Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

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The Poems of Doctor Zhivago have several meanings that parallel closely those of the novel proper. In fact, almost all the poems can be traced to events in the novel. Questions arise, however, as to whether these poems are necessary and whether they provide something that the novel does not. The poems are not concerned with the plot, and they do not refer openly to the characters of the novel. What they do provide is additional emphasis on important aspects of the novel. Moreover, they offer a deeper insight into the psyche of Yuri Zhivago in a condensed poetic form.

The central theme of Doctor Zhivago is the struggle of a Russian intellectual to preserve his individuality amid revolutionary changes and to fulfill his artistic destiny in service to truth, goodness, and beauty. By representing a window into Zhivago’s soul, the poems allow the reader to follow his heroic struggle to preserve his self, which eventually leads to a triumph of individualism over collectivism.

Another important theme of the novel is the idea of the immortality of the human spirit, and the poems express this idea much more effectively than the prose. As well-constructed, compact works of art, they celebrate a constant renewal of life through the regular change of seasons, thus crystallizing the triumph of life over death.

The novel shows that humans are spiritual beings in a constant struggle with forces attempting to rob them of their spirituality. By displaying a deeply felt, although somewhat unconventional, religiosity and communion with Christ in some of the best poems in the collection, Zhivago’s spirituality triumphs over the materialism that is rampant around him. Individuality, immortality, and spirituality are unthinkable without personal freedom. Zhivago fights to preserve at all costs his freedom and the freedom of those he loves, thus bringing about a triumph of freedom over slavery, as best illustrated in “Fairy Tales.”

Finally, the novel is basically a love story in several variations. Zhivago’s love for the three women, each in his own way, coupled with his love for his fellow human beings and for the wonders of nature, is demonstrated in the poems. Some of the poems can be considered apotheoses of love—both pure and down-to-earth love.

The novel tells of Zhivago’s life and mission but also of his poetic talent. Yet, there is little tangible evidence in the novel of his poetic achievements. The poems bolster Pasternak’s assertion that Zhivago is a great poet, which gives the character added importance and his life deeper fulfillment.

In the last analysis, both the novel and the poems belong to their creator, Boris Pasternak, and they enhance his already well-established stature, not only in Russian letters but also in world literature. As one of his last works which, more than anything else, garnered for him the Nobel Prize in Literature, Doctor Zhivago and The Poems of Doctor Zhivago occupy a special place in Pasternak’s opus.