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Quotes One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich Essays

Average Overall Rating: 5
Total Votes: 126

Essay Q&A

1.  How does the protagonist Shukhov change over the course of the day described in the novel?
Shukhov is introduced as an honest but somewhat limited or self-interested man of humble origins, whose first action in the day described is to attempt to be granted sick leave and thus be spared the arduous work otherwise in store.  He is presented not as greedy or manipulative for trying to avoid his duties as a prisoner in a Stalinist labor camp, but rather as simply human, a stand in for any and every man in such unjust circumstances.  It seems the reason he is in prison at all is more due to political forces beyond his control than any fault of his own, yet his acceptance of his punishment shows a conformist personality disinclined to confrontation who would rather live out his sentence quietly than raise a ruckus.  Once it is clear he will spend this day as he does most, Shukhov resigns himself to the grueling work ahead in the compound, but nevertheless manages to enjoy both his meals and his thoughts.  Over the course of the novel, he begins to question the value he initially placed on scheming for food above all else, and to listen to his bunk mate Alyoshka with increased attention and appreciation for the Baptist’s life philosophy. Alyoshka suggests that prisoners ought to rejoice because their circumstances permit seemingly endless reflection on the Bible and its messages.  By the time lights go out at nightfall and another day is brought to an end in the camp, Shukhov has for the first time given away part of the spoils of Caesar’s package to his newfound spiritual guide. Most tellingly, he seems to be a happier man for it.  Reflecting on the day’s adventures, he is at peace with his actions and their consequences, and Solzhenitsyn seems to suggest he will be less conflicted serving the remaining 3,653 days in his sentence now that he has found more value in nurturing his spiritual needs than those of his body alone.
2.  What characters serve as allies or enemies of Shukhov’s struggle and growth?
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a rather solitary protagonist, and unpretentious in his heroic everyday struggle to eke out an existence among his fellow members of Gang 104.  While Alyoshka the Baptist is clearly the primary motivator for Shukhov’s conversion from a mere believer in God to a spiritual being who thinks beyond his daily bodily wants, many of the characters support or challenge this major change in the protagonist.  Tyurin and Pavlo are both highly respected bosses, and although neither seems to profess any religious beliefs of his own, both their words and actions encourage Shukhov to improve himself and to continue to do good work in the gang.  Neither leader has become embittered by camp life, and both somewhat miraculously seem to retain a steady spirit and willingness to seek out creative means of benefiting the group.  Kilgas is presented as another talented worker, and his positive attitude and good humor similarly support Shukhov’s development as a person.  The kindly actions of the Estonians who let him borrow a cigarette, and even Gopchik whose youthful enthusiasm seems to kindle a fatherly or brotherly spirit in the older man also enable Shukhov to strive for a better life, moving onward and upward over the course of the novel to appreciate even finer things in life than sausage or cheese.  Although Fetyukov is presented less sympathetically, as a man who has been broken by the system and who begs pathetically at every opportunity, even his behavior seems to serve as a counter-example for Shukhov, who derives pleasure from assuring himself he does not sink to such a level himself.  Similarly, while the prison officials, warders and Snubnose in particular seem the only potential threats to Shukhov’s growth and spiritual development, their miserable actions and derogatory comments seem only to make him stronger.  Even the medic’s inability to grant Shukhov a day of bed rest helps rather than hinders this determined man from pursuing his quest, which turns out to be of a more spiritual variety than he himself realizes when he awakens to again tackle the challenge of staying alive.
3.  How does prison life reflect realities on “the outside”?
While the entire novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich takes place within the walls of a very concrete and real prison, references to Shukhov’s life before serving his sentence, and especially to the somewhat worse conditions of Ust-Izhma, suggest there is something of a parallel between lives lived “inside” and “outside.” While Stalin’s labor camps as described include outright horrible living conditions, at several points in the novel Shukhov struggles with whether he really would prefer life back home.  Besides reflecting that he has become accustomed to camp life after so many years, and perhaps hardened to the realities of the world in a way less possible from outside, his doubt seems to suggest that the Communist ideology imprisons citizens metaphorically even when it does not do so physically.
