Doctor Zhivago is the final statement of a writer who lived a full and complex artistic life. Boris Pasternak’s father was an accomplished painter, and his mother was a concert pianist. Leo Tolstoy and the composer Aleksandr Scriabin were family friends. Pasternak pursued music in youth but then turned to poetry, a career for which he prepared by studying philosophy at Marburg University. Born of Jewish parents, Pasternak was influenced both by the theology of his ancestors and by Christianity. Though he was relatively free of religious dogma, he was strongly persuaded of the reality of spiritual life, to which, he felt, the artistic impulse was closely related. It is not surprising that Doctor Zhivago is a vivid yet complicated and somewhat uneven work.
To observe that Doctor Zhivago is a poet’s novel is commonplace but nevertheless instructive. Even the work’s English translations include remarkably lyric passages that reflect Pasternak’s deep love for his native land. The sketches of many people as they live Russian lives early in the twentieth century are especially notable in the first part of the work. Through both parts, there are expressions of opinion, wisely made to come from several of the novel’s characters, that reflect the subtle intelligence of the author. The poems of Yurii Zhivago, which conclude the novel, are intended to be an integral part of the whole, exhibiting qualities one might expect of a ranking Russian poet of his century.
On the other hand, there is evidence that Doctor Zhivago is the work of a writer who was not thoroughly sure of the novelist’s craft. Characters are sometimes drawn with enough care to be memorable only to be more-or-less forgotten. Various incidents in the book are connected to others in ways that are somewhat clumsy. In a writer without Pasternak’s ability to make readers suspend disbelief, the coincidences whereby important characters are not only linked but also linked repeatedly and improbably would seem strange. The love story of Zhivago and Lara, surrounded by the circumstances of ordinary life in a more familiar world, would seem too sentimental.
The novel’s central concern is the love story of Yurii and Lara. Yurii repeatedly expresses his undying love for Lara even though he is also in love with Tonia. This may seem incongruous, but in a complex character such as Yurii everything is possible. Moreover, he identifies Lara with Russia, thus combining his love for both. At the same time, Yurii is unselfish, as when he allows Lara to go away with Komarovsky, believing that it will be better for her to do so. The story of Yurii and Lara, sentimental though it may be, is one of the greatest love stories in Russian literature.
The novel is also concerned with the nature of life and death, as expressed in Yurii’s thoughts on the subject. For him, life is to be lived, not prepared for. Life is continually being reborn even in death, thus making death an integral part of life. In these thoughts and in many other ways, Yurii is connected to Christian idealism. His feelings about life are also related to his thinking about Marxism and revolution in general....
(The entire section is 1308 words.)