Doing without Fathers: The Paradoxes of Father-Child Relationships in Doctor Zhivago

William J. Comer, University of Kansas

Irene Masing-Delic has written that Boris Pasternak's Doktor Zhivago "offers a network of allegories, where the personal and supra-personal intertwine, reflecting each other." These allegories themselves are built on networks of repeated images and motifs, and so in tracing Pasternak's use of one motif, the researcher inevitably comes to new insights in interpreting the larger issues and themes that Pasternak incorporates into his work.

In this paper, I examine the father-child (and sometimes more broadly parent-child) relationships that Pasternak describes in developing the backgrounds of the novel's major and minor characters. The theme of fathers in the novel is much broader than the few passages in which Pasternak has Zhivago directly reflect on the insignificance of the male role in the biological creation of children. When we follow the network of father-child relationships, we find a repeated pattern of neglectful, if not openly hostile, father-child relationships.

To start with, we can consider the relationship between Zhivago and his own father, and Zhivago's relationship to his five biological children. In the opening chapter of the novel, the narrator repeatedly notes the absence of Jura's father in his childhood, dramatizing the son's estrangement from his father in the events surrounding the father's suicide. On the same afternoon as his father's demise, the young Zhivago falls unconscious while praying for his dead mother, and upon waking remembers that he has not yet prayed for his father. Instead of immediately remembering his father, he decides that this father can wait for his son's prayers since the young Jurij does not remember him at all. This episode comes immediately before the scene of elder Zhivago's suicide. Years later, in 1911, Zhivago will renounce his father's financial legacy, much against the advice of his uncle and the Gromekos. On a biological level, Pasternak draws attention to Zhivago's weak heart, the physical inheritance not from his father, but his mother.

As a father Zhivago hardly is more involved with his own children, leaving them or forgetting their existence. He leaves his first-born son when he is called up for military service in World War I, and upon his return the child symbolically does not recognize him. When living among the partisans, Zhivago sees Tonja in a dream with one child, since he does not immediately remember that she has given birth to their second child. Zhivago convinces Lara to leave Varykino with Komarovskij for the sake of her daughter Katja, even though he knows she is pregnant with his child as well. The difficulties of father-child relations are clear in the development of other characters in the novel. Misha Gordon wants to renounce his father, who embodies Judaism and the Jews' experience in a hostile world. Some extreme examples of failed fathers Pasternak ties to the madness of the revolution and the civil war. For example, Antipov-Strel'nikov abandons Lara and his daughter completely for the sake of revolutionary struggle, just as he was abandoned by his father, jailed for revolutionary activity under the tsars. Pamfil Palyx, a forest partisan, slaughters his whole family to prevent their mistreatment by the Whites. These broken cross-generational linkages become significant paradoxes in interpreting the novel's macrothemes and genres, and I mention only a few examples here. The novel's hero "Doctor of the Living" shows no interest in his living legacy. As a historical novel whose themes are history and memory, it is strange to have so many characters cutting their ties to previous and future generations. What history and memory will this story pass on? and to whom? These failed father-child relationships become also a paradox for interpreting major intertextual references in the novel. These relationships seem to undercut Pasternak's impulse toward creating a national epic in this work, especially when we compare the novel to War and Peace, where Tolstoj emphatically roots his characters in their extended families as the nation responds to crisis. The first poem in the Zhivago cycle, "Hamlet" is frequently cited as the connection between Jurij Zhivago and the figure of Hamlet (or, at least, an actor playing the role of Hamlet). While there is much to the comparison (both Zhivago and Hamlet face the question of acting or not acting), we should not forget that Zhivago's circumstances are very different from Hamlet's since Zhivago's struggle takes place outside of family ties, while Shakespeare places Hamlet's dilemma squarely within a family. Similarly, the references to Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities are an interesting counterpoint to Doktor Zhivago since Dickens's narrative, although filled with the kind of coincidences that critics so dislike in Pasternak's text, concentrates on the restoration of individuals (Dr. Manette, Charles Darnay) to their families.

In my presentation I will concentrate on the paradoxes that arise from following the web of father-child relationships, noting where Pasternak makes meaningful exceptions to these broken familial relations (most notably, Tonja Gromeko and her father).