Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Dr. Zhivago | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What does Commissar Gint represent in Doctor Zhivago?

Commissar Gint is a political commissar, which means he is a civilian employed by the government to oversee the education and general morale of the military run by the Provincial Government. At face value his role in Doctor Zhivago is to talk sense into the men who deserted their posts on the front lines of World War I in order to prevent further rebellion. Yet Pasternak portrays Gint as more than just a negotiator or intermediary. Young, egotistical, and pigheaded, he represents the very worst of the Russian government in any and all of its iterations. He explains to his peers, "[t]he people are children, you must know that," and then details a plan to woo them with condescension and insults. He is completely out of touch with regular people, just as Pasternak believed Russian leaders to be ignorant of the experiences of the proletariat.

What is the significance of the crossroads in Doctor Zhivago?

The intersection of Serebryany and Molchanovka streets in Moscow in Book 1, Part 6 is a crossroads, or a place where two roads meet. It is significant because it reflects the main character's choice between two very different life-altering events. Yuri stumbles upon an unconscious man at this crossroads. He could have chosen to keep walking, but instead he stops to help the man, who turns out to be an influential politician. This split-second decision earns Yuri "a protector for long years to come." This crossroads is also where Yuri sees Evgraf for the first time. Evgraf is staying at a hotel at the intersection, and Yuri takes refuge in the lobby to escape the snow so he can read about the newly instated Bolshevik rule. Unwittingly, Yuri comes face-to-face with both his ruin and his savior within moments of each other. In this case Yuri doesn't have to choose one or the other. Fate does it for him.

What do the linden blossoms represent in Book 1, Part 5 of Doctor Zhivago?

Yuri first smells the blossoms of the linden tree when he backs out of speaking to Lara in Meliuzeevo about any confusion as to the nature of their relationship. Linden trees are known for their strong, citrusy fragrance, and their flowers are often used to make perfumes. (Some people confuse the linden with the Bradford pear tree—the two scents are completely different.) The next day he finally catches Lara as she's ironing in the pantry. Instead of smelling the coal gas she uses to heat the irons, Yuri smells linden blossoms. The scent follows him home as he hops between trains on his way to Moscow. It is a beautiful fragrance for a beautiful woman, but more importantly, it also represents the love of nature Yuri and Lara both share. This isn't the first time Yuri has associated a natural element with a person—as a child, he heard his late mother's voice in the songs of birds.

How does the wild duck eaten by Yuri and his dinner party guests in Book 1, Part 6 of Doctor Zhivago symbolize Yuri's experiences in Moscow during the revolution?

The wild duck eaten by Yuri and his dinner party guests in Book 1, Part 6 represents how Yuri felt about life in Moscow during the Russian Revolution of 1917. The fat duck is gifted to Yuri by Pogorevshikh, the deaf-mute who rallied the citizens of Zybushino to the Bolshevik cause. He killed it on a hunting trip and gives it to Yuri as a thank you for the lively debate they have about Bolshevism and the intents of revolution. The duck is a luxury, but it's one that Yuri can't enjoy. Its opulence stands in stark contrast to the breadless table and the medical-grade alcohol Misha brings to the dinner party. Yuri is unable to enjoy the meal because he knows that no one else in Moscow is eating so richly, realizing that "isolated happiness is not happiness." In a sense, this dead duck represents Yuri's feelings about socialism's shift to communism. Communism, the gift of the Bolsheviks, does make everyone equal—equally unhappy.

What does Vasya represent in Doctor Zhivago?

Pasternak uses Vasya's narrative arc to show the effects of war on the next generation. Half-orphaned during World War I, he ends up in a labor camp due to the trickery of his aunt and uncle. When Yuri meets him on the train to the Ural Mountains, he is "unusually pure and unspoiled." The ongoing war changes that. He sees poverty, hunger, death, and the destruction of everything he holds dear. By the time he and Yuri establish themselves in Moscow, he is outgrowing his childish hopes and fantasies. To him, Yuri represents the old way of thinking, outdated and out of touch. Like many children of the revolution, Vasya comes of age at a time when Russia is embroiled in political and personal strife. The Bolsheviks' victory over the Whites brings, among other things, relative political stability, the first Vasya has ever known. Unlike Yuri, he doesn't remember the past as "the good times"—these are the good times. He, and many other Russians his age, take up the mantel of communism because it represents the only peace they have ever known.

What is the importance of the conversation Yuri and Alexander Alexandrovich have while chopping wood for train fuel in Book 1, Part 7 of Doctor Zhivago?

