Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was first published in 1957, not in Pasternak’s homeland, the Soviet Union, but rather in Italy. Pasternak’s manuscript for this novel had to be written in secrecy and then smuggled out of the Soviet Union because of government censorship of Pasternak’s work. Pasternak, as the author espouses through his protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, in this his only novel, believed that art should not be enslaved by politics and thus criticized his oppressive government through his writing.
Doctor Zhivago is an epic work that provides several fictionalized eye-witness accounts of the upheaval in Russia as the tsar is deposed, communism rises from the revolution, and a Marxist government attempts to take control. Doctor Zhivago is also a love story of a man torn between two women—his wife, Tonia, and the beautiful Lara with whom Yuri has an affair. This novel explores the idealism of its protagonist, which is contrasted with the brutal reality of war and its effects on ordinary citizens. This work of fiction is also a philosophical treatise on life, religion, and art as expressed by its protagonist. Finally, Pasternak, who was also a poet, wrote Doctor Zhivago in a particularly lyrical style. Much of the text reads like poetry.
Critics, over the years, have had trouble classifying the work since in certain ways it does not conform to the conventions regarding novels. Pasternak often introduces characters who quickly disappear. The author often jumps forward in the story before solving present mysteries and sometimes focuses more on language and philosophical thought than on developing the plot line.
Despite some of these characteristics, Doctor Zhivago draws readers inside the lives and thoughts of its characters, their hopes and frustrations, their disappointments and their passions as they live through the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union, as a new world order under communism is attempted. One of the messages that Doctor Zhivago delivers is that some dreams are never realized.
Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for this novel. First published in Italian, the work was translated into many different languages and its story served as the basis for film and television dramas. After Pasternak died in 1960, the novel was finally accepted into the Russian literary canon.