Analysis: Doctor Zhivago

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2162

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Boris Pasternak worked on Doctor Zhivago between 1938 and 1956, when the savage circumstances within the Soviet Union permitted, but the evidence of his short fiction indicates that all of his creative life went into Doctor Zhivago. Incidents, characterizations, and the style of his other stories strongly resemble elements of the novel, and Ivinskaya saw in Zhenia Luvers “the Lara of the future,” a sensitive portrayal of the sad lot of women, one of Pasternak’s recurring themes. Nadezhda Mandelstam, the wife of Osip Mandelstam, observed that Pasternak could not proceed with the novel until the war provided “a momentarily restored sense of community” impossible during the purges of the 1930’s. Pasternak’s fruitless defense of Osip Mandelstam, who died in a transit camp en route to the mines of Kalyma, may also have strengthened his resolve to produce a chronicle of Russia’s intelligentsia, the “children of Russia’s terrible years,” as they are called in Doctor Zhivago. It became nothing less than his sacred duty.

By 1950, when he had survived physical and emotional blows that were only the beginning of his anguish, Pasternak observed to one of his many correspondents that “love of people and gratitude to the past for its brilliancea concern for repaying it with the same kind of beauty and warmth” were for him “spiritual valuesat the foundation of taste.” He gladly accepted the heavy price for his artistic and humanistic convictions: “If there is suffering anywhere, why should not my art suffer and myself with it? I am speaking of the most artistic in the artistof the sacrifice without which art becomes unnecessary.”

Beyond the practical sacrifices of Pasternak’s own restricted life, for which political compromise might have meant considerable but soulless comfort, and even beyond the emotional sacrifice of watching friends endure hardships he could not share, Pasternak, in creating Doctor Zhivago, had to be reborn into a new form of artistic expression entirely new to him and to Russian literature. The technical innovations of Doctor Zhivago, often ignored or misunderstood, are Pasternak’s chief means of voicing his major themes, art as sacrifice and its resulting spiritual redemption. In his shift from the lyric to the epic mode, in his departure from the form of the great Russian nineteenth century novels, and in his impressionistic use of symbolic coincidence, Pasternak implemented an effective new medium of fictional expression.

Point of view

For Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak deliberately abandoned the first-personnarrative he had used in his earlier prose sketches for the less subjective third person, a vital transposition of emphasis by which he could develop the character of Yuri Zhivago in important directions hinted at in his laconic description of the hero, which appeared prefatory to the ten poems published in Znamia: “a physician, a thinking man in search [of truth], with a creative and artistic bent.” Pasternak’s main character, his evocation of the cultured Russian intellectual at the mercy of historical forces beyond human control, is first a physician, his title significantly used by Pasternak in the novel’s name to emphasize the duty as healer and teacher that Zhivago fulfills through his personal sacrifice. “Zhivago” itself derives from the Russian verb “to live,” lending irony to the opening scene of the novel, the funeral of Zhivago’s mother: “’Who’s being buried?’—’Zhivago’ [the living one].” The name also has a wealth of religious connotations stemming from the risen Christ’s question in the Orthodox Easter liturgy, “Why seek you the living [zhivago] among the dead?” In his search for truth, the thinking man Yuri Zhivago at first naïvely embraces revolution as the natural result of the czarist repression of the people, only gradually realizing that enforced collectivization under the Soviets means the spiritual slavery of the very souls it falsely purported to free. The truth at which Yuri Zhivago at last arrives, after his long journey through the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the savagery of World War I and the Civil War, and the struggle for survival that faced his people during the 1920’s, is the old truth of humanity’s youth—that an individual can be fulfilled only by free choice in pursuing his own creativity, his own love, unhampered by political or social stricture. By viewing Zhivago through many different eyes in the major section of the novel, Pasternak can reflect with stunning accuracy the myriad beams and shadows cast by the flickering light that is a human soul.


At first glance, Doctor Zhivago appears to resemble the traditional Russian novel, spread over near-boundless time and space and probing uncannily into the recesses of human suffering. Its structure, however, is not panoramic but multigeneric, presenting the life of Yuri Zhivago in three discrete treatments like the movements of a great literary sonata: the discursive past, a personalized and omniscient narrative incorporating many motifs throughout the first fifteen chapters of the book, spanning the years from 1905 to 1929, and dominated by the great duet between the masculine theme of Zhivago and its feminine counterpart of Lara; the brief melodic and retrospective epilogue, chapter 16, hymning Zhivago’s blessing on the future of his “holy city” and the world, his song of “the freedom of the soul” embodied in his illegitimate daughter Tania; and “The Poems of Yuri Zhivago,” a lyric cycle of love and redemption in an eternal now gained by heroic self-sacrifice joined to the divine sacrifice of Christ. The musical metaphor for the novel is suggested by Pasternak’s lifelong love of Frédéric Chopin, not only for his monumental music, in which Pasternak said Chopin “regarded his own life as a means of apprehending every life in the world,” but also for Chopin’s “wider significance,” as seen in the Études, which teach “a theory of childhood,” “an introduction to death,” and “history, the structure [Pasternak’s italics] of the universe and whatever is more remote and general than playing the piano.” Pasternak especially acclaimed Chopin’s ability to “utter his new statement in the old language, without examining whether it was old or new.”

The gains Pasternak realized by this tripartite structure are more felt in Doctor Zhivago than understood, in part because of the spirit of shared suffering that Virginia Woolf claimed in “The Russian Point of View” to produce the “sense of brotherhood” that permeates all Russian literature. In Doctor Zhivago, however, Pasternak advanced materially beyond the nineteenth century, employing a strange and lovely novelistic structure to merge past and present and future into a timeless moment of sacrifice and renewal.