Solzhenitsyn thus raises the question of how to live freely in an undemocratic society in which one’s thoughts are never private but rather always threaten the thinker with arrest and punishment.  In a society based on fear of being turned in by a neighbor or colleague, relationships are understandably superficial and trust quite rare. The few friendships Shukhov seems to have cultivated inside the camp apparently have much in common with his familial relationships “outside.”  While his wife’s letters indicated a willingness to cooperate with the system and paint carpets if that is what will earn them a living, Shukhov prefers not to follow such seemingly lucrative pursuits.  All he wished and wishes is to continue his carpentry in peace, and this is equally impossible out of prison given the persecution of Soviet citizens for minor or even invented infractions.  The decisions Shukhov makes in prison thus seem to mirror the way he lived his life on the outside, according to an internal measure of what is right and what is dignified, rather than an external one susceptible to manipulation by such oppressive political forces.
4.  Does Solzhenitsyn seem to comment in this work on his own morals or vision of right and wrong?
Alexander Solzhenitsyn somewhat transparently based One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich on his own experiences in a Stalinist labor camp, where he was imprisoned for criticizing the Soviet leader in a private letter.  It is no coincidence, therefore, that his protagonist is presented as a prisoner in mind, body and spirit for unjust reasons.  Shukhov’s incarceration is due more to an unfair political system than any actual criminal actions committed, as is evidenced by references to charges of espionage when he was taken prisoner by the Germans in World War II.  While the author does not explicitly criticize the Stalinist regime or communism more generally, his novel both indirectly and directly reveals deep doubts about the ability of such a system to judge its citizens.
The very selection of a prison as the locale for the entirety of the novel’s actions suggests Solzhenitsyn, from his own personal experiences under this regime, found fault with the contemporary political system.  He takes as the very foundation of his literary work the question of whether it is in the interest of Soviet citizens to cooperate with the communist apparatus, since it seems to depend upon them imprisoning themselves, whether only physically or, even worse, spiritually.  As belief in God or any other power other than the people was seen in Soviet Russia as anti-establishment, Shukhov’s very spirituality is part of what makes him a danger to the system and necessitates his incarceration.  Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of Shukhov as an upstanding citizen despite his cruel fate shows the author’s own morality and keen sense of justice.  This is evidenced by the fact that his protagonist grows from a simple man always looking out for how to scheme something extra, into a far more complex character who seeks more from life than just a physical existence.  Shukhov’s spiritual transformation at the center of the novel suggests Solzhenitsyn’s own religious beliefs as well as his political persuasions, and his depiction of a prisoner who derives his own mechanisms for retaining dignity and morality show hope that human beings even under such dehumanizing systems as communism can continue to respect one another and themselves.  Just as Shukhov will continue to remove his cap before meals for the next 3,653 days of his unjust prison sentence, so can citizens of the Soviet Union find their own creative channels of resistance.
5.  What does the one day described suggest about the other days lived by Ivan Denisovich and his fellow prisoners?
Although the entire novel spans only one day, this particular twelve-hour or so period represents the other 364 days of trial and tribulation faced every year both by the protagonist, Shukhov, and the rest of the prison’s inmates.  By starting the book with a description of reveille and concluding it at lights out, when the prisoners are checked a second time despite the cold night air, Solzhenitsyn creates a microcosm, or small world that represents a larger reality.  Within this single day, Shukhov experiences hope and frustration, joy and despair, friendship and inhumanity, and both the indignity of scraping a secret hole in his mattress to store a bit of bread, and the spiritual satisfaction of having shared a cookie with one even less fortunate.  His thoughts wander to other days and years, imparting to the reader a sense of continuity well beyond this particular day.  However, between sunrise and bedtime Shukhov, his fellow members of Gang 104 and all the inhabitants of the Stalinist labor camp experience the same array of emotions as they do every other day of the year and every other day of their sentences.  While the author’s choice to exclusively describe a single day draws attention to the brevity of life, it also permits the detailed descriptions of Shukhov’s thoughts between and during meals at a level of specificity rarely seen in works covering a longer time period.  References to Shukhov’s life before the war and his daydreams of eventual release illustrate that this day is representative of his life outside the confines of prison as well, for it is more the Soviet political system than the predictable horrors of life in the labor camp that confine this hardworking everyman.  As long as they are metaphorically incarcerated and denied the right to free thinking and free speech, Solzhenitsyn seems to suggest that all days are as limited as this one.  As his protagonist learns to appreciate the spiritual dimension of his humble life, the author seems to suggest that prison offers an unusual opportunity to explore the world of the human spirit.  Although Shukhov’s day is mostly consumed by his plotting to minimize bodily suffering, first by trying to avoid work and then by obtaining as much extra food as possible, in retrospect he appreciates the simple pleasure of being fed now that he has found some spiritual nurturance to put the rest of his existence into perspective.

