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Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Dr. Zhivago | Symbols


The symbols in Doctor Zhivago illustrate Boris Pasternak's personal beliefs about war, the revolution, and the nature of fate. War and revolution as Yuri confronts them are filled with confusion, death, and senseless violence, impacting soldiers and civilians alike. And fate underlies the very nature of human life.

Burning Candle

The candle Yuri sees in the darkened window on the way to the Sventitskys' Christmas party symbolizes the role fate plays in his own life. The candle seems to be "waiting for someone," or perhaps calling to Yuri, before he will see Lara for the first time. Yuri will eventually live in this very apartment years later, after returning to Moscow from the war. Thanks to the ministrations of fate, Yuri's life will come full circle, beginning and ending with Lara. Candles burning can also signify life's deeper meaning and almost mystical quality. They also, literally, illuminate the dark, thus helping people find their way. Throughout much of Doctor Zhivago, Yuri attempts to find his way back to Lara, the great love of his life. He also struggles to find his way during the dark times in which he is living, an everyman in a time of war and upheaval. The light of the candle suggests hope.

Soldier's Hat

When Yuri is brought to Strelnikov's train car, he passes a rebel student with a serious head wound oozing blood underneath the soldier's hat, which he refuses to remove. To the student the hat represents his allegiance to the Bolsheviks; he wears the hat proudly. Strelnikov finds the hat "disgraceful," and the boy's flaunting his wound next to a Bolshevik symbol embarrassing. To Yuri the hat symbolizes a departure from independent thinking and the blind following of the loudest voices. He believes "salvation lay not in faithfulness to forms, but in liberation from them." The soldier's hat represents different things to different people.

Wild Duck

Yuri receives a wild duck as a gift, and he and his wife serve it at a small dinner party. Yuri, however, is unable to enjoy it because it feels wrong to serve such a luxury when everyone else is struggling just to put food on the table.

The duck symbolizes the difference between what the Bolsheviks think they are giving the people of Russia and what the Russians are actually getting. Pogorevshikh gives Yuri the duck thinking it's a fine gift, but it just makes Yuri more miserable than before. Likewise the Bolsheviks thought their revolution would bring unprecedented happiness instead of hunger, fear, and sorrow.

Another wild duck in literature may have been the impetus for Pasternak's inclusion of this symbol. In Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck, a family's stability is rocked as a web of lies is unraveled. The titular wild duck is meant to be an object of sacrifice to show love and devotion, but the person the family is trying to protect becomes the victim instead. It's impossible to say whether Pasternak's depiction of the Bolsheviks was influenced by the famous 1884 play, but his extensive education suggests he was at least familiar with it.

The Rowan Tree

When Yuri makes his escape from the Forest Brotherhood, a rowan tree plays a part in it. Yuri tells a sentry, who at first won't let him leave the camp, that he wants to pick some of the tree's frozen berries. Although the sentry thinks Yuri's mad, he lets him pass, and thus Yuri escapes. The rowan tree not only saves Yuri's life, it is also a symbol of life itself. It is one of the last trees in the forest to lose its leaves before winter comes, and birds feast on its red berries. When Yuri looks at the tree's snow-covered branches, he thinks of Lara and how she would wrap him in her loving arms. The rowan tree shows up in Greek, Norse, and Celtic mythology as a symbol of protection and rejuvenation.

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