Pasternak willingly gave Doctor Zhivago priority over the poetry to which he had devoted so many years. Ivinskaya records his assertion, “All my life I have wanted to write prosewriting poetry is easier!” Pasternak’s reliance in the novel on coincidence, often criticized as violating the bounds of literary verisimilitude, is an impressionistic poetic technique, assembling apparently contradictory elements into a system of symbolism so intricate that each human name, each smallest detail of nature, possesses an amazingly complex signification unfortunately closed to most English-speaking readers. The enigmatic Evgraf, for example, Zhivago’s mysterious half brother, appears at crucial episodes in the novel’s first section to save Yuri first from physical disaster and at last from spiritual sterility. Evgraf’s name is taken from the Greek words for “well written”; he is a youth with slanted Kirghiz eyes and a Siberian reindeer garment, a shamanistic figure who may represent Zhivago’s “twin in the clouds,” his heaven-sent poetic creativity, not the least of whose talents enabled Zhivago to survive in spirit through his writing.

Balancing the supernatural role of Evgraf is the contrapuntal role of Lara, who has been described as “the most poeticized woman in Russian literature.” Lara, brutalized in her adolescence by the pragmatic survival specialist Komarovsky, surely represents Russia at least in part, demeaned by materialism under the Romanov czars, forced into shamelessness by the revolutionaries, eventually perishing no one knows where in the Far North, yet through everything a genuinely human figure inspiring such a love in Zhivago that he can create the writings that “confirm and encourage” the feeling of “tenderness and peace” that sustains Zhivago’s old friends as they read the novel’s epilogue.

Lara’s husband, Pasha Antipov, clearly represents the spirit of revolution, a slum boy who idealizes Marxism and becomes the killer Strelnikov, a Red commander who typifies all that is dangerously nonhuman in the new regime: “’He needs a heart in addition to his principles,’ said Yuri later, ’if he is to do good.’” In one of the climactic coincidences of the novel, Zhivago “the living one” and Strelnikov “the shooter” pass a night at Varykino talking of the Lara they both love. In the morning, Zhivago finds Strelnikov’s body in the snow, a suicide, with frozen drops of blood recalling the rowanberries that symbolize Lara, a folk image from ancient tradition: “I shall see you, my perfect beauty, my rowan princess, drop of my very blood.” In the final symbolic meeting of Zhivago and Antipov/Strelnikov, Evgraf conducts Yuri, ill and aging, to write and die in the Moscow room where Antipov began his life with Lara, as Zhivago, outside, glimpsed through a glass darkly the candle of love that he was never to forget.

Final movement

Pasternak employed “the simple everyday words of sturdy unceremonious talk” that Lara praised in her lament over Yuri’s body throughout the twenty-five poems that form the last chapter of his novel, recognizing with his mighty predecessor Lermontov that “there are words whose sense is obscure or trivial—yet one cannot listen to them without a tremor.” This last movement of the sonata-novel that is Doctor Zhivago is a cycle praising the eternal rhythms of nature so closely bound to the Russian soul and echoing the religious cycle of the Savior’s death and Resurrection presented in the liturgical year. Beginning with “Hamlet,” which Pasternak’s friend Aleksandr Gladkov recalled hearing him recite in an epiphany impossible to repeat, the poetic cycle opens, like the church year, with the agony of a Gethsemane: “For the present, release me from the cast,” the poet begs. Through the Passion of Holy Week, over “Bad Roads in Spring” and after “Summer in Town,” the poet bids farewell in “August” to “the image of the world through words made manifest/ And to creativity, and to working wonders” as Russia settles into a “Winter Night.” “It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,” and only “a candle burned,” a small flame of hope that eventually blossoms for the poet into the “Star of the Nativity,” “gazing on the Maid,” for Pasternak, like Zhivago, believed that all conceptions were immaculate. The poems close upon another Holy Week, the “Evil Days” of a return to the “holy city” on Palm Sunday, in which the “dark forces of the Temple/ Gave Him up to be judged by the offscourings,” and upon the vision of Mary Magdalene, perhaps modeled on Ivinskaya (in whose presence Pasternak rewrote many of these poems, originally composed in 1946), who learns “to embrace/ The squared beam of the cross.” The last of Yuri Zhivago’s poems, “Garden of Gethsemane,” returns the cycle to its opening, with the agony of abandonment and betrayal that culminates in the vision of the third day, when

Even as rafts float down a river,So shall the centuries drift, trailing like a caravan,Coming for judgment, out of the dark, to me.

Although Pasternak insisted that Doctor Zhivago “must not be judged along theological lines,” and his prime intention was always to depict the fate of the Russian intelligentsia in the first decades of the twentieth century, the mythic dimension of Doctor Zhivago exemplifies the endurance that the religious historian Mircea Eliade argued is humanity’s only support through “the catastrophes and horrors of history.” These cannot be tolerated, in Eliade’s view, if they are at worst only the result of the liberties taken by a minority “on the stage of universal history,” precisely the stage on which Pasternak played his vital role.

In reacting against the liberties imposed by the Communist minority on the helpless Russian people by writing Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak exercised what the Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton called “the problematical quality” of his Christianity, “that it is reduced to the barest and most elementary essentials: intense awareness of all cosmic and human reality as ’life in Christ,’ and the consequent plunge into love as the only dynamic and creative force which really honors this ’Life’ by creating itself anew in Life’s—Christ’s—image.” In the glorious healing lesson of Doctor Zhivago, that modern man’s renewal lies in identification of his sufferings with those of his Savior, undistracted by selfish materialistic desire, the poet of Doctor Zhivago thus is “the living one” against whom godless history cannot prevail. In this remarkable novel, as Pasternak said of all art, “The man is silent, and the image speaks.”


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Pasternak, Boris