Boris Pasternak Analysis: Doctor Zhivago - Essay

Analysis: Doctor Zhivago

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 2162 words.)