Possible Reasons Why Yurii Has Trouble Loving the Women in His Life

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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...

(This entire section contains 2020 words.)

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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 psyche. His emotions are starting to tear him apart. On one side is his rational self, the philosopher and the scientist. This is his intellectual side that has, up to this point, driven him forward. On the other side are his emotions, which have been suppressed in his attempt to look at them, to define them, then to place them on some interior shelf as if he could then forget about them. 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. Just like the ideals of political thoughts, the actual implementation of those ideals is a lot more complex than the language that attempts to explain them.

Shortly after this scene, Tonia’s mother dies. On her deathbed, she tells Zhivago and Tonia that they should marry because they are made for each other. What is interesting to note here is that Zhivago feels passion when he sees Lara, not Tonia. The relationship that Zhivago has with Tonia is rational or intellectual. They are definitely made for one another, at least on one level. They make the perfect Russian couple, on the outside. They can provide one another with the conventional comforts of marriage. They can set up a home and have children. They can work toward ensuring the health and success of this marriage. They might say that they love one another, but there are those words, again. The words of love do not necessarily imply deep feelings. Somewhere in their psyches, Tonia and Zhivago have defined their relationship and their love, just as they had previously defined passion and then placed it somewhere safe, hoping it remains undisturbed by emotional pangs. After all, they both have defined passion as vulgar—too commonplace or too far beneath the level of their strong intellects. Here readers may surmise from these descriptions that Tonia represents the ideal, while Lara symbolizes the real.

Although Zhivago attempts to suppress his feelings for Lara, Tonia recognizes them in him. Zhivago sends letters to Tonia while he is at the frontlines of the war. Zhivago believes that all he has done is mentioned Lara in his correspondence, as one would mention a colleague. But Tonia senses something underneath the few details that Zhivago presents. Surprised, Zhivago is thrown off balance. If Tonia sees an emotional connection in what he has written, Zhivago worries that Lara might also interpret his friendship in that emotional way. Zhivago appears to be the last one to know his own feelings. Instead of questioning himself, though, he runs to Lara to explain. Then, in the middle of talking to Lara about mundane things, he blurts out how much concern he has for her. Apparently Zhivago’s emotions are so tired of being repressed that they come out without his intending it. In spite of his rational attempts to keep his emotions under control, his passion is expressed. He does not understand himself because he has split himself into two—his rational self and his emotional self, strangers to one another.

This split in him plays out through the rest of the novel. Zhivago believes that he loves two women, but in fact, as the story unfolds, readers discover that he really loves neither of them. Zhivago is incapable of loving because he is not a whole being. On the one side he has chosen Tonia, the perfect wife. Tonia stabilizes Zhivago, giving him what he, as a child, never had. On the other side is Lara, who represents freedom, excitement, and eroticism. Whereas Tonia grounds Zhivago in the commonsensical, Lara makes him explode with possibilities. Lara inspires him and renews him, wakes him up. Unfortunately, Zhivago needs both of these women to make him whole, and ironically, because he needs both Tonia and Lara, he will never be whole. He has placed himself in the middle of a contradiction. When he is with Tonia, his relationship with Lara is eclipsed. When he is with Lara, his guilt keeps him from fully engaging in the relationship. So in the end, he separates himself from both of them. He lies to Lara, then sends her away with a man that both of them despise. When he is in a position to reunite with Tonia, he uses only half-hearted measures to find her.

Without a woman in his life, Zhivago becomes not much more than a decrepit beggar. Unable to live alone, he takes a common-law wife, with whom he attempts to replicate his relationship with Tonia. Once again he has a wife and two children. Once again, he has no passion. Marina is a lot like Tonia. She provides him with shelter and makes sure that he is fed. There is no mention of love or even companionship.

It is only at the end of the story, as well as the end of Zhivago’s life, that Zhivago attempts to gain some congruence. Just as the fellow countrymen begin to compromise in the political structure in order to regain social health, so too does Zhivago. He makes sure that Marina and the children are taken care of and then he goes off on his own. He must withdraw from his women, his friends, and his society in order to empty his mind of all its random thoughts. He lives in a small room, which appears to him as a “banqueting room of the spirit, a cupboard of mad dreams, a storeroom of revelations.” Here Zhivago hopes he can bring his intellect and his emotions together. He has so many thoughts to explore, however, that they constantly compete with one another, trying to come out at the same time. Some of these come out only as brief notes, interrupted sketches, or scribbles in the margins of books. Some, it is suggested, come out in the form of poetry, which is found at the end of this book.

