American bestsellers have certain traits in common. They are normally large novels, written in the standard narrative format, with the author as a sort of storyteller. They also tend, in their subject matter, t
o meet some need of the public. The Robe, for example, arriving at the end of WWII, provided religious affirmation in a time of suffering, as well as showing the decay and overthrow of an evil empire. This was comforting to American readers as "their bo
ys" were also attempting to destroy the evil empire of Naziism and fascism. Doctor Zhivago, the first and only novel by Russian poet Boris Pasternak, follows these best-selling traits. More than anything else, it is the content of the novel and the soci
ety into which it was delivered that determined its success. The book's attention to familiar issues, the anti-communist climate that existed in America when the book was published, and the ordeal involving the Nobel Prize and Pasternak were the major re
asons for Doctor Zhivago's extreme popularity.
Yuri Zhivago, the novel's protagonist, was a man that America could love. He was a doctor, long a highly-respected profession in the United States. As such, he was a useful person, he was doing positive things for society. Yuri's industriousness and
love of his work was often mentioned in Doctor Zhivago. Americans in 1958 respected this work ethic, and was striving for it themselves. Yuri had the "perfect family" of the ?50s American ideal - a lovely wife that he loved and admired, two handsome ch
ildren, and a father-figure whom he enjoyed and respected greatly. Yet Yuri was also a dreamer, a poet on the side, and was madly in love with the beautiful and spirited Lara. She, the object of his infatuation and his adultery, was genetically blessed
in terms of looks, intelligence, and personality, but had a slightly scandalous background. Her husband was a famed leader of the new Red military, legendary in his efficiency and effectiveness, engrossed in the war he was waging. Although secretly long
ing for his family, Antipov had disappeared for years, obsessed with his work. This was a situation that was very easy for 1958 America to swallow, probably because of its familiarity. Those shiny plasticine households were veneers for many affairs simil
ar to that of Yuri and Lara. The appeal and positive portrayal of those two in the novel aroused the sympathies and quelled the consciences of Zhivago's American readers.
Another issue in Doctor Zhivago that American readers could relate to was the question of discrimination against Jews, especially the somewhat puzzling illogicality of it. This situation was present in both the Russia that Pasternak described and the Am
erica that the readers knew. Jews, despite success, kindness, and intelligence, were often the objects of discrimination. Doctor Zhivago had already addressed the issue within the first chapter, as the thoughts of Misha, the child of a Jewish lawyer, w
"For as long as he could remember he had never ceased to wonder why, having arms and legs like everyone else, and a language and way of life common to all, one could be different from others, liked by only a few, and loved by no one. He could not u
nderstand a situation in which if you were worse than other people you could not make an effort to improve yourself. What did it mean to be a Jew? What was the purpose of it? What was the reward or the justification of this impotent challenge, wh
ich brought nothing but grief?" (13)
Not only was Misha's father, Grigory Osipovich, a lawyer, but soon after reading this passage the reader discovers that it was Osipovich who attempted to save a suicidal man. Also, "In the course of the long journey, the suicide had come several times t
o their compartment and had talked with Misha's father for hours on end. He had said that he found relief in the moral decency, peace, and understanding which he discovered in him. . ."(15) Yet that compartment, one was told, was in the second class car
riage of the train, and "the suicide," despite being "an alcoholic" and "a good- natured profligate, not quite responsible for his actions" who had "abandoned" his family and "led a dissolutionate life, squandering the family millions," was in first clas
This ironic state of affairs existed in America at the time of Zhivago's publication, as shown by the 1959 book, The Status Seekers. Chapter 19 was entitled "The special status problem of jews," and began with: "One of the persistent puzzles of American
life is the tendency in thousands of communities to erect barriers against Jews." Other excerpts from the chapter further support the strangeness of the situation. "In the average city, the higher-level Jews meet all the existing eligibility standards
in terms of business or professional success and education. If the Jew meets all the eligibility requirements, why isn't he accepted? Why do the barriers persist against him all across the American landscape, in both business and social life?" The chap
ter went on to present negative or divisive Jewish stereotypes held by Gentiles, propose hypotheses, and suggest possible avenues for change. Americans could thus relate to the odd situation of Jews presented in Doctor Zhivago, and puzzle along with the
characters as to not only why Jews were discriminated against, but why they themselves held some mild anti-Jewish sentiments.
