Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Dr. Zhivago | Book 1, Part 7 : On the Way | Summary

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Summary

The Zhivagos, Nyusha, and Tonya's father prepare to depart for the Urals. Yuri doesn't think it's a good idea, but Tonya insists they go. They leave Moscow at the beginning of April aboard a 23-car train packed with people. New army recruits fill the front cars, regular passengers are in the middle cars, and the last cars are for conscripted laborers. Yuri and his family travel by freight car, mixed in with stockbrokers, lawyers, and lower-class laborers, including men being forced into armed service. Yuri becomes acquainted with three of these recruits: Kostoed, who has labor-camp experience; Prokhor Pritulyev, who is accompanied by the two bickering women who love him; and Vasya, a 16-year-old who was tricked into conscription by his aunt and uncle.

The slow-moving train comes to a complete standstill at a burned-out station. It had been caught in the crossfire when an armored train fired on the nearby village. The villagers had refused to fulfill the requests of the Bolsheviks, which earned them the wrath of regional army commissar Strelnikov. Not many people survived, and certainly not enough to clear the huge snowdrift on the train tracks. All of the train's passengers, with the exception of the military men, take turns shoveling snow for three days.

Back on the train, Yuri sleeps for days as they rumble through the forests. When he wakes it is spring. Tonya informs him that while he slept, Pritulyev, his two lovers, Vasya, and a guard escaped the train in the middle of the night. But Yuri is even more interested to learn that the Whites, now led by his wartime friend Yusup, are beating the Reds in the north near Yuriatin. Rumors fly that Strelnikov is heading toward Yuriatin, to capture it for the Reds.

Yuri comes face-to-face with the feared Strelnikov just a few days later when a Bolshevik guard mistakes Yuri for a wanted criminal. He's taken to see the man in charge—Strelnikov. He immediately realizes that Yuri isn't who they're looking for, but decides to speak to him in private as the name Zhivago sounds familiar. He accuses Yuri of being a war deserter and a White sympathizer. Yuri doesn't disagree, but instead says that Strelnikov's argument "is one I have mentally conducted all my life with an imaginary accuser." He can't explain himself in just a few words, and asks to leave. Strelnikov has Yuri escorted back to his train car as his thoughts turn to his own wife and child he left long ago, just a few miles away in Yuriatin.

Analysis

Pasternak doesn't say it explicitly, but the end of Chapter 7 indicates that Strelnikov is actually Pasha, who is believed to have died as a prisoner during World War I. Lara's gentle and idealistic suitor has turned into a man known as "the Executioner" for his relentless and deadly attacks on villages refusing to comply with Bolshevik decree. Something has changed Pasha, and it's not just the war. Even as a child, he believed that following a prescribed set of rules to the letter would result in "the attainment of perfection." Before he found out Lara's secret, he thought she embodied all that was perfect in the world. He internalized his discontent, and after a while "he began to cherish the thought of one day becoming an arbiter between life and the dark principles that distort it." He wanted to avenge the wrongs committed against his wife as well as the wrongs she committed against him. As Strelnikov, Pasha holds on to his youthful idealism, but it's tainted by disappointment and anger.

Part 7 is the Zhivagos' transition from Moscow to the countryside, and Pasternak uses the long trip to establish characters the reader will meet later in the novel. Some, like Vasya, make the reader sympathetic to the laborers' plight. Others, like Tyagunova and Ogryzkova, the two women who fight over Pritulyev, seem to deserve the hard road they have ahead. Pasternak puts the Zhivagos in this particular train car to show how people dealt with the hardships the Bolsheviks imposed on them. One way they coped was by identifying like-minded individuals and forming surrogate families when they couldn't be with their own. This theme is seen throughout the novel, particularly in regard to the relationship between Yuri and Lara.

The train ride to the Ural Mountains reestablishes Yuri's connection to the natural world. He hibernates during the last of winter, waking as the trees bud and the streams begin to flow. The changing of the seasons from cold, dark winter to the warm, bright days of spring represents a rebirth for Yuri and his family. It also gives Pasternak a chance to—literally—wax poetic about the sights and sounds of his motherland. His skill as a poet is evident as trees, water, and earth come to life through his skillful turn of phrase. "The intoxication of spring went to the sky's head, and it grew bleary from fumes and covered itself with clouds." Pasternak's frequent personification of natural elements shows his love for both the outdoors and his motherland.

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