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A critical evaluation of Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago.

A Fabrication of Reality

Boris Pasternak's Nobel Prize winning novel, Doctor Zhivago, is exceedingly successful due to its strong characterization and profound believability. The historical period matches flawlessly with the serious mood evident throughout Pasternak's work. The tone of this novel bleeds into the style and flow of Doctor Zhivago. Exceptional development of these traits makes Zhivago a triumphant effort.

The book begins with the introduction of several primary characters. Introduced as a child, Yurii A. Zhivago, lives his life in front of the reader. The long period covered gives the reader a variety of life experiences to identify with. As more of Yura's family life is revealed, a link between the story and the reader is constructed. Conversations in the story illustrate the feelings and ideals of the characters in Zhivago. One such conversation is between Nikolai Nikolaievich and Ivan Ivanovich. The two discuss philosophy, relating to their ideals and not those of the state or past theorists such as Solovi_v and Marx. The ideals expressed in this discussion are not just the characters', but an idea held by the author. Nikolaievich states "that man does not live in a state of nature but in history...It is the...exploration of death with a view to overcome it." (13) Pasternak's belief is people create to overcome their mortality; Pasternak has done so by creating Zhivago. The author lives on in the characters that he created. Through the story, different types of life are lived by the characters and the reader. Exploring the life of the rich and the poor, living while at peace and in war causes a variety of characters and emotions to be evoked. This vast array causes a few problems. The primary difficulty is simply keeping track of many parallel plots. As the tales progress, multiple paths converge altering the direction of the story. With multiple plots comes a myriad of characters. Dozens of people, each with his own ideals are presented. To further complicate matters, many characters are called by several names. An example would be the main characters: Zhivago, or Yura, Yurii Andreievich, Yurochka, etc. Aside from the sometimes confusing intricacies, Pasternak has recreated the complexities of life in startling detail.

The attention to detail in the novel aids the believability of the story immensely. Moreover, the historical context is accurate enough that Doctor Zhivago is more deeply rooted in history than in fiction. The novel places an older Zhivago, now a doctor, and two other men in the Russian military during World War I. These men, served in the military as most other young Russian men. Toward the end of the war, there is a mention of a revolution in the novel. The revolution in question is the February revolution of 1917 (110.) The author has taken events in Russian history and intertwined the lives of the characters around these moments in time. Essentially, the story demonstrates how the life of one person was effected by the political turmoil in Russia. The time period in which Doctor Zhivago takes place, is determined by small references to happenings outside of the characters' lives. With some knowledge of Russian history, one will easily be able to identify with and believe the book. By combining the plot with historical events in a detailed setting, Doctor Zhivago is indispensably plausible.

Through the course of a lifetime, the sheer amounts of events result in diverse settings through which life is lead. Doctor Zhivago engages the reader with a world of memorable imagery. The book opens at a funeral, introducing young Zhivago "glancing around the bar autumn landscape...." (7) With this moment, the book starts its long journey through numerous locations. To a large country estate, then a small dirty apartment in Moscow, later a military hospital during WWI, then returning to a flat in Moscow. As time progresses, the reader follows Zhivago on a long journey through the Urals via a "pigsty on wheels..." (182) Throughout these scenes and many others, surroundings are vividly detailed. Pasternak is complete in giving each environment very tangible attributes. From the physical appearance of a location, its history, the lives and thoughts of its inhabitants are all related to in the story, all to strengthen the impact of each setting. With the death sentences of thirteen men, the gritty atmosphere in the partisan camps is fully entailed. The most powerful imagery is recounted:

"as a result of...long imprisonment...[they] lost their human appearance...his inhuman shrieks were though at a given signal, everyone list his self control..." (295-296) "The boy...twitched the longest, but finally he too lay still." (297)
That glimpse of turmoil has a great impact on the reader. The time of this event, a cold sullen morning also represents the underlying method in which the mood is developed.

Commencing with the burial of Zhivago's mother, the seriousness of the novel is established and maintained through the ensuing events. The mood however, varies continually with the storm of emotions experienced by the characters. The weather plays a large role in echoing how Zhivago is feeling. The funeral occurs during a windy fall day; the voyage to the Urals is dominated by dreary, gray, desolate surroundings. The barrenness takes after how the Zhivagos are leaving behind all that they have, to a possible sanctuary from the revolution. Zhivago's safe arrival is punctuated by the beginning of spring, in which birds are singing and the sun shines. Happy with his family's safe arrival the dreary winder ends for Zhivago and an idyllic spring begins. Zhivago later is then kidnapped and forced to aid the partisans as a doctor. Thus, his surroundings again become cold, dark, and stormy. The word storm reoccurs as a common thread in the novel. The word represents the emotions of Zhivago, unstable and ever changing.

The flow of Doctor Zhivago is generally smooth and well planned. The story which developers form several parallel plots that later combine, creates an extremely complex world. This complexity influences the flow negatively. The transition or jumping between seemingly unrelated settings cause some distress and confusing. In one section, the observer follows Zhivago's life in detail then abruptly a new setting and characters are followed. Such as in the introduction of Larisa Feodorovna Guishar in Chapter 2, and later her return in Chapter 5. This confusion is created by the inherent intricacy of the style of Pasternak's story telling. The vivid writing technique creates a fully developed world in which the characters exist. The book opens with a funeral, that of Zhivago's mother, and it ends with a funeral for Zhivago. The story is assembled in a balanced manner. The symmetry in the novel adds another unique element to its style. The method in which Zhivago is told is at times annoying but overall it is a part of why the book as a whole succeeds.

In following the life of Zhivago, the effects of the Russian revolution on Russia's society are made evident. The strong characterization, believability, powerful imagery, and writing style all help construct a link between the story and the reader. The successful development of this bond draws the reader in the lives of the characters. This union that Pasternak creates is the basis of a universally readable novel, a union that makes Doctor Zhivago a success.

Copyright, © Greg Wittel 1996-2000. All Rights Reserved.

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