Pasternak opens his novel Doctor Zhivago with the funeral and then the suicide of his protagonist’s parents. From the beginning to the end of this story, the author then explores the slow fracturing that tears apart his protagonist, and his protagonist’s dreams and relationships. As the outer world of Russian politics falls apart, so too does Zhivago, to the point that he is unable to deal with his society and is incapable of loving the women who affect and support him. The process is slow but devastating.
But Lara points out to him, just through her existence in the same room with him, that emotions are not the same as the intellect and are not so easily ruled.
When readers come to this novel, they quickly become aware of the political struggles that provide the background of the story. The main theme is the struggle between the ideal and the real. The concepts of socialism and communism provide lofty ideals that fill those who believe in them with hope. However, when these same people attempt to put these concepts into practice, the lofty ideals fall apart. There is a disconnect between what people can imagine and what people actually experience.
Examples of failed ideals include the stories about the laborers who strike for better benefits. Other citizens join in when the laborers plan a march, taking their protest to the streets. The main impetus behind the protest is the ever-widening gap between the moneyed class and the working class. To fill this gap, the workers hope to push the people with money out of their positions of power. However, as the story progresses and members of the working class take over, new gaps appear. The new political party splits into two factions, and later another crack appears between party members from the city and their counterparts who are from the distant countryside. These cracks divide again, just like the cracks in a sheet of ice, splitting in pairs that split again, fracturing what at one time appeared solid. By the end of the novel, the fissures have created chaos, brutality, and a complete breakdown of morals, human decency, and common sense. Instead of an equalizing distribution of wealth, the economy is completely destroyed. Starvation engulfs the population. Diseases such as typhus spread through the entire population. Social order, political structure, and the economy crumble. Moreover, familial and psychic fractures take place, too. These internal breaks in psyche are particularly noticeable in the protagonist, Yurii Zhivago.
Zhivago’s familial disconnections begin quite dramatically right in the beginning of the novel. Zhivago is orphaned. Then he is abandoned by his beloved and admired uncle. Although he is placed with a considerate and supportive family, Zhivago has no one who claims him as their own. Zhivago’s early family situation explains some of his later problems.
While a young boy, Zhivago’s intellectual development is encouraged. So on this level, he does quite well. His college work earns him a degree in medicine, which he uses as a profession. He is satisfied with his work, and it provides him the freedom to travel and, for awhile, a fairly comfortable lifestyle. Throughout most of this story, Zhivago’s intellect shows no fissures. However, his emotional side is quite weak.
One emotional disconnect in Zhivago is noticed by Nikolai. Nikolai mentions that Zhivago and his friends Misha Gordon and Tonia, while they are all still adolescents, declare that everything associated with sexuality should be considered vulgar. Passions are to be controlled by the mind. “It was right,” Nikolai thinks to himself, “for adolescents to go through a frenzy of purity, but they were overdoing it a bit.” Then Nikolai adds, “For some reason, they called the domain of the sensual, which disturbed them so much, ‘vulgar.’” This term, Nikolai states, “was applied to instinct, to pornography, to exploitation of women, and almost to the whole physical world.” With this description, Nikolai emphasizes how Zhivago tried to use his well developed intellect to control his emotions.
Later in the novel, readers witness the cracks in Zhivago’s thinking when he first comes upon Lara. Zhivago see her when Lara’s mother has attempted suicide. Death and suicide are not new experiences for Zhivago, but sexual passion is. When Zhivago encounters Lara, he feels his own sexuality aroused and is startled by it. “His heart was torn by contradictory feelings of a strength he had never experienced before.” The narrator then adds: “Here was the very thing which he, Tonia, and Misha had endlessly discussed as ‘vulgar,’ the force which so frightened and attracted them and which they controlled so easily from a safe distance by words.” What Zhivago experiences at that moment when he finds himself aroused by Lara is the beginning of the cracks in his...
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