Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
The main character, Yuri Zhivago, starts out as a young man in unremarkable times, the turn of the twentieth century in Russia. History has other plans, however, for both Zhivago and Russia. The plot of Doctor Zhivago concerns the disruption of civilization as a result of cataclysmic events in history. The first scenes take place during the period of peace preceding the first Russian revolution of 1905. Soon, however, the revolution insinuates itself into Zhivago’s experience. By the time of World War I, he is a doctor and works on the front. During the civil war, he is kidnapped by the White Army and made to serve among them. He escapes, but fate calls him back to Moscow, where he dies in a streetcar, of a bursting—broken—heart.
Much of the plot revolves around fate. The young Yuri becomes a doctor as he had planned and marries his intended bride, showing that will can be successfully exerted; but war, revolution, famine, and the Russian Civil War first displace him from his home, then send his family beyond his reach, and eventually breaks his life apart. In the warp between will and fate, he begins to understand the difference between living in a role that is made for one in life and living itself. In Siberia, he joins another woman, Lara, while still married to his wife, Tonia; he learns that here, far from the strictures of the city’s quotidian existence and polite society, he has at last a soul mate, someone, who like him, looks to...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Moscow. Russia’s greatest city, in which the two most important families in the novel, the Zhivagos and the Gromekos, lead a life of privilege. Yuri Zhivago, the son of a late profligate millionaire, is a young doctor with a bright future. Tonia Alexandrovna, a friend of his early youth and his future wife, belongs to a well-to-do family with an estate in the Ural Mountains. Zhivago is bent on ministering to the needy, while Tonia is a typical wife in love with her husband and supporting him in every way. There is another woman, Lara, whom Zhivago meets coincidentally in Moscow during a patient visit. He gradually falls in love with Lara, who comes from an impoverished family. She is drawn into a love affair with an older man, a lawyer named Khomarovsky, whom she tries to kill at a Christmas party given by another well-to-do family. Thus the paths of the two classes—the wealthy upper class and that of the poorer inhabitants of Moscow—are interwoven, auguring the fateful events that eventually overwhelm Russia. Through the depiction of the affair between Yuri and Lara, Pasternak shows the diverse makeup of Moscow along with the willingness of a member of the upper class to mix freely with those less privileged.
When revolution reaches Moscow, the well-to-do citizens are threatened with a loss of their privileges. In addition to shortages and deprivations of all kinds, homes and apartments are requisitioned by the military,...
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Karl Marx (1818–1883)
Pasternak studied philosophy in school while he was in Germany and was interested, as many students were at that time, in the writings of Karl Marx, a German philosopher who supported the working class and whose ideas fueled the socialist movement that began in the early twentieth century and swept across the world.
In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) Marx contrasted the different approaches to labor under a capitalist government and a communist one. In Marx’s ideal communist environment, laborers worked in a cooperative in which all shared equally in the benefits. Together with Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), Marx published a book from which many revolutionists took their ideas. The Communist Manifesto (1847) contained all of Marx’s beliefs about the nature of a communist society. This book was written in a simple language, unlike some of Marx’s other works. The publication quickly became very popular and was said to be one of the instigations of revolutions that began sweeping across Europe. Marx’s most extensive work, on which he devoted the latter years of his life, was the three-volume Das Kapital in which Marx delineated a capitalist society and its effects upon workers. Volumes one and two were published in 1885. After Marx’s death, Engels put together Marx’s notes and published the third volume in 1895.
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The Classic Russian Novel
Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was written at the end of what many critics refer to as the golden age of Russian literature. Although the novel differs in some ways from the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, there are enough similarities to see it as following the form of the traditional nineteenth-century Russian novel.
The classic Russian novel provides extensive historical details. It also tends to explore religion and depict its influence on the characters. The large nineteenth-century Russian novel is realistic; it determines to present the authentic truth of real life. Often there are discussions of philosophy and contrasts drawn between the lives of those who dwell in the city and those who make their homes in the country. These novels also distinguish between romantic ideals and brute realism. The story of families is told, their ancestry and their progeny.
