Next, he removed his cap from his shaven head—however cold it was, he wouldn’t let himself eat with his cap on—and stirred up his skilly, quickly checking what had found its way into his bowl.
This account of Shukhov’s breakfast in Section 1 shows Shukhov’s struggle for dignity despite the degradation of camp life. Shukhov has no say over what goes into his morning meal, as the passive syntax reinforces: he has no knowledge of what “had found its way into his bowl,” as if the contents of the meal had more of an active control over their destiny than he does. Nonetheless, he stirs, despite knowing that stirring will only show him what fate has brought him. Shukhov’s stirring is a quiet reminder that he yearns to keep any shred of control over his existence, even if he knows it is futile.
Removing his cap is Shukhov’s gesture toward the appearance of civilized life. Camp regulations do not require prisoners to remove their caps at meals, and as the mess hall is cold, taking his cap off causes Shukhov some discomfort. But this sacrifice does not bother him. He feels that civilized people remove their caps before eating, and does so to assert his humanity. Shukhov’s attachment to this piece of civilized etiquette shows us that the camp is not entirely successful at removing the prisoners’ humanity.
Writing letters now was like throwing stones into a bottomless pool. They sank without a trace. No point in telling the family which gang you worked in and what your foreman, Andrei Prokofyevich Tyurin, was like. Nowadays you had more to say to Kildigs, the Latvian, than to the folks at home.
This passage from Section 4, in which Shukhov ruminates about the uselessness of writing letters, is an example of Solzhenitsyn’s use of the literary device known as free indirect discourse. Free indirect discourse is a way of writing in which a narrator speaks in the third person but communicates a character’s private thoughts. The narrator of the novel is not Shukhov. However, the narrator communicates Shukhov’s inner thoughts and desires without differentiating them from his own. An example in this passage is the narrator’s statement that there is no point in telling one’s family about Tyurin. Solzhenitsyn thus turns Shukhov’s private thought about pointlessness of communicating home after so much time in the camp into one with which we can all identify.
Shukhov’s dismissive attitude toward letter-writing shows how much Shukhov has changed in the last decade. In the duration of ten years, home has receded to a very distant place in his mind. He very rarely even thinks about his wife and daughters. He is not angry or resentful toward his family; they have simply vanished from his consciousness. They, as much as the letters, have “s[u]nk without a trace” into the bottomless pool of Shukhov’s heart. The fact that the family members are never named, while Kildigs and Tyurin are both carefully identified by both name and nationality, shows where Shukhov’s attention lies nowadays. His reference to “home” is ironic, since his camp is now his real home.
“Since then it’s been decreed that the sun is highest at one o’clock.”
“Who decreed that?”
“The Soviet government.”
This exchange in Section 5 between Buynovsky, who jokingly announces the Soviet decree, and Shukhov, who innocently half-believes it, shows the absurd pompousness of the Soviet government. The joke takes the Soviet state’s willingness to decree truths to an extreme. In telling the joke, Buynovsky implies that the Soviet state believes itself all-powerful, able not only to control the lives of its citizens but also to change the very laws of nature. This idea of a government controlling the movements of the sun or the passage of time shows us the foolishness of a regime that blindly takes itself far too seriously.
The exchange also demonstrates the disparity of intellect between the two men. Buynovsky is a cultivated Muscovite with artistic interests, as we know from his impassioned conversations with Tsezar about film. His joke satirizing the Soviet state attests to his sophisticated wit. Shukhov, on the other hand, is perhaps not intelligent enough to understand the joke, since his naïve question shows he accepts the possibility that such an absurdity could even have been decreed. Shukhov is spiritually deep, but he is not a fast thinker, and Buynovsky’s humor goes right over his head. This difference in intelligence reflects the difference in social class present in the camp and in the supposedly classless Soviet society at large.
“Come on, boys, don’t let it get you down! It’s only a Power Station, but we’ll make it a home away from home.”
This call to action by the foreman of Gang 104, Tyurin, in Section 7 shows us the change in Tyurin’s characterization in the novel. While he originally comes across as a fearsome taskmaster, after telling his life story he relates to his men as though they were his equals. Like the inmates, Tyurin has been put in the prison camp unjustly. The men warm up to him after making this discovery. They see him no longer as the law enforcer but now as an older brother. This spirit of camaraderie is one of the surprises of the novel, given all the obstacles that stand in the way of decency and civility in the camp.
This quotation also emphasizes the irony of the idea of home. The “home away from home” that Tyurin refers to is the work site that is far away from the camp. Tyurin does not refer to the outside world as the prisoners’ real home. Instead he refers to the camp as their real home. Family homes have disappeared from everyone’s memories after such a long stint in the camp. Shukhov’s original home has vanished from his view in this way. He rarely thinks of his wife and daughters anymore. Tyurin’s interpretation of the camp as the prisoner’s real home rings true. Psychologically speaking, the camp is home for the prisoners: the inmates know each other well, they get along, they help each other, and they live night and day in one another’s company.
His mind and his eyes were studying the wall, the façade of the Power Station, two cinder blocks thick, as it showed from under the ice. Whoever had been laying there before was either a bungler or a slacker. Shukhov would get to know every inch of that wall as if he owned it.
The narrator describes Shukhov’s approach to the wall of the Power Station that he is about to construct as the gang’s labor begins in Section 7. This quotation reveals Shukhov’s passion and intensity. Stereotypes of communism usually focus on workers being lazy and slacking off, but Shukhov is a hard worker. His motivation comes from a deep reserve of energy and concentration within him, not from external goads or threats. He cares genuinely about doing an excellent job on this wall, and has scorn rather than admiration for the previous worker, who no doubt had an easier time with his work. This positive portrayal of a Soviet worker was surely one of the reasons that then Soviet prime minster Nikita Khrushchev approved of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962.
The phrase “as if he owned it,” describing Shukhov’s intense relationship with the task at hand, refers to the concept of ownership that is central to both capitalism and communism. While ownership in capitalism refers to the actual possessing of items, in communism it refers to something less materialistic. A communist would point to Shukhov’s pride in his craftsmanship as evidence that he feels full ownership over the labor he is carrying out and over his existence in general. On one level, Shukhov is a Soviet slave who owns nothing. But on another level, Shukhov’s odd flashes of contentment in the camp and his apparent spiritual contentment at the end of the novel suggest that people who live in a communal society may own their lives as fully as or more than people who live in a capitalist society.