The relationship between loneliness and isolation is often stated simply, “If a person is isolated, that person will experience loneliness.” The reality is more complex, as different conditions are required to produce loneliness in different people.1
What makes us happiest in life? Some people may point to fabulous fame and fortune. However, hands down, surveys show that friends and family are the real prize. Yet even though our need to connect is innate, some of us always go home alone. You may have people around you throughout the day or you may even be in a lifelong marriage, yet you may feel a deep down loneliness. Not surprisingly, isolation can affect one's mental and physical health to great detriment.2
This is a very common theme in our modern culture, especially in light of the fact that many more people are living alone than ever before. This theme also played a major role in the novel, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1890-1960). The novel begins with the death of Yuri Zhivago’s mother, who dies when Yuri is a young man. He goes to live with Alexander and Anna and their daughter, Tonya. Eventually, Yuri becomes a medical doctor, he marries Tonya, and they have two children together, a son, Alexander, and a daughter, Anna.
Another major figure is Larissa Feodorovna Guishar. Born the daughter of a Belgian factory owner, Larissa's family, like Zhivago's, has fallen upon hard times. She ultimately becomes engaged to Pavel "Pasha" Antipov, an idealistic student who sympathizes with Lenin's Bolsheviks. Lara simultaneously has a discreet affair with her mother's lover, Viktor Komarovsky. A deeply corrupt lawyer, Komarovsky's connections extend to senior figures in both the Tsarist State and its revolutionary opponents. Despite her intense resentment of Komarovsky, Lara becomes very adept at using her sensuality to manipulate her besotted lover. Suspecting the worst, Lara's mother, Amalia Guishar, attempts suicide. Zhivago, along with his fellow medical student Misha Gordon, visit with a doctor and successfully save Amalia's life.
Ultimately, Pasha Antipov is declared missing in action during World War I, but is captured by the Austro-Hungarian Army. After escaping from a POW camp, Antipov joins the new Red Army. He becomes notorious as General Strelnikov ("The Hangman"), a fearsome commander who summarily executes both captured Whites and many civilians. Meanwhile, Larissa becomes a battlefield nurse in order to search for her husband.
Following the February Revolution, Larissa and Yuri serve together in a makeshift field hospital and fall in love. Neither, however, is willing to admit their feelings for the other. As he prepares to return to his wife and children in Moscow, Yuri expresses dismay to Larissa that, "the roof has been ripped off," the nation he loves.
After the October Revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War, Yuri and his family flee by train to their estate at Varykino, in the Ural Mountains. During the journey, he meets with General Strelnikov, who informs him that Larissa has returned to their daughter in the village of Yuriatin. Soon after, Larissa and Yuri meet and consummate their relationship.
While returning from an encounter with Larissa, Yuri is abducted by Liberius, commander of the "Forest Brotherhood", the Bolshevik guerilla band. Liberius is a dedicated Bolshevik and highly effective leader of his men. However, Liberius is also a cocaine addict, loud-mouthed, and narcissistic. He repeatedly bores Yuri with his longwinded lectures about the glories of socialism and the inevitability of its victory.
Subsequently, Yuri deserts and returns to Larissa; however, Komarovsky reappears. Having used his influence within the government, Komarovsky has been appointed Minister of Justice of the Far Eastern Republic, a Soviet puppet state in Siberia. He offers to smuggle Yuri and Larissa outside Soviet soil. They initially refuse, but Komarovsky states that Pasha Antipov is dead, having fallen from favor with the Party. Stating that this will place Larissa in the crosshairs of the Secret Police, he persuades Yuri that it is in her best interests to leave for the West. Yuri convinces Lara to go with Komarovsky, telling her that he will follow her shortly.
Meanwhile, the hunted General Strelnikov returns for Larissa, who has already left with Komarovsky. After having a lengthy conversation with Yuri, Antipov commits suicide. Yuri finds his body the following morning.
After returning to Moscow, Zhivago's health declines. He then lives with another woman and fathers two children with her. He also plans numerous writing projects which he never finishes. Meanwhile, Larissa returns to Russia for Yuri Zhivago's funeral. She persuades General Yevgraf Zhivago, Yuri illegitimate half-brother, to assist in her search for her daughter by Yuri. Ultimately, however, Larissa is arrested during Joseph Stalin's Great Purge and dies in the Gulag.
During World War II, Zhivago's old friends Nika Dudorov and Misha Gordon meet up. One of their discussions revolves around a local laundress named Tanya, a Civil War orphan, and her resemblance to both Yuri and Lara. Much later, they meet over the first edition of Yuri Zhivago's poems.
Yuri is a sensitive man with a poetic nature which is nearly to the point of mysticism. Zhivago's idealism and principles stand in contrast to the brutality and horror of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War. The contrasts between his poetic nature and the events which have destroyed his country have led to a sense of loneliness and isolation.
Even though Yuri married Tonya and had two children with her, there is very little passion in their relationship. This is in stark contrast to his relationship with Larissa. He has a very deep connection with Larissa which seems to help him deal with his loneliness; however, this relationship eventually comes to an end also.
While fathering children out of wedlock might not be the ideal way to deal with overcoming loneliness, the need for human companionship is a very strong natural desire and if it is not met within a marital relationship it will be met somewhere else. A major theme of the novel is how mysticism and idealism are destroyed by both the Bolsheviks and the White Army alike, as both sides commit horrible atrocities.3
This is a novel that must be read not only because of Pasternak's unmistakable talent to depict the conflicts in the human mind, the suffering of doing something that largely contradicts your personal ethical norms, and the great love between two souls, but also because it questions the validity of the Communist revolution. At first it was a struggle for social equality and justice. Politically, this became a perverse struggle for power and control over the body, mind, and soul.4 Even though the Soviet government would not allow him to accept the award; Boris Pasternak won the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature for this novel.
1) Rodney J. Hunter (ed.) Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling (TN: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 663
2) “Loneliness” http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/loneliness
3) “Doctor Zhivago” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Zhivago
4) “The Loneliness of the Individual in the Collective Society: Doctor Zhivago, The Russian Revolution, and Civil War” http://readwithstyle.blogspot.com/2011/07/loneliness-of-individual-in-collective.html