More telling than the poetry, though, might be the thoughts of Lara, who returns during Zhivago’s funeral. Lara, who for some unexplained reason has abandoned the child that is the product of her relationship with Zhivago, believes that what she and Zhivago shared was love. However, that love was not so much made up by their own passions as it was willed upon them, as if they were love’s insignificant vessels. Maybe she is correct. However, as a vessel, Zhivago is imperfect. He held as much as he could, but that love could not be contained. Lara reveals her thoughts beside Zhivago’s casket: Maybe that love was not for them alone to enjoy. Lara thinks, “Perhaps their surrounding world, the strangers they met in the street, the wide expanses they saw on their walks, the rooms in which they lived or met, took more delight in their love than they themselves did.”

As in the beginning of this novel, so too in the end, the outer world and the inner world reflect and affect one another. As chaos reigns outside, so, too, does it rule the inner workings of the psyche. If Zhivago could have healed himself, so too might have his country.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Doctor Zhivago, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2008.

Doctor Zhivago Introduction

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On 23 October 1958 Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for "important achievements both in contemporary lyric poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition" (Conquest 1966, 85). But the award was not altogether a happy event in Pasternak’s life because his joy and pride at receiving this high honor were overshadowed by the expectation of imminent trouble with the Soviet authorities and subsequent personal and professional isolation. In his conversation with Max Frankel, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow at the time, Pasternak expressed his mixed feelings about the award: "I am extremely happy, but you must understand that I am confident that I will move immediately into this new lonely role, as though it had always been so" (Conquest 1966, 88). Indeed, the Nobel Prize played a double role in Pasternak’s literary career: on the one hand, it established his international literary stature, while on the other it made him the target of a slanderous ideological campaign unleashed against him by the Soviet authorities. In order to understand the "Pasternak affair," as it came to be labeled, it is necessary to back up and trace the events that precipitated the new ideological absurdities and excesses triggered against the poet after the recognition of his achievements by the Nobel Committee. Although no Soviet publisher had been willing to publish Doctor Zhivago, the Soviet authorities were profoundly irritated by its release in the West and its overwhelming success with the public. It appeared to the party ideologues that the Nobel Prize was awarded to Pasternak solely for his politically provocative interpretation of the revolution in Doctor Zhivago, as a part of the West’s politics of cold war. The fact that the poet was nominated for the Nobel Prize for his poetry alone first in 1947 and again in 1953 did not seem to bear any significance for the cultural bureaucrats.

Pasternak wrote his novel between 1945 and 1955, but in a sense he had been working on it all his life. Most of his short stories and unfinished fiction in one way or another were geared to culminate in a novel. The first prominent piece that anticipated Pasternak’s major project was the short story "Liuvers’s Childhood," discussed earlier in this book. The immediate correspondence between Doctor Zhivago and this short work lies mainly in the place of the action, the Urals, where Zhenia Liuvers grows up and many of the events of the novel take place. But "Liuvers’s Childhood’’ was also conceived by Pasternak as a chapter of the never-realized novel "Three Names." Important for Doctor Zhivago’s genesis is also a prose sketch, "Bezliub’e" ("Without Love"), published in 1918. In this short piece Pasternak outlines one of the essential questions of Doctor Zhivago regarding the individual’s role in society. The story’s two Tatar names, Gimazetdin and Galliula, reappear in the novel. The protagonists of another one of Pasternak’s stories, "Aerial Ways," Lelia and Polivanov, anticipate Doctor Zhivago’s Lara and Antipov-Strel’nikov. In "Aerial Ways" the theme of the revolution—one of the central themes of the novel—enters Pasternak’s fiction for the first time. Both the novella "The Tale" and the novel in verse Spektorskii develop around the character Sergei Spektorskii, a writer whose artistic nature and undefined political beliefs make him akin to Iurii Zhivago. By writing "The Tale" Pasternak hoped to develop one of the last chapters of Spektorskii, which he tentatively entitled "Revolutsiia" ("Revolution"). He also cherished the dream of using "The Tale" as the beginning of yet another novel. But besides these prose pieces, it is the poet’s autobiography Safe Conduct that is most profoundly linked with the themes and central issues of Doctor Zhivago. The key questions that Pasternak addresses in Safe Conduct reappear in the novel. The concept of art as a fresh and original representation of reality, freedom of the artist in society and his role in it, as well as the artist’s moral responsibility before himself and others are among the questions that guide both works. There are also the evolution and fate of his own generation that Pasternak is concerned with in both his autobiography and the novel. But whereas Safe Conduct spans the period from Pasternak’s childhood to 1931, Doctor Zhivago expands and diversifies the historical background against which the ideas and ideals of Pasternak’s generation are portrayed. The juxtaposition of two poetic types, the more withdrawn and aesthetically distant Pasternak and the politically involved Mayakovsky, anticipates a similar juxtaposition of characters in the novel, represented by Zhivago and Antipov-Strel’nikov. And finally, Doctor Zhivago, like Safe Conduct, is autobiographical and informed by Pasternak’s personal life experiences.

