Book Review: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
This is a guest post by Lana Zacharczuk
When compared to other classic works of Russian literature (such as those penned by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky), Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” doesn’t hold up. It’s just not nearly as sweeping and grand. First of all, the setting of the novel does not allow for it—while its predecessors describe the grandeur and glory of the nobility, this book marks its decline. From my studies of foreign literature, I learned that the Industrial Revolution in Europe marked the appearance of the common man in its literature. Russia lagged behind the rest of the continent, so industrialization did not happen until after the Soviet Revolution. It is the Communist regime that marks its beginning of the everyday man, as marked by the transformation of Zhivago from Moscow man of society to a common peasant struggling to survive.
The characters’ obligations to their families are tested when they are thrust into the struggles of World War I, both at the front and at home. It is after revolution and civil war that the true tests of their allegiances arrive; different political factions are vying for control and association with the wrong person or not being associated enough can mean disaster, even death. Under these circumstances, particularly for the men, their passion for family has to be second to so-called passion for country and government.
It appears that Dr. Yuri Zhivago is an allusion to this attitude, for he and his family flee to the Ural Mountains to escape the wrath of change, as well as retribution for his former life. Ironically, his past will come back to him in his new home. As for Lara’s husband Pasha, his is a story of how the evils of war can transform one from a sweet and gentle boy into a despicable figure of fear. He is especially conflicted between country and family—he cannot risk his family’s safety despite his love for them.
Despite its differences from from works of 19th Century Russian literature, this novel shares one great commonality—the depth of the female characters, not something common at all in other literature from these time periods. Whether it be the strength of Tonia (Yuri’s wife) and her mother Anna, or the weakness of Lara and her mother, one can almost imagine what these women are thinking as the novel progresses.
I admit that the classic movie loomed over my preconceptions of this book and the great love affairs to come. While the characters love each other, there really is no true passion, as expected, between the spouses or the lovers. Zhivago himself is so blasé about love, about his family, especially later in his life. Perhaps this is all foreshadowed when he sees his son after the war—the child doesn’t know him and is frightened by this man.
This novel’s prose and narrative are sometimes confusing and difficult to follow. Perhaps it was the author’s intention to display the disjointed lives of his characters, how their world was so uncertain. It could be argued that in Zhivago’s time there was no longer room for a life of leisure, to gather and philosophize. Stress and fear made memories and experiences topsy-turvy; little else than survival of one and one’s family were the new pursuits in life. In one more comparison to the past, its characters did not meet their ends in any dramatic fashion—they simply faded away, to become one of a countless number of others, as the Revolution, be it industrial or communist, or even literarily, intended.
Lana Zacharczuk is an accountant and a voracious reader. She has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in accounting. She also has a B.A. in German, and has studied at the University of Munich. She enjoys reading business literature, as well as fiction, particularly the work of John Irving as of late. You can get in touch with Lana on either Facebook or Linked In.