One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
From Shukhov’s going to bed to the end of the novel
Shukhov pulls off his boots and hoists himself up into his bunk. He examines the bit of steel he has found, planning to make a good knife over the next four days. He knows that he must hide the forbidden piece of steel carefully. Meanwhile, he sees Fetyukov return sobbing and bleeding. Fetyukov has been beaten up as punishment for licking out the bowls in the mess hall. Shukhov feels sorry for him. Tsezar calls out to Shukhov, asking to borrow his folding knife to cut sausage. Shukhov willingly lends it to Tsezar, knowing that Tsezar will reward him for the favor. Resting on his bunk, Shukhov overhears Tsezar offering goodies to Buynovsky and telling stories about the Soviet government’s attempts to make a visiting American official believe that the Soviet economy was thriving by stocking a local store to the gills right before the American arrived. Tsezar gives Shukhov some biscuits, sugar, and a slice of sausage.
A warden called Snub Nose arrives to warn Tyurin that some of his men have not yet submitted their written explanations for possessing forbidden items. Tyurin tells him it is hard for many of them to submit explanations because they are illiterate. Snub Nose says they must submit explanations by the morning. Snub Nose also summons Buynovsky for a trip to the hole for ten days’ punishment. Shukhov reflects on the cold stone walls of the hole, and how fifteen days in it would kill a man while ten days would mean tuberculosis.
The hut orderly calls the men outside for a body count. Tsezar panics. He does not know what to do with his parcel. Shukhov urges him to be the last to leave the hut. Shukhov promises to be the first to come back in, and to guard the bag. Outside the men wait in the cold for the count. When it is over, Shukhov dashes back inside and pulls off his boots near Tsezar’s bunk. Another prisoner eyes him suspiciously. Tsezar returns and thanks Shukhov for his help.
Shukhov lies down on his bare mattress, wondering why women back home bother with sheets, which just create more laundry. He is happy, and thanks God out loud for another day done. He sees Alyoshka reading the New Testament. Alyoshka has heard Shukhov thank God, and asks why Shukhov does not pray to him properly. Shukhov replies that prayers are never answered. Alyoshka rebuts that Shukhov has not prayed hard enough. Aloyshka adds that prayer should be for spiritual goods, not earthly ones like the daily ration of bread. He urges Shukhov not to covet material goods. Shukhov lies back down, reflecting on Alyoshka’s strange gladness at being in prison.
A second roll call is ordered. Some of the men have already fallen asleep, and they grumble as they pull on their clothes. Tsezar hands the bag of food up to Shukhov, and asks him to hide it under his pillow, knowing that no one will suspect Shukhov of having anything. The warden is impatient with the slow movers, and threatens them with a beating. They all go out. One by one, they are allowed back in. Shukhov gives Tsezar his bag back, and wonders why Alyoshka always does favors for everyone without expecting any reward. Shukhov hands Alyoshka a biscuit. Alyoshka smiles and eats it. Shukhov eats his bit of sausage.
Shukhov falls asleep content. He has been well fed, found a blade for a knife, bought tobacco, and hasn’t been thrown in the hole. He notes that it has been an almost happy day. The narrator remarks that it is just one of the 3,653 days of Shukhov’s ten-year sentence.
Shukhov’s relationship with his prisonmates is morally ambiguous. On one hand, he shows pity on another human in a way that he has never done before in the novel when he feels sorry for the sobbing and bloody Fetyukov, who has been beaten up for licking the bowls. Shukhov’s compassion shows his basic good-heartedness, even after so many years of camp hardships. But on the other hand, Shukhov’s generosity is motivated by a desire for repayment. He lends Tsezar his folding knife to cut sausages because he calculates that he will get a payback for his good deed later, not because he intends good will. Shukhov also shows a lack of brotherly love when he finds out that his hutmate Buynovsky has been sentenced to ten days in the hole. Shukhov reacts with no emotion, merely noting that “there was not much you could say.” In the end, Shukhov is only human, and under the stressful conditions of camp life moral considerations are often a second priority to self-preservation instincts.
In the final paragraphs of the novel, Shukhov begins to care less about doing favors in order to receive payback and more about doing favors for the sake of helping others. The dialogue between Shukhov and Alyoshka shows how Shukhov begins to accept Alyoshka’s Christian philosophy. Alyoshka is a Baptist, belonging to a Christian denomination that emphasizes the possibility of changing one’s life. Although Shukhov is not religious, he experiences a moral rebirth during his theological conversation with Alyoshka. After this conversation, Shukhov performs his first truly generous act in the novel: he gives Alyoshka one of his precious biscuits. Shukhov knows that Alyoshka never expects payback for the favors he does, so Shukhov himself does not expect a payback for this biscuit. This gift to Alyoshka is selfless, not calculated. In this moment, Shukhov is a giver for the first time in the novel, showing that in some small way, he has become a new person.
The ending of the novel implies that happiness is possible in the most dire of situations. Shukhov’s contentment that “it was almost a happy day” is surprising when contrasted with the misery of the novel’s early moments. Shukhov’s trajectory in the novel, from abject misery to hard work to contentment and religion at the end, mimics Dante’s religious epic poem The Divine Comedy, which influenced Solzhenitsyn deeply. In The Divine Comedy, Dante travels from hell, through purgatory, to heaven. Like Dante, Shukhov moves from discomfort to bliss, and from material existence to spiritual transcendence. Shukhov’s journey is interior, in his soul. From an outside perspective, his existence in the labor camp seems dismal and not at all uplifting—as the narrator reminds us when he reports that this day is only one of the 3,653 days of Shukhov’s sentence. Shukhov’s triumph, however, is his ability to find meaning in an environment that seeks to strip it completely from his life
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