After Safe Conduct Pasternak had not altogether given up his hope of writing a novel, and throughout the 1930s he had made further sketches for one, among them "The Notes of Patrick." Although this piece starts with World War I and then jumps back to the events of 1905, other chapters of the novel that Pasternak worked on were supposed to present a wider historical scene than that. Unfortunately, all this material perished in a fire in 1941. What survives is the cover of Pasternak’s projected novel with two crossed out titles on it: "Kogda mal’chiki vyrosli" (When the Boys Grew up) and "Zapiski Zhivul’ta" (The Notes of Zhivul’t). It is probably not accidental that the very sound of the name Zhivul’t is close to that of Zhivago and that both names are related to the Russian word zhivoi (living). This similarity becomes especially meaningful if readers take into account that one of Pasternak’s early prose sketches, "Smert’ Reliquimini" ("The Death of Reliquimini"), has a variant name, Purvit—for Reliquimini, derived from the distorted French phrase pour la vie (for the sake of life, 3:645). The three names, Zhivago, Zhivul’t, and Purvit, are then united by their common life-affirming symbolism.

"The Notes of Patrick" contains a range of themes that links it with Doctor Zhivago. Its heroine Evgeniia Istomina is reminiscent of Lara. Istomina is married to a teacher of physics and mathematics in the Ural town of Iuriatin, one of the major sights of action in Doctor Zhivago. After her husband disappears at the front during World War I, Istomina, like Lara, raises her daughter Katia alone. There are further characters in "The Notes of Patrick" that could be considered models for Doctor Zhivago. Among them are Anna Gubertovna (in Doctor Zhivago her patronymic is Ivanovna) and Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Gromeko, in whose house Patrick grows up. As in the novel, the Gromekos in "The Notes of Patrick" have a daughter, Tonia, whom Patrick/Zhivago marries. Other similarities that reach beyond the scope of this discussion further enhance the closeness between the two works.

Pasternak began work on Doctor Zhivago in the winter of 1945–1946, and his correspondence of that period reflects his intensive work on the novel. On 1 February 1946 he wrote to Olga Freidenberg that he was writing a "large prose" in which he wanted to express things most important to him. By October 1946 he informed her that he had already written a part of novel titled "Mal’chiki i devochki" (Boys and Girls), which spans the period 1902–1946. The degree of involvement with and excitement about this piece of writing is reflected in a letter to Freidenberg of 13 October 1946, in which Pasternak calls "Boys and Girls" his "first real work" and outlines some issues it was going to address: Christianity, nationalism, and the Jewish question. Despite his intense translation work at that time, Pasternak made progress on his novel, which later was titled Doctor Zhivago. In the fall of 1948 he reported to Freidenberg that the first part of the book was finished and he was planning for the second, which would cover the period from 1917 to 1945. The letter contains major points of the plot development that indeed later fully materialized in the completed novel: the characters Gordon and Dudorov were to survive their friend Zhivago, who was to die in 1929, leaving behind a notebook filled with poems, which would appear in a separate chapter.

