Literary Summary: Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Yuri Zhivago is a young idealistic man ensnared in a turbulent period of world, and Russian, history. Set in the final years of Tsarist Russia and then the turbulence of the Communist Revolution, Yuri Zhivago finds himself in the midst of war and love triangles that he himself succumbs to.

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, is another classic of multigenerational and multi-decade timeframe Russian literature. It is really a tragic story of star-crossed lovers: Yuri and Lara, Yuri and Tonya, Lara and Pasha (who becomes Strelnikov), all the while predatory beasts like Komarovsky prey on the innocent and naïve (Lara). When World War I breaks out, Pasha enlists and supposedly dies but transforms himself into the tyrannical and evil communist general Strelnikov to help usher in the new paradise offered by communism (Pasha is the embodiment of the longstanding archetype of the Russian nihilist, see my post on Crime and Punishment). Yuri, meanwhile, meets Lara on the front and the compassion they exhibited to wounded comrades leads them to love each other. When the war ends because of the revolution, they separate and return home only to find themselves ensnared in the crisis of the revolution.

Tonya and her family, Yuri’s wife and in-laws, are members of the aristocracy and therefore endangered by the communists. They flee east, where Yuri stumbles upon Lara again and they begin an affair. Yuri is conscripted against his will to be a medical officer for communist partisans and is separated from his family and Lara; Tonya and Yuri’s family escapes to Paris to avoid being murdered, leaving him alone. He eventually frees himself of their tyranny and reunites with Lara and the two begin their passionate love affair. Komarovsky suddenly returns to offer help: Pasha is alive but is now the dangerous Strelnikov who is on the run from the Bolsheviks intending to kill him as he is of no more use to them since the Civil War is effectively won. Yuri agrees to allow Lara and her children to escape with Komarovsky. Pasha arrives and meets with Yuri and tells him his sad, sorry, miserable story. He blows his brains out afterward.

Many years later, Yuri lives a simple life with a new wife and has become an accomplished poet. He still loves Lara but dies alone having abandoned his third wife and kids. Lara reappears at Yuri’s funeral. Lara seeks help from Yuri’s half-brother, to track down her daughter she had with Yuri. Several of Yuri’s friends discuss a war orphan named Tanya who resembles Yuri and Lara, strongly implying this young woman is the lost daughter. Despite the tragedy of it all, Boris Pasternak asserts a tragic Christian outlook: love is stronger than death and brings life into the world – even if the world is cruel and crumbling.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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1 comment

  1. Great summary although perhaps not a book that should have been given to 14-year-old school kids to read. It was a struggle to read at that age. But, yes, you did the plot justice.


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