Doctor Zhivago is Pasternak’s last major work of prose fiction and represents a kind of summing up of all the beliefs that had survived with him through the fires of two revolutions, two world wars, a vicious civil war, the Sovietization of Russia, and Joseph Stalin’s oppression. He wrote the novel in part because he had survived when most of his fellow writers had not. In death they joined the perhaps forty million Soviet citizens killed in wars, famine, or concentration camps.
Pasternak’s main intent is to show the mass of interconnections tying the hero, Urij Zhivago, to the whole of Russia. The great number of characters brought on stage are all shown to be connected, however tangentially, to him. Family members, friends, and officials who decide his fate or that of his friends and family are all linked to Zhivago. Improbable coincidences bring characters together across vast spaces. This continues Pasternak’s lifelong tendency to examine in his writing the sometimes invisible links that make the world an organic whole. The novel is not explicitly political; it was seen as an affront to Soviet authoritarian ideology, with its cult of the Communist Party and its contempt for all other groups.
The names Pasternak gives his characters reflect their relationship to life itself: Zhivago (the living) recalls the gospel story of the resurrection: “Why seek thee the living among the dead?” His lover, Lara (from “laurel”), is life’s reward for the true poet, the perfect example of Russian womanhood. Her family, Russified Belgians, represents the debt owed to the rest of Europe for some of the best things in Russia. Komarovsky, a Bolshevik functionary and formerly a rapacious businessman who seduced Lara in her youth, has a name derived from the Russian for “mosquito.” Pasha Antipov, a young intellectual and Lara’s husband, has a good Russian surname, but upon becoming a revolutionary he takes an underground code name, Strelnikov (the gunman). These are only the novel’s most obvious symbols. As in a good poem, every detail of the novel can be shown to have symbolic importance. Zhivago’s escape with his family from turmoil in Moscow eastward to the Urals is covered by a concealing blanket of snow. So too are his brief moments of bliss with Lara insulated from the menacing surroundings by heavy snow. Candles burn throughout the novel as a symbol of the passion for life. Lara and Pasha, linked by the traditional folk image of the blood-red rowanberry, eventually perish, victims of Stalin’s blood lust. The railroad is perhaps symbolic of Pasternak’s method. It runs through the entire novel, linking one set of characters or episodes with the others.
Zhivago is like many Russian literary heroes, a weak man endowed with a poetic soul. What makes this novel a unique and important event in Russian literature is that this hero does not just talk about, recite, or feel poetry; he has the power to re-create through his writing what he has seen and felt. The last chapter in the book includes twenty-five poems of searing beauty ostensibly composed by Zhivago at various stages in the novel’s progress. They prove by their existence poetry’s unique ability to preserve, and in the end to resurrect, what has been: love, courage, longing, beauty, and faith.