Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Dr. Zhivago | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How is foreshadowing used in Book 1, Part 1 of Doctor Zhivago?

Foreshadowing is a literary device used by an author to hint at what will happen next, or what will occur later in a story. Pasternak uses foreshadowing in Book 1, Part 1 to hint at the tragic fate of Yuri's father. Nikolai and Ivan notice a train stopped in the marsh. This detail seems unimportant, but this is the train Yuri's father is on; it is stopped because the elder Zhivago has jumped to his death. Ivan's comment about something being wrong is an indication to the reader that this event is somehow important. Yuri's decision not to pray for his father is also foreshadowing. He reasons "there would be nothing terrible if he prayed for his father some other time." Of course something terrible does end up happening—his father dies, and by suicide. Yuri decides not to pray for his father at this point because there's no urgency, and all seems fine. But his decision, and his casual attitude about his father's well-being, signals to the reader the opposite—everything actually isn't okay.

What do Yuri's and Nika's reactions to nature in Book 1, Part 1 of Doctor Zhivago say about them?

Yuri has a deep connection with nature. He hears his mother's voice in the "melodious turns of the birds and the buzzing of the bees." He connects the shapes and forms of the local flora to "rods and staffs with Egyptian ornaments," which he knew from his illustrated Bible. The natural world is familiar and comforting to Yuri, a theme that will follow him through the rest of the book. His wide-armed embrace of the outdoors is emblematic of his open, trusting nature. Nika, on the other hand, is made uneasy by what he encounters outdoors. He is spooked by a snake slithering in the grass, and then has trouble believing that a tree with large, tropical leaves is actually a plant, not an animal. Angry at God for making the world "always come out so painful," Nika decides that he is God and tasks himself with "order[ing] the world." He starts by using his mind to stop the shaking of an aspen tree. His interactions with nature are fraught with anger, fear, and the desire to control the world around him. This reflects his internal turmoil about his parents' absence and his natural suspicion of everyone around him.

Who is responsible for the death of Yuri's father in Doctor Zhivago?

The elder Zhivago committed suicide by throwing himself off a train when Yuri was a child. Yuri's father had been estranged from his wife and son for years, and Yuri remembers nothing about him. Yuri's future best friend, Misha, is on the same train as the elder Zhivago and witnesses his death. Yuri's father, intoxicated and somewhat manic, asked Misha's father about some legal matters, stating his own attorney "takes a much darker view of these things." That same lawyer continued to ply him with alcohol every time he sobered up. Years later, as teenagers, Misha and Yuri see this lawyer in a low-rent hotel room in Moscow. Misha says he's "the same one who got your father to drink and destroyed him." The lawyer is Komarovsky, the same man who had an affair with a teenage Lara. Lara and Yuri learn about this intersection of their lives when they're living together in Yuriatin. Yuri tells her how Komarovsky "encouraged [his] father's drinking" and meddled in his business affairs, which resulted in bankruptcy and financial ruin. According to Yuri, Komarovsky is "to blame for his suicide and for my being left an orphan."

How does the Moscow train strike in Book 1, Part 2 of Doctor Zhivago fit in with the rest of the narrative?

The Moscow train strike of 1905 really happened. It occurred in early October at the apex of the yearlong Russian Revolution of 1905, and workers in other trades quickly followed suit. Yet Pasternak doesn't focus on the politics of the strike—he is far more concerned with the people behind it and how it ends up affecting their lives and the lives of the next generation. For example, the foreman of the station area is Pavel Antipov, Pasha's father. His wife is in the hospital, and he's more worried about her than about going on strike. He joins the rest of the workers, though, and ends up getting arrested. He's on the verge of losing his home, and there's no one to take care of Pasha. Pasha is taken in by his father's best friend, Tiverzin. This sets the stage for Pasha's life as an orphan, his desire for a family with Lara, and his decision to become a revolutionary on his own. Tiverzin plays a minor role in the beginning Doctor Zhivago, but his brief presence affects the rest of the narrative. He fled to Poland after defending young Yusup, who was an apprentice in the machine shop. Yusup grows up with Pasha, reconnects with him during World War I, and then fights against him during the revolution of 1919. It is in Tiverzin's former home that Pasha and Lara meet; later, Yuri goes to that very building to care for a woman with typhus. Years later, Antipov and Tiverzin are in charge of the revolutionary tribunal committee that threatens Lara, Yuri, and Pasha. Everyone and everything in Doctor Zhivago is connected, and many individual story threads originate at the railway strike.

How does the manifesto Tiverzin's mother mentions in Book 1, Part 2 of Doctor Zhivago affect the story's characters?

Marfa Tiverzina is eager to tell her son about the manifesto signed by the sovereign when Tiverzin returns home from the onset of the railway strike. She's talking about the October Manifesto of 1905. It came at the peak of the Russian Revolution of 1905, which was an uprising against the social and political systems in Russia. The manifesto, issued by Tsar Nicholas II, replaced Russia's unlimited autocracy with a constitutional monarchy. The people of Russia were promised freedoms much like those recognized in America, particularly in regard to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. Members of the legislative body, the Duma, were to be elected by popular vote. The primary purpose of the manifesto was to quell public ire. Enough people were satisfied by it that the remaining revolutionaries were easily silenced by the government. Though a constitution and a legislative body were eventually created, they bore very little resemblance to the promises of the original document. The difference between the intentions of the manifesto and the reality it put into action was one of the causes of the Russian Revolution of 1917. When Marfa tells her son about the manifesto, she is setting him on the path of a lifetime of revolutionary action as he and Pavel Antipov actively work against the government that wrote the document. The manifesto impacts those in the next generation—Lara, Yuri, Pasha, and Yusup—by embroiling them in political battle that started when they were just children. It is the touchstone that sets the rest of the story into motion.

