Pasternak’s Great Fairy Tale

“And then suddenly all that was gone. They were poor.”

Occurring on the third page of Doctor Zhivago, that sentence tells the reader a great deal about how the novel works. Gaining or losing money—chiefly losing it—was one of the favorite plot resources of the spacious and classic form of the great nineteenth-century novelists: Balzac and Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Hardy and Henry James. It is important in War and Peace that Pierre, whose role in the novel has something in common with that of Yurii Zhivago, inherits the vast Bezukhov fortune, and hence acquires for the purposes of the novel the freedom of action and movement that money in those days could give. Count Rostov, the other hero of War and Peace, has the same sort of fortune toward the end of the novel when he marries the rich Princess Mary. Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Prince Myshkin, is a rich man, and his financial situation sets him apart as much as his spiritual one.

At the beginning of his novel Pasternak deliberately deprives the Zhivago family of its wealth, as a kind of symbolic prelude to the revolution that is to come. Like so much else in the novel it happens as arbitrarily as if in a fairy tale: the rich king suddenly becomes a poor beggar. “There was a Zhivago factory, a Zhivago bank, Zhivago buildings, a Zhivago necktie pin,…and at one time if you said ‘Zhivago’ to your sleigh driver in Moscow, it was as if you had said: ‘Take me to Timbuctoo!’ and he carried you off to a fairy tale kingdom.” This wealth of gold both symbolizes and contrasts with the wealth of life which will be the precious gift and possession of the son, the hero of the novel.

In the world of the fairy story, where there are forests and gold, riches and poverty, sons and daughters, life and death, there is no room for the abstractions of political ideology. These have made a counterworld in which the real world of natural being survives as best it can, instinctively ignoring the horrors that abstraction brings, even though it may be almost wiped out in the rush of “progress.” The name Zhivago is a derivation of the Russian word meaning “life”; and Zhivago, the life-carrier, also bears within him the mortal affliction, a weak heart, which is the natural opposite of his life-bringing powers, themselves symbolized by his poems and by the candle that burns on the table as he writes—“a candle burned on the table, a candle burned.”

At the same time this poetic power of the hero, which is of course that of his creator Pasternak, is also able to fill the book with that richness and minutiae of life which distinguish a great novel by Dickens, say, or Tolstoy, or any other master of the art. How typical that in the passage I quoted about the Zhivagos losing their wealth there should be a reference to a Zhivago necktie pin—a…

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