In 1958, Boris Pasternak became only the second writer (after Jean-Paul Sartre) to ever refuse the Nobel Prize for Literature. The thing is that while Sartre turned down the prize for philosophical reasons, Pasternak turned it down because the Soviet government would have given him some serious trouble if he'd dared to accept it.
Well, it was only one year earlier, in 1957, that Pasternak published his masterpiece Doctor Zhivago. He wrote the book in Russian, but since the book criticized Communism, the Soviets banned it from publication. It was only after Pasternak smuggled a copy out of the country that he was able to publish the book in Italian. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize the next year, he both humiliated and enraged the rulers of his home country.
Now to be fair, there's a lot more to Doctor Zhivago than a critique of Communism. Much like George Orwell's Animal Farm, Pasternak's book admits that the capitalist system that existed before Communism was totally awful and nearly just as bad as Communism turned out to be.
But the thing about Communism that never sits well with Pasternak's main character, Yuri Zhivago, is the way that this mode of thinking completely ignores and condemns the power of the individual human being to think for him- or herself. And for a great writer like Pasternak, anything that condemns the power of the individual mind is an enemy of all that is good and beautiful in the world.
Yeah, the stakes are pretty high in this book, and there ain't a lot of lighthearted comedy in it. Enjoy.
Why Should I Care?
For a lot of people, Doctor Zhivago is a love story about the affair that Yuri Zhivago (a married man) has with Lara Antipova (a married woman). But the book is way too long and epic for this to be the only thing going on in it. At its heart, the book is about the history of Russia in the early twentieth century, told through the perspective of a man who refuses to compromise his independent mind for the sake of fitting into a ruthless, heartless political system.
And yes, there's a love story, too, for all you fans of the classic 1965 movie. But it's a love story against the backdrop of massive historical change.
We might take it for granted sometimes that we can think for ourselves. After all, we don't live in Soviet Russia, right? But when you stop to really think about it, you might also want to ask how much you do think for yourself. Do TV commercials convince you that you'll die ugly and alone if you don't use the right kind of face wash? Do you think that the only way to make people like you is to accomplish something great or make a lot of money? If so, you might be letting society tell you what to think a lot more than you thought.
Thinking for yourself is pretty much one of the biggest themes you'll find in modern literature, and that's because it's one of the biggest themes in modern life. The reason it's such a big deal is that it can be really tough sometimes to tell which things you really believe and which things you've been told to believe by the society around you.
At the end of the day, Doctor Zhivago is a story about a man who refuses to compromise in any way when it comes to his individuality. He can't stand the way that his friends have been brainwashed by his country's Communist regime, and while he admits that he's stubborn, he'll never let society break him down. All he wants is to write poetry about love, religion, and nature... and to be left alone while he's doing it.
Yuri Zhivago's a peaceful man, but peaceful isn't good enough in a world that demands total conformity from everyone—no exceptions. So if you value your ability to think freely and to challenge the world around you, whether it's capitalist, Communist, or anything in between, Doctor Zhivago will give you a pretty solid example of how to stay true to yourself.