, both when he calls Shvonder's superior (27–29) and towards the novel's close when he is told of Polygraph Polygraphovich's accusations by a friend in military clothing (115–116). Were the state not corrupt or acting in betrayal of its ideals, the doctor would not receive such preferential treatment.
The Failures of Soviet Ideology
Intrinsically linked to both the theme of class difference and the theme of governmental corruption in the Soviet Union is the theme of Soviet ideology's failure. As part of his enterprise to shed light on the simultaneous existence of two diametrically opposed classes in Russia (i.e., the lingering bourgeois class and the proletariat), Bulgakov does not hesitate to show us every last detail of how Soviet revolutionary thought has failed and led to the destitution of the masses. For example, when we hear about the typist at the beginning of the novel, we hear not just of how her diet is poor, but also how she goes cold in the winter, how her lover mistreats her, and even of how restaurant owners are overcharging for food. This picture, as well as the pictures of corruption detailed above, are both mobilized in support of a larger image—that is, the ways in which the failures and limits of Soviet thinking have produced stagnation and desperation for the mainstream Russian populace.
Another theme that is discussed at length throughout the novel is that of essentialism—that is, whether certain objects or entities have unchangeable natures intrinsic to that object or entity. For example, Professor Preobrazhensky is firm in his attacks on Polygraph Polygraphovich's attempts at assimilation into Soviet society: such attempts, he argues, seek to undermine the fundamental truth that Polygraph was and always will be a dog. Moreover, the novel's location of individual identity and agency in the hypophysis (pituitary gland) provides additional evidence that at least Professor Preobrazhensky (if not Bulgakov himself) is convinced of the truth of essentialist philosophy.
Gossip and the Rumor Mill
Another theme that is repeated throughout the novel is that of visibility within the public eye, the spread of rumors, and the networks that support gossip. When Professor Preobrazhensky first performs the experiment on Sharik, for example, witnesses from the street and neighbors are quick to speculate about what they witnessed. A similar commotion ensues after Polygraph Polygraphovich's destruction of the faucet and pursuit of the neighbor's cat. Another swell in rumors is seen at the end of the novel, when Zina's account of burned patient logs—combined with similar witness accounts from the street and general hearsay—seem to suggest that Dr. Bormenthal and Professor Preobrazhensky have murdered Polygraph Polygraphovich. In each case, one sees that, in Soviet Russia, rumor is a powerful force that can either work wonders for one (i.e., in getting people interested in and attracted to Professor Preobrazhensky's practice) or work terribly against one (i.e., in the case of the rumors that lead authorities to accuse Professor Preobrazhensky of murder).
In Professor Preobrazhensky's attacks on Sharik/Polygraph Polygraphovich, there is near constant derision on account of the latter's status as a dog—that is, as something that is fundamentally not human. This distinction between what is fundamentally human and what is not comes to undergird a large portion of the novel. For example, in a notable quote at the novel's end, Professor Preobrazhensky says that speech alone is not essentially human, and that the ability to speak does not make one a human being. What, however, are the qualities which distinguish an animal from a human being? The novel seems to provide us with a couple of specific answers. First, the novel seems to suggest that human nature is at least in part comprised of a series of inherited and learned behaviors, as is canine nature—this is why, for example, Polygraph Polygraphovich is unable to stop himself from chasing after a cat even after his initial transformation. Second, Professor Preobrazhensky's attitude towards humanity and the arts (especially towards opera when compared with something like the circus) seems to suggest that the two are meaningfully related in some way—that is, being human (or at least a proper human) also consists of appreciating a specific type of culture or art, which non-humans or improper humans (like Sharik and Shvonder) fail to do. Of course, each of these factors is set up to subtly reject the behaviors and radical revisionism that Bolshevik thought attempted to establish in Russia in the early and mid-1920s.
Heart of a Dog Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Heart of a Dog is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.