One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (Signet Classics)
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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Summary and Analysis

by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Part One

Reveille to Roll Call pages 17-37:

At five o'clock in the morning, the reveille sounds, and Ivan Denisovich Shukhov awakens in the freezing cold barracks of a Soviet prison camp. Usually, he gets up immediately because the next ninety minutes, before work begins, are his own. He can make money by sewing mittens, bringing someone his valenki (felt boots), or helping in the mess hall. In the mess hall, however, you are always tempted to lick out of someone's leftover bowl, and Shukhov remembers Kuziomin, an old prisoner who had told him and other newcomers that those who lick out others bowls, count on doctors to save them, or rat others out don't survive in these camps on the taiga. Shukhov knows that the squealers do survive, just at the expense of someone else's blood.

But this morning, Shukhov, having felt sick all night, remains in bed a while longer, wrapped in his coat and a blanket. He listens as Tiurin, the squad leader, and his deputy Pavlo, get up, and remembers that their squad might be sent to work on the "Socialist Way of Life" settlement, in open country with snowdrifts and no way to get warm. Ivan thinks that "One-and-a-Half" Ivan, the nicest guard, will be on duty so he won't get in trouble, and listens as Pavlo returns, complaining that they've been shorted on their bread rations by the supply depot. Just then, another guard, the Tartar, marches in and rips Ivan's blanket out. He sentences him to three days penalty with work, which Ivan knows is better than "without work," because you are kept too busy to think and given food and warmth. Nonetheless, as he dresses and follows the Tartar to the camp commandant's office, Shukhov is upset for being undeservedly punished, since all other days he gets up immediately.

Shukhov follows the Tartar to the guardhouse and into the guardroom. Scrubbing the guardroom floor had been the job of a special prisoner, a staff orderly, who wasn't sent to work outside the camp and having gotten a big head, didn't come to scrub the floor now when called. Realizing he is just there to scrub the floor and leave - without three days of punishment - Shukhov thanks the Tartar and sets out with the bucket to the well. He passes several squad leaders near the official thermometer, arguing that it's fixed and doesn't show the real temperature. Today it registers 17 _ below zero, and 41 degrees below zero is considered too cold to work.

Back at the guardroom, the Tartar is gone, and a group of guards argues about the cereal they will receive during the winter. Shukhov takes off his valenki so that they won't get wet while he washes the floor. He is grateful for them, for there are times he has only had rope sandals or galoshes made of tire treads, but this past October he had received a pair of hard leather boots. When the valenki were handed out in December, he was thrilled, but it was decreed each prisoner could only have one pair of footwear, and he'd had to return the boots and keep the valenki for the winter. Pouring lots of water on the floor because it is so dirty, Shukhov angers the guards, who ask if he ever saw his wife scrub the flooor. Shukhov says he hasn't seen his wife since 1941 and barely remembers her. Knowing these guards don't want and wouldn't recognize quality, Shukhov merely wets the floor with a damp rag rather than giving it a thorough washing.

Though he wants to find time to go to the dispensary, Shukhov first heads to the mess hall, where he is relieved to find no line or crowd outside. Inside, he pushes past crowds of men eating their oatmeal and stew to find that Fetiukov, who is lower than him in the unofficial hierarchy of their squad, saving his meal for him. The few minutes that mealtimes take are the only times, except sleep, when prisoners live for themselves, and Shukhov takes his time eating his cold stew of black cabbage and bony fish and his magara, Chinese oatmeal that is more like yellow grass than cereal. He eats all this with a spoon that he cast himself in 1944, which he carries in his boot for safekeeping, but avoids fish eyes floating loose in the stew and saves his bread for later.

Leaving the mess hall, it is still dark, but Shukhov can tell that it is near roll call. He avoids the Tartar, knowing that it is best to be inconspicuous and seen only in groups, to avoid extra tasks or punishment. Though he realizes he had planned to meet the Lett to buy some tobacco, the dispensary is nearby and he continues on to there. Only a young prisoner/medical assistant Kolya Vdovushkin is on duty, surreptitiously writing poetry, and he tells Shukhov that the sick list went out last night. But Shukhov insists that he feels "ill all over" and didn't last night, and the medical assistant gives him a thermometer, which he puts in his armpit to take his temperature.

