Doctor Zhivago Ending Explained: An Artist's Legacy Lives On

It is difficult to parse how exactly David Lean's "Doctor Zhivago" holds up to postmodern standards, given it is an epic historical drama that intertwines the personal with the political in a rather uneven way. The movie is based on Boris Pasternak's novel, which was banned in Russia during the time of production, and both versions end on a note of multiplicity, featuring unconventional ways to conclude a historical romance and highlighting the apolitical nature of Dr. Yuri Zhivago's poetry. While Lean's "Doctor Zhivago" still manages to sweep audiences away with its grand scale and decade-spanning central romance, how well does it perform through a politically-charged lens?

Some aspects of "Doctor Zhivago" that portray the October Revolution come off as too vapid on second viewing, while others remain strangely visceral, such as the sudden reveal of a ravaged village during a train journey near the halfway point. However, it is impossible to deny the epic appeal of the film, as the core central conflict within Zhivago himself — a man expected to evolve with the world while nurturing the heart of a poet — remains relevant to this day, albeit in a wholly altered context.

The personal meets the political

If one simply were to understand the ending in literal terms, the trajectory is simple enough: The film ends with the confirmation that Tonya Komarov is indeed Yuri (Omar Sharif) and Lara's (Julie Christie) long-lost daughter. Zhivago's death takes place long before the ending, and whatever ensues afterward plays out as an epilogue that is meant to offer explanations regarding key characters' fates (although some are never explained at all). The ending is better contextualized if "Doctor Zhivago" is analyzed as an ever-entwined oppositional motif, wherein the personal and the political always mesh in order to paint an arresting picture.

A good example of the enmeshing of these spaces is the parallel sequence between Yuri and Lara even before they meet one another. While Yuri watches from a high vantage point as Tsarist soldiers attack a group of peaceful protestors on a Moscow street, Lara rides a sleigh alongside the treacherous Komarovsky (who later assaults her), which is intercut with the disruption of the protest. These varying levels of violence — both personal and political at the same time, in both aspects — extend right up until the film's ending.

Oh, to be a poet

Pasternak ended "Doctor Zhivago" with several threads: Yuri's fatal heart attack just as he is within the reach of his lost love, Lara's harrowing death in a forced labor camp, and the final conversation between Zhivago's daughter and Misha Gordon (a character who isn't in the movie).

The film ends with a shot of the balalaika, the stringed instrument passed on to a young Zhivago that he has since passed on to his own daughter: Visual confirmation of the familial bond Tonya shares with him. But it also ends with the revelation that Tonya is an artist when it comes to the instrument, a self-taught player who has a natural "gift" — just as Zhivago's mother had with the instrument before the story begins. To be a poet amid a war-torn, volatile world can mean several different things, but in Zhivago's case, the heart eclipsed the mind, and the idea of the individual was greater than that of the state. This is probably why Zhivago's poetry is so utterly divorced from his immediate reality, painting him as a dreamer and an escapist at the same time:

"I shall go to the grave, and on the third day rise,

And, just as rafts float down a river,

To me for judgment, like a caravan of barges,

The centuries will come floating from the darkness."

Despite the fact that Zhivago's poems are bereft of true agency, his work is condemned as antagonistic to the Communist regime — much like his character, who harbors a kind of passive acceptance throughout. Despite his poetry being banned, Yuri's funeral is well-attended, which is a nod to his legacy and the power and inherent romanticism of his "Lara" poems, which offered hope to suffering Russians even during the dreariest of nights. Although "Doctor Zhivago" remains a hugely imperfect film, often oozing with saccharin sentimentality and relegating the horrors of war to a mere backdrop, in the end, the celebration of the artist is extremely hopeful and life-affirming.