Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Dr. Zhivago | Themes


Class and Communism

Class is a recurring theme in Doctor Zhivago, particularly in regard to how it affects one's perspective of the Russian revolutions and the civil war between the Reds and the Whites. Yuri, who identifies as upper-middle class, leans toward the Whites, while those who grew up in the working class identify more with the Red Army. None of the book's central characters—Yuri, Tonya, Lara, and Pasha—explicitly state their political bias, but it is implied through conversation. As Lara tells Yuri in Chapter 9, "In my childhood I saw poverty and labor close up. That makes my attitude towards the revolution different from yours." Pasha seconds that sentiment in his own conversation with Yuri. "You won't understand it," Pasha says about the influence his upbringing had on his ideas about revolution. "You grew up differently."

Class is also a factor after the war ends. Yuri's dramatic downfall from well-respected doctor to poverty-stricken writer is in stark contrast to Markel's ascension up the career ladder. Despite the Bolsheviks' assertion that everyone would be equal under communism, disparities between people still exist. Yuri sees this firsthand when he and Marina take firewood to their better-off clients, which included "speculators grown rich at the beginning of the NEP [New Economic Policy] and people of science and art who were close to the government." Class always exists, even in a Communist state.

Love and War

War tears apart relationships big and small. While Russians were dealing with the dissolution of their country as they knew it, many were also coping with the destruction of their personal lives. Families were separated, spouses killed, and children orphaned. Established romantic relationships "went to rack and ruin along with the upheaval of the whole of society and its reorganization." Lara blames the mood of Russia prior to World War I for Pasha's desire to separate from her. This same story "became the fate of many people" all across the country.

War also gave people permission to do things they would normally find morally reprehensible. Yuri and Lara both cheat on their spouses with each other. Yuri feels guilty about his relationship with Lara when Tonya is still around, but he doesn't feel the same tug of remorse when they're hundreds of miles apart. Tonya doesn't begrudge him this small happiness. "I do not blame you for anything, I do not have a single reproach," she writes from Moscow. She goes on to encourage him to do what makes him happy, even if that means being with another woman. In Doctor Zhivago, all is fair in love and war, especially in love during war.


Fate plays an important role in Doctor Zhivago, particularly where Yuri is concerned. He isn't a man of much action; he's more prone to view a situation from afar than engage in it, saving his responses for pen and paper. He does very little to protect himself or his family—other people are always bringing him solutions for problems he would rather think about than fix. Luckily Pasternak surrounds his main character with a cast of dozens who all show up in the right place at the right time. Samdevyatov is a good example. He appears seemingly out of nowhere on the train to Yuriatin and informs Tonya that their destination is in ruins. He tells them where they should go, whom they will meet, and what they will say.

Samdevyatov and other characters of his ilk, particularly Evgraf, are evidence of Pasternak's belief in divine intervention. Even his characters recognize it. "Where does his power come from?" Yuri wonders about Evgraf. Perhaps he was destined to play the "role of this beneficent and hidden mainspring" in Yuri's life. Tonya recognizes the same thing in Samdevyatov. "I think this man was sent to us by fate," she tells Yuri on the train. "It seems to me he'll play some beneficial role in our existence." War may tear people apart in Doctor Zhivago, but fate brings them together.

Loss of Individualism

One of the things Yuri hates most about the Bolshevik influence on Russian life is the disappearance of individual thought. He rues its loss in his friends and prizes it in himself so much that he becomes insufferable. To him the erasing of the individual to benefit the group is one of communism's biggest downfalls. Lara, too, notices the effects of groupthink, blaming the change in her marriage to Pasha on the country's troubles, which were founded upon the widespread "loss of faith in the value of one's own opinion."

Immortality in Art

Yuri comforts Anna Ivanova in her final days by explaining that death does not exist because our memories live on in others. It doesn't matter what you call it, "[i]t will be you, having entered into the composition of the future." He expands upon this idea at her funeral, realizing that art "constantly reflects on death and thereby constantly creates life." Yuri is so energized by this idea that he can't wait to get home and start writing so he can encapsulate "two or three of the dead woman's best characteristics," among other things. Anna Ivanova will live on in Yuri's poetry.

So will Yuri. One of the reasons he is so dedicated to writing is that the words he puts on paper will keep him "alive" for generations to come. His supposition is correct. More than 20 years after Yuri's death, Misha and Nika go through his work "which they had read many times and half of which they knew by heart." Yuri didn't just leave behind something for them to remember him by; he left his entire soul.

Questions for Themes

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