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Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Dr. Zhivago | Book 1, Part 1 : The Five O'Clock Express | Summary



In 1903 Russia 12-year-old Yuri Zhivago accompanies his uncle Nikolai Nikolaevich on a visit to the home of Ivan Ivanovich Voskoboinikov, a writer. Yuri's mother died of consumption two years ago, and his father disappeared long before that after squandering the "millions of their fortune." This isn't an exaggeration—nearly everything in town is named after the Zhivago family, including a factory, a bank, several buildings, and even a type of cake. Now Nikolai, a priest who was defrocked at his own request, is Yuri's guardian.

After Nikolai works with Ivan on his manuscript one day, the two men take a walk. In the distance they see a train abruptly stop in the middle of a marsh, and they assume something is wrong. It is. A man has committed suicide by throwing himself off the moving train. Misha Gordon, a boy about Yuri's age, met the man several times over the course of his three-day trip with his father, Grigory, an attorney. The man, who'd been kind to Misha and told him he had a son Misha's age, asked for Grigory's advice about bankruptcies and frauds despite traveling with his own attorney who "took a darker view" of his situation. That attorney, when asked by curious onlookers about his client's suicide, answers without emotion, "An alcoholic. Can't you understand?"

Back at Ivan's home, Yuri searches the gardens for Nika, the 13-year-old who lives on the same estate. In the "melodious turns of the birds and the buzzing bees," Yuri hears the sound of his mother's voice. He drops to his knees and prays for her salvation, calling out to her "in heartrending anguish ... as a newly canonized saint," and then faints. When he wakes, he briefly feels guilty he "had not prayed for his missing father," but believes "there would be nothing terrible if he prayed for his father some other time."

Nika, meanwhile, is underneath his bed, hiding from Ivan's guests. Nika is angry at everything and everyone. His father, a terrorist, is serving time in a work camp. His mother, also a revolutionary, left without a word to go "shooting at the police along with the students in Petersburg." Nika decides to take his anger out on Nadya, a former friend who acts like she's better than he. Instead of drowning her, as Nika threatens, they both fall into the water. When they emerge, they are formal, almost like grown-ups. Nika decides that he would very much like to fall in the pond with Nadya again.


Pasternak sets the mood for Doctor Zhivago from the very first page as Yuri climbs atop his mother's grave and sobs. This is by no means a happy story, but Pasternak's tale of love, loss, and sorrow is beautifully written. Influenced by writers of the Symbolist movement (artistic and literary movement of the 19th and 20th centuries that emphasized emotions, ideas, and interpretation over realism), Pasternak relies heavily on metaphors and similes to describe characters and their surroundings, placing a strong emphasis on the natural world. He describes Yuri sitting atop his mother's grave, stretching out his neck: "If a wolf cub had raised his head with such a movement, it would have been clear that he was about to howl." Throughout the first chapter, and indeed throughout the book, there is a strong connection to nature, particularly where Yuri is concerned.

Two years after his mother's death, Yuri is still profoundly affected by his loss. This is particularly true when he's surrounded by nature, such as when he's in the gardens, calling her name as if she is "a newly canonized saint" after hearing her voice in the buzzing of the bees. Though being outdoors reminds him of his beloved mother, it does nothing to remind him of his long-lost father, whom Yuri "did not remember ... at all." Pasternak's mention of the mild guilt Yuri feels about forgetting to pray for his father is also foreshadowing what is to come. The man who jumps to his death from the train is actually Yuri's father, the elder Zhivago, and the boy who witnesses it, Misha, will become Yuri's best friend.

Misha's proximity to the elder Zhivago's suicide catapults him from childhood into adulthood, a recurring theme in Part 1. Nika and Nadya also undergo their own transformation. Nika acts like a child when he and Nadya enter the boat, furious over petty grievances and his parents' abandonment. Nadya teases Nika when he says he wants to leave school, and they go back and forth like two little kids fighting over a swing. Their fall into the water serves as a baptism of sorts, and when they emerge, they are as formal to each other as grown-ups.

Despite Yuri's hardships, he is the only young person mentioned in Part 1 who doesn't make the leap from childhood games to adult concerns. His age could be a factor, as could the shock of losing both his parents by age 12. It is more likely, however, that youthful idealism is a part of Yuri's nature. He is imaginative, trusting, and most importantly, deeply loved by the adults in his life. Misha and Nika both lack love in their lives, which pushes them into adulthood faster than their peers.

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