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Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Dr. Zhivago | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Doctor Zhivago how does Yuri's love for Lara compare and contrast to his love for Tonya?

Lara and Tonya each fill different voids in Yuri's life. Tonya was Yuri's childhood companion—they grew up together in the same family, came from similar backgrounds, and have similar opinions about social and philosophical issues. Tonya is Yuri's rock, supporting him in his writing, taking care of their home while he works. She seamlessly slides into the role played by her mother, Anna Ivanova: homemaker, companion, and lady of the very same house in which they were raised. Even more importantly, he loves Tonya "to the point of adoration." To Yuri, Tonya represents the things he valued so much in pre-war Russia: intellect, comfort, and refuge. He wants to protect her at all costs, even if it means they live apart. Lara, on the other hand, represents post-war Russia. Yuri and Lara's affair is illicit, even dangerous. They live in squalor and are forced to take a few jobs apiece just to make ends meet. None of that matters to Yuri—he is happy simply to be in Lara's presence. Their connection is deeper than the one he has with Tonya. If Tonya is Yuri's physical companion, Lara is his spiritual twin. Though their backgrounds and political beliefs differ, they come together on the things Yuri holds most dear: art, independent thought, and nature. It is Lara he thinks of in the Siberian forest, and it is Lara he sees in the branches of the rowan tree. Lara and Yuri's relationship is much more comfortable than the one Yuri has with Tonya. Tonya and Yuri called each other by their diminutives, Tonechka and Yurochka, which is common for family members. Yuri refuses to think of Lara and Katenka as his family because of the guilt he feels for abandoning his wife and children, but he and Lara still seem closer than most married couples. They are the only pair in the book to use pet names—"my angel," "my bright one," "my joy," "my dearest." Their affection is not born of duty or habit but rather from a primal connection that neither one of them can deny.

What is significant about Pasha's request for candles in Book 2, Part 14 of Doctor Zhivago?

Pasha asks Yuri to light candles when they sit down at Varykino to discuss Lara, the past, and the present. Speaking by candlelight reminds Pasha of Lara, who insisted on it even before they were married. Desperately devoted Pasha "always kept a spare unopened pack for her" since she "loved to talk in semidarkness with candles burning." Years later, talking with Yuri, Pasha remembers Lara's endearing quirk. And Yuri has plenty of candles to spare—only one pack has been opened because he and Lara used kerosene to Illuminate the Varykino house at night. This small detail shows the enormous differences between the men's relationships with Lara. Pasha knew the teenaged Lara who looked for comfort in the semidarkness, and that's how he still thinks of her years later. Yuri, on the other hand, knows a much more confident and self-assured Lara.

Why doesn't Yuri go with Lara to the Far East in Book 2, Parts 13 and 14 of Doctor Zhivago?

Yuri doesn't go with Lara because of the man who made the arrangements—Komarovsky. Yuri detests him, not only for pushing Yuri's father toward death, but because of his history with Lara. Yuri can imagine just how frightened Lara was during her "first offense of an immature girl," and though she grieved for it long ago, he is grieving over it now: "It's I who should tear my hair and feel desperate ... at not being with you then already, so as to prevent what happened," he tells her in Yuriatin. Those feelings arise again when he finally comes face-to-face with Komarovsky. He's unable to trust anything Komarovsky says, and he despises Komarovsky's superior, all-knowing attitude. Doing what Komarovsky wants, even if it means staying with Lara, means Komarovsky wins. Yuri loves Lara enough to live without her as long as she is safe, but he's too proud to accept help from Komarovsky for himself.

What are Yuri's feelings about returning to Varykino without his family in Book 2, Part 14 of Doctor Zhivago?

It is difficult for Yuri to return to Varykino without Tonya and Sashenka. As Lara surmises before their departure, Yuri doesn't want to live with Lara and Katenka in the same outbuilding he had shared with his family. Just seeing Sashenka's little bed in the old house nearly makes him swoon. Instead, he, Lara, and Katenka take up residence in the main house, where the Mikulitsyns lived. Still the proximity to old memories is difficult for Yuri. He gets through the days and the long nights by mentally separating the person he is now from the person he used to be. When he goes to get firewood, he tells Lara he's going to "the Zhivagos' shed," as if he isn't a Zhivago himself. It is easier that way.

What do the wolves symbolize in Book 2, Part 14 of Doctor Zhivago?

At Varykino Yuri hears the howling of wolves late at night and worries that they have a den nearby, which would mean trouble both for the humans and Samdevyatov's borrowed horse. Yuri can't shake the image of the two wolves in the moonlight and becomes anxious. When he's finally able to gather his wits enough to write, the wolves represent "a hostile power that had set itself the goal of destroying the doctor and Lara or driving them from Varykino." The wolves come to represent the demise of Yuri and Lara's relationship. Lara also hears them, misinterpreting them as dogs, and thinks they're a bad omen. They howl nearly every night until Komarovsky's arrival. He isn't afraid of the wolves—he is one.

In Doctor Zhivago how does Yuri's status in Moscow change after the Russian civil war?

