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The famous film version of the novel seems to be an extravaganza of glorious landscape forming the background to a complex love relationship; however, this is a simplified reading of the novel. In Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, the focus is on life and fate, with the complexities that war, revolution, and civil war bring to it. “Zhivago,” here a surname, means “of the living,” and the novel to a slight degree could even be taken at the level of allegory in which Yuri Zhivago, a healer and a poet, nurtures the human body and spirit during these critical times.

The main character is not a typical hero. He is a weak man, the son of a profligate, and the nephew of a sentimental writer. His nature is not aggressive; he seems, therefore, a little passive, although he clearly plays the active role of the doctor and escapes his captors on his own. He is a poet, caught not only in the earthly humdrum of the poets of other generations but also in the cataclysm of a vastly sweeping change in the entire world that he inhabits.

The theme of love involves the philosophy that love is elemental in nature, not romantic, with the profanity of the seduction of Lara by Viktor Komarovsky clearly juxtaposed with the pure, fated, soulful union of Lara and Yuri Zhivago. His fascination begins with their first meeting, when she is still much under the control of Komarovsky, and he feels a natural curiosity and attraction to her. Later, when she is the nurse Antipova, he tries “not to love her,” although he is trying at the same time to love everyone and he recognizes this disparity. Finally, in Siberia, the last obstacles fall aside and their love can be fulfilled. It is only now that Zhivago understands fully the difference between the union of souls and earthly love. Meanwhile, in some of the worst situations that typically arose during this historical period, Zhivago finds himself the victim of disease and famine, the captive of the White Army during the civil war, and the estranged husband and father of his family.

While Doctor Zhivago is about life and love, it is also an act of criticism against the Soviet regime. The novel earned for Pasternak the Nobel Prize in Literature, but it was never published in the Soviet Union before the period called glasnost, when the loosening of power by the decrepit Soviet regime allowed the rehabilitation of many past artistic accomplishments. Indeed, the novel’s impact on the West had a commensurate, if converse, effect on the repression of Pasternak by the Soviet regime. He was forced to renounce his work and soon, like Zhivago, died of a heart attack, the medical term that Pasternak had used in his novel to describe a profoundly broken heart.

In the novel, Yuri serves to makes clear that this is no way to live; he even becomes so downhearted that he blames the revolutionaries for not being competent in life and thus ruining a great part of the country. He tells Lara, “It turns out that those who inspired the revolution aren’t at home in anything except change and turmoil. . . . Man is born to live, not to prepare for life.” Thus, the revolution betrayed the very people that it had claimed to support and, worse, limited the experience of life.

The novel should be seen to operate on two levels at once: seamlessly expressing the philosophy of life and art that Pasternak believed and recounting the historical period of between 1900 and 1930 in Russia in a vivid, visual manner. Zhivago lives in a time that all but destroys his life force, yet he manages to forestall the inevitable and create a beautiful life for himself.

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Critical Context