Although the literary-political situation in the Soviet Union continued to be oppressive and Pasternak was systematically attacked in the press despite the fact that he was not publishing new works, on 27 December 1974 he signed a contract with the journal New World for the novel with the working title "Innokentii Dudorov," earlier called "Boys and Girls." The work on the novel did not progress as fast as he had hoped because of the bulk of commissioned translations he had to finish first and because of unexpected personal circumstances. In the fall of 1946 he met Olga Ivinskaia, who worked at the publishing house of New World and who soon became his new love. His intimate relationship with Ivinskaia lasted for the rest of his life, and once again he was caught in the moral dilemma of making a choice between his wife and his mistress. The problem was never resolved; he was torn between the two women until his death. Ivinskaia began to play a growing role as Pasternak’s literary agent during his lifetime, and she also significantly influenced his creation of the image of Lara. Pasternak’s liaison with Ivinskaia became known to the secret police, and in the fall of 1949 she was arrested, charged with anti-Soviet activities, and sentenced to five years in prison camps. She served practically the full term and was released in 1953 under the first amnesty for political prisoners. A few months before her return Pasternak suffered a serious heart attack from which it took him months to recover.On 14 March 1953 Stalin died, and a brief relaxation of the political climate, known as the "thaw," followed. In the April 1954 issue of the literary journal Znamia (Banner), ten poems from Pasternak’s novel-in-progress were published with a short authorial introduction, and Iurii Zhivago’s name was mentioned as the "author" of the poems for the first time. Also in 1954 Pasternak’s Hamlet premiered at the Leningrad Pushkin Theater. But liberalism was never a lasting phenomenon in the Soviet Union, and a swift return to the ideological control of culture and literature was inevitable. When Doctor Zhivago was finally finished in 1955, Pasternak encountered the usual obstacles of censorship to publishing his novel.

The history of the publication of Doctor Zhivago could well serve as the plot for a political thriller. The general controversies have been aptly described by Robert Conquest in his book Courage of Genius. A brief review of them may suffice here in order to provide the background of the reception of the novel in the Soviet Union and abroad. Initially Pasternak submitted the manuscript to the journals Literaturnaia Moskva (Literary Moscow) and New World, but both found problems with its ideological overtones and refused to publish it. Despite the "thaw" and signs of some social criticism in newer works of Soviet literature, Pasternak’s novel was an oddity because it challenged "the very theoretical basis of Marxism on which the Soviet state was built" and also seemed to demonstrate that Stalinism was the inevitable result of "the nature of the Bolshevik Party and Soviet power" (Fleishman 1990, 278). In addition to its oppositional ideology, the novel was also unacceptable because it contained "no statement of ultimate truths or prescriptions" (Fleishman 1990, 279).

The decision not to publish Doctor Zhivago reflected the government line on preventing any political controversy over intellectuals’ desire for more freedom. The party also feared an emergence of anti-government movements that were fermenting in Eastern Europe at the time (the East German uprising in 1953, the Hungarian struggle, and the unrest in Poland in 1956). What precipitated the liberal moods in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was the so-called "secret speech" delivered by the new first secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. At a closed session Khrushchev exposed Stalin’s crimes and denounced his cult of personality. The content of the speech became widely known and was viewed by Eastern European as well as Soviet intellectuals as a sign of liberalization. But all such hopes were shattered when the political oppositions in Poland and Hungary were quickly suppressed. Especially after the Hungarian rebellion the Soviet Government had to make sure that the dangerous spirit of freedom did not infect its own ranks and thereafter its stability. Among the first targets of the Khrushchev government in its preventive campaign to purge literature of the dangerous moods of liberalization were the journals New World and Literary Moscow, known for their liberal inclinations. Under these circumstances the publication of Doctor Zhivago in either of these periodicals or any other Soviet publication was out of the question, and in March 1956 Pasternak gave the manuscript to a visiting Italian journalist, Sergio D’Angelo, a member of the Italian Communist Party who was working in Moscow and visited Pasternak in Peredelkino. With Pasternak’s permission, D’Angelosent the manuscript to an Italian publisher with pro-Communist sympathies, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who offered to publish the book in an Italian translation. Pasternak was well aware of the consequences of his acceptance of such an offer, but in view of the near impossibility of publishing Doctor Zhivago in the Soviet Union and the urgency with which he wanted to see the manuscript published, he was willing to face the wrath of the authorities after the book’s publication in the West (Fleishman 1990, 278). Since Pasternak made no secrets about his plans, the news of the novel’s foreign release on 22 November 1957 spread rapidly among the literary circles and alarmed Soviet officials. The entire Soviet press mobilized its forces in a slanderous campaign against him. Pasternak was subject to enormous pressure from the authorities to stop the publication, and the Soviet officials requested that Feltrinelli abandon the book’s production. Feltrinelli, however, was determined to publish the novel and pointed out to the Soviets that the English and other editions were already well under way (Conquest 1966, 66).

