One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
From the foreman’s check to Tsezar’s arrival in the parcel room
Shukhov feels relieved that all of Gang 104 is present, and the men learn that the missing prisoner is a Moldavian from Gang 32 who is reputed to be a spy. The crowd hisses in fury. Whether he has fallen asleep or tried to escape, the Moldavian’s absence causes a long