Form and Content

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The main character, Yuri Zhivago, starts out as a young man in unremarkable times, the turn of the twentieth century in Russia. History has other plans, however, for both Zhivago and Russia. The plot of Doctor Zhivago concerns the disruption of civilization as a result of cataclysmic events in history. The first scenes take place during the period of peace preceding the first Russian revolution of 1905. Soon, however, the revolution insinuates itself into Zhivago’s experience. By the time of World War I, he is a doctor and works on the front. During the civil war, he is kidnapped by the White Army and made to serve among them. He escapes, but fate calls him back to Moscow, where he dies in a streetcar, of a bursting—broken—heart.

Much of the plot revolves around fate. The young Yuri becomes a doctor as he had planned and marries his intended bride, showing that will can be successfully exerted; but war, revolution, famine, and the Russian Civil War first displace him from his home, then send his family beyond his reach, and eventually breaks his life apart. In the warp between will and fate, he begins to understand the difference between living in a role that is made for one in life and living itself. In Siberia, he joins another woman, Lara, while still married to his wife, Tonia; he learns that here, far from the strictures of the city’s quotidian existence and polite society, he has at last a soul mate, someone, who like him, looks to life as an end in itself. Thus, he finds a means for justifying the human soul, but not as the bizarre straining to some materialistic or ideological goal that counts victories in abstract categories beyond individual personal experience; he knows that it is this focus on achievement that often throttles life and human thought.

This work incorporates a traditional, novelistic structure that starts at a given point, diverges from it, and eventually returns to it, with many interesting deviations as well. One of these is a third section, not labeled either chapter or part, devoted exclusively to the poems ostensibly written by Yuri Zhivago, primarily during his seclusion at Varykino. These poems are a kind of psychological or philosophical echo of the experiences of Zhivago, an internal resonance of the external chronicle of his life found in the novel. In Varykino, he has time for the introspection and philosophizing that were long lacking in his life, and it is here that he wrestles with the sense of his own being, the necessity of love, and fate.

The prose text is divided into two parts: Part 1 corresponds to the period before the physical upheaval of Zhivago, and part 2, before the conclusion and epilogue, are devoted to the Siberian experience. Into the narrative itself are inserted such text as poems, signs, and proclamations, which was very typical of Russian writing of the 1910’s and 1920’s, when the action of this novel takes place, further reconstructing the historical period of the novel.

Places Discussed

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*Moscow. Russia’s greatest city, in which the two most important families in the novel, the Zhivagos and the Gromekos, lead a life of privilege. Yuri Zhivago, the son of a late profligate millionaire, is a young doctor with a bright future. Tonia Alexandrovna, a friend of his early youth and his future wife, belongs to a well-to-do family with an estate in the Ural Mountains. Zhivago is bent on ministering to the needy, while Tonia is a typical wife in love with her husband and supporting him in every way. There is...

(This entire section contains 826 words.)

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another woman, Lara, whom Zhivago meets coincidentally in Moscow during a patient visit. He gradually falls in love with Lara, who comes from an impoverished family. She is drawn into a love affair with an older man, a lawyer named Khomarovsky, whom she tries to kill at a Christmas party given by another well-to-do family. Thus the paths of the two classes—the wealthy upper class and that of the poorer inhabitants of Moscow—are interwoven, auguring the fateful events that eventually overwhelm Russia. Through the depiction of the affair between Yuri and Lara, Pasternak shows the diverse makeup of Moscow along with the willingness of a member of the upper class to mix freely with those less privileged.

When revolution reaches Moscow, the well-to-do citizens are threatened with a loss of their privileges. In addition to shortages and deprivations of all kinds, homes and apartments are requisitioned by the military, and the Gromekos are forced to squeeze into two rooms of their spacious house. Yuri and Tonia are finally forced to leave Moscow and travel to their family estate in the Ural Mountains, again underscoring the difference between the Zhivagos’ stature and that of the revolutionaries, most of whom come from the lower classes. When they return to Moscow much later, separately and at different times, they find that their old way of life has come to an end. Tonia and her family emigrate to France, while Yuri dies of a heart attack in a packed Moscow trolley, symbolizing suffocation under the new communist rule.