Often in this novel, the narrator or some of the main characters reveal their thoughts as if they were writing in a journal. Quotation marks are even used to imply that the entries were taken directly from the journal. This adds a personal or introspective look into the characters’ minds and also adds legitimacy to their comments or observations. It makes readers feel privy to the inner thoughts of the characters. It also helps the reader to imagine that the characters are real. The...
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In 1934, Pasternak declared that poetry was "pure prose in its pristine intensity," acknowledging the interrelation he sensed in the two genres. He considered Doctor Zhivago "the only worthwhile thing I have ever achieved," but commentators have noted passages in it where Pasternak seemed ill at ease with the novel form. Nevertheless, his deliberately low-key style as well as his impressionistic shifts in time and place and his use of symbolic coincidence carry the Russian epic novel form into a new, altogether individual, mode of artistic expression.
Pasternak also chose a tripartite form for Doctor Zhivago often compared to a religious triptych and to a "literary sonata." The three panels of his novelistic altarpiece, like three movements of a monumental sonata, are Part I, Zhivago's early life, in which Pasternak announces his themes; Part II, Zhivago's love for Lara, Pasternak's exposition, followed by his codalike chapter 16, an epilogue which pronounces the meaning of Zhivago's earthly life; and "The Poems of Yuri Zhivago," some of the greatest Christian poetry in any time or any language, a cycle of the liturgical year which elevates Zhivago's life to the supernatural plane of redeemed mankind. The musical metaphor for the novel's form may have been closest to Pasternak's heart; he always loved the work of the Romantic composer Frederic Chopin, because he felt Chopin "regarded his own life as a means of apprehending every life in the world," and he...
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Revolution and its aftermath are the paramount social issues Pasternak explored in Doctor Zhivago. A multitude of internal and external forces had brought on Russia's convulsions in 1917 which provide the backdrop to Part I of the novel, Zhivago's early life. The Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905 during the disastrous Russo-Japanese War marked liberal demands for the establishment of a Russian duma (legislative assembly), but those reforms granted reluctantly by the largely ineffectual Nicholas II proved transitory. When war with Germany erupted in August 1914, the Russian Army was badly led, ill-equipped, and consumed with unrest, just as the Russian population as a whole was beset by inflation and food shortages and the strains of a foreign-financed, expanding industrial growth.
Part II of Doctor Zhivago, centering on the lyrical love story of Yuri Zhivago and Lara, takes place in the harrowing years after the February Revolution of 1917, when the moderate Aleksandr Karensky tried to solidify a central democratic authority in Russia. For a little while, Pasternak was able to celebrate "a moment that transformed everything and opened up hearts and minds," but in October of 1917 (Old Style) the Bolshevik wing of the leftist Social Democratic Party, led by Lenin, seized the government. Lenin signed the humiliating Brest-Litovsk Treaty early in 1918 to end Russia's involvement in World War I, and during the two years of devastating civil...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1910s: Russia suffers through a series of civil revolutions as the people attempt to gain democratic rights and overthrow the rule of the tsar. The country suffers from devastating losses in World War I.
1950s: Russia (now called the U.S.S.R.) is involved in a cold war with the United States.
Today: Russia has witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and struggles between communist rule and capitalism. The Russian Orthodox Church declares Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, a saint.
- 1910s: Lenin takes Marxist ideas and creates a political philosophy upon which the Soviet Union’s Communist Party is based.
1950s: Mao Zedong is established as the leader of a new communist government in China. In the United States, meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives, under the influence of Joseph McCarthy who heads its Committee on Un-American Activities, attempts to purge any communist sympathizers from the country.
Today: Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, struggles to maintain control in his communist country, whose military is one of the world’s largest but whose people suffer from starvation.
- 1910s: There is a political revolution in Russia as the people rebel against the monarchy.
