The first part of Doctor Zhivago deals primarily with the events leading up to the October Revolution, and the flight of Yuri’s family from Moscow. The events related to Yuri are intertwined with the second narrative focus, which concerns Larissa (Lara). Both Yuri and Lara are fatherless, living in a time of great instability. They are the two minor players on the great stage of Russia, and the Russian revolution, and Pasternak uses them to demonstrate the effects of the revolution on relatively ordinary young people.
Doctor Zhivago is a quintessentially Russian novel – and is a novel in which Russia herself is a character. Pasternak himself is a poet, and he wields words with precision and beauty. Much of the novel focuses the attention of the reader on minute details to show the beauty that he is trying to convey, like this description of a traditional Russian Christmas:
The frosted-over windows of houses, lit from inside, resembled precious caskets of laminated smoky topaz. Behind them glowed Moscow’s Christmas life, candles burned on trees, guests crowded, and clowning mummers played at hide-and-seek and pass-the-ring. It suddenly occurred to Yura that Blok was the manifestation of Christmas in all domains of Russian life, in the daily life of the northern city and in the new literature, under the starry sky of the contemporary street and around the lighted Christmas tree in a drawing room of the present century. It occurred to him that no article about Blok was needed, but one needed simply to portray a Russian adoration of the Magi, like the Dutch masters, with frost, wolves, and a dark fir forest.
Doctor Zhivago relies extensively on coincidence – characters run into one another constantly, which, because given the size of Russia, seems unlikely. But Pasternak is moving his characters around like chess pieces because he has something he wants to say and he needs them in places together at various times to be able to say it.
The relationship between Yuri and Lara was problematic for me, and not just because they were both married. I am not a fan of cheaters, even if they are involved in an star-crossed, epic love story. It undermines their moral authority.
But I also struggled with Pasternak’s treatment of Lara, and the way that she was constantly tossed from male character to male character as though she was some sort of a toy that the manliest Russian man got to take home. I hated Komarovsky (and we’re supposed to hate him. He’s a rapist, notwithstanding his claim that he isn’t). Pasha was weak and pathetic until he turned into a monster because his wife made him feel inadequate. And Yuri chose a wife and chose a family and benefited from those choices, and it was really pretty crappy of him to abandon Tonya and his son because hot sex with the Russian earth mother.
Not to absolve Lara. She was allegedly friends with Tonya. I feel like the “romance” cheapened both of the characters. It’s self-indulgent to absolve oneself of the burden of infidelity by claiming that you have an all-consuming, irresistible passion for someone other than your spouse. Even in wartime. And Lara could have been a fantastic character – a bright and ambitious woman who pulled herself out of the most pernicious servitude by sheer force of will, she went to school, became first a teacher and then a nurse. That’s some pretty amazing stuff, but it gets lost in the narrative of Lara is so hot and sexy and men fall all over themselves to possess her.
There are more quotes from the book on my blog. Overall, there was a lot to like about Doctor Zhivago, notwithstanding the issues that I had with it. Pasternak is a poet, and it shows in the gorgeousness of his language.
The images in this post come from David Lean's epic adaptation of the book starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif.