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Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Dr. Zhivago | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


Is "A Final Talk," one of the poems in Book 2, Part 17 of Doctor Zhivago, about Lara, Tonya, or someone else?

The narrator of "A Final Talk" does not state the intended recipient of his words, but here is what we know: It takes place after a long break, as "Life has come back as causelessly/As it was strangely broken off." The narrator is back in a place he was in once before, and it feels the same. This could apply to either Lara or Tonya. He goes on to tell the woman, "Don't cry, don't pucker your swollen lips/Don't gather them in wrinkles," so he's saying something upsetting. He warns that if they're not careful, they will be thrown together again. This indicates that he may be talking to Tonya—he would never rue being "thrown together" with Lara. He wishes the woman well, saying she will get married and "forget all this disorder." Even when he is in Varykino amongst all their old things, Yuri does his best to not think about Tonya. It is from her he wants to make "a clean break."

Which themes from Doctor Zhivago are reflected in Yuri's poetry in Book 2, Part 17?

Familiar themes from the story find their way into Yuri's work, particularly the themes of fate, loss of individualism, and love and war. Fate: In "Separation," Yuri describes Lara as being "thrown to him from the bottom / By the way of destiny." "The Garden of Gethsemane," about the resurrection of Jesus, says "The book of life has reached a page ... What has been written must now be fulfilled." Yuri believes that some things in life are directed by a higher power, such as his repeated meetings with Lara. Loss of Individualism: The first poem, "Hamlet," describes a lone man who must follow the script set before him and the will of the crowd. The final poem, "The Garden of Gethsemane," is about an individual (Jesus) who overcomes the crowd (everyone who wanted him dead). Love and War: Yuri's love poems aren't your typical love poems for they're all quite sad. "A Final Talk" is about the dissolution of a relationship; in "Magdalene I," Mary Magdalene speaks of her love for Jesus, "I've grown into you like a graft on a tree / In my immeasurable anguish."

In what ways is Yuri's idealism a flaw or an asset in Doctor Zhivago?

Yuri's idealism can be a flaw or an asset depending on who answers the question. Yuri believes his idealism is an asset. He thinks people should be more intellectual, open to discourse, and willing to discuss what tears people apart. Opinions should be given freely and often, but only if they are original. In short he thinks everyone should be like him. This is where his idealism gets him in trouble. Only Yuri is like Yuri, and he can't understand why his favorite characteristics about himself don't appear in other people. When he returns to Moscow after World War I, he discovers "[h]is friends had become strangely dull and colorless." Nobody seems to be thinking for themselves, and he distances himself from his former friends and acquaintances. The same thing happens when he moves back to Moscow after parting with Lara. Yuri thinks since the war is over, things should return to the way they were. They don't. Yuri complains to Nika about how difficult it is to listen to him talk of his exile-induced reeducation of communist propaganda. "It's as if a horse were to tell how it broke itself in riding school." Nika and Misha, however, think Yuri is being irrational. Their strained friendship is the final breaking point for Yuri, who goes into a self-imposed exile. His idealism was fine when it mirrored that of an era. When Russia changed and he refused to follow suit, he was suddenly very alone.

What role does music play in Doctor Zhivago?

Music, and its absence, plays an important role in Doctor Zhivago. Boris Pasternak's mother was a musician, and young Boris studied to become a musician for six years before turning to philosophy and literature. It's only natural that references to songs would appear in his work. He makes note of music several times in the first third of the novel. Yuri's ruminations about art and life often include ideas about music. The novel opens with people singing at his mother's funeral. Lara, distressed about her relationship with Komarovsky, goes to church because "sometimes, in order to endure life, she needed it to be accompanied by some inner music." The last mention of music is right before Yuri sees Lara for the first time. He is listening to a chamber music recital in the Gromekos' house when someone calls for the doctor to go to the hotel where Amalia Guichard lies ill. This happens around the time of the October Revolution of 1905. Pasternak makes no mention of music throughout World War I, the Revolution of 1917, and the Russian civil war, nor during the brief dip into World War II. In fact music isn't mentioned again until the very last paragraph of the novel when Nika and Misha are "enveloped ... in an inaudible music of happiness." Music represents the good times in one's life, and there was a long time in Russia's history when Pasternak felt music didn't exist at all.

