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In Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago there is an adulterous love affair between Yurii Andreievich Zhivago and Larisa Feodorovna Guishar that is carried on throughout the novel. Although the affair is essential for the movement of the story, it is not the only significant factor in the plot. World War I, the Russian Revolution and the Civil War all take place in the lifetimes of the two protagonists. Thus, the time and place play a central role in the adulterous relationship, for Yurii and Larisa’s love affair is driven by the historical context of Doctor Zhivago. Unlike other adulterers and adulteresses, Yurii and Larisa are not condemned for their relationship; instead, their love is perhaps the most positive and hopeful aspect of Pasternak’s entire tragic novel. There is a revealing passage towards the end of Doctor Zhivago, wherein Larisa speaks of what is happening to Russia and her people, and this passage encapsulates the entire novel. At this point, Yurii has been separated from his family for a few years, and Larisa has been separated from her husband for just as long. Yurii and Larisa have been engaged in their affair for a considerable amount of time and it appears that their marriages are forever destroyed. With all this in mind, Yurii asks her, “But then what spoiled your marriage, if you loved each other so much?” In response, Larisa tells Yurii:
“But it’s strange that I, an ordinary woman, should explain to you, who are so wise, what is happening to human life in general and to life in Russia and why families get broken up, including yours and mine. Ah, it isn’t a matter of individuals, of being alike or different in temperament, of loving or not loving! All customs and traditions, all our way of life, everything to do with home and order, has crumbled into dust in the general upheaval and reorganization of society. The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the naked human soul stripped to the last shred, for which nothing has changed because it was always cold and shivering and reaching to its nearest neighbor, as cold and lonely as itself. You and I are like Adam and Eve, the first two people on earth who at the beginning of the world had nothing to cover themselves with—and now at the end if it we are just as naked and homeless. And you and I are the last remembrance of all that immeasurable greatness which has been created in the world in all the thousands of years between them and us, and it is in the memory of all those vanished marvels that we live and love and weep and cling to one another.” (403)
In her response Larisa brings together the fundamental themes and issues of Pasternak’s novel, and also provides an explanation for the adultery. The dual aspect of the revolution – public and personal – is emphasized in this passage and throughout the novel. Accordingly, Larisa’s explanation begins with the nature of the times – war, revolution, and social turmoil – and the effect on traditional ways of life for all Russians; then she personalizes the effect when she discusses Adam and Eve, and concentrates on Yurii, herself, and their families.
The beginning portion of the passage focuses on the turbulent nature of the war and revolution, and the widespread effects of such rampant social restructuring. Larisa begins by saying:
“Ah, it isn’t a matter of individuals, of being alike or different in temperament, of loving or not loving! All customs and traditions, all our way of life, everything to do with home and order, has crumbled into dust in the general upheaval and reorganization of society. The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined.”
This statement summarizes the catastrophic consequences seen throughout Doctor Zhivago. These effects are important because they bring about the moral collapse of society that eventually leads to occurrences like Yurii and Larisa’s affair. Initially in this passage Larisa is not concerned with “individuals;” she speaks of society as a cohesive whole, and focuses on the general destructive effects of the Revolution. Yet Larisa is not the only one who has a grasp on the dreadful outcomes of the Russian revolution. Yurii also understands the changes everyone must endure. In a supporting passage, he explains: “It was partly the war, the revolution did the rest. The war was an artificial break in life — as if life could be put off for a time…the revolution broke out…everyone was revived, reborn, changed, transformed. You might say that everyone has been through two revolutions — his own personal revolution as well as the general one.” (146) Yurii’s description echoes Larisa’s in that it addresses both the public and the personal.
As expressed in Larisa’s passage, everything has “crumbled into dust,” and this image of complete destruction and ruin is evident throughout the novel. Yurii and Larisa constantly watch everything around them crumble into dust. In another passage it is explained: “…years of changes, moves, uncertainties, upheavals; the war, the revolution; scenes of destruction, scenes of death, shelling, blown-up bridges, fires, ruins — all this turns suddenly into a huge, empty, meaningless space.” (164) It is in the “empty, meaningless space,” after the complete destruction of their way of life, after they have been “revived, reborn, changed, transformed,” that Yurii and Larisa find one another. Thus, the war and revolution are a necessary prelude to their tale of adulterous love.