The rage of the Soviet authorities against Doctor Zhivago had been building even up before the novel was published in Italy. What was especially offensive to them was the publication of excerpts from the novel in a Polish literary journal, Opinie (Opinion), and of a few of Zhivago’s Christian poems in the anti-Soviet emigre journal Grani (Landmarks). Soviet authors were not allowed to publish abroad without permission from the authorities, and so the fact that Pasternak’s writing appeared in print in the West without official approval and on such a forbidden topic as Christianity was seen as a slap in the face of the Soviet literary institutions.

The success of the novel following its publication in Italian was sensational. Its first printing of six thousand copies was sold out on the first day. Over the next two years the novel was translated into twenty-four languages. After Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize the Union of Soviet Writers, the Communist Party, and various public organizations began systematic attacks against Pasternak. He was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and accused of betraying his country and negatively portraying the socialist revolution and Soviet society— despite the fact that the vast majority of the people participating in the campaign had never even read the novel. Some demanded his expulsion from the country. Privately, however, Pasternak received many letters of support and encouragement from admirers. Yet the psychological pressure on him mounted, and he seriously feared deportation to the West. Compared to other options—prison or labor camps—that dissident Soviet writers had to face, deportation to the West seemed to be a mild punishment. Yet Pasternak did not want to leave Russia. These circumstances forced him first to decline the Nobel Prize and then to write a letter to Khrushchev with a request not to be deported. In this letter he wrote: "I am linked with Russia by my birth, life, and work. I cannot imagine my fate separate from and outside Russia. . . . A departure beyond the borders of my country would for me be equivalent to death . . . " (Conquest 1966, 178). Pasternak was also forced to write to Pravda a letter of renunciation of the Nobel Prize. This letter is an interesting document. Despite its generally apologetic tone, it contains lines that can be read as a defense of the views expressed in the novel: "It seems that I assert that any revolution is a historically illegitimate phenomenon, that the October Revolution was one of such illegitimate events, that it brought Russia misfortunes and led the Russian traditional intelligentsia to its destruction. It is clear to me that I cannot accept such assertions carried to absurdity" (Conquest 1966, 181). Although Pasternak was allowed to stay in Russia and retain both his apartment in Moscow and the house in Peredelkino, the attacks against him never stopped. His last collection of verse, Kogda razguliaetsia (When the Weather Clears), includes a poem, "Nobelevskaia premiia" ("The Nobel Prize," 1959), that describes his feelings about that hard time: "I am lost like a beast in its bay. / There are people out there, freedom, light, / But behind me there is the noise of the hounds, / There is no escape for me. /... How did I dare to write such malicious offense, / I, a murderer and evildoer, / Who make the whole world weep / At the beauty of my native land."

