Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Dr. Zhivago | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


Why is Mikulitsyn so angry when the Zhivagos turn up at Varykino in Book 2, Parts 8 and 9 of Doctor Zhivago?

Mikulitsyn has not had an easy go of it since the Revolution of 1905. He worked tirelessly to support the cause of Krüger's factory workers, even setting up a factory workers' committee. Yet when the revolution ended, he and his radical ideas were left behind while the workers flocked to the moderate views of the Mensheviks. Though Mikulitsyn now serves on the Constituent Assembly, he probably still holds the same beliefs he had while advocating a more radical form of socialism. He just can't say it aloud because he lives in a part of the country where Whites reign supreme. He's already quashing his beliefs just to survive, and then the Zhivagos show up, which seems to be "a mockery of fate, a purposely mean trick." He knows Krüger's descendants are most likely Whites. Things are already dangerous for him with all of this political turmoil. The last thing he needs is another family with a target on their backs as well.

What accounts for Lara's and Yuri's difference of opinion about the Russian civil war in Doctor Zhivago?

As Lara says, she and Yuri are "not of one mind" when it comes to the revolution and the subsequent civil war between the Reds and the Whites. Lara "saw poverty and labor close up" during her childhood, moving from Yuriatin to Moscow after her father's death. Her mother ran a dressmaker's shop, and Lara became close to several of the seamstresses. Like them she lived in near poverty, with her mother relying on Komarovsky for financial support. Lara knows what it's like to be poor, and she can easily empathize with the roots of the Bolshevik ideology. Yuri doesn't. Even though he is an orphan, he's an upper-class orphan. During happier times, his father was a wealthy industrialist, which put the family into the upper-class social circle. Yuri eventually ends up living with friends of the family, the Gromekos. Alexander Alexandrovich Gromeko, Yuri's future father-in-law, is an academic, and Yuri becomes a doctor. They have white-collar jobs, and it is much harder for them to understand the plight of the worker. That's why Yuri sides more with the Whites, and Lara sides more with the Reds.

How does Pasternak characterize the revolutionaries of 1905 during the 1917 revolution and ensuing civil war in Doctor Zhivago?

The revolutionaries of 1905 were members of the Socialist Revolution Party. In Doctor Zhivago, this includes Pavel Ferapontovich Antipov (Pasha's father), Tiverzin, and Mikulitsyn. After the 1905 revolt, the left-most wing of the Socialist Revolution Party broke away and joined the Bolsheviks. Antipov and Tiverzin both fall into that category, and they are portrayed as being extremely militant and wary of trusting anyone with official authority, even those on their own side. Olga Galuzina compares them to machines, "merciless, cold." They, as well as Mikulitsyn, are bitter about the outcome of the first revolution, which in turn makes them ruthless. Antipov even advocates for the arrests and deaths of his own son and daughter-in-law. Lara tells Yuri, "They're quite capable of destroying me and even Pasha one fine day in the name of high revolutionary justice."

How does Pasternak portray the Forest Brotherhood in Doctor Zhivago?

The Forest Brotherhood is the name given to the Trans-Ural partisans, or Bolsheviks, who keep their camps in the Siberian forest. One of the units, the Kezhem formation, is led by Liberius Forester (whose real name is Liberius Mikulitsyn). There are very few, if any, sympathetic characters in the Forest Brotherhood. Liberius is blind to anything that may compromise his deep-rooted commitment to the Bolshevik cause. The men who serve him, however, are not nearly as loyal. Pamphil Palykh despises "the white-epauletted vermin," but he is more concerned with the survival of his family than that of Bolshevik rule. The Brotherhood is also home to some of the dregs of society, including the four White Army deserters who decide to sabotage Liberius for their own gain. Pasternak is showing how loyalty to a cause diminishes the further away one is from a leadership role, yet it is the people at the bottom who do the fighting and ultimately pay with their lives. This is just one of the problems he had with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the civil war that followed, and his depiction of the people behind the Bolsheviks' victory got him into even more trouble with Communist leaders.

What is the significance of the "dead, burned tree" Yuri shoots at while serving with the Forest Brotherhood in Book 2, Part 11 of Doctor Zhivago?

Yuri is forced to violate Red Cross rules about medical personnel engaging in combat during "the military actions of the belligerents" when a White battalion surprises the partisan line. Yuri is there, unarmed in the grass, when the telephonist next to him dies. Yuri feels he must do something, take some action, so he grabs the telephonist's gun and starts shooting. This goes against everything Yuri believes in. He sides more with the Whites than the Reds, and by his very nature he is more likely to help, not hurt. Still he couldn't sit there and do nothing while "death seeth[ed] around him." A fire-ravaged tree stands between him and the other army, and Yuri shoots his gun at it, not at the White soldiers across from him. The tree represents something safe, a way Yuri can make it out of the battle alive with a clear conscience. Yuri's not the only person who feels this way for "[e]ach advancing volunteer rifleman cast glances at [the tree], struggling with the temptation to get behind its trunk" to remain safe. The tree is a place of safety just out of reach as the men are forced further into combat.

