Doctor Zhivago Study Guide

Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago follows the lives of Yuri Zhivago and Lara Guichard from the first Russian revolution of 1905 until World War II. The novel tells the story of Yuri and Lara's love affair and the numerous characters whose lives become entangled during World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War that followed. In the end of the novel, Yuri dies of a heart attack and, upon returning to Russia, Lara is arrested during Stalin's purges and sent to the Gulag, where she also dies.


In the shadow of all this grand political change we see that everything is governed by the basic human longing for companionship. Zhivago and Pasha, in love with the same woman, both traverse Russia in these volatile times in search of such stability. They are both involved on nearly every level of the tumultuous times that Russia faced in the first half of the 20th century, yet the common theme and the motivating force behind all their movement is a want of a steady home life. When we first meet Zhivago he is being torn away from everything he knows. He is sobbing and standing on the grave of his mother. We bear witness to the moment all stability is destroyed in his life and the rest of the novel is his attempts to recreate the security stolen from him at such a young age. After the loss of his mother, Zhivago develops a longing for what Freud called the "maternal object" (feminine love and affection), in his later romantic relationships with women. His first marriage, to Tonya, is not one born of passion but from friendship. In a way, Tonya takes on the role of the mother-figure that Zhivago always sought but lacked. This, however, was not a romantic tie; while he feels loyal to her throughout his life, he never could find true happiness with her, for their relationship lacks the fervor that was integral to his relationship to Lara.


The Russian Revolution was at its core an ideological struggle, forcing young and old alike to align themselves or risk extermination. Its uncompromising nature put great strain on the ideals of individual thought and choice, represented in Yuri Zhivago's constant attempts to come to terms with the Revolution. Yuri is the ultimate individual, expressing himself through poetry and recognizing beauty in all aspects of life. He is frequently overcome by emotion, and is deeply introspective. His affair with Lara was primarily fueled by passion and romanticism. However, he gradually realizes that his commitment to his own unique philosophy is rapidly becoming untenable in the face of a crystallizing Soviet ideology. His attempts to exert control over his own individual self end in futility: in one pivotal scene, he wounds and possibly kills several White soldiers despite his best efforts to avoid doing so. The taking of lives is a betrayal of his personal core beliefs, and Yuri is horrified and demoralized by the incident. Ultimately, the revolution's refusal to acknowledge the fundamental nature of the individual ensured that regardless of which faction Yuri sided with, he would not be able to survive in the new Soviet era as a true individual.

Corrupted and misdirected revolution

When he was younger, Zhivago enjoyed having political discussions with educated people, like his uncle Nikolay. Zhivago's views were relatively neutral—though not a revolutionary zealot, he recognized that Russia needed serious reform. As the story progresses, however, Zhivago realizes that many political activists simply parrot the ideas they have heard, reciting their memorized lines in order to seem intellectual. Still others actively seek power for themselves, taking advantage of the people's thirst for betterment by promising more than they intended to deliver. Pasternak shows what he thought went wrong in the revolution: that initially, revolutionary leaders had good ideas, but because of human failings these ideas were warped or even forgotten as the revolution transformed itself into a full-scale civil war. Pasternak's strategy to convey this point is to introduce seemingly obvious villains into the plot, but show that in the context of the entire novel, the results of their bad behavior pale in comparison to the harm causedby the corrupted revolutionary effort. Komarovsky and Strelnikov are both antagonists in the sense that they cause harm to other characters in the book, but Pasternak cleverly uses them to show that their damage was temporary and relatively minor, whereas the trauma and suffering caused by the misled train wreck of the revolution was more permanent, often fatal, and certainly more devastating to Russian society.

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