One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Themes

Themes

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The endurance of humanity

Through the character of Shukhov and his actions, Solzhenitsyn demonstrates that humanity can survive even the harshest conditions. Though the prison camp system seeks to destroy, by its very nature, expression of fellow-feeling and actions based on morals and ethics, Shukhov and his fellow prisoners maintain their humanity through small acts and rituals. One such act is removing one's hat at a meal. Another is refraining from licking empty bowls. Yet another is giving away some of one's food and expecting nothing in return. Shukhov must work hard to preserve his capability for self-respect and dignity but throughout the day, he does so despite the enormous odds.

The ritualization of eating

For Shukhov, the mealtimes are his few truly free moments during the day, and he thinks of them as sacred moments. Through the ritual of removing his hat, Shukhov connects himself to the pre-prison world and retains his self-respect. Through using the spoon he crafted himself, Shukhov takes control of the meal, making it in some way his own. The minutes of eating are also a time when Shukhov's only concern is himself. Shukhov's practice of ritualizing meals allows him to place even more importance on something that is important to him.

The destruction of human solidarity

The zek's main enemy is another zek. Throughout the novel, Solzhenitsyn depicts the ways in which competition and conflict between prisoners further worsen life in prison. A hierarchy that exists between prisoners who work inside and those who work outside the camp. Prisoners with power, like the cook or building foreman, abuse that power, mostly by taking from or punishing other prisoners. The lack of amenities or even necessities in the camp forces the prisoners to turn against each other in order to survive.

Finding freedom through work

The prisoner's entire day, from reveille to final count, is controlled by the authorities. He is given no choice in what work he does and is not paid, yet Shukhov takes pride in the work he does. In working hard at his masonry and taking pride in building a good, strong, straight wall, he is in effect subverting the prison authorities who seek to punish him by making him work. Shukhov, instead, is gaining self-regard by learning a new skill in prison and making his actions meaningful to himself. Shukhov finds a sort of freedom through work because he is no longer working for the authorities but - as his desire not to stop even when the end of day signal sounds - for himself.

Time as possession

The main thing stolen from prisoners at Stalin's camps is time - ten or twenty-five years of their lives. Because of that, any time they can call their own - in the morning before roll call or over meals or simply waiting to begin work - is precious. And conversely, any time that they are forced to wait or work extra is considered time stolen from them. This time is precious not just because it is a brief period of freedom but because the things prisoners like Shukhov do in their free time - earning money and favors by repairing shoes, for example - are necessary to their survival in the camps.