Doctor Zhivago flees Moscow to escape the worst of the revolution in early twentieth-century Russia. He and his family find a place in the country near the village of Varykino where they can wait out the Bolshevik violence, uncertainty, and poverty. His family reads the same few novels and plays over and over again to each other in the evenings, and he keeps a journal:
I should like to be of use as a doctor or a farmer and at the same time to be gestating something lasting, something fundamental, to be writing some scientific paper or a literary work.
Every man is born a Faust, with a longing to grasp and experience and express everything in the world. Faust became a scientist thanks to the mistakes of his predecessors and contemporaries. Progress in science is governed by the laws of repulsion, every step forward is made by refutation of prevalent errors and false theories. Faust was an artist thanks to the inspiring example of his teachers. Forward steps in art are governed by the law of attraction, are the result of the imitation of and admiration for beloved predecessors.
What is it that prevents me from being a doctor and a writer? I think it is not our privations or our wanderings or our unsettled lives, but the prevalent spirit of high-flown rhetoric, which has spread everywhere — phrases such as ‘the dawn of the future,’ ‘the building of a new world,’ ‘the torch-bearers of mankind.’ The first time you hear such talk you think ‘What breadth of imagination, what richness!’ But in fact it’s so pompous just because it is so unimaginative and second-rate.
Only the familiar transformed by genius is truly great. The best object lesson in this is Pushkin. His works are one great hymn to honest labor, duty, everyday life! Today, ‘bourgeois’ and ‘petty bourgeois’ have become terms of abuse, but Pushkin forestalled the implied criticism in his ‘Family Tree,’ where he says proudly that he belongs to the middle class, and in ‘Onegin’s Travels’ we read:
‘Now my ideal is the housewife,
My greatest wish, a quiet life
And a big bowl of cabbage soup.’
What I have come to like best in the whole of Russian literature is the childlike Russian quality of Pushkin and Chekhov, their modest reticence in such high-sounding matters as the ultimate purpose of mankind or their own salvation. It isn’t that they didn’t think about these things, and to good effect, but to talk about such things seemed to them pretentious, presumptuous. Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoievsky looked restlessly for the meaning of life, and prepared for death and balanced accounts. Pushkin and Chekhov, right up to the end of their lives, were absorbed in the current, specific tasks imposed on them by their vocation as writers, and in the course of fulfilling these tasks they lived their lives, quietly, treating both their lives and their work as private, individual matters, of no concern to anyone else. And these individual things have since become of concern to all, and their works, like apples picked while they are green, have ripened of themselves, mellowing gradually and growing richer in meaning. (237-238)