How are Lara's internal struggles in Doctor Zhivago reflected in her relationship with Nadya's family?

Lara despises herself for her former affair with Komarovsky, and she projects her own lack of self-worth onto the actions and motivations of other people. Instead of realizing that the Kologrivovs love her like one of their own children, she sees "signs of negligence in everything," overlooking their care and concern for her. She's angry at her brother for putting her in a position of debt, and she's angry at herself for not having the means to pay it back. Lara is so intent on never relying on anyone else again that she overlooks the fact that the Kologrivovs have completely forgotten about the loan—they want her to stay after her job is completed simply because they love her. Lara's depression won't let her see that. She feels like a burden to herself, so she assumes she's a burden to them. Even the familiarity of their home becomes uncomfortable, and she decides to break ties with them and start over yet again. She can't get away from herself, so she figures getting away from her surrogate family is the next best solution.

What is the significance of the candle Yuri notices in the window on the way to the Christmas party in Book 1, Part 3 of Doctor Zhivago?

Yuri is intrigued by the lit candle he sees in a window on the way to the Sventitskys' Christmas party. To him it looks "as if the flame were spying on the passersby and waiting for someone." In a sense it was. Yuri is actually looking at Pasha's window, and inside the apartment, he and Lara are discussing their future together. This small detail foreshadows Yuri's future interactions with Lara; she is the one who insists on talking in the semidarkness while candles burn. The flame seems to be calling to Yuri, just as Lara's face has called to him in the past. He can't see her through the darkened, icy window, but a line of verse springs to mind. He "hopes that the continuation would come of itself, without forcing." Like the poem, which eventually becomes "Winter's Night," Yuri's connection to Lara is still forming.

How does marriage change Pasha and Lara in Doctor Zhivago?

Lara is much happier after marrying Pasha in Book 1, Part 4. The change in her demeanor can be attributed mostly to her wedding night when she shares with her new husband an abbreviated version of her relationship with Komarovsky. Releasing the secret that has dogged her for so many years lifts a great weight off her shoulders. She is able to find pleasure in married life, taking care of their young daughter and their household. She is delighted to return to Yuriatin, her childhood home, not only for its beauty and its people, but because it is so far away from her previous life in Moscow. When Lara marries Pasha, she leaves her past—and Komarovsky—behind. Pasha is also changed by marriage, but not for the better. Since his early teenage years, Lara had been the sole object of his affection. He adored her to distraction, setting her on a pedestal that no other human could reach. Her wedding night revelations reveal a flawed woman who has been damaged by another man. Pasha is shattered. Every feeling he's ever had for Lara is called into question, and he no longer believes in the strength and purity of their relationship. He is maddened trying to figure out whether she really loves him or whether he was just a means to an end to escape her undesirable situation. Pasha becomes distrustful of Lara's affection and buries himself in books, which only increases the distance between them. Marriage turns the sweet, devoted Pasha into a loner with secrets of his own.

In Book 1, Part 4 of Doctor Zhivago, is Pasha correct in thinking that Lara doesn't love him?

Lara does love Pasha, but her version of love is very different from Pasha's expectations of romance. Lara's first experience in love was with Komarovsky, who served as both romantic interest and father figure. Therefore it's not surprising that Lara approaches her relationship with Pasha from a maternal standpoint—it's all she really knows. Pasha feels smothered by his wife's doting, but to Lara "such love was greater than ordinary woman's love." Though Pasha doesn't believe it, there are clear signs that Lara loves him more than as just a friend or companion. She confides her deepest secret to him, she goes to the front lines of World War I in search of him, and when they marry, she desperately tries to hold her own candle lower than his so he can always have the "upper hand in their marriage." Pasha's own insecurities about their relationship drive them apart, but Lara never gives up hope that he will come back to her and Katenka. As she tells Yuri, she "chose [Pasha] with her heart" as a young woman, and should he appear back in her life, she would "not resist the call of the past, the call of faithfulness."

How do Misha's and Yuri's thoughts about the fight between the Jewish man and the Cossack in Book 1, Part 4 of Doctor Zhivago reflect their own experiences with faith?

Yuri and Misha witness a Cossack harassing an old Jewish man in the army village. Yuri, a Christian, thinks the Cossack's behavior is terrible. He points out how much Russian Jews have already suffered during the war, including ridicule, increased taxes, and pogroms—mass murders—based on ethnicity. Yuri is infinitely sympathetic with the Jewish people of Russia, saying "[w]hat vexes people is just what should touch them and win them over." His Christian beliefs position the Jews as people who should be pitied and helped at all costs. Misha, who is Jewish, doesn't agree. Misha has always been at odds with his Judaism, noting even as a child that it made him different from everyone else. He resents it even more as an adult. Following Nikolai Nikolaevich's lead, Misha argues that people should not be divided into religious categories but rather all seen as individuals. Yes, Russian Jews are pitied, but Misha thinks they are "completely the victim of this element" and thrive on misfortune. He advocates breaking that cycle by abandoning the notion of Judaism and instead function as "the first and best Christians in the world," which will allow them to "[b]e with everyone." The segregation caused by identifying as Jewish only serves to make the group at large weaker. According to Misha, Jewish people should not be pitied; they shouldn't even be Jewish at all.

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