Study Guide

Doctor Zhivago Religion

By Boris Pasternak


"Angel of God, my holy protector […] set my mind firmly on the true path and tell dear mama that it's good for me here, so that she doesn't worry." (1.6.6)

We find out quickly that the young Yuri Zhivago is a strong believer, not only in Jesus Christ, but also in angels and heaven. Shortly after his mother's funeral, he begs for an angel to visit her in heaven and to tell her that he's okay.

"God exists, of course. But if He exists, the He—is me. I'm going to order it." (1.8.8)

Whoever or whatever God is, Yuri thinks that he/she/it is inside everything, including him. At this point, he tells the wind to blow on a nearby tree, and this is exactly what happens. It's a total coincidence, probably, but Yuri takes it as proof that God is part of him. Because Yuri is an artist at heart, we get the idea that creating art is sort of like being God, because art brings new life into the world.

"It has been considered up to now that the most important thing in the Gospels is the moral pronouncements and rules, but for me the main thing is that Christ speaks in parables from daily life, clarifying the truth with the light of everyday things." (2.10.29)

Zhivago's uncle Nikolai has very clear ideas about why religion is so important: it's because religion offers us a bunch of short stories that help us make sense of how we should live our daily lives in a totally practical way. Stories, as we all know, are way easier to remember than a bunch of rules and commandments. So one of the things that makes religion great is the way it teaches us how to live through storytelling. It's an art form in and of itself.

Lara was not religious. She did not believe in rites. But sometimes, in order to endure life, she needed it to be accompanied by some inner music. (2.17.1)

As we find out, Lara isn't a religious person. But at the same time, she's not happy with living in a world that's cold and indifferent to human suffering. She needs for there to be something spiritual (or "musical"—music is often a metaphor for spirituality in literature) beneath the world around her, even if it's not hard-and-fast religion, per se.

The soul of these books was a new understanding of Christianity, their direct consequence a new understanding of art. (3.2.10)

Zhivago's uncle Nikolai isn't a modest thinker. He plans on writing books that'll totally change people's understanding of Christianity, and through it, a new understanding of art. Or in other words, changing the way you look at Christianity can change the way you look at the whole world, especially the way it's presented to you through art. This is another way in which art and spirituality are linked in the book.

"But it said: in that new way of existence and new form of communion, conceived in the heart and known as the Kingdom of God, there are no people, there are persons." (4.12.14)

In this passage, we find Nikolai Nikolaevich arguing that the truly revolutionary thing about Christianity is the way it honors the power of individuals instead of groups. In other words, it's about persons more than people. Christ himself was an individual, and he managed to change the whole world. Hundreds and thousands of people tried to stop him, but the individual triumphed in the end.

The Holy Virgin on the icon freed her narrow, upturned, swarthy palms from the silver casing. She was holding in them, as it were, the first and last letters of her Byzantine title: Meter Theou, the Mother of God. (10.5.2)

In the middle of Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak decides to let us look in on a peasant woman named Galuzina. One of the reasons he does this is because throughout this book, we've only really been exposed to educated people like Zhivago, who thinks about religion in a very philosophical way. For the peasant Galuzina, though, religion isn't something you can just think about and question. It's the total truth of everyday existence—the unchanging thing that keeps you connected to all the people who came before you.

With tears of pity for himself, he murmured against heaven in a voiceless whisper for having turned away from him and abandoned him. (13.9.7)

When he thinks he's dying of illness, Zhivago curses heaven (and probably God) for abandoning him. This actually creates a parallel between him and Jesus Christ, who said something similar while he was hanging on the cross. It turns out, though, that God hasn't deserted Zhivago at all, because he wakes up from his fever soon after to find himself lying in the arms of his lover, Lara Antipova.

"Such a work—the latest in time, not yet supplanted by anything else, performed by the entire inspiration of our time—is Christianity." (13.17.7)

For Zhivago, history is made up of great movements and great art. For him, the last of these great movements was Christianity. In his mind, all of modern Western religion stems from Jesus Christ, and whether you believe in Christianity or not, you have to agree that it has completely molded much of the modern world.

In hopes of obtaining a pension for the children, out of concern for their future at school, and from an unwillingness to damage Marina's situation at work, they renounced a church funeral and decided to have nothing but a civil cremation. (15.13.3)

Even though he lived as a religious man, Yuri Zhivago does not end up getting a Christian funeral after he dies. That's because his family is already in hot water with the Soviets, who don't look kindly on religion. So in order to protect the family's future, it's decided that he'll just get a regular secular service.