When Yuri leaves Moscow for Yuriatin in 1918, Russia is going through the first stages of Bolshevik rule. Yuri is still practicing medicine, and he and his family are well known in certain social circles. Though the class system will eventually be abolished, the Zhivagos are still considered upper-middle class, which is one of the reasons it's so dangerous for them to stay in Moscow. When Yuri returns to Moscow in 1922, he comes back homeless and penniless. His name no longer means anything, and he has no interest in practicing medicine. His fall from grace is evident when he goes to Markel's house to get water for cleaning. Markel is the Gromekos'/Zhivagos' former yard porter, which positioned him as a member of the lower, working class. In Communist Moscow Markel is the superintendent of a public housing building, which makes him "all-powerful." He doesn't let Yuri forget it. He chastises Yuri for wasting money on all of his schooling and for going "off to Siberia and abandon[ing] [his] home in a time of danger," not to mention losing Tonya. Where once Tonya scolded Markel for his behavior, Markel now relishes scolding Yuri.

How does Yuri's life mirror that of his father's in Doctor Zhivago?

Yuri and his father share similar life stories. Both, at one time, had money—Yuri's father was a wealthy industrialist before he made some bad financial decisions—and they were both members of the upper-middle class. The elder Zhivago abandoned Yuri and his mother when Yuri was just a child, took up with another woman, and started a new family. Yuri did the same thing not once, but twice, and he, like his father, is estranged from his oldest son. Both men died relatively young. These events aren't uncommon, particularly in times of war, but one piece of evidence shows these coincidences are a deliberate choice by the author. The elder Zhivago is on a train shortly before his death. He's acting erratically and seems to be panicking before he commits suicide. Yuri, too, is on a tram just moments before his own death. He is "seized by some sort of anxiety" in the tram car before he makes his way outside, collapses, and dies on the street. Yuri's life mirrors his father's right up to his very last moments.

How does fatherhood differ from motherhood in Doctor Zhivago?

With few exceptions, the mothers in Doctor Zhivago follow the stereotype of traditional motherhood, serving as primary caregivers. The fathers interact with their children, but they are not portrayed as particularly doting or invested in their children's lives. That's what makes it so easy for so many of the fathers—particularly Yuri, Pasha, Pavel Antipov, and Yuri's father—to engage in other endeavors that take them away from the home, sometimes for a lifetime. They are not the ones worrying about who takes care of the children—the mothers are. That severely limits the mothers' choices. "[W]e're in different positions," Lara tells Yuri as they decide where to go after Yuriatin. "Wings are given to you so as to fly beyond the clouds." As a woman, Lara is expected to "press [herself] into the ground and shield [her] fledgling from danger." The only reason Lara considers going with Komarovsky is to protect Katenka; Tonya suggests moving to Varykino in the first place to protect Sashenka. In Doctor Zhivago it is the mother's, not the father's, duty to ensure the safety of the children.

What is Evgraf's relationship to Yuri in Doctor Zhivago?

Evgraf Zhivago is the son of Yuri's father and Princess Stolbunova-Enrizzi, which makes him Yuri's half-brother. Their relationship is not particularly familial. Yuri doesn't even know about Evgraf until he is around 18 and Yuri is 26. Despite being the younger sibling, Evgraf assumes an almost parental concern for his older brother. Evgraf is capable of doing things and getting things that no one would imagine during the 1917 revolution and the ensuing civil war. Yuri eventually gives up trying to figure out how he manages at all, instead concluding that Evgraf is simply "a mysterious unknown power, an almost symbolic person." He's right. Evgraf represents both God and hope for Yuri in Doctor Zhivago. He serves as an instrument of God, watching over and protecting Yuri and his multiple families like a guardian angel. When Yuri falls gravely ill in 1918, Evgraf is there with provisions and instructions to leave the city. When they meet in Moscow in 1929, Evgraf "dropped from the sky," immediately ready to help Yuri with his current struggles. He seems omnipotent, all-knowing, and never asks for anything in return. When Lara asks for his help after Yuri's death, Evgraf tells her, "Never, in any circumstances, must you despair. To hope and to act is our duty in misfortune." Evgraf's mere presence brings hope to everyone around him. Yuri, in particular, is inspired by Evgraf's support, which is what gets him back on his feet, writing and ready to resume practicing medicine right before his death.

How does the appearance of Tanya in Book 2, Part 16 of Doctor Zhivago change the mood of the story?

Book 2, Part 15 ends with Yuri's death and Lara's disappearance. The mood of the book is understandably dark, and Pasternak could easily have ended his story there. But Doctor Zhivago isn't merely about tragedy—it's also about hope. Tanya's appearance in Book 2, Part 16 turns the sorrow of the previous part into Pasternak's vision for a more settled, peaceful Russia. Although the beginning of Tanya's life story is sad—she was given up for adoption by Lara and then witnessed the murder of two members of her adoptive family—she is given the chance of a better life thanks to Evgraf. These positive twists of fate don't negate the overall tragic nature of Doctor Zhivago, but they do help lighten an already sorrowful story.

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