Whereas the official Soviet press presented Doctor Zhivago as an artistically weak novel noted in the West solely for its political content, the reaction of Western critics, although not unanimous, was for the most part enthusiastic. Particularly favorable reviews came from such distinguished writers as the American Edmund Wilson, the Italian Alberto Moravia, and the French Albert Camus and Francois Mauriac, to name but a few. But the book was also attacked on both artistic and political grounds in the West. Vladimir Nabokov found it weak, and one American Slavic scholar bluntly called it mediocre in his 1959 review "Courage But Not Excellence" (Cornwell 1986, 11–13). There were also opinions voiced by the European orthodox left agreeing with the official Soviet views on history and politics. These critics presented the novel as ignoring or maliciously distorting facts of Soviet history and life (Conquest 1966, 52–53). There was another reason, beyond politics, however, why the case of Pasternak’s novel attracted so much attention in the West. In Fleishman’s opinion, Pasternak’s frame of mind in Doctor Zhivago demonstrated "the organic, indissoluble tie with European culture," a feature that Stalin consistently had tried to destroy in the Soviet intelligentsia during his rule (Fleishman 1990, 286–87). Pasternak appeared to Westerners as a symbol of the old culture that had almost completely vanished in the Soviet Union. His refined education and open-mindedness, resistance to official culture, advocation of humanism, and original interpretation of Christianity—"all this was out of keeping with stereotypical portraits of the Soviet intellectual" (Fleishman 1990, 287). These features of Doctor Zhivago go against the grain of ideology and cultural assumptions and present a different, older world of free thinking and originality that the Soviet party apparatus was systematically trying to kill in its writers...

In Doctor Zhivago readers see Russian history from the beginning of the twentieth century to the mid 1950s. Pasternak takes his characters through the turbulent events of the first Russian revolution of 1905,World War I, the February revolution of 1917 that overthrew the monarchy, the October revolution of the same year that installed the Bolshevik regime, and the civil war that followed it. In the conclusion he further, however briefly, treats the first years of building socialism in Russia, and finally, in the epilogue World War II and the postwar situation up to the 1950s are touched upon. This historical sweep and breadth of the novel makes Pasternak’s approach to representing history seem problematic for some readers and critics. Isaac Deutscher, for instance, in a highly critical article titled "Pasternak and the Calendar of the Revolution," accuses the author of Doctor Zhivago of placing his characters "in the backwoods and backwaters" of history. Deutscher’s comparison is to Tolstoy, who, in his celebrated historical epic, War and Peace, throws his characters "right onto the stream of history" (Deutscher 1969, 244). Deutscher also points out that whereas in War and Peace Tolstoy introduces real historical figures (for example, Czar Aleksandr, Napoleon, and the head of the Russian army, Kutuzov) and describes places of historical significance, Pasternak "has no eye for the historic scene. He runs away from history, just as all the time his chief characters flee from the scourge of revolution" (Deutscher 1969, 245). Deutscher’s notion is indeed correct that Pasternak presents his heroes mostly on the periphery of the revolutionary events and introduces no real historical figures into the narrative (the White Army admiral Kolchak fighting in Siberia is perhaps the only historical figure to make a brief appearance in the book). But the critic fails to see that Pasternak was hardly concerned with writing a traditional historical novel or a "political novel par excellence" (Deutscher 1969, 241). Pasternak is neither attempting to chronicle history in Doctor Zhivago, which is obvious from his somewhat careless use of dates, nor does he intend to write a political indictment of the Soviet regime in a dissident vein a` la Solzhenitsyn a short time later. Above all, he is writing "a philosophical novel, a testimony of thought and experience." The focus of Pasternak’s exploration is primarily on the individual and, only through the individual and his existential and psychological situation, on history. It is because of this that Pasternak’s novel projects a very different sense of history than Tolstoy’s—more intimate, personal, and emotionally intense than Tolstoy’s, whose philosophical views on the nature of war permeate the novel, and who at the end of War and Peace adds an essay on his understanding of the meaning of history. Pasternak approaches history as "an impressionist painter," de Mallac writes: "many strokes create the total impression if one just stands back far enough" (de Mallac 1981, 307).

The impressionistic perception, conceptualization, and projection of history are consistent features of the novel. Although views on history and the revolution are expressed by many characters in the book, the voice that readers hear most prominently is Pasternak’s own. Through Iurii, a thinly veiled persona of the author himself, readers follow the evolution of Pasternak’s views on Russia’s revolutionary history, the view through the eyes of a sophisticated, sensitive, and talented artist, very much like Pasternak himself.