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Topics for Further Study
Watch any of the televised versions or the 1965 movie adaptation of Doctor Zhivago with your class. Then lead a class discussion on how the adaptation varies from the written text. Use some of the following questions to get the discussion going. Then add some of your own questions. What themes are emphasized in the adaptation? Does the movie elicit different responses than the book? Is the characterization of Yurii different in the movie than it is in the novel? What role does the affair between Yurii and Lara play in the movie? How does that differ from the novel? At the end of the discussion, take a poll. Ask your peers which presentation they like best, the novel or the movie, and have them discuss the reasons behind their preference.
Do a historical presentation in which you compare the timeline in Pasternak’s novel, which sometimes runs counter to actual historical events, with the history of the Bolshevik Revolution. Compare a map of old Russia with one of the Soviet Union, and explain the changes in the country. Locate the major battles and explain who fought in them, so your classmates better understand such groups as the Cossacks, the Partisans, and the White and the Red Armies.
Research communism as a political theory. How is the communist economy supposed to work? Why was there widespread starvation and lack of supplies as Lenin, and then Stalin, tried to set up a communist state in the Soviet Union? Present your findings...
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According to Ronald Hingley, "Pasternak is more justly summed up as a poet who was also a prose writer than as one whose attainments in the two areas are of comparable importance." As a young poet, Pasternak at first idealized, then repudiated, the flamboyant iconoclastic Mayakovsky. Pasternak's own early work had combined elements of the Russian Futurist and Symbolist Schools, but he soon developed his own poetic voice, fresh, impassioned, and rich in striking metaphor. His dazzling originality fused with his affirmation of life so uniquely that his friend and defender Lydia Chukovskaya called him "the only non-tragic Russian poet" and claimed that "His voice always sounded in the major key."
In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak shares the religious and moral idealism of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy's vast panorama of all the levels of Russian society, but prose fiction lacks the disciplining structure of the conventional poetic forms Pasternak used, and Doctor Zhivago thus has a more nebulous focus than Pasternak's nineteenth-century predecessors had achieved. The impressionistic nimbus that surrounds Doctor Zhivago, however, is its distinguishing mark of sainthood, drawn from a mystical vision Pasternak had experienced in the works of the late nineteenth-century religious philosopher Soloviev. Soloviev's Sophia, the incarnation of divine wisdom, was the forerunner to those suffering women of Pasternak's who light Yuri Zhivago into eternity.
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Other than the whole of Pasternak's poetry, which with Doctor Zhivago forms his spiritual autobiography, the work most closely related to his only novel is "The Childhood of Zhenia Luvers," a long short story he wrote between 1917 and 1919, originally intending it for the opening of a novel. Pasternak's "Lara," Olga Ivinskaya, herself called the child Zhenia "the Lara of the future." The little girl first apprehends her world through sensory impressions that grow more complex as she learns to understand her own emotions. As the world of childhood shatters around her, Zhenia suddenly understands that she is no longer the center of a little universe, but a member of the suffering Body of Christ, a singularly Russian epiphany of the brotherhood of pain for whom Pasternak later created his Doctor Zhivago to comfort and to heal.
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Doctor Zhivago was adapted for the screen by Robert Bolt, produced by Carlo Ponti, directed by David Lean, and released in 1965 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The film's six Academy Awards went to Bolt, for his screenplay; to Freddie A. Young, for cinematography; to Maurice Jarre, for the musical score; to Dario Simon, for set decoration; to Phyllis Dalton, for costume design; and to John Box and Terry March, for art direction. Tom Courtenay was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his Pasha, but Julie Christie won her 1965 Best Actress Academy Award for Darling, not for her Lara in Doctor Zhivago. Other powerful performances came from Omar Sharif, a passionate and sensitive Yuri Zhivago; Geraldine Chaplin, as Zhivago's gentle forgiving wife Tonya; Rod Steiger as the suave amoral survivor Komarovsky; and Alec Guinness as Zhivago's enigmatic half-brother Yevgraf, who narrates the film in Bolt's largest, although not disruptive, departure from Pasternak's anonymously narrated novel.