Varykino (vah-RAH-kee-no). Country estate belonging to Tonia Zhivago’s family in the Ural Mountains. The Zhivagos find peace and serenity at the beautiful estate in the Russian countryside. However, because of the revolution swirling around them, Yuri and Tonia are forced to raise their own crops, a departure from their easy lifestyle in Moscow. Moreover, Yuri, a poet since his student days, returns to writing, inspired not only by the beauty of the surrounding countryside but also by the dramatic, often dangerous events taking place around them. It is the last home Yuri and Tonia share and the place where Yuri and Lara later separate permanently. The heavy snow covering the mansion and the howling wolves, who draw nearer and nearer each night, epitomize the isolation of the Zhivagos and the perils of the encroaching revolution.


Yuriatin (yur-YA-teen). Fictitious town in the central part of the Ural Mountains. It is the final stop after the Zhivagos’ long journey from Moscow. It is also the native town of Lara, who plays a fateful role in Yuri’s life. The similarity of Yuri’s name with the first part of the town’s name is not coincidental. The name “Yuri” is equivalent to “George,” and Yuri is equated to St. George, who was reputed to have bravely slain a dragon. Yuriatin is an old town with beautiful buildings that boasts a House of Sculpture, a beacon of culture in the destructive days of the revolution. It is also significant that, after escaping from communist forces, Yuri returns to Yuriatin, where Lara is living, and not to Varykino, where Tonia and their child are waiting.


Highway. Road near Yuriatin, on which many events concerning Yuri take place. Controlled mostly by communist forces, it is here that they capture and hold him, forcing him to work for them for several months. From the highway, Yuri witnesses many atrocities taking place. Although as a physician he is morally opposed to bloodshed, Yuri is forced to participate in a skirmish between communists and their opponents, mostly young men. Zhivago nurses a wounded soldier from the opposing side, as if to show that he does not sympathize with the communist cause.


Railroads. Trains play an important role in the novel. They not only crisscross the huge expanses of both Europe and Asia but also figure at crucial points in the story. These include the mysterious death of Yuri’s father, which occurs on a train; the days-long journey of the Zhivagos from Moscow to the Urals; and Yuri’s meeting Strelnikov, Lara’s husband and a revolutionary firebrand, who knows about Yuri’s tryst with Lara and implicitly warns him of the consequences. The trains also have a symbolic meaning in that they connect people in the days of the revolution, when individuals and groups tend to drift apart.

Historical Context

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Karl Marx (1818–1883)
Pasternak studied philosophy in school while he was in Germany and was interested, as many students were at that time, in the writings of Karl Marx, a German philosopher who supported the working class and whose ideas fueled the socialist movement that began in the early twentieth century and swept across the world.

In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) Marx contrasted the different approaches to labor under a capitalist government and a communist one. In Marx’s ideal communist environment, laborers worked in a cooperative in which all shared equally in the benefits. Together with Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), Marx published a book from which many revolutionists took their ideas. The Communist Manifesto (1847) contained all of Marx’s beliefs about the nature of a communist society. This book was written in a simple language, unlike some of Marx’s other works. The publication quickly became very popular and was said to be one of the instigations of revolutions that began sweeping across Europe. Marx’s most extensive work, on which he devoted the latter years of his life, was the three-volume Das Kapital in which Marx delineated a capitalist society and its effects upon workers. Volumes one and two were published in 1885. After Marx’s death, Engels put together Marx’s notes and published the third volume in 1895.

Maxim Gorky (1868–1936)
Pasternak was also influenced by the political works of Maxim Gorky. Gorky was the pseudonym, taken from the Russian word that means “bitter,” used by Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov. Gorky began as a journalist and spent many years traveling across the vast territory of Russia, and what the standards of living he saw agitated him. To make sense of his experiences and to sort through his responses to them, he began writing fiction, which became instantly popular. His first work, Sketches and Stories (1889) tells of the hardships of the working class, of social outcasts, and the poor. Gorky’s best known work is a play that he conceived after being encouraged by famed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Gorky’s play, The Lower Depths (1902), received a lot of attention in Russia and also found appreciative audiences in Europe and in the United States.

