Why I Like Dr. Zhivago Even Though I Think He Is a Jerk

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I saw the movie Dr. Zhivago for the first time in the 1960’s when I was a teenager.  At the time,  I saw Dr. Zhivago as a superhero.  He was practical, he was a doctor, yet he was also a poet, and he had an appetite for life.  In addition, he was Omar Sharif, so he was cool and good looking, at least by the standards of the 60’s.   Likewise, his lover was Julie Christie–what more could one ask? In my pubescent mind, with prefrontal cortex not fully developed, Zhivago was the one to emulate.


I saw the film again in the 1980’s while I was living in Hong Kong.  By then I was married in my later 20’s.  I was shocked at how much my hero had changed.  He seemed weak-willed, unable to take a stand, just going with the flow of history like a top in a river.  His lack of moral fiber made him betray his own wife and children, and there is no poetic excuse for that.


Now, at 60 years of age, I am reading the book itself for the first time.  Everything seems changed again.  Before I read Pasternak’s book, I read Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.  Nabokov was a wealthy, brilliant intellectual, and he left Russia during Russia’s civil war.  I could see the world through his eyes and understand his reasoning.


But Pasternak stayed in Russia rather than leave.  Their civil war was horrible–typhus, hunger, accusations.  For the first time, I tried to understand why a thoughtful writer would stay in Russia at that time.  Pasternak, it seems, saw the revolution as an essential change in society, and he felt that an individual may need to suffer greatly to help this new world come into being.  I suppose that the character Dr. Zhivago reflected many of his thoughts and feelings about Russia.  Dr. Zhivago stayed, took the menial tasks, endured.  Also, I imagine that the character Zhivago was a way for Pasternak to work out his feelings about his own marital infidelity.  In the book at least, Zhivago and Lara his lover are plagued by guilt because of what they do.


I still think that Zhivago was a jerk for being unfaithful to his wife Tonya, no matter how many layers of poetic romance we give to Zhivago’s lover Lara.  However, on reading the book, I do have a grudging respect for Pasternak’s desire to see a new society emerge, one without the oppressive structures of pre-revolutionary Russia.  Pasternak’s disenchantment with the revolutionary movement developed as he grew older and saw what Russia had become.  But my new, reserved respect for the author is not the reason I like Dr. Zhivago.


I like the character Zhivago, because in the midst of horrible suffering, he still appreciates the sky before a storm, the smell of the linden trees at the crowded train station, the color of the snow at sunset, the taste of white bread and jam when one is sick.  Pasternak’s success in portraying that part of the character of Zhivago, without being maudlin, is his genius.  Instead of being totally absorbed by the challenges of his life, Zhivago savors the moment in spite of the hardships, senses how wonderful each moment is.  In another venue, Thornton Wilder’s stage manager responds to the question whether anyone ever realizes how wonderful the earth is every moment, “Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”



The songwriter David in the Bible understood all these good things coming from God, and put the secret in paradoxical language.  Here’s an example–”You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  For me this is one of the strangest images in the Bible–consuming a magnificent feast, surrounded by your enemies.  But the image smacks of truth.  There are always enemies, large and small, no matter how grand the feast is.  The art of life is appreciating the feast in the midst of the troubles, sorrows, and inconveniences.  The doctor in the novel understood that.


Yesterday was my day off, and I went to Williamsburg to a place that roasts its own coffee –a place called Oslo.  I have many unresolved problems and issues surrounding me.  The coffee served was simply their regular roast, in a classic white coffee cup.  The soft hum of the ceiling fans reminded me of the last of the summer murmuring through the open windows. A fly buzzed on the edge of the table.  The balance of the cream and coffee together was perfect.


Taylor Field

Upside Down Devotion


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