Critical Overview

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Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958, but he was forbidden by the Russian government from accepting it, and Doctor Zhivago was initially banned from Russia. Pasternak’s novel, however, won widespread acceptance and appreciation all over the world.

In his introduction to the 1991 edition of Doctor Zhivago, John Bayley attributes the great force of the novel to the “poetic power of the hero,” Yurii Zhivago, and to Pasternak’s skill in being “able to fill the book with that richness and minutiae of life which distinguish[es] a great novel.” In the 1980s and 1990s, Bayley writes, readers and critics enjoy Pasternak’s fiction more for its art than for its politics, while during the 1950s cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States the politics mattered most. “Thirty years or so after the book’s first publication in English,” Bayley writes, “it is the feeling of poetry it gives which now makes its strongest impression, an impression of continuing vitality and greatness. . . . No longer the explosive cry of freedom and protest from the heart of Stalin’s Russia, the book has been published in its own country and been soberly valued and appraised, taking a distinctive and distinguished place in the tradition of Russian literary art.” Bayley then explains the novel’s uniqueness: Doctor Zhivago “is one of those rare works—whether we consider it fiction, poetry, or a kind of imaginary autobiography—which makes no attempt to protect itself against the reactions of the reader. It does not seem to care whether we are moved or unmoved by it; whether we criticize its sentiment and its discourse or whether we surrender to them. Like life itself it goes on its own way, indifferent to the conflicting responses of those who are, as it were, living it. This is an extremely rare quality in a modern novel, for modern fiction is the most self-conscious of art forms.”

In Pasternak: A Critical Study, Henry Gifford comments on the fact that Pasternak was a poet who wrote a novel. Gifford states, “Though Pasternak would have liked it to be otherwise, he was ‘first and last a poet, a lyric poet.’ Dramatically, his novel lacks power; it is not everywhere realized with the same adequacy.” Yet Gifford praises Pasternak for his “extraordinary keenness and fertility of perception,” concluding that “Doctor Zhivago is a poet’s novel.” Finally, Gifford writes: “That intensity is focused finally in the poems proper that form the last section of the book, and for which the novel has provided an elaborate context.”

Angela Livingstone, in her critical study of Doctor Zhivago, reviews the praise and the troubles that Pasternak experienced when his book was first published. “In 1958,” she writes, “people started talking about Pasternak all over the world. Journalists, literary critics, people in public life, writers and readers, all suddenly became interested in this Russian who had written a novel which his own country refused to publish.” In Pasternak’s own country, Doctor Zhivago “was denounced as an anti-Soviet work by large numbers of Soviet citizens who had not read it. Its author was attacked as a traitor and condemned in the Press and at writers’ meetings in the most vituperative language.” Livingstone adds: “While persecuted by his fellow-countrymen, Pasternak found himself winning friends in the rest of the world, receiving up to seventy foreign letters a day, most of which expressed admiration.” Livingstone points out that critics have had trouble categorizing Pasternak’s work, not knowing for sure what to call it. She lists various descriptions: “It has been called ‘a rhapsody,’ ‘a kind of morality play,’ ‘an introspective epic,’ ‘a poet’s novel,’ ‘an apocalyptic poem in the form of a novel,’ yet also ‘a political novel par excellence,’ ‘a love story for all time,’ as well as ‘one of the most original works of modern times.’”

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Critical Evaluation


Essays and Criticism