When the provisional government assumes power in Russia after the abdication of the czar, Iurii is at the front, in Meliuzeevo, far away from the events of the revolution.Heresponds to it with enthusiasm and idealism. The joy of freedom is reflected in his conversation with Lara: ‘‘Just think of it, the roof has been torn off Russia and we, with all the people, are out in the open. . . . Freedom! Real freedom. . . out of the blue, beyond our expectation, freedom by accident, through a misunderstanding.’’ The language of Zhivago’s welcoming of the revolution is significant both for understanding his views as well as the novel’s whole meaning. What Iurii’s words emphasize is the elemental nature of the events, their accidental occurrence and ambiguity, in fact a possibility of their being a misunderstanding. These aspects stand behind much of the novel’s own plot progression. For Zhivago the revolution has a providential quality, and he elevates it almost to divine status in his vision of universal harmony ("mother Russia . . . is talking and she cannot stop. . . . And it is not only people that are talking. Stars and trees got together and are talking, and night flowers are philosophizing, and stone houses hold meetings"). In his interpretation the revolution acquires an abstract quality. Indeed, with Zhivago on the periphery of the events in Meliuzeevo, readers do feel far removed from the violent historical reality. This feeling is intensified by Zhivago’s "double vision" of the revolution: "Everyone has been through two revolutions: first his own, personal as well as another, the general one." It is the personal one that readers are mostly exposed to, and the general one reveals itself through the multiplicity of the characters’ voices in the novel.

Pasternak does not in any way promote Zhivago’s ideas about the revolution as the correct ones. On the contrary, he emphasizes the fact that his protagonist expresses the view of the Russian professional middle class, which constituted the core of the intelligentsia. He makes it clear in the novel that Zhivago’s response to the revolution has two sides. The first could be described as the "poetics of home," comfort, stability, "good-heartedness and purity." Zhivago is very concerned that this cozy life might vanish and "wanted it safe and whole." The second side reveals his naive and romantic attraction to the revolution, identifying it with the freedom-loving ideals of his youth and at the same time being fascinated by its new, unknown drifts. For Zhivago these new elements, while associated with blood and violence, also symbolize real life and a real change for Russia. With fascination and respect, he describes the Bolsheviks as heroes and ‘‘experts of [this] elemental power’’ of the revolution, guiding the people to the future.

In part 2 Zhivago’s pre-revolutionary world of comfort and high values is juxtaposed to the world of the revolutionary railroad workers. Once again it is an individual perception that Pasternak focuses on. Untouched by good fortune, the railroad worker Kupriian Tiverzin lives in a world of injustice, "of ignominy and fraud." In his revolutionary dreams, in the name of the workingmen, he rises against his oppressors, among whom Zhivago (by virtue of his class) might very well be placed.

Iurii’s initial desire to include himself with the "people" is problematic from the very beginning. The people—like Tiverzin—are not eager to include him in their ranks. Later in the novel the growing polarization of the two worlds after the socialist revolution—the working class on the one hand, professional and industrial bourgeoisie on the other—is explicitly commented on by the author: "Old life and the new order did not correspond to each other. They were not yet openly hostile to each other, as when the civil war broke out a year later but there was a lack of connection between the two. These were two sides confronting each other...." The gap between the social classes is tangible even before the October revolution, and therefore, it is not surprising that Zhivago senses it and, while preaching socialism as the road toward an amelioration of society, foresees the imminent death of his class ("he considered himself and his own class doomed"). This, however, does not change his deep spiritual commitment to the people and their future well-being. A Christian touch of self-sacrifice, reminiscent of Lieutenant Schmidt, sounds in his words when he is talking about his fate, which he is willing to accept without resistance in the name of the suffering Russian people: "[He] was ready to sacrifice himself for the general good." In these words readers hear an echo of Vedeniapin’ revolutionary utopianism ("[it] will lead people toward the light") and his total inability to connect theory with real life. In fact, both uncle and nephew preach the radical and complete liberation from the old system but have only a vague idea of the new one. Vedeniapin’s metaphor of the complete destruction of the old building corresponds in its essence to the medical language of Zhivago’s ecstatic welcoming of the October revolution. Zhivago marvels at the Bolsheviks;ap ability to "cut out the old stinking ulcers" at once Vedeniapin’s and Zhivago’s attitudes toward the revolution are romantic and idealistic. Their political naivety points to Pasternak’s earlier hero Lieutenant Schmidt and even to Pasternak himself at the time of the February revolution.

