Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1308
Doctor Zhivago is the final statement of a writer who lived a full and complex artistic life. Boris Pasternak’s father was an accomplished painter, and his mother was a concert pianist. Leo Tolstoy and the composer Aleksandr Scriabin were family friends. Pasternak pursued music in youth but then turned to poetry, a career for which he prepared by studying philosophy at Marburg University. Born of Jewish parents, Pasternak was influenced both by the theology of his ancestors and by Christianity. Though he was relatively free of religious dogma, he was strongly persuaded of the reality of spiritual life, to which, he felt, the artistic impulse was closely related. It is not surprising that Doctor Zhivago is a vivid yet complicated and somewhat uneven work.
To observe that Doctor Zhivago is a poet’s novel is commonplace but nevertheless instructive. Even the work’s English translations include remarkably lyric passages that reflect Pasternak’s deep love for his native land. The sketches of many people as they live Russian lives early in the twentieth century are especially notable in the first part of the work. Through both parts, there are expressions of opinion, wisely made to come from several of the novel’s characters, that reflect the subtle intelligence of the author. The poems of Yurii Zhivago, which conclude the novel, are intended to be an integral part of the whole, exhibiting qualities one might expect of a ranking Russian poet of his century.
On the other hand, there is evidence that Doctor Zhivago is the work of a writer who was not thoroughly sure of the novelist’s craft. Characters are sometimes drawn with enough care to be memorable only to be more-or-less forgotten. Various incidents in the book are connected to others in ways that are somewhat clumsy. In a writer without Pasternak’s ability to make readers suspend disbelief, the coincidences whereby important characters are not only linked but also linked repeatedly and improbably would seem strange. The love story of Zhivago and Lara, surrounded by the circumstances of ordinary life in a more familiar world, would seem too sentimental.
The novel’s central concern is the love story of Yurii and Lara. Yurii repeatedly expresses his undying love for Lara even though he is also in love with Tonia. This may seem incongruous, but in a complex character such as Yurii everything is possible. Moreover, he identifies Lara with Russia, thus combining his love for both. At the same time, Yurii is unselfish, as when he allows Lara to go away with Komarovsky, believing that it will be better for her to do so. The story of Yurii and Lara, sentimental though it may be, is one of the greatest love stories in Russian literature.
The novel is also concerned with the nature of life and death, as expressed in Yurii’s thoughts on the subject. For him, life is to be lived, not prepared for. Life is continually being reborn even in death, thus making death an integral part of life. In these thoughts and in many other ways, Yurii is connected to Christian idealism. His feelings about life are also related to his thinking about Marxism and revolution in general. As a humanitarian and a believer in constant changes in life, he is at first sympathetic to the revolution, but as it becomes increasingly brutal he turns away from it. His sporadic ambiguity in his stance regarding revolution can be explained on that basis. Thus, life, spirit, and art are the essential elements that Yurii Zhivago struggles to preserve in an epoch with which he feels sympathy but not harmony.
Yurii thinks about literature and the arts in general. Being a poet, he sees life in a poetic way, motivating many of the novel’s poetic passages and descriptions. The poems at the end of the novel attest to Yurii’s avocation. Living and writing in a restricted society, Pasternak could not avoid referring to the restrictions on artistic freedom. The circumstances surrounding the publication of Doctor Zhivago, its critical reception, and the political acrimony that followed have tended to obfuscate thoughtful criticism of the novel, but they cannot be ignored. Pasternak, who had earned a reputation as a poet as early as the 1920’s, was not unwilling to serve the revolution if he was allowed intellectual and artistic freedom. These were not allowed, however, and from about 1933 until 1943 he could not publish original poems in the Soviet Union, even though he had not written his novel to make a political statement, nor did he wish to be separated from his people and his homeland.
Ironically, it is the Marxists themselves who have insisted that the artifacts of any human culture include a political dimension. The events of Doctor Zhivago, though they might be found politically inconvenient, are the substance of the story. The novel does not reject revolution, political reform, or social justice. It simply records the brutality with which these ideals may be pursued and the difficulty of preserving other ideals—spiritual, personal, or artistic—in a time of violent upheaval. Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 brought about the gradual increase of artistic freedom, as is hinted at the end of the novel.
The most striking of the novel’s stylistic devices are its poetic connotations and symbols. The listing of the poems at the end of the novel is one of the few examples of this device in world literature. They do not refer directly to the events in the novel, but the organic connection between the poems and those events can be fathomed. For example, the introductory poem “Hamlet” refers to the irresolute nature of Yurii Zhivago, and “Winter Night” recalls Yurii seeing a candle burning in a window when he was going to a Christmas party, where he saw Lara. There are many instances of biblical and Christian motifs in the poems, such as “Magdalene,” a sinful woman, and the concluding poem, “Garden of Gethsemane,” which seems to affirm the resurrection, if not of body then of spirit. Other symbols are tied to the novel’s events or ideas. The name Zhivago stems from the Russian word zhit’ (“to live”), underlining Pasternak’s idea of Yurii’s eternal nature. The name of the town Yuriatin is identified with Yurii. Strelnikov is related to the Russian word streliat’ (“to shoot”) and Komarovsky to komar (“mosquito”). The howling of the wolves at Varikino symbolizes the advent of danger. The Rowan Tree is the symbol of life in Russian folklore.
There are also shortcomings. The most glaring is the break between 1912 and 1915. Although Doctor Zhivago is not autobiographical and does not require chronology, it describes events affecting the characters, and the three missing years were replete with events important to all of them. Furthermore, some details are too coincidental, such as repeated meetings in different places between Yurii and Lara or Yurii and Strelnikov, sudden visits of Komarovsky and Evgraf, and so forth. It should be pointed out that Pasternak was primarily a poet, not a novelist; moreover, he wanted to make his points by employing such coincidences.
The importance of Doctor Zhivago in the history of literature, both Russian and world, can be judged by its artistic value as well as by the circumstances of its publication. It came after a long drought of good literature in Soviet Russia. Pasternak was the first Russian writer after Ivan Bunin to receive the Nobel Prize in the twentieth century. Doctor Zhivago also brings to mind the grandeur of Russian literature of the nineteenth century. Social and political issues of the period contained in the novel—potentially a minefield in the artistic sense—elevate the novel from the mediocrity of Socialist Realism prevalent in the Soviet Union by offering a remarkable human story that always attracts readers and remains in their minds.
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