Themes

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Yuri Zhivago's very name announced the great theme Pasternak drew from the peculiarly Russian belief he shared with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the physical resurrection of the dead. "Why seek ye the living (zhivago) among the dead?" the angels in the Russian Bible ask the women who search for Christ on Easter morning, and from the first paragraph of Doctor Zhivago to the poem "Magdalene" which closes the novel, Pasternak reiterates his belief in the central mystery of Christianity. Zhivago's Christian name "Yuri" suggests the special Russian insight into the price of resurrection, the suffering and death undergone for love: yurodiviy, "fools of God," fitfully illuminate the course of Russian history, daring to speak the truth to the Tsars of All the Russias. Pasternak's title carries his message still further; in its oldest sense, "doctor" describes the teacher who heals the soul much as the physician tends the body. Doctor Zhivago speaks to man's deepest longing, teaching that even in the unparalleled agony Russia has undergone in the twentieth century, man must lose his life in pain before he finds it again, reborn in love.

Like every Russian novel of stature, Doctor Zhivago echoes with a multitude of secondary themes. Pasternak stresses humanity's right to choose freely between salvation and damnation; he opposes not only Marxist political oppression but any system which denies man the place that Orthodox Christianity claims for him, closer to God than the angels, but still subordinate to Divinity; and in the losing battle Yuri Zhivago wages on the side of good against evil, Pasternak depicts humanity's capacity to endure by following the path of love, Alyosha Karamazov's Christ like kiss of peace. The novel also offers a hymn of devotion to the Russian earth and a confirmation of Pasternak's conviction, as Olga Hughes has remarked, that art can reconstitute archetypes that symbolize man's oneness with the universe; but all lesser themes and motifs merge in Pasternak's statement that "individual human life became the story of God." Robert Payne believes that Pasternak "is saying as clearly as a man can that Doctor Zhivago is a divine mystery."

Themes

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Revolution
Revolution effects the violent and sudden change of political order, and Pasternak’s novel shows its all-encompassing effects. Various uprisings and civil and world wars create the backdrop for and determine much of the action. The characters’ lives are shaped by political upheaval. Revolution heightens the ironic contrast between the initial ideal and the harsh outcome. Revolution causes destruction and suffering and illustrates the contest between powerful groups and individuals. Revolution shows how the ordinary individual is swept along by group action. The characters fall for the hypnotic promise in political rhetoric, and they suffer the ruthless havoc that follows. Pasternak’s portrait of revolution and the destruction it caused prevented his novel from being published in his country. He was called a traitor because he presented a critical view of this troubled time in Russian history. This more negative view was not permitted.

But Pasternak also depicts some positives in his portrait of revolution. He shows how passionately people believed in bringing about change and how willing they were to make sacrifices. Although he describes massacres, he also depicts the undying hope that some of the people involved in the revolution could maintain in spite of constant fighting.

Ideal versus Real
When the ideal clashes with the real, which it often does, alternative plans or concepts must be made. One of Pasternak’s criticisms of the communist revolution in Russia was that these alternative plans were suppressed. The ideal, as Pasternak demonstrates in this novel, remains a concept or idea;...

(This entire section contains 729 words.)

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it cannot be realized in actual circumstances. Pasternak presents the ideal in politics, economics, love, and friendship. When his characters attempt to bring the ideal into their lives, they show that it is impossible. Political upheaval brings death as citizens attempt to reshape their government in accord with the highest ideals of socialism and communism. When confronted or obstructed, reform leaders were brutal and resorted to dictatorship. When economic ideals were put in place, businesses dried up, people went hungry, and corruption spread. Even those intellectuals who first discovered and promoted the ideals got lost in their own ideas and stagnated. Zhivago himself discovers that his love relationships are not ideal; with one person he knows the dryness of an intellectual love and with the other the emotional and moral chaos of an illicit affair. People have flaws, Pasternak seems to imply, and ideals may spur them to act, but ideals themselves are not realized in actual experience.

Destruction and Suffering
Destruction and the suffering it causes can bring out the best or the worst in characters, either forcing them to rise as heroes or reducing them to beggars. The war touches everyone; suffering is universal. Characters suffer the loss of loved ones, homes, and basic needs for survival such as food and shelter. Wars provide the most obvious mode of destruction but not all destruction happens on the battlefield. The death of his parents destroys Zhivago’s inner peace and security. The loss of wealth leads Zhivago’s father to commit suicide. Health is destroyed when rats infest dwellings and easily contaminate the paltry food supply, which spreads disease. There is also the destruction of hope as brutal leaders, drunk on power, make extreme demands on the common people. Throughout all the destruction and suffering, however, Pasternak demonstrates how people adjust. Death of a loved one occurs, but those who are left behind learn to live without that person. Wealth of the bourgeois is stripped, and people learn to live on much less.

Individual versus Group
Socialism and communism promote the group over the individual. Although some ideas in socialism and communism seem to recommend helping the poor, the country peasants, and the working class, Pasternak, through his protagonist, shows that thinking as a group rather than as individuals leads not only to stagnation but also to poorly conceived ideas. As communism spreads throughout his country, Zhivago feels more and more isolated from his former intellectual friends. They wear masks or enact prescribed roles rather than moving forward, independently. They begin thinking as a group rather than as individuals. As individuals, Zhivago believes, they might have thought up productive solutions. They might have found answers for starvation or ways to avoid or cope with the typhus epidemic. Perhaps these catastrophes could have been avoided if people had not been afraid to think for themselves, Zhivago concludes.

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