In the same year that his play was positively received, Gorky was banished to northern Russia because of his political activism and his revolutionary ideas. He joined the leftist group, the Social Democratic Party led by Lenin. Then in 1906, Gorky traveled to the United States to raise money for the Bolsheviks. Later, he would find both the Bolsheviks’ and Lenin’s theories too harsh, and he placed himself in voluntary exile from his homeland. Gorky returned to Russia, however, before his death. By then Stalin’s regime was in full force. Under Stalin, intellectuals and artists, along with many other citizens, were considered suspicious and thousands were executed. When Gorky died suddenly in 1936, rumors spread that he had been poisoned.

Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924)
The first head of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin (whose real name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov) was the son of a Russian official who worked to improve the education of the masses. Lenin’s brother was hanged as a terrorist, and his sister, who was considered an accomplice, was exiled. These events are said to have radicalized the intelligent Lenin, turning his thoughts to revolution. A student of Marxism, Lenin was himself exiled in 1895 for five years for contributing to propaganda in favor of revolution. His most famous propaganda pamphlet, “What Is to Be Done,” is said to have sparked the 1903 split between the two factions of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. The Mensheviks disagreed with Lenin’s philosophy, while the Bolsheviks completely embraced it and made Lenin their leader. Another important and influential writing was Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1909), which espoused the basic tenets of the Marxist-Leninist political philosophy. Lenin led the October Revolution in 1917, which overran the provisional government and then took power. He was elected chairman of the Council of People’s Commissioners. After two assassination attempts on his life, in 1918, Lenin took a heavy handed and deadly approach to suppressing any rebellion against him and his government. Censorship prevented counterrevolutionary publications, and many people suspected of being against Lenin’s revolution were executed, deported, or imprisoned. Known as the Red Terror, this systematic abuse of human rights continued for years. Some scholars estimate that approximately 6,300 were killed the first year; by 1921, an estimated 70,000 had been imprisoned in what came to be called the Gulag, a network of labor camps and prisons across remote areas of the country.

Lenin died of a stroke in 1924, and his body went on permanent display in the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square in Moscow. Later, he was revered as the first leader of a communist state and was honored by statues in almost every Russian city. The name of St. Petersburg was changed to Leningrad until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837)
Considered Russia’s greatest poet (and often referred to in Pasternak’s book), Pushkin is also credited with establishing Russian literature. Pushkin was the first to use the language of the people in his poetry, thus making it accessible to the general public. He was the child of aristocrats, born in Moscow, and was a published poet by the age of fourteen. His earliest writings were influenced by old Russian fairytales. Pushkin was a radical politically and was later banished from his town because of his philosophy expressed in some of his writing. In 1833, Pushkin published what is considered his most influential work, a novel told in verse, titled Evgenii Onegin. His writings, with their mix of satire and drama continued to influence Russian literature for generations.

First Russian Revolution, 1905
Dissatisfaction among Russian workers was festering before 1905. Revolutionaries and those who called for democratic reform were carefully watched and if necessary suppressed, which caused a large emigration of intellectuals, artists, and students from Russia to other European countries. Many of these self-exiled people learned about Karl Marx while living in Germany, France, and Italy, and incorporated his ideas into their own beliefs about political change. In 1898, the Marxist Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party was formed. This party split into two factions in 1902, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. In the following few years, many top Russian officials were assassinated, causing the government to crack down even harder on anyone suspected of being a revolutionary. During this same time, Russia was involved in a losing war with Japan. The people became more and more dissatisfied with the poor conditions of their lives, and even peasants began burning down farms. As a result, a large part of the Russian Army was involved in suppressing fellow citizens.

On January 22, 1905, a quiet protest march in St. Petersburg to complain about the poor living conditions and to ask for voting rights began moving down the streets toward the winter residence of Tsar Nicholas II. The crowd was confronted by armed men on horseback who shot out indiscriminately. In the end, around one thousand people were killed with many more thousands injured. This confrontation and massacre, which became known as Bloody Sunday, sparked even more widespread protests across the country. Workers organized strikes, peasants looted the homes of gentry, and even landowners demanded access to more land. The government made slight concessions, reducing forced labor and insubstantial payments for work and setting up a powerless representative arm of the government, which only infuriated the people further. In October of 1905, the people presented their October Manifesto, which demanded more civil rights.