What role does fate play in Doctor Zhivago?

Fate is a major theme in Doctor Zhivago. The entire premise of the book relies on certain people being in certain places at certain times. That's true of any book, of course, but Pasternak takes coincidental meetings to a whole new level. For example, Yuri notices a candle burning in a frost-covered window when he is 20. The candle in question belongs to Pasha, who is in the process of agreeing to marry Lara. Eighteen years later Yuri inadvertently rents that very same Moscow apartment. Occurrences like this happen throughout the entire book, and for a good reason. Pasternak's use of fate speaks to his belief in a higher power. Everyone Yuri meets is sent to him for a reason, and every step Yuri takes brings him close to Lara. Their romance was predestined from the very beginning, when Yuri first saw Lara in the run-down hotel in Moscow. The people fate brings into Yuri's life all serve to keep him safe or provide important information. Samdevyatov guides the Zhivagos away from war-torn Yuriatin to Torfyanaya; Glafira tells him the location of his family. Misha witnessed the death of Yuri's father, and when he later becomes Yuri's best friend, Yuri finally knows what happened to his father. Evgraf's presence in the book always seems to be a stroke of fate—he's always there when Yuri needs the most help.

In what ways are Yuri's concerns about the loss of individualism in Doctor Zhivago justified?

Yuri is depressed by his friends' loss of independent thinking when he returns to Moscow after World War I. The previous order of things "had allowed the well-to-do to be whimsical and eccentric at the expense of the deprived," and Yuri decides he had mistaken whimsy for originality. Independent thinking becomes a thing of the past, and Yuri doubts anyone besides himself had ever been an original thinker to begin with. Lara, too, notes this phenomenon after Yuri returns from the Forest Brotherhood, saying, "The main trouble, the root of the future evil, was loss of faith in the value of one's own opinion." Yuri is correct in saying that independent thought all but disappeared, but his reasoning is off. It's not that people lost their own ideas—they were just afraid to voice them lest the Bolsheviks heard. As Lara says in Book 2, Part 13, everyone had to "sing the general tune and live by foreign notions imposed on" them. Misha and Nika, who, in Yuri's mind, are the two biggest offenders when it comes to a lack of independent thought, recognize the error of their ways during one of their final conversations. Nika points out that when a tenet of communism failed, instead of admitting failure, the government tried "to cure people, by every means of intimidation, of the habit of judging and thinking." Yuri was so indignant about the loss of independent thought that he didn't realize it stemmed from fear.

What evidence suggests that the narrator of Doctor Zhivago may be a character in the story?

Doctor Zhivago utilizes an unnamed third-person omniscient narrator. This means the narrator knows everything about all of the characters. Third-person narrators use words like he, she, and they instead of I, me, and we. They are usually anonymous—if the reader knew a lot about a third-person narrator, the narrator would become a part of the story, making it a first-person narration. Some literary critics, however, have floated the idea that the third-person narrator of Doctor Zhivago is actually a character in the story. It would have to be someone close enough to Yuri and the other major characters in the story to be able to explain each person's thoughts and feelings. The person would also have to be present for the entire saga, right up through the epilogue. The character who best fits that description is Evgraf, who has some omniscient qualities of his own. Evgraf earns the confidence of nearly every person in Yuri's life, from Tonya right down to Tanya, the daughter Yuri didn't know about. Evgraf has all of Yuri's writings, and he and Lara spent several days together talking about Yuri's past. There's probably very little he doesn't know about his brother, or about Lara, for that matter. Pasternak doesn't explicitly say who the third-person narrator is. Most authors don't because the a third-person narrator's voice is usually an extension of the author's voice. If pressed to pick someone from the novel, though, the best bet would be Evgraf.