Yuri speaks to his father-in-law on the train from Moscow about the future they face in the Ural Mountains. "The whole region here is in ferment," and Yuri is concerned about what will be waiting for them when their trip ends. At this point in the story, Moscow is under Bolshevik rule, but the Whites and Reds are fighting for control of the rest of Russia. The stakes are high for Yuri and his family. They are upper-middle class, which makes them a target for the Bolsheviks, but they also don't fully agree with the ideology of the Whites. Yuri, afraid they will be overheard, dances around what he's really trying to ask: "What do we say when asked who we support?" Alexander Alexandrovich gives an equally cagey answer. He says that the Bolshevik philosophy is "alien" to him. "The power is against us. They didn't ask me to consent to this breakup," he says, referring to the dissolution of Russia as they know it. This is his way of telling Yuri that he, personally, does not believe in the ideology promoted by the Bolsheviks. He and Yuri are of one mind about the revolution and civil war. They also recognize the inherent danger in stating their opinions out loud, which is why they seem to speak in code. Despite their aligning most closely with the Whites, they agree not to take a public position either way for the safety of their family.

What does Alexander Alexandrovich mean when he tells Yuri "This history of property in Russia is over" in Book 1, Part 7 of Doctor Zhivago?

Alexander Alexandrovich is referring to the recent move to communist rule in Moscow, which is spreading westward to the rest of the country. Communism is built on the idea that all property, particularly income-earning property, should belong to the state. Profits are then equally distributed to the people. This erases class division and puts everyone on an equal playing field. In this particular case, Alexander Alexandrovich is talking about his late wife's grandfather's property and factory. He's certain that the factory will soon be put into the hands of the Bolsheviks. In the meantime, he and the Zhivagos are moving to Varykino, not to restore the dacha to its former glory, but to "wast[e] it, on the socialized blowing of thousands in order to exist on a kopeck." Alexander Alexandrovich thinks that putting factories and similar properties into the hands of the state will lead to only further decline while dismantling years of family history.

How do Pasha's and Lara's views about Pasha's motivations for going to war compare and contrast in Doctor Zhivago?

Pasha Antipov is presumed dead after being captured during World War I, reappearing a year or two later as Strelnikov, the ruthless Red Army leader. Pasha's transformation from gentle, loving student to "the Executioner" is interpreted differently by him and his wife: Pasha was unhappy in his marriage to Lara, something he attributes to the secret she shared with him on their wedding night. He initially joins the Imperial Army as a way to escape Lara, who he felt was smothering him with maternal love. Their separation brings clarity to their relationship, and Pasha's dedication to "moral purity and fairness" grows stronger during his absence from his wife. He wants to avenge her, to "pay back in full for everything [Lara] had suffered ... so that there would be no return to the past." He has sided with the Bolsheviks to make Russia unrecognizable for his damaged wife. Lara is completely aware of Pasha's motivations for becoming Strelnikov, but she attributes their marital difficulties not to the burden on Pasha of her secret, but to the tenor of life in Russia during the first few years of their marriage. People stopped believing in their own ideas and latched on to the ideals of a minority that was very good at sounding like a majority. This "social delusion" was "all-enveloping, contagious," and infected the Antipovs' home, and they found themselves having conversations they didn't want to have about things they didn't want to talk about. Pasha was right when he said their interactions were false and strained; everyone's were. Lara doesn't blame herself for Pasha's transformation—she blames the Bolsheviks.

How are Samdevyatov's opinions about the revolution in Book 2, Part 8 of Doctor Zhivago different from Yuri's?

Samdevyatov is a Bolshevik, which means that he's in favor of Russia moving to a communist society. Yuri doesn't follow a particular political party, but he most often finds himself aligned with the White camp, in part because of his white-collar profession and his upper-middle-class background. Samdevyatov agrees with Yuri that this turbulent time "isn't life," but he thinks revolution is a "historical inevitability" people have to go through. Unlike Yuri, he is able to see "the legitimacy of the people's wrath, their wish to live according to justice, their search for the truth." Samdevyatov takes a realistic view of what Russia still has to face before peace can be achieved, but Yuri wants peace now. "I used to be in a very revolutionary mood," he tells Samdevyatov, "but now I think we'll gain nothing by violence."

Why does Boris Pasternak repeatedly reference Tonya's resemblance to her grandfather in Book 2, Parts 8 and 9 of Doctor Zhivago?

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing civil war between the Reds and the Whites were dangerous times for everyone, but particularly for those who had a history of land and factory ownership. They were upper class and therefore responsible for the suppression of the working class. Yuriatin had just been fire-bombed by Strelnikov and taken over by the Reds. As in any town, people talk, and Yuriatin is a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Yuri and Samdevyatov both fear that someone who knew Krüger will see his face in Tonya's and immediately assume that the Zhivagos are Whites. One slip of the tongue by the town gossip could get them arrested, deported, or even killed.

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