Perhaps the most stirring sentiment in Doctor Zhivago to which Americans could relate was that of anti-Communism. Actually, upon carefully reading the novel one can see that it is really not an anti-Red political statement, but an ode to the individual
in every context. However, in promoting the individual, Pasternak necessarily deconstructed the extreme Socialism which existed in Russia at the time of the novel. As a result, any red-blooded (interesting irony there) American who was on a hunt for ant
i-Marxist statements could definitely find them in Doctor Zhivago.
And good Americans in 1958 were definitely anti-communist. McCarthyism had dominated the preceding decade, and anti-Communism was prevalent. The Communist threat was a "national obsession," as Ellen Schrecker noted in The Age of McCarthyism, mostly due
to the role of the federal government. "During the late 1940s and 1950s, almost every [government] agency became involved in the anti-Communist crusade" (Schrecker). With both Democrats and Republicans "believing that Communism threatened the nation,"
the anti-Communist feelings ran rampant. Dr. Fred Schwarz put out a book entitled You Can Trust the Communists (to be Communists), published by the Christian Anti-Communists Crusade. There were over a million copies in print, with statements like "The w
orld is divided into three major areas: there is the Communist area, a great prison containing a billion slaves; there is what is known as the Free World consisting of America and her allies; and between these two there is the vast, uncommitted area of th
e world which numbers one billion people." "The Communists are reaching one hundred people with these blatant lies for every one being reached with the Christian or democratic truth" (Schwarz).
This environment was almost searching for Doctor Zhivago, with Yuri and his anti-Red musings. Zhivago thinks, "What kind of people are they, to go on raving with this never-cooling, feverish ardor, year in, year out, on nonexistent, long-vanished subjec
ts, and to know nothing, to see nothing around them?"(381). The reader now has a confirmed picture of the delusional communist, a revolutionary lunatic, which is the picture he was seeking. In contrast, the reader is presented with Yuri Zhivago, a man w
hose attractiveness was already discussed, an educated, well-bred Russian in search of the truth. This confirms any suspicion that the reader might have about the Russian people; no, the whole country is not evil, but the admirable Russians, like Yuri, a
re anti-Red. Yuri is too intelligent, too thoughtful, to be consumed by the revolutionary hype ". . .the idea of social betterment as it is understood since the October revolution doesn't fill me with enthusiasm. Second, it is so far from being pu
t into practice, and the mere talk about it has cost such a sea of blood, that I'm not sure that the end justifies the means. And last - and this is the main thing - when I hear people speak of reshaping life it makes me lose my self-control and fal
l into despair. Reshaping life! People who can say that have never understood a thing about life - they have never felt its breath, its heartbeat - however much they have seen or done" (338).
Yuri has the Communists never understanding a thing about life. Since the American reader is anti-Communist, he acquires a feeling of wisdom; he, like Yuri, understands life.
Other characters contribute, too: Kostoied argued that "When the revolution woke [the peasant] up, he decided that his century-old dream was coming true. . .Instead he "found he had only exchanged the oppression of the former state for the new, much ha
rsher yoke of the revolutionary superstate" (223). Lara also helps: "As soon as we became part of Soviet Russia we were sucked into its ruin. To keep going, they take everything from us" (395)
There is, of course, Yuri's oft-quoted, "I don't know a movement more self-centered and further removed from the facts than Marxism. Everyone is only worried about proving himself in practical matters, and as for the men in power, they are so anxious to
establish their infallibility that they do their utmost to ignore the truth" (259). This statement, especially the first sentence, found its way into many articles on the novel. The October 27, 1958 issue of Life used that quote in an article on Paster
nak entitled, "A Brave, Defiant Russian Writer." Even reviews and articles on Doctor Zhivago which warned against reading the book as an anti-communist piece still incorporated the anti-Red idea. Both "Doctor Zhivago is far too good a novel to be read pr
imarily as an anti-Marxist polemic, although it does contain some breathtaking anti-Marxist passages," and, "There is in Doctor Zhivago an unyielding suggestion that . . .the Communist regime is an interim affair, an affliction to be endured in hope, unti
l the caravan of time evoked in Zhivago's poem comes out of the dark for judgement" were in a Time magazine article of 9/15/98. Such a hopeful suggestion is in accordance with America's desire for their democratic liberty to triumph over Communism. Ever
yone likes to believe he is right.
