Dr. Zhivago: The Perfect Winter Read

I love this book.

It’s the first time I’ve ever read it, finishing it a few days ago. To me, it has all the parts a novel needs to have to make it compelling: beautiful writing; historical/realistic setting; the characters’ inner anguish; unresolved love; something philosophical to ponder after one turns the last page.

Okay, it helps that I love winter. It helps that I love Russia. It helps that I love classic literature. But, truly, I recommend this book with all my heart.

Of course, don’t judge it by the movie you may have seen with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. That particular film only glosses over the top of this multi-faceted story. As Roger Ebert said, “So, yes, it’s soppy and manipulative and mushy. But that train looks real enough to ride.” Ebert may have sensed, as I do, that the movie not only skips over crucial revelations as to a character’s heart, it inaccurately portrays several of the scenes Pasternak wrote. The most glaring one to me, and I have only seen the movie once, many years ago, is this: Zhivago, near the end of the film, sees Lara walking down the sidewalk. In an effort to get to her, he suffers a heart attack trying to leave the train.

But this is not how the novel ends at all! He is indeed on the train. His heart, which has been weak all his life, pounds within him such that he feels he must escape. Once he is on the sidewalk, he collapses as his heart gives out. The woman he saw from the train is not Lara, it is an older woman from Moscow. Characters move in and out of the story, apparently randomly, precisely because this is the transient lifestyle the Russian people led during the Revolution.

The novel begins before the Russian Revolution, when we glimpse the drawing rooms, balls, and wealth of the upper class. Halfway through the novel, the Reds and Whites are fighting each other for power; who shall win, the poor working class or the elite upper class? Of course everyone’s life is now in chaos and loss. No one is spared hunger, poverty, or the search for survival.

These are the reasons I loved Dr. Zhivago:
1. To me, Pasternak writes of emotions common to all people. We know what it means to experience love, fear, loss, and courage which comes and goes.

2. I love the winter he depicts with ice, pink skies, sleighs, the rowan trees’ red berries, and one’s reflection in the window at night.

3. I love the simplicity of life in which there are no gadgets, no technology. Instead Lara is washing things by hand. People are sitting by the stove. Evenings contain conversation and story telling. Meals are comprised of meat and boiled potatoes, nothing artificial. Rooms are lit by candles.

4. Dr. Zhivago writes in the evenings. He stays up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning writing poems. Reflecting. Searching his inner heart for meaning and answers.

5. There is an unsolvable love affair. Zhivago and Lara love their spouses. Yet, they love each other more. What is to be done? They cannot abandon their families. They cannot be together. There is no answer. Zhivago must send her away, believing that he will come to her, or they will both be arrested. Their families, the politics of the times, or their wishes for the well-being of the other, ultimately keep them apart.

Pasternak describes Zhivago’s pain like this: “But the division in him was a sorrow and a torment, and he became accustomed to it only as one gets used to an unhealed and frequently reopened wound.” (p. 406)

It is easy for me to see why this novel won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, as well as why it was made into a movie with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in 1965. Kiera Knightly played Lara in a mini-series released in 2002. There is a broadway production planned for 2007. It is something I hope to see after becoming so entranced by the novel.

8 thoughts on “Dr. Zhivago: The Perfect Winter Read

  1. Carl, I was responding to Suziqoregon when you were leaving your comment or I would have included you there as well. I don't think you're missing a thing by missing the movie. Although I haven't seen the one with Kiera Knightly. But, isn't she the Pirate's girl? Not the Russian's?


  2. I agree, Bellezza. The movie isn't really worth watching, but the book is fabulous, as I recall. It's been many years since I read it, but I do remember the beautiful descriptions of the wintery landscapes. I just checked my reading journals and I must've read DZ before I started keeping these journals back in 1996, but I did find a note on the page I made for Anna Karenina stating it (AK) wasn't as good as Dr. Zhivago, so there you go.


  3. les, I love the winter mood in Dr. Zhivago, as you said about the wintery landscapes. We've had nothing but a gray, drizzly mist for the last three weeks of December at it is making me…glum. It's neat that you've read both Anna Karenina and Dr. Zhivago; not many people have, and I love them both.By the way, I ordered Birkenstocks for my mother for Christmas: Florida in a khaki because she wears so much green. Guess what she's having me exchange them for? Madrid (style) in silver with rhinestones! Boy, did I miss that one.


  4. Silver with rhinestones?! I love it! My mom has a pair of Florida in brown. 🙂 Hope you get some snow soon. Ours is very pretty, but I think we'll be driving to work on ice this morning. Eeek!


  5. les, at this point ice is looking better than rain. Sort of. Be careful going to work! I can't wait to get into my Birkenstocks; it's still tennis shoes for me til I want to gag. Of course, I'm not gaoing anywhere, so I guess it doesn't much matter…:)


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