Nicholas II reluctantly signed the manifesto, giving the people the right to form political parties and take part in the government. Their role was minor, and the Duma (the political house of representatives) was completely suppressed by the tsar a year later. The police and the military quickly took up arms against anyone suspected of political activism, yet the political activists increased their attacks on government officials. However, nothing really changed. The tsar continued his absolute rule, the peasants and laborers continued to suffer and go hungry, and the unrest simmered without a leader or powerful organization to focus its energy.

Russian Revolution of 1917
By 1917, the Russian people were dismayed. Thousands of people had died in Russia’s disastrous involvement in World War I. Soldiers were deserting from the army by the thousands. Many returned home and used their weapons to take land they did not own. Food was scarce, and riots broke out in St. Petersburg. Soldiers united with the rioters, and this time they were successful in removing Nicholas II from power. Nicholas was forced to abdicate; he was assassinated the following year, along with all members of his immediate family and some members of the staff. He was the last Russian tsar.

With the tsar gone, a provisional government was established, which leaned toward a democratic form. However, the provisional government only lasted until October when the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, took power and established the Soviet Union in a nearly bloodless coup. This became known as the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks were popular but did not represent the majority of Russian citizens; the Bolsheviks knew that they could not maintain rule by democratic vote, so they declared a dictatorship.

Russian Civil War, 1918–1920
The Bolsheviks were in power in 1918, having created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). The Bolsheviks were members of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, which supported the political philosophy of Marx and the leadership of Lenin. The army that supported the Bolsheviks was called the Red Army. There was, however, an anti-Bolsheviks group that was referred to as the White Army, which represented the conservative wing of Russian political activists. The Russian Civil War was fought between these two groups. The Red Army had control of the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, while the White Army found support in the outlying areas. In order to counter the anti-Bolshevik movement, the Bolsheviks created a secret police organization that captured, imprisoned, and killed anyone suspected of allegiance with the White Army. This became known as the Campaign of Red Terror. The fight between the two armies lasted for two years, then ended when the Red Army was successful in completely putting down the White Army in 1920.

Literary Style

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The Classic Russian Novel
Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was written at the end of what many critics refer to as the golden age of Russian literature. Although the novel differs in some ways from the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, there are enough similarities to see it as following the form of the traditional nineteenth-century Russian novel.

The classic Russian novel provides extensive historical details. It also tends to explore religion and depict its influence on the characters. The large nineteenth-century Russian novel is realistic; it determines to present the authentic truth of real life. Often there are discussions of philosophy and contrasts drawn between the lives of those who dwell in the city and those who make their homes in the country. These novels also distinguish between romantic ideals and brute realism. The story of families is told, their ancestry and their progeny.

Journal Writing
Often in this novel, the narrator or some of the main characters reveal their thoughts as if they were writing in a journal. Quotation marks are even used to imply that the entries were taken directly from the journal. This adds a personal or introspective look into the characters’ minds and also adds legitimacy to their comments or observations. It makes readers feel privy to the inner thoughts of the characters. It also helps the reader to imagine that the characters are real. The journal writings add complexity to the characters, as they are not just reacting outwardly to what is happening to them in the story but are also taking the time to think privately through the larger issues that define their experiences.

Some critics have argued that the entire text of Doctor Zhivago is one large journal, the exposition of the author’s thoughts, thinly clothed in characterization and plot. In other words, the novel does not fit into the expected form. The characters are not fully developed and the plotline barely exists. The main purpose in the novel is to express the ruminations of the author. The dialogue is not so much a form of communication between two characters as it is a monologue that the author records, perhaps for readers, maybe just for himself, as one might write to oneself in a diary.

Many people have called Pasternak’s novel an epic. Traditionally, an epic refers to a long poem, but in modern times, this term has been used to describe novels and even movies. In general, an epic is a large work that encompasses a complex, huge subject. While it may focus on particular individuals, an epic generally tells the story of a people or a race, often including the story of how a given civilization or society had its beginning.