Despite being produced in America, the film version of Doctor Zhivago dramatically extends the Russian artistic tradition, posing the interrelations of its characters against the immense Russian landscape which molds and often masters them. In the context of the twentieth century's most cataclysmic upheavals of revolution and civil war, Yuri Zhivago and the people close to him touch each other's lives all the more intimately for being separated so...
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David Lean directed Robert Bolt’s screen version of Doctor Zhivago in 1965, which was a box office hit. Omar Sharif played Zhivago, and Julie Christie played Lara. The movie won five Oscars.
In 2002, Doctor Zhivago was adapted to a television script for British television.
In 2003, Masterpiece Theatre presented a television version of Doctor Zhivago. Scottish actor Hans Matheson played Zhivago, and Keira Knightley played Lara. This version is available on DVD.
As of 2007, a Spanish audio tape, El Doctor Zhivago (2005), was available. It was narrated by Philip Madoc.
The Nobel Prize committee maintains a Pasternak web page at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1958/index.html with links to other interesting sites.
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What Do I Read Next?
Pasternak thought of himself primarily as a poet. A selection of his poetry appeared in Pasternak: Selected Poems, published in 1992.
War and Peace, first published in a series between 1863 and 1869, covers the lives of several characters and the Russian culture during the Napoleonic wars. Tolstoy, a friend of Pasternak’s father, is a Russian literary legend. This novel is an epic recollection of five families and how they were affected by the wars.
Crime and Punishment is another classic Russian novel, written by Fyodor Dostoevsky and first published in 1866. The story takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia, and centers on a rebellious young student who commits a murder. This novel is much more than a murder mystery, however, as Dostoevsky uses the crime and the criminal to portray the ills of society.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) relates the story of a man caught in the oppressive Stalin years in Russia. Like Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature but was forbidden by his government from accepting it.
A more contemporary award-winning Russian writer is Ludmila Ulitskaya, whose 2005 novella and collection of short stories Sonechka relates stories of love, often turned bad. Ulitskaya tells stories of families who try to make their lives work in a terribly dysfunctional society.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bayley, John, “Introduction,” in Doctor Zhivago, Pantheon Books, 1991, pp. xii, xiii.
Gifford, Henry, “Doctor Zhivago,” in Pasternak: A Critical Study, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 197.
Livingstone, Angela, “Reception, Importance, and Position of Doctor Zhivago,” in Doctor Zhivago, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 1, 2. 5.
Pasternak, Boris, Doctor Zhivago, Pantheon Books, 1958.
Barnes, Christopher, Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography, Cambridge University Press, 2005. Using both personal accounts and family archives, Barnes depicts in this two-volume work both the personal and the political side of this great Russian writer.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila, The Russian Revolution, Oxford University Press, 2001. The Russian Revolution was supposed to bring about a model Marxist political form of government. Instead, the revolution caused great suffering among its intended beneficiaries. The research done by Fitzpatrick occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union, which opened up archives that had been closed to all historians, including Russian researchers, until this time.
Fleishman, Lazar, Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics, Harvard University Press, 1990. Having researched Pasternak’s politics in preparation for writing this book, Fleishman gives...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Erlich, Victor, ed. Pasternak: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978. This collection of essays covers all important facets of Pasternak’s opus, including short fiction, although the emphasis is on his poetry and Doctor Zhivago.
Gifford, Henry. Boris Pasternak: A Critical Study. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Gifford follows the stages in Pasternak’s life and discusses works written in those stages in order to establish his achievements as a poet, writer of prose fiction, and translator. Chapters 12 and 13 deal with Doctor Zhivago.
Ivinskaya, Olga. A Captive of Time. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s love in the last years of his life and the model for the character Lara in Doctor Zhivago, provides a wealth of information about Pasternak and Doctor Zhivago.
Mallac, Guy de. Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981. An extensive biography of Pasternak. The second part is devoted to Mallac’s interpretation of the most important features of Pasternak’s works. Doctor Zhivago is discussed in “Toward Doctor Zhivago.”
Muchnic, Helen. “Boris Pasternak and the Poems of Yuri Zhivago.” In From Gorky to...
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