Walking under the great arch of a hydroelectric dam, a young girl is singled out from among the workers by the commissar, Yevgrav, Zhivago's half-brother and narrator of the story. Yebgrav shows her a book of poems, asking her if they stir any memories. The story then flashes back to Czarist Moscow during the early years of the turbulent Revolution. An orphan boy, Yuri Zhivago, is brought up in the family of Alexander Gromeko, whose daughter Tonya later marries Zhivago after he qualifies as a doctor.
While a student in Moscow, Zhivago crosses paths several times with a beautiful dressmaker's daughter name Lara. On one such occasion, Zhivago is present when Lara shoot Komarovsky, a political opportunist who has seduced her. After the incident, Pasha, a revolutionary idealist, leads Lara away from the party, and later they marry. Yuri, now a doctor, next encounters Lara as a nurse when both of them are working at the front during the Great War. Upon his return to Moscow, Yuri Zhivago is under suspicion because of the poetry he has written. His family's house has been requisitioned. At the urging of his half-brother, Yevgrav, who is a bolshevik police commissar, Yuri takes his family to the Urals where they have a country estate.
Yuri discovers that Lara is living in a nearby town where Pasha, who is now called Strelnikov, is waging war against what remains of the White Army units. Zhivago visits her, and they fall in love. Returning from a visit one day, Zhivago is captured by the Red Army partisans and pressed into service as a doctor.
At the first chance, Zhivago deserts the units and journeys back to Lara's home. Here they spend their last time together. Komarovsky reappears from the past with news that Yuri's family has been deported to France.
Despite Komarovsky's urgings to leave Russia, Zhivago refuses. Eventually he is separated from Lara, who disappears into a labor camp. Years later, Yuri Zhivago dies of a heart attack on a Moscow street, never having found her again. Yebgrav, however, finds the love-child of Zhivago and Lara and tells her the story.