Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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 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,...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Karl Marx (1818–1883)
Pasternak studied philosophy in school while he was in Germany and was interested, as many...

(The entire section is 1706 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

The Classic Russian Novel
Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was written at the end of what many critics refer to as...

(The entire section is 662 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1934, Pasternak declared that poetry was "pure prose in its pristine intensity," acknowledging the interrelation he sensed in the two...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Revolution and its aftermath are the paramount social issues Pasternak explored in Doctor Zhivago. A multitude of internal and...

(The entire section is 390 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1910s: Russia suffers through a series of civil revolutions as the people attempt to gain democratic rights and...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Watch any of the televised versions or the 1965 movie adaptation of Doctor Zhivago with your class. Then lead a class discussion on...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 217 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Other than the whole of Pasternak's poetry, which with Doctor Zhivago forms his spiritual autobiography, the work most closely related...

(The entire section is 136 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Doctor Zhivago was adapted for the screen by Robert Bolt, produced by Carlo Ponti, directed by David Lean, and released in 1965 by...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

David Lean directed Robert Bolt’s screen version of Doctor Zhivago in 1965, which was a box office hit. Omar Sharif played Zhivago,...

(The entire section is 113 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Pasternak thought of himself primarily as a poet. A selection of his poetry appeared in Pasternak: Selected Poems, published in 1992....

(The entire section is 218 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

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


(The entire section is 343 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.


(The entire section is 257 words.)