The anti-Communist appeal of Doctor Zhivago was not lost on Pantheon, its American publisher. Such appeal was enhanced by the fact that the Soviet government had forbidden the novel's publication in Russia. As early as January 27, 1958, Pantheon ads i
n Publisher's Weekly had Doctor Zhivago at the top of the list, with the following description: "This is the monumental novel of Russia's greatest living poet in its uncensored form, that was suppressed in Russia and first published in translation." Such
diction gives the American public a sense of espionage, an inside look at something the Soviets never wanted to be seen, and a sense of comradeship with the rebellious author nine months before the book was even published in the United States. This rene
gade portrayal of Pasternak is continued in a large Pantheon ad from May, 1958: "The greatest poet in Soviet Russia dared to write the truth about man's fate during the Russian revolution, in a novel in which tender, idyllic scenes alternate with scenes o
f cruelty and horror, destructive of all human happiness." This also supports the American view of Communist Russia as an evil monster machine, crushing any joy out of the Russian people. In general, both the ads and the articles of the time speak highl
y of Pasternak and of the book's literary value, in addition to its controversial history.
Both the literary merit and the controversy were amplified when Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 23, 1958. It is an obvious aid to the best-selling capability of a book when the author wins a Nobel Prize less than two mont
hs post-[American] publication. While Pasternak initially accepted the award with the statement that he was "infinitely grateful, touched, proud, surprised, [and] overwhelmed," he came under such attack in Russia that he refused the Nobel Prize on October
29, "in view of the meaning given the award by the society in which I live." The Soviets interpreted the award as being given expressly for Doctor Zhivago, which they had banned due to its "spirit. . . of non-acceptance of the socialist revolution." D
espite refusing the award, Pasternak was expelled from the Soviet Writer's Union and came under attack by Soviet radicals, who wanted him exiled.
These events propelled the book, which already hit the best-seller list in late September, to even greater heights of popularity. Pantheon went through three printings of Doctor Zhivago in just one week, bringing the total number of copies to 130,000,
with at least 50,000 on back order (research fr. assignment #2). Doctor Zhivago hit #1 on the best-sellers list on 11/24/58 (Publisher's Weekly, 11/24/58).
The attack on Pasternak from inside Russia was vicious. A venomous attack from a union representative called Pasternak, "a literary whore, hired and kept in America's anti-Soviet brothel" (Cont. Auth). While this was not true, it nevertheless created a
feeling of alliance with Pasternak for the American people. It also provided the American press, especially the more mainstream, popular press, with a convenient image of Pasternak as the noble truth-seeker, persecuted for his ideals. "The publication
of Doctor Zhivago, the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Mr. Pasternak, the savage campaign against him in the Soviet Union, his refusal to of the Nobel Prize - all these events, over a period of months, kept Mr. Pasternak, and his unhappy plight, on the fro
nt pages of newspapers around the world" (Commonweal, 2/27/59). It also kept him on top of the best-seller list, where he remained until May 25, 1959, a total of twenty-five weeks. The aforementioned sequence of events, "the Pasternak affair," did much
to advance Doctor Zhivago's popularity, although "the personal drama of Boris Pasternak threatened to overshadow that of his world-famous book," as the 2/27/59 issue of Commonweal lamented.
This overshadowing is a very valid point. While the poesy and passion of the book drew largely favorable reviews, the political and societal context of its publication were so overwhelmingly in favor of American support of Doctor Zhivago that they, in
conjunction with the anti-Communist material in the novel, must be tapped as the real reason behind its initial best- selling status and popularity. This is demonstrated in the 11/8/58 New Yorker: "Now the Western world has risen in unanimous praise of
a novel that it is unlikely all of it has read. . .Not all of these new adherents can have been noted in the past for their love of poets, non- conformists, and intractable critics of the prevailing order, like Pasternak's hero. For those who weren't, t
he important question is what side of the curtain you non-conform on."
While Doctor Zhivago, with a Nobel Prize-winning author, had more literary merit than most bestsellers, even its proponents spotted technical flaws. However, it was the content of the novel, in terms of its philosophy and ideology, that caused it to be
hailed as a significant book, and a masterpiece. "What raises Zhivago above technically better-made novels is that it is charged with moral passion" (Time, 12/15/58). "Doctor Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man's lit
erary and moral history" (Wilson, New Yorker, 1958); note that the moral aspect is given equal billing. These ideas which champion truth, beauty, and life of the individual are the crux of Doctor Zhivago's ongoing significance and popularity. Granted, s
ome of Doctor Zhivago's continued popularity can be attributed to the 1965 motion picture version, which won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction/Set Direction, and Best Costume Design. However,
Doctor Zhivago remains a well-loved book thirty years after "the Pasternak affair," and twenty-five years after the film. This longevity is due to its power, its poetry, and its ideology. It has risen above the fact that, in 1958, "much of the West's i
nterest in Zhivago is [was] political"(Time, 12/15/58).