Shukhov finds sitting still and quiet for five minutes a strange experience. He remembers back during the war when his jaw was smashed and he had the opportunity to stay in the hospital on the banks of the River Lovat for five days but instead volunteered, like an idiot, to go back to the front. Now, he dreams of being sick enough to lie in bed for two or three weeks, but suddenly remembers that the new doctor, Stepan Grigorych, devises tasks for all the patients who can stand on their feet, seeing work as good medicine for illness. Stepan Grigorych had advised Vdovushkin, who was actually a literature student, to identify himself as a medical assistant to therefore give him the opportunity to do the writing in prison he had no chance to do in the outside world.

Shukhov's temperature is 99.2, and Vdovushkin tells him he'll have to stay behind at his own risk; if the doctor doesn't exempt him for illness, he'll be locked up. Shukhov leaves to go work, returning first to the barracks, where Pavlo gives him his break ration with a spoonful of sugar on top. He sticks half the bread in a pocket he has sewed under his jacket, and rushes to hide the rest of the bread in a hole in his mattress, which he quickly sews up with a needle he keeps hidden in his hat. He has just finished when Tiurin calls the squad to go out. The men trample out slowly and deliberately, into weather so cold no one even wants to speak.

Analysis:

One of the tasks which Solzhenitsyn undertakes in representing the life of a political prisoner in a forced labor camp - a life he himself endured under an eight-year sentence under Stalin - is a demonstration of the camp's effect on the prisoner's humanity. Solzhenitsyn's book was published in 1962, at a time when Khrushchev, then premier of the Soviet Union, was actively seeking to break with Stalin's legacy and to condemn the system of his predecessor. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, while based on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences, was therefore also a propagandistic tool in Khrushchev's campaign for "destalinization." As such, Solzhenitsyn's demonstration of the effects of the Stalinist system upon the individual worker aid in condemning Stalin's practices.

Solzhenitsyn demonstrates, through repeated examples, the ways in which internment in a "special" camp robs the individual of his humanity. The power of these examples is increased by Solzhenitsyn's repeated use of understatement. For Shukhov and his fellow prisoners, this loss of humanity has become so commonplace as to cease to outwardly upset them. For example, when the guard taunts Shukhov about the way in which he washes the floor, saying, "Didn't you ever watch your wife scrub the floor, pig?" Shukhov responds somewhat sarcastically, saying, "I was taken from my wife in forty-one, citizen chief. I've forgotten what she was like." This matter-of-fact response reminds the reader - who has not seen Shukhov missing his wife or even thinking about her at any other time that morning - of the life Shukhov has lost. The understatement and admission that he has forgotten what his wife was like is more disturbing than any depiction of Shukhov missing his wife because it demonstrates the ways in which his long prison sentence has altered him and robbed him of basic human responses.

Similarly, we see an example of stolen humanity in the mess hall scene. "There at the table, before dipping his spoon in, a young man crossed himself. A West Ukrainian, that meant, and a new arrival too," Solzhenitsyn writes. "As for the Russians, they'd forgotten which hand to cross themselves with." Again, Solzhenitsyn demonstrates the destructive power of the camp system on the human spirit not through external abuses imposed upon the prisoners by the guards but through the prisoner's own internalized responses to this lengthy imprisonment. Solzhenitsyn's morality, as appears in his books, was based on deeply held religious beliefs - beliefs which under the Soviet government he was unable to make known. This loss of religion, which might otherwise provide a panacea for the hopelessness of the camps, is yet another example of the Stalinist system's abuse not only of human bodies but of human souls.