Beyond the general life changes and massive destruction the revolution brings about, Larisa specifically mentions the effects on marriage and family in the passage. Furthermore, Larisa’s primary goal within the passage is to explain “why families get broken up” because the entire passage is Larisa’s response to Yurii’s question, “But then what spoiled your marriage, if you loved each other so much?” (403) Larisa focuses on “All customs and traditions, all our way of life, everything to do with home and order” in her response. Thus, Larisa’s answer, and Pasternak’s theory throughout the novel, is that the institution of marriage and family life is undermined by the necessities of war and revolution. In a different passage that supports Larisa’s explanation in the main passage, she explains:
“She had noticed a sharp change around her recently. Before there had been obligations of all kinds, sacred duties…But now that the war was lost (and that was the misfortune at the bottom of all the rest) nothing was sacred any more…There was no one around, neither family nor people whose judgment you respected.” (127)
The least important “misfortune” is the lost war, for during the fighting purity is lost. In Larisa’s life “obligations” and “sacred duties” are gone, and family is just not around. The sacred duties – to society, to family, to husband and wife, to children – have been stripped away by the fighting of the lost war. Amongst the dead soldiers lie the moral values and obligations of a people long defeated. Yurii and Larisa are just two of the unfortunates who are left devastated by the loss of former obligations and duties, of a long gone sanctity.
In the passage Larisa conveys that their families have already been broken up by the Revolution. This idea that the families have been broken up for some time is also revealed in an earlier passage when Larisa tells Yurii, “Even if I managed to prove that I was his [Pavel’s] wife, it wouldn’t have done me any good! What do wives matter to them at a time like this? The workers of the world, the remaking of the universe — that’s something! But a wife, just an individual biped, is of no more importance than a flea or a louse.” (301) The most important point is that wives do not matter “at a time like this.” When the whole world has been turned upside down and shaken up – as Yurii and Larisa’s world has been – family and marriage become negligible. The significance is the time period, for while the universe is being remade a wife means nothing, she is just another “biped,” another being walking on two legs.
Also in the passage Larisa begins to explain that the collapse of the sanctity of marriage opens the doorway for new forms of love, of love outside the binds of wedlock. She says, “Ah, it isn’t a matter of individuals, of being alike or different in temperament, of loving or not loving!” Her point is that though she and Yurii have committed adultery, their acts do not negate the love they feel for their other halves. To prove this, Yurii tells Pavel at the very end, “…had you any idea how much she loved you…she said that you were the embodiment of what a human being should be, a man whose equal she had never met…and that if she could go back to the home she had shared with you she would crawl to it from the end of the earth.” (462) It is not that Larisa does not love her husband Pavel and it is not that their marriage is spoiled; it is that her love gets lost in the midst of the violent upheaval and rebuilding of the universe. If she knew where “home” and Pavel were, there is no doubt Larisa would make it there. The same is true for Yurii and his wife Tonia.
In the passage Larisa goes on to say, “All that’s left is the naked human soul stripped to the last shred, for which nothing has changed because it was always cold and shivering and reaching to its nearest neighbor, as cold and lonely as itself.” This builds on the idea that the world has crumbled and all that remains amongst the ashes are forlorn and devastated people. The people have been utterly torn apart and “stripped to the last shred,” so that the best they can do is reach out to anyone or anything nearby. Yurii and Larisa’s affair is a perfect example of reaching for the “nearest neighbor, as cold and lonely as itself.” While the world is slipping from under their feet Yurii and Larisa find love and compassion in one another; and at “a time like this” love and compassion are hard to come by and certainly not ignored.
The concept that Yurii and Larisa are alone in the world and in need of one another is further developed in the passage when Larisa makes the biblical allusion to Adam and Eve. She says:
You and I are like Adam and Eve, the first two people on earth who at the beginning of the world had nothing to cover themselves with—and now at the end if it we are just as naked and homeless. And you and I are the last remembrance of all that immeasurable greatness which has been created in the world in all the thousands of years between them and us, and it is in the memory of all those vanished marvels that we live and love and weep and cling to one another.”
When Larisa compares her relationship with Yurii to the relationship of Adam and Eve there are several powerful implications. Foremost it develops the idea that Yurii and Larisa only have one another to turn to, for Adam and Eve were the only two people on earth and had no choice but each other. Also, God brought Adam and Eve together, and this suggests that a greater force likewise brings Yurii and Larisa together. Also, it implies that God sanctions Yurii and Larisa’s relationship, as he did Adam and Eve’s, even though it is an adulterous affair. The parallel is complete because ultimately Adam and Eve sinned and were forcibly removed from the Garden of Eden, thus ending their perfectly pure existence, and this corresponds to the pain and suffering Yurii and Larisa endure. It is through all the hardships that Yurii and Larisa “live and love and weep and cling to one another.”
Larisa’s mention of Adam and Eve is not the only biblical allusion in Doctor Zhivago, for Yurii also evokes an image from the Bible when he says, “The sea of blood will rise until it reaches every one of us and submerges all who stayed out of the war. The revolution is this flood.” (182) The “flood” is a reference to the flood in the Bible that covered the entire world and destroyed all life. However, in this image it is not a regular flood, but a “sea of blood” that engulfs absolutely everything and everyone. This image of the world completely submerged fits accordingly with the images painted throughout the novel of the world crumbling into dust, and there being nothing left. After the great flood in the Bible the world had to be rebuilt and restructured, so the revolution is truly playing the role of a great flood. The biblical inclusions evoke powerful images of a primordial world, and work to justify Yurii and Larisa’s coming together in a time of utter devastation.
