One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
From Shukhov’s wait in sick bay to the body search by Volkovoy
Sitting in sick bay with the inattentive Kolya, Shukhov notices how quiet everything is. There are not even any mice scratching, since the camp cat has caught them all. He notices how the numbers on his jacket have worn off, and makes a mental note to get them traced on again, to avoid a punishment. Feeling his aches, Shukhov dreams of two or three weeks in which he could simply sleep. But the new doctor, Stepan Grigorich, is unlikely to prescribe such a rest, since he believes that hard work heals all ills. As Shukhov meditates, Kolya continues copying out the poem he has written, which he has promised to show to a colleague the next morning. The narrator tells us that Shukhov would not have understood the poem, and does not even seem to know what a poem is. Shukhov is confused about why each line begins with a capital letter. Kolya finds that Shukhov’s temperature is 37.2 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit), slightly too low to excuse him from work. Kolya tells Shukhov he can linger in the doctor’s office if he wishes, but warns that doing so is risky, and recommends that he return to work.
Shukhov goes back to the hut of Gang 104, where Pavlo, his Ukrainian deputy foreman, greets him politely. Shukhov finds his ration of bread on the table with a bit of sugar, and weighs it in his hands, reflecting on how all the portions at the camp are below regulation weights. Shukhov breaks the bread in two. He puts one half in his jacket and stitches the other into his mattress so it will not be discovered during the routine search of inmates’ quarters. Similarly, Alyoshka hides a notebook in which he has copied out half of the New Testament.
Gang 104 is ordered outside for the search. Panteleyev, one of the gang’s members, does not join them since he is at headquarters, snitching on one of his fellow prisoners. Shukhov squeezes over to the side of the crowd, seeking out the artist to retrace the letters on his uniform. He watches the artist, a little old man, paint on the letters and numbers, comparing his graceful motions to those of a priest anointing a believer with holy oil. While waiting for the artist, Shukhov is tantalized by the cigarette of a fellow prisoner named Tsezar; another inmate named Fetyukov is similarly enraptured by it. However, Shukhov prides himself on not staring greedily at the cigarette as Fetyukov does—for him, doing so would mean losing his dignity. Finally, Shukhov asks Tsezar for a puff, and Tsezar offers him the rest of his cigarette.
Kolya’s poetry seems like a frivolous activity when compared to the hard labor required in the camp. Solzhenitsyn brings up poetry in order to question the significance of creative endeavors in an oppressive regime. Kolya keeps literature alive in a harsh world. But Shukhov shows little understanding or interest in Kolya’s poetry, and Shukhov’s attitude toward it implies that it is useless in his life. Shukhov’s puzzled remarks about how each line of the poem begins with a capital letter directly below the previous line suggest that Shukhov has never even seen a poem before. In this scene, poetry is not a lofty, liberating force. As we see Kolya’s poem through Shukhov’s eyes, it seems merely a funny way of writing. In fact, poetry may in fact endanger Shukhov’s health, since Kolya lets his poetry writing distract him from the more immediate task of caring for Shukhov. Solzhenitsyn does not condemn creativity as a whole. Rather, he implies that it must be more than idle fancy. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich itself is an example of a work of creative expression with a deeper significance, in that it broke political taboos and galvanized people against the Soviet regime.
Alyoshka’s fixation on the Bible is an example of a positive relationship between a prisoner and writing. Alyoshka sees literature as a mode of salvation. His studying of the New Testament allows him to ignore the harsh physical and psychological conditions of the labor camp. In this sense, literature has allowed Alyoshka to find bliss even while his physical life is miserable. At one point Shukhov looks at Alyoshka smiling calmly in the freezing cold, and almost envies him his inner peace, showing that Alyoshka has a strength that the other prisoners lack. That he stashes away his New Testament to keep the guards from confiscating it just as Shukhov hides his bread demonstrates how vital a part of his survival Alyoshka considers the Bible.
While Alyoshka finds inner peace through religion, Shukhov finds it through his struggle for survival. Though he envies Alyoshka’s calmness, Shukhov is aware that Christian faith could not play such an overwhelming role in his own life. Shukhov is more practical than the spiritual Alyoshka. But like Alyoshka, Shukhov needs sustenance. Solzhenitsyn emphasizes the parallel needs of Shukhov and Alyoshka by showing Alyoshka studying his New Testament at the same moment that Shukhov is studying his half-ration of bread. Shukhov needs to be fed with physical bread and Alyoshka needs to be fed with spiritual bread. This parallel plays on the Christian use of bread as a symbol of spiritual sustenance. While Alyoshka seeks nourishment for the other world, Shukhov seeks it for this world. In both cases, nourishment is precious and indispensable.
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