Average Overall Rating: 5
Total Votes: 126

Theme Analysis

Dignity
The efforts of the prisoners, and most of all those of Shukhov, to retain elements of human dignity is among the most important themes in the novel.  Despite the barbaric living conditions in the Stalinist labor camp in which they are imprisoned, those living there manage to treat each other with respect and even kindness. The stark contrast between the inhumane circumstances in which they find themselves living on 200 grams of bread and sleeping on bare mattresses with holes rather than sheets highlights the ability of human beings to overcome terrible obstacles in the struggle for dignity and recognition.  While the camp officials insist upon calling prisoners by number, which is why Shukhov is referred to as #854, the prisoners themselves do not simply repeat this bureaucratic and dehumanizing convention, but rather seek to build alliances and to appreciate individual differences.  This is clear in Shukhov’s ability to construct things, whether walls, knives, spoons, or friendships.  He maintains his dignity not by openly rebelling against the system that confines him, but rather by living in a civilized manner despite it.  He always removes his cap before eating, and forces himself never to hurry through a meal.  Unlike Fetyukov, he never begs, instead consistently demonstrating by his own example that it is possible to retain one’s dignity even under the most inhumane and undignified of circumstances.
Injustice
Most of the characters in the novel are prisoners not because they are criminals, but rather because of unjust political conditions which punish activities that do not strike the reader as wrong.  For example, Shukhov was accused of being a spy after being captured by the Germans, but this charge does not appear to be true nor does his punishment seem warranted.  Similarly, Gopchik is just a child who provided milk to rebels hiding in the woods near his home out of a sense of sympathy and solidarity, surely not an action meriting imprisonment.  And Tyurin, whose father was of a wealthier social class, is in prison because of his origins and not his actions at all.  The Soviet prison system seems to enforce unfair laws and to subject prisoners to the harsh Siberian temperatures and hard labor out of a sense of revenge rather than justice.
Faith
Another recurring theme in the novel is that of faith. Shukhov grows from one who says he believes in God but in practice seems to prioritize his bodily needs over those of his soul, to a happier though possibly hungrier individual who feeds his spirit first. While the novel spans one day in his life as prisoner, through flashbacks and anecdotes it is clear that Shukhov is industrious, a talented but humble worker who hopes for little more than his daily bread, and maybe an extra ration to save for later.  His fellow prisoner, Alyoshka the Baptist, is at first presented rather neutrally, without it being clear whether his habit of reading the Bible is sheer foolishness or to be admired. But over the course of the novel, Shukhov seems to absorb an important life lesson from his religious bunkmate, and after his demonstration of faith by sharing one of his two hard-earned cookies with Alyoshka, he rests quite happily, suggesting his faith will help him survive.  Even though faith seems not to have enabled Alyoshka to scrounge any extra crumbs, he and Shukhov are happier than they would otherwise be because they are able  to nourish the soul as well as the flesh. Living in the Cold
It is no coincidence that the labor camp is located in Siberia, known for its freezing temperatures and harsh natural climate.  Solzhenitsyn uses temperature to indicate mood, and the theme of overcoming cold is prominent in this work.  At the beginning of the novel, inch-thick ice covers the window panes as reveille is sounded, and at its conclusion the second night check drives slipper-less Shukhov into the freezing night air.  From the references to shivering men at work on the compound to the fact all the prisoners sleep in their pants due to the cold, it is clear throughout the novel that nature, at least the Siberian winter, is a major force to be reckoned with and overcome.  Far from providing the men solace or peace, the cruel temperatures make their work harder, and even a question of life or death.
Friendship
Although the novel follows a single protagonist seemingly distant from family or close friends, Shukhov does reach out to fellow prisoners to build alliances and friendships despite the many factors discouraging such bonds.  Tyurin, the boss of Gang 104, is a figure more respected than anything, and Shukhov’s relationship with Caesar is similarly based on an unequal power dynamic.  He looks down upon Fetyukov, but reaches out in a friendly way to both Alyoshka the Baptist and to his fellow hard worker Kilgas, as well as turning a warm eye towards Gopchik.  Although the prison officials have removed most incentives for the men to build alliances, Shukhov clearly derives pleasure from his close relationships and over the course of the novel comes to recognize their importance in his life.