Who is the antagonist, or villain, in Doctor Zhivago?

A story's antagonist is the person or entity who stands in the way of the protagonist's success. The protagonist, or main character/hero, of Doctor Zhivago is Yuri. Two things stand in the way of his happy ending: Viktor Komarovsky and the power-hungry Bolsheviks. Komarovsky is established as a villain early in the novel. He is responsible for Yuri's father's death and most likely for the elder Zhivago's financial ruin. Komarovsky tears the Zhivago family apart before the novel even starts. He's the only character Yuri views as a foe. He despises him for preying on a young Lara, and is certain that Komarovsky "will one day take [Lara] away" from him. His worries are realized when Komarovsky takes Lara to safety in the Far East. Yuri never sees her again, and he's never truly happy after that. Yuri's love story plays out against the backdrop of the Russian revolutions and civil war. Upper-middle-class Yuri is associated with the ideology of the Whites although he never takes a clear side. His entire life is turned upside down by the Bolsheviks who take over Moscow and threaten his family's survival. He leaves Moscow behind only to fall into the arms of Lara. The next time the Bolsheviks come calling, Yuri is ripped away from his family and his mistress and conscripted into the Forest Brotherhood. The Bolsheviks, now the ruling Communist Party, separate Yuri and Lara again by threats on their lives. Bolshevism tears apart Yuri's life just as much as Komarovsky does.

In what ways might the character of Yuri Zhivago be an autobiographical portrayal of Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago?

Doctor Zhivago is a work of fiction, but Pasternak drew inspiration for its events and characters from his own life. The similarities between author and protagonist are many. Like Yuri, Pasternak was disillusioned by the reality of the revolution and bristled at the Communist Party's long reach into private affairs. Yuri's thoughts about art, philosophy, and religion also mirror Pasternak's own beliefs. And Pasternak, who was widely acclaimed as one of Russia's best poets of his time, even made poetry his main character's passion. Yuri isn't the only character modeled on a real person. Lara is based on Pasternak's mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, whose identify literary experts confirmed after reading a collection of love letters he sent to her. When Doctor Zhivago was first published, no connection was made to Olga Ivinskaya. That's because Pasternak took care to disguise his characters "so as not to wound or offend the direct participants in what had been written and lived through," just as Yuri does when writing about Lara.

How is nature used as a motif in Doctor Zhivago?

Nature is practically a main character in Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak's descriptions of the Russian landscape are vivid and lush, particularly when he's describing the changing of the seasons, which represent the Christian cycle of life: birth, life, death, resurrection. The seasons are also a key to understanding the mood of the novel. Spring: the season of renewal and rebirth in Doctor Zhivago. Yuri sleeps for most of the train ride to the Ural Mountains, waking when spring arrives. This signals a new start for his family and hope for their future. Yuri reconnects with Lara during his second spring in Yuriatin, and returns from the Forest Brotherhood in the spring. Summer: a time of hard work and happiness. When Yuri and Lara are in Meliuzeevo together, the weather is "hot and sultry" and the fragrance of linden blossoms fills the air. Summer in Varykino is exhausting, but the fruits of the Zhivagos' labor are thrilling. Fall: a portent of a difficult future. The railway strike of 1905 and the October Manifesto occur in the fall. The October Revolution of 1917 signals the start of Bolshevik rule. Pavel Palykh kills his family in the fall. Lara and Yuri's pleasant life in Yuriatin is disrupted by rumors of threats. Winter: bleak and cold, when people struggle to survive. In winter Lara tries to kill Komarovsky; Yuri gets typhus; Komarovsky takes Lara to the Far East; and Pasha kills himself. Both Yuri and Tonya and Pasha and Lara are betrothed in the winter, and both relationships fail.

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