Last fall my EFL students read a simplified version of Doctor Zhivago and then we saw the movie. Our discussions were quite lively and it was interesting to delve into Russian history and literature. Thus I decided to read the novel this summer.
Both the movie and the graded reader leave out quite a bit from this hefty classic. I enjoyed getting every detail and event. A thoughtfully written novel is one of my favorite ways to come to know history. This novel, published in 1960, gives readers a close up at the enthusiasm, chaos, and violence surrounding the Russian Revolution.
Yes, the names are long and everyone’s got a nickname, but I got a sense of who’s who without a chart, maybe because I saw the movie first.
Most of the Russian literature, I’ve read has taken place before the Revolution, while Doctor Zhivago takes place before, during and after. What a time that was! Pasternak’s novel reminds me of Dickens because not only do readers see the hero’s journey, but we see so much of what happens throughout the society. I found that fascinating. So many people had so many struggles and tragedies.
The hero is Yurii . At the beginning of the story he’s a young boy who witnesses his father’s suicide. He’s adopted by relatives and marries his cousin Tonia, a lovely, smart woman. The sort of girl people think he should marry. (And he does agree.)
As a young man in Moscow and later after the revolution when Yurii’s out in the Ural Mountains, his path crosses that of Lara, an enigmatic, alluring, albeit troubled woman. Her father died when she was young and her mother becomes beholden to Komarovsky, a rich, powerful man who wants Lara when she’s in high school. Lara picks up on her mother’s implicit message that she should do what she needs to for the family. This action defines Lara making her feel a guilt she never completely overcomes. It taints her marriage to Pasha, an intelligent, innocent promising student she meets in university.
All the characters cross paths and influence each other as they strive to make sense of the confusion of the revolution that steamrolls over so many Russians back then. Pasternak constructs a masterful story full of drama and insight.
If you’re not sure about reading the book, try the film or the BBC miniseries.