In her passage Larisa ends with saying”…it is in the memory of all those vanished marvels that we live and love and weep and cling to one another.” The final image is people “clinging to one another.” A scene that illustrates Yurii and Larisa’s desperate need for one another – their “clinging to one another” – is when Yurii is ill in Larisa’s apartment. He does not know where his wife and children are, he has been through an arduous ordeal for a couple years, and he lays there cold, sick, delusional, and utterly alone in the world. Then from all the external madness, Larisa comes back to her apartment, … “Suddenly he realized that he was not delirious…that sitting beside him, leaning over him, her hair mingling with his and her tears falling with his own, was Lara. He fainted with joy.” (394) Pasternak accentuates the bliss and beauty in their relationship, not the infidelity or impropriety. It is at moments like this when Yurii and Larisa truly need each other. The image of Larisa leaning over Yurii evokes true love and compassion, for she brings him life. It goes on to say:
“He [Yurii] had complained that Heaven had cast him off, but now the whole breadth of heaven leaned low over his bed…their love was great. Most people experience love without becoming aware of the extraordinary nature of this emotion. But to them — and this made them exceptional — the moments when passion visited their doomed human existence like a breath of eternity were moments of revelation, of continually new discoveries about themselves and life.” (395)
Yurii and Larisa hold on to each other as the only form of humanity they can find in a completely disillusioned world. This scene perfectly portrays Larisa’s image of the “naked human soul” clinging to its “nearest neighbor.”
The point Larisa makes in her explanation to Yurii is the same point Pasternak continually emphasizes throughout the novel – that the adultery in Doctor Zhivago is completely driven by the circumstances of the time and place of the story. Most importantly, the world that Yurii and Larisa live in has abandoned morality and propriety for mere survival. Though some love affairs may arise out of bourgeois boredom, this is not the motivation for Yurii and Larisa. The situation is not that Yurii and Larisa are bored with their lives and spouses and so they turn elsewhere for the sake of diversion and pleasure. It is more a sense of holding on to one another while everything around them is violently falling apart. It is amazing that surrounded by so much depravation the two are still able to experience love in any form. Their love is a product of their time, and so it stands apart from other forms of adulterous love that are driven by a different motivation than historical context. Yurii and Larisa are not condemned for their relationship mainly because they are not so much drawn to each other, as thrown together.
Pasternak, Boris. Doctor Zhivago. Pantheon Books: New York, 1958.
“The period confirmed the ancient proverb, ‘Man is a wolf to man.’ Traveler turned off the road at the sight of traveler, stranger meeting stranger killed for fear of being killed. There were isolated cases of cannibalism. The laws of human civilization were suspended. The jungle law was in force. Man dreamed the prehistoric dreams of the cave dweller.” (378)
“She was still a child, but even then, the alertness, the watchfulness, the restlessness of those days — it was all there, you could read it all in her face, her eyes. All the themes of the century — all the tears and the insults and the hopes, the whole accumulation of resentment and pride were written in her face and bearing, which expressed both girlish shyness and self-assured grace. She was a living indictment of the age…It’s predestination. Something nature endowed her with, something to which she had a birthright.” (461)
Larisa’s reaction to what happens with Komarovsky:
“She sat before her reflection in the mirror, and saw nothing. Then, folding her arms, she put them on the dressing table and buried her head in them. If her mother learned about it she would kill her. She would kill her then she would kill herself…now she was — what was it called? —A fallen woman…and tomorrow she would go to school and sit side by side with those other girls who were like children compared with her.” (45)
“There’s something broken in me, there’s something broken in my whole life. I discovered life much too early, I was made to discover it, and I was made to see it from the very worst side — a cheap, distorted version of it — through the eyes of a self-assured, elderly parasite, who took advantage of everything and allowed himself whatever he fancied.” (398)
The Rowan Tree
On the edge of the taiga just outside the camp Yurii sees a Rowan Tree, “Here a splendid, solitary, rust-colored rowan tree had alone kept its leaves. Growing on a mound that rose above the low, squelchy, hummocky, it reached into the sky holding up the flat round shields of its hard crimson berries against the leaden, late-autumn sky.” (353)
He sees the tree and remembers, “Lara’s strong white arms…” and imagines the tree is Lara. (375)
“And Russia too had been a marriageable girl in those days, courted by real men, men who would stand up for her, not to be compared with this rabble nowadays. Now everything had lost its glamour.” (310)
“Her favorite color was a violet mauve, the color of church vestments on certain solemn days, the color of lilac in the bud, the color of her best velvet dress and of her set of crystal wine glasses. It was the color of Russia too, in her pre-Revolutionary virginity.” (311) Galuzina
“But where is reality in Russia today? As I see it, reality has been so terrorized that it is hiding.” (224) Yurii
“And everyone wants to live. This is a transitional period, when there is still a gap between theory and practice.” (260)
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