How is Yuri's idealism affected during his service with the Forest Brotherhood in Doctor Zhivago?

Throughout Doctor Zhivago Yuri is a steadfast idealist, daydreaming about a society that values independent thought and a life spent writing next to his soul mate, Lara. Part of this idealism is rooted in his sense of duty to his family and, later, to Lara. On the train to the Ural Mountains, Kostoed calls him out for believing that life will be better in the countryside. Yuri doesn't deny it, saying, "If that, too, is a delusion, what am I to do, then? ... I have to live, I'm a family man." In the forest he is alone with no family to care for, nobody to worry about except himself. He doesn't have to pretend that things are going to be okay any longer, which allows him to see things for how they really are, particularly when confronted with Liberius's zealotry for Bolshevism.

What does the rowan tree symbolize in Book 2, Part 12 of Doctor Zhivago?

The rowan tree, "a solitary, beautiful, rusty-red-leafed rowan tree, the only one of all the trees to keep its foliage," after all the other trees have lost theirs, is a symbol of life. Its berries are eagerly devoured by the birds as if the tree "yielded, unbuttoned herself, and gave them the breast, like a nurse to a baby." This motherly figure plays a part in Yuri's eventual escape from the Forest Brotherhood. He tells a sentry that he's going to the tree for some of its frozen berries. The sentry thinks he's crazy, but lets him by. The tree essentially saves his life. It also reminds him of another maternal figure, for its snowy branches reach out to him like Lara's "big white arms, rounded, generous." Like the rowan nurturing the birds, Lara keeps his hope alive.

What is the meaning of the nightmares Yuri has after returning to Yuriatin in Book 2, Part 13 of Doctor Zhivago?

Yuri's first dream is about being separated from his son, Sashenka. They are separated by a glass door, and a waterfall floods the young boy's side of the glass. He screams for his father to save him, but Yuri doesn't take him to safety. Instead he pulls the door handle closer to himself. Yuri views this as "sacrificing [his son] to falsely understood feelings of honor and duty before another woman." This dream is a manifestation of Yuri's guilt for immediately searching for Lara rather than his family after escaping the Forest Brotherhood. He feels particularly anguished about not being able to watch his son grow up. Even if he had the opportunity, he wouldn't have the words to describe why Lara has replaced everyone else in his heart. The second dream is about Lara. In the dream Lara is "distant, cold, and attractive," and Yuri feels like he's just in her way. This dream reflects Yuri's insecurities about his relationship with Lara. He's worried that she will soon lose interest in him—perhaps she already has. He's suspicious about her relationship with Samdevyatov and insecure in his own masculinity. To him, Lara is the perfect woman. He can't understand how she could want to be with someone like him.

How does Komarovsky influence Lara's future romantic life in Doctor Zhivago?

In Book 1, Part 2, Komarovsky is described as a "cold-blooded businessman, who knew business life in Russia like the back of his hand." He is wealthy, powerful, and confident, always getting what he wants no matter the moral cost. Lara is only 16 when their relationship begins, and she quickly starts to loathe and fear the man who seduced her. Those feelings stay with her the rest of her life, and they color her thoughts about men in general. Lara feels no attraction to men like Komarovsky or even Samdevyatov, whom Yuri fears Lara likes because he's so "manly." She asserts it's exactly the opposite. "In matters of the heart, such strutting, mustachioed male self-satisfaction is disgusting," she tells Yuri. She blames her disgust with overt masculinity squarely on her experiences with Komarovsky and finds herself attracted only to gentle, cerebral men like Pasha and Yuri.

How does Yuri's jealousy over Lara in Doctor Zhivago differ from Pasha's?

During their second (and final) conversation, Pasha admits to Yuri that he is jealous of Yuri's relationship with Lara. "How could it be otherwise?" he reasons. He is surprised to learn that Lara still loves him and has always loved him, and prompts Yuri to describe what she said and did as she talked about him. Yuri readily complies. He is not threatened by Pasha and isn't jealous in the least that he gets to call Lara his wife. As Yuri tells Lara, "jealously is usually aroused in me by an inferior, not an equal. I'm not jealous of your husband." The "inferior" he envies is Komarovsky. This is hard for Lara to understand because she detests Komarovsky and plans on never seeing him again. Always the one for taking the unconventional route, Yuri is jealous of "what is obscure, unconscious, of something in which explanations are unthinkable, of something that cannot be puzzled out." He views Komarovsky as being akin to an infection that hurts Lara. He is both envious of its proximity to her and eager to teach it a lesson for doing her harm.

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