As the narrative develops, external events are given more attention and gradually influence Zhivago’s attitude toward the new regime. As his hardships worsen, the pulse of history is felt more and more strongly and "manifests itself as civil war and domestic strife, in a ‘permanent revolution’ which is at once material and spiritual warfare, a total struggle without quarter or truce" (Poggioli 1958, 551). Material deprivations, hunger, epidemics, brutality, and the new bureaucracy of the Bolshevik regime all inexorably lead Zhivago to change his views on the revolution. Assuming that he was ready for self-sacrifice and suffering, is his subsequent disappointment with Bolshevism inevitable?

The answer to this question lies in Zhivago’s philosophy and his idealistic expectations of new freedoms and enlightened liberalism for all people of Russia. Unfortunately, however, liberalism was scarcely on the Bolsheviks’ agenda. Their priorities were the establishment of their dictatorship by means of a victorious class struggle and reshaping the new society according to their uniform ideological pattern. The October revolution that actually took place was not Zhivago’s revolution, and he was quick to realize it. During his trip to the Urals he comes in contact with people outside his own social circle for the first time in his life. What he sees in the Russian provinces and hears from people only confirms his view that Marxism, which lies at the foundation of Bolshevism, is an abstract, self-centered teaching, far removed from life, and as handled by the new regime it becomes not a tool of liberation but an effective means of political suppression. Ordinary people have been fooled by it as much as the intellectuals. As Zhivago’s co-traveler, the co-operativist Kostoed observes, the hope of the people for land and freedom was deceived, and instead, "from the fetters of the old government oppression, the people fell under the much harsher yoke of the new revolutionary superstate." The omnipresent oppression under the new regime is a major blow to Zhivago’s liberal attitudes and leads him to reject the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks as a form of transition to a happier socialist society: "nothing can be gained by brute force. One should be drawn to good by goodness."

After the horrors of the civil war, which he experienced during his forced service with the partisans, Zhivago’s sense of history and the revolution undergoes a drastic change. Now he clearly sees that his hope for freedom will not materialize in a state based on political dogma and oppression. He cannot expect anything from those "active, limited and fanatical geniuses," as he calls the revolutionaries, who are determined to transform Russia according to their will. From now on they will perpetually be called "bright heroes," whereas he will be stigmatized as a "petty soul that sides with obscurantism and the oppression of the people." This hurts and angers Iurii. But he is not the only one disturbed by the new people in power. Along with Iurii, the author himself responds to the powerful revolutionary force that from now on is going to determine the destiny of the Russian people. And therefore the portraits of the old revolutionaries Tiverzin and Antipov appear in a telling grotesque light: "Counted among gods at whose feet the revolution laid its gifts and sacrifices, they sat silent, as strong idols from whom political conceit annihilated all life and humanity."

After the true nature of the Bolsheviks begins to emerge even more clearly, Zhivago justifiably expects that in the process of altering the social order, they will eradicate any hint at individuality in the building of their monolith ideological state. The threat to his humanistic ideal of freedom is real, and he sees only two outlets for himself: art and love. Reality itself forces him to create his own castle, a world within the world of the revolution. To preserve his value system, he must reject the historical context. In that, Zhivago can be perceived as both "the weakest victim" and the most "elusive enemy" (Poggioli 1958, 551) of the Bolshevik regime. Art and love become his islands amid the hostile stormy waters. But despite his proud isolation as an artist without any political cause, he remains a threat to the new regime as long as he speaks his idiom and exists on the margins of the social system. While readers may interpret Zhivago’s retreat from the world of socialism into the world of his ideas as a capitulation before the revolution and therefore pronounce the death of his whole class, there is an optimistic message in the novel that must not be ignored. Even under Soviet socialism Zhivago remains spiritually free and faithful to his moral and intellectual principles. It is these principles that Pasternak was interested in presenting in his novel and for the sake of which he avoided the presentation of history through dates, facts, and actual personalities. Instead, he foregrounds the individual perception and experience of history. Pasternak’s novel is "a spiritual document of great significance" (Poggioli 1958, 551) in which the self occupies center stage and is elevated above history....

Source: Larissa Rudova, "Doctor Zhivago," in Understanding Boris Pasternak, University of South Carolina Press, 1997, pp. 137–42, 160–65.


Critical Overview