While Shukhov provides the main alter-ego for Solzhenitsyn in this novel, other prisoners also mirror aspects of the writer's life and beliefs. Alyosha, the Baptist, for example, reads a half-copied New Testament in a notebook he hides in the wall. Solzhenitsyn himself later spoke of his belief in God as helping him survive the camps. Vdovushkin, the medical assistant, surreptitiously writes poetry during his sentence. Solzhenitsyn spoke of composing verses by heart in his head while incarcerated. In both cases, the two characters - like the author - defy authority and cling to the aspects of their previous life which allow them to maintain their humanity and survive.

The question of whether humanity is necessary or even beneficial to survival is touched upon when Shukhov recalls "Kuziomin‹a hard bitten prisoner who had already been in for twelve years by 1943" who told himself and other new prisoners about the types of people who manage to live. "Those who lick other men's leftovers, those who count on the doctors to pull them through, and those who squeal on their buddies," he says, do not survive. Though Shukhov knows that the squealers do survive - at the cost of their own humanity - he respects and agrees with most of Kuziomin's statement. For Shukhov, avoiding the before-breakfast mess hall, where he might be tempted to lick out another man's bowl, is a significant step towards maintaining his humanity and surviving his sentence.

For Solzhenitsyn, adept in the use of understatement, what appear to the reader to be small actions take on enormous significance in the prison camp. Shukhov, despite the bitter cold and despite other prisoners' practice of leaving their hats on in the mess hall, always removes his hat before eating. This recognition of the practices and decorum of his previous life may not have any immediate effect but it allows Shukhov to retain respect for himself as a man. The simple acts of removing one's hat before a meal or crossing oneself are acts of defiance to a system that seeks to turn a thinking, feeling human being into a senseless worker.

Shukhov and his fellow prisoners exist in a prison camp where their bodies, their labor, and even their language are controlled by authorities. No longer citizens of the Soviet Union, they are not allowed to call the guards "comrade" but must refer to them as "citizen," thus marking through their very language their recognition of their inferior status. Similarly, the requirement that all prisoners doff their hats to guards when passing them in the paths of the camp forces the prisoners to recognize their inferior, powerless status. How then, in an environment in which their every move and word is controlled and monitored, can a prisoner maintain his freedom and humanity?

That is the very question that Solzhenitsyn asks and answers with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. His answer, we see, is at its heart existentialist. Like Sisyphus, whose punishment is the classical underworld is to continually push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll to the bottom to be pushed up again, Shukhov finds freedom in the certainty of his punishment. Sisyphus is free - free to think whatever he wants - when he walks down the hill to retrieve the rock. Solzhenitsyn similarly finds opportunities for freedom in Shukhov's mind, which ultimately cannot be touched or controlled by the authorities as his body can. Shukhov "always got up at once, for the next ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, belonged to him, not to the authorities." Similarly, Shukhov "ate [his cold stew] with his usual slow concentrationŠApart from sleep, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is the ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner, and five at supper."

Just as small actions have enormous significance so too do small objects. Shukhov's spoon - "his little baby" - is such an object. Like Shukhov's insistence on removing his hat at the table and not stooping to lick bowls or eat fish eyes, the spoon symbolizes his humanity. The spoon, which "had been with him his whole time in the North," which "he'd castŠwith his own hands," is the only thing in the camp which Shukhov truly owns. In a Stalinist communist society, in which the government sought to destroy the notion of all private property, this ownership, even of a spoon, is significant. In the camp, where Shukhov cannot even call his clothing or boots his own, this spoon marks him as an autonomous individual. Shukhov has had this spoon since the first years of his imprisonment, since "Ust-Izhma 1944," when Kuziomin taught him how to survive in the camps. His continued efforts to protect his spoon, secreting it in his boot, are metaphoric efforts to protect his own humanity.

In this first part of the book and Shukhov's day, one can recognize a recurrence of significant numbers. Shukhov was taken from his wife in '41. The temperature required for work to be called of is negative 41 degrees. Shukhov's squad in the camp is 104. In 1959, when he completed the book, Solzhenitsyn was 41 years old.

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