Yurii Zhivago, a ten-year-old boy, attends his mother’s funeral. His uncle, Nikolai Nikolaievich Vedeniapin, consoles him. After the funeral, Yurii spends the night in a monastery room. He does not know that his father has deserted his family. His father’s business was once extensive; then, suddenly, all was gone. Yurii is very fond of his uncle, a former priest who later becomes a famous writer, university professor, and scholar of the revolution and who believes in strong individuals.
Three years later, Yurii experiences spells of unconsciousness while grieving and praying for his mother’s soul—indicative of an early inclination to mysticism. His father, Andrei Zhivago, commits suicide while traveling on a train. His lawyer, Victor Komarovsky, who was traveling with him at the time, maintains that Zhivago was an alcoholic and killed himself in a fit of alcoholic withdrawal.
As Yurii is growing up, his uncle places him to live with the Gromeko family and their daughter, Tonia. Some young men around them are revolutionaries, including Pasha Antipov. Amalia Guischar, the French widow of a Russian general, opens a dressmaking shop in Moscow. She is supported by Komarovsky, who succeeds in seducing her sixteen-year-old daughter Lara. Pasha Antipov falls in love with Lara. Amalia attempts suicide because of Komarovsky. Yurii, now a medical student, accompanies the doctor who treats her. As a result, Yurii sees Lara for the first time.
Although Lara is flattered by her affair with Komarovsky, she is also perturbed by it and is trying to break it off, but Komarovsky persists. When her brother Rodia needs money he has gambled away, Komarovsky offers to give Lara the money Rodia needs but only if she asks for it. Realizing that he will likely keep blackmailing her forever, Lara attempts to kill Komarovsky at a Christmas party, where Yurii is also present. She is placed with a helpful family and she manages to finish a school for teachers. She marries Pasha, but not before she tells him everything, which changes his life decisively. They decide to go to Yuriatin, in the Urals. Yurii is fascinated by mingling with people from the lower levels of society. He has also begun to write poetry. He marries Tonia Gromeko and their first child is born shortly before World War I.
After the war erupts, Yurii, who has become a doctor, joins the army. The Antipovs and their daughter Katenka are doing well in Yuriatin, but their marriage is not without problems. Each tries to behave more nobly, but Pasha is having second thoughts, thinking of divorce, yet he loves Lara more than ever. After many sleepless nights, he decides to join the army, thus solving the dilemma. When he stops writing, Lara sets out to look for him, having joined the army as a nurse.
Yurii is wounded by an artillery shell and meets Lara again in the hospital. She does not have favorable impressions of him. Yurii’s friends have published his book of poetry without his permission. The news about the revolution in Petersburg reaches him. He and Lara are often brought together in the hospital. He writes to Tonia about Lara, making his wife jealous, but he tells her he does not even know where her room is. Yurii observes the disintegration and anarchy in the growing chaos of the country. This reinforces his early favorable attitude toward the revolution and his hopes for a solution and a better life. He also shows the first inklings of his infatuation with Lara, but she soon leaves. So does Yurii. On the train to Moscow, he muses about Tonia, his sympathy for the seemingly inevitable revolution by the Bolsheviks, Lara, and the future of Russia.
Back in Moscow in the fall of 1917, Yurii’s son slaps him, frightened by his beard, showing how estranged they have become. Life is much harsher and full of scarcities. People are taking sides, and Yurii feels alone. He still hopes for betterment, but he is no longer sure. The revolution gathers momentum. Dealing with patients, Yurii contracts typhus. Suddenly, his half-brother Evgraf appears and helps...