In an epic, the hero represents or endures the challenges that the people of his country face. While Zhivago, toward the end of this novel, feels more like an outsider than a hero leading his people, readers may envision him as a man of or before his time. Zhivago suffers much like most of the people in his country and is not afraid to speak his mind. He sees the foibles of the newly empowered leaders as well as the weaknesses and fears that paralyze many of the intelligentsia. In many ways, Zhivago predicts the fall of the Soviet Union, and in that sense, he may be considered heroic.

An epic may also cover a large geographic area and time. The timeframe of this novel, especially when read in the twenty-first century, adds to its epic quality. Also, the protagonist travels the vast landscape of the Soviet Union from its famous cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg to the remote regions of the Ural Mountains and Siberia.

However, Doctor Zhivago fails to meet the definition of an epic in the fact that it does not focus on great, majestic heroes or fantastic kings and warriors, but rather on the ordinary citizen, the true subject of an idealized communist state.

Literary Techniques

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In 1934, Pasternak declared that poetry was "pure prose in its pristine intensity," acknowledging the interrelation he sensed in the two genres. He considered Doctor Zhivago "the only worthwhile thing I have ever achieved," but commentators have noted passages in it where Pasternak seemed ill at ease with the novel form. Nevertheless, his deliberately low-key style as well as his impressionistic shifts in time and place and his use of symbolic coincidence carry the Russian epic novel form into a new, altogether individual, mode of artistic expression.

Pasternak also chose a tripartite form for Doctor Zhivago often compared to a religious triptych and to a "literary sonata." The three panels of his novelistic altarpiece, like three movements of a monumental sonata, are Part I, Zhivago's early life, in which Pasternak announces his themes; Part II, Zhivago's love for Lara, Pasternak's exposition, followed by his codalike chapter 16, an epilogue which pronounces the meaning of Zhivago's earthly life; and "The Poems of Yuri Zhivago," some of the greatest Christian poetry in any time or any language, a cycle of the liturgical year which elevates Zhivago's life to the supernatural plane of redeemed mankind. The musical metaphor for the novel's form may have been closest to Pasternak's heart; he always loved the work of the Romantic composer Frederic Chopin, because he felt Chopin "regarded his own life as a means of apprehending every life in the world," and he considered Chopin's "wider significance," especially in his monumental Etudes, as teaching first "a theory of childhood," then "an introduction to death," and at last no less than "the structure of the universe" (Pasternak's italics).

Social Concerns

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Revolution and its aftermath are the paramount social issues Pasternak explored in Doctor Zhivago. A multitude of internal and external forces had brought on Russia's convulsions in 1917 which provide the backdrop to Part I of the novel, Zhivago's early life. The Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905 during the disastrous Russo-Japanese War marked liberal demands for the establishment of a Russian duma (legislative assembly), but those reforms granted reluctantly by the largely ineffectual Nicholas II proved transitory. When war with Germany erupted in August 1914, the Russian Army was badly led, ill-equipped, and consumed with unrest, just as the Russian population as a whole was beset by inflation and food shortages and the strains of a foreign-financed, expanding industrial growth.

Part II of Doctor Zhivago, centering on the lyrical love story of Yuri Zhivago and Lara, takes place in the harrowing years after the February Revolution of 1917, when the moderate Aleksandr Karensky tried to solidify a central democratic authority in Russia. For a little while, Pasternak was able to celebrate "a moment that transformed everything and opened up hearts and minds," but in October of 1917 (Old Style) the Bolshevik wing of the leftist Social Democratic Party, led by Lenin, seized the government. Lenin signed the humiliating Brest-Litovsk Treaty early in 1918 to end Russia's involvement in World War I, and during the two years of devastating civil war which followed, Zhivago and Lara loved and lost each other.

In the NEP, a brief capitalistic interlude the Soviets had to allow to bring the country out of its post revolutionary economic disaster, Pasternak had experimented with expressionistic short fiction to convey his concept of the artist's relation to society, which he finally crystallized in the conclusion of Doctor Zhivago, as Lara stands beside Zhivago's coffin. She realizes then that their love had made them "an element in the beauty of the cosmos," far transcending the political realities that had torn them apart: "This unity with the whole was the breath of life to them . . . [but] the elevation of man above the rest of nature . . . a social system based on such a false premise, as well as its political application, struck them as pathetically amateurish and made no sense to them." As Ronald Hingley has noted, "Pasternak's greatest sin against Communism was not to take it seriously," and both Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya paid the price.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1910s: Russia suffers through a series of civil revolutions as the people attempt to gain democratic rights and overthrow the rule of the tsar. The country suffers from devastating losses in World War I.

    1950s: Russia (now called the U.S.S.R.) is involved in a cold war with the United States.

    Today: Russia has witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and struggles between communist rule and capitalism. The Russian Orthodox Church declares Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, a saint.

  • 1910s: Lenin takes Marxist ideas and creates a political philosophy upon which the Soviet Union’s Communist Party is based.

    1950s: Mao Zedong is established as the leader of a new communist government in China. In the United States, meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives, under the influence of Joseph McCarthy who heads its Committee on Un-American Activities, attempts to purge any communist sympathizers from the country.

    Today: Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, struggles to maintain control in his communist country, whose military is one of the world’s largest but whose people suffer from starvation.

  • 1910s: There is a political revolution in Russia as the people rebel against the monarchy.

    1950s: Europe and the United States witness the beginnings of a cultural revolution as the younger generation rebels against the ideals of the older generation.

    Today: Many countries witness acts of terrorism, some of which are based on or prompted by particular religious beliefs.

Literary Precedents

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According to Ronald Hingley, "Pasternak is more justly summed up as a poet who was also a prose writer than as one whose attainments in the two areas are of comparable importance." As a young poet, Pasternak at first idealized, then repudiated, the flamboyant iconoclastic Mayakovsky. Pasternak's own early work had combined elements of the Russian Futurist and Symbolist Schools, but he soon developed his own poetic voice, fresh, impassioned, and rich in striking metaphor. His dazzling originality fused with his affirmation of life so uniquely that his friend and defender Lydia Chukovskaya called him "the only non-tragic Russian poet" and claimed that "His voice always sounded in the major key."

In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak shares the religious and moral idealism of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy's vast panorama of all the levels of Russian society, but prose fiction lacks the disciplining structure of the conventional poetic forms Pasternak used, and Doctor Zhivago thus has a more nebulous focus than Pasternak's nineteenth-century predecessors had achieved. The impressionistic nimbus that surrounds Doctor Zhivago, however, is its distinguishing mark of sainthood, drawn from a mystical vision Pasternak had experienced in the works of the late nineteenth-century religious philosopher Soloviev. Soloviev's Sophia, the incarnation of divine wisdom, was the forerunner to those suffering women of Pasternak's who light Yuri Zhivago into eternity.


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Doctor Zhivago was adapted for the screen by Robert Bolt, produced by Carlo Ponti, directed by David Lean, and released in 1965 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The film's six Academy Awards went to Bolt, for his screenplay; to Freddie A. Young, for cinematography; to Maurice Jarre, for the musical score; to Dario Simon, for set decoration; to Phyllis Dalton, for costume design; and to John Box and Terry March, for art direction. Tom Courtenay was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his Pasha, but Julie Christie won her 1965 Best Actress Academy Award for Darling, not for her Lara in Doctor Zhivago. Other powerful performances came from Omar Sharif, a passionate and sensitive Yuri Zhivago; Geraldine Chaplin, as Zhivago's gentle forgiving wife Tonya; Rod Steiger as the suave amoral survivor Komarovsky; and Alec Guinness as Zhivago's enigmatic half-brother Yevgraf, who narrates the film in Bolt's largest, although not disruptive, departure from Pasternak's anonymously narrated novel.

Despite being produced in America, the film version of Doctor Zhivago dramatically extends the Russian artistic tradition, posing the interrelations of its characters against the immense Russian landscape which molds and often masters them. In the context of the twentieth century's most cataclysmic upheavals of revolution and civil war, Yuri Zhivago and the people close to him touch each other's lives all the more intimately for being separated so abruptly by circumstance. The essence of Pasternak's Christianity appears in the film's persevering image, the lonely candle glowing through an icy window, drawn from "Winter Night," one of the poems Yuri Zhivago composed at Varykino: Fidelity to his inmost self sustains not only the artist but those whom his life warms and consoles and offers hope, no matter how frail and futile his attempt may seem to the uncaring world around them. The film of Doctor Zhivago enjoyed wide popularity in its original appearance and its several re-releases, as well as on television, where it received one of the largest viewing audiences of a motion picture to date.

Media Adaptations

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David Lean directed Robert Bolt’s screen version of Doctor Zhivago in 1965, which was a box office hit. Omar Sharif played Zhivago, and Julie Christie played Lara. The movie won five Oscars.

In 2002, Doctor Zhivago was adapted to a television script for British television.

In 2003, Masterpiece Theatre presented a television version of Doctor Zhivago. Scottish actor Hans Matheson played Zhivago, and Keira Knightley played Lara. This version is available on DVD.

As of 2007, a Spanish audio tape, El Doctor Zhivago (2005), was available. It was narrated by Philip Madoc.

The Nobel Prize committee maintains a Pasternak web page at with links to other interesting sites.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bayley, John, “Introduction,” in Doctor Zhivago, Pantheon Books, 1991, pp. xii, xiii.

Gifford, Henry, “Doctor Zhivago,” in Pasternak: A Critical Study, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 197.

Livingstone, Angela, “Reception, Importance, and Position of Doctor Zhivago,” in Doctor Zhivago, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 1, 2. 5.

Pasternak, Boris, Doctor Zhivago, Pantheon Books, 1958.

Further Reading
Barnes, Christopher, Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography, Cambridge University Press, 2005. Using both personal accounts and family archives, Barnes depicts in this two-volume work both the personal and the political side of this great Russian writer.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, The Russian Revolution, Oxford University Press, 2001. The Russian Revolution was supposed to bring about a model Marxist political form of government. Instead, the revolution caused great suffering among its intended beneficiaries. The research done by Fitzpatrick occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union, which opened up archives that had been closed to all historians, including Russian researchers, until this time.

Fleishman, Lazar, Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics, Harvard University Press, 1990. Having researched Pasternak’s politics in preparation for writing this book, Fleishman gives the reader an understanding of the times in which Pasternak lived and an appreciation of the courage Pasternak displayed in speaking his mind and standing up to government censorship.

Reid, Christopher, From Tsar to Soviets: The Russian People and Their Revolution, 1917–21, Oxford University Press, 1996. Reid presents the Russian Revolution through the eyes of the people, their struggles and their dreams. With a very readable style, Reid presents the political, economical, and social environment during the time of the Russian tsars and how the pressure built up in the citizenry, leading them to revolt. This book also attempts to explain how the Bolshevik goals differed from those of the citizens during the ensuing revolution.

Rudova, Larissa, Understanding Boris Pasternak, University of South Carolina Press, 1997. In this book, Rudova expands on the merits of Pasternak, claiming that Pasternak’s literary ability and claim to fame extend well beyond this one publication. After all, in Russia, Pasternak is known first as a poet. Rudova explores Pasternak’s proficiency and artistry foremost in this genre.


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Erlich, Victor, ed. Pasternak: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978. This collection of essays covers all important facets of Pasternak’s opus, including short fiction, although the emphasis is on his poetry and Doctor Zhivago.

Gifford, Henry. Boris Pasternak: A Critical Study. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Gifford follows the stages in Pasternak’s life and discusses works written in those stages in order to establish his achievements as a poet, writer of prose fiction, and translator. Chapters 12 and 13 deal with Doctor Zhivago.

Ivinskaya, Olga. A Captive of Time. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s love in the last years of his life and the model for the character Lara in Doctor Zhivago, provides a wealth of information about Pasternak and Doctor Zhivago.

Mallac, Guy de. Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981. An extensive biography of Pasternak. The second part is devoted to Mallac’s interpretation of the most important features of Pasternak’s works. Doctor Zhivago is discussed in “Toward Doctor Zhivago.”

Muchnic, Helen. “Boris Pasternak and the Poems of Yuri Zhivago.” In From Gorky to Pasternak. New York: Random House, 1961. Muchnic discusses the poems appended to the novel as an integral and important part of the novel.

Rowland, Mary F., and Paul Rowland. Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967. This book-length interpretation of Doctor Zhivago attempts to clarify allegorical, symbolic, and religious meanings in the novel. Although some interpretations are not proven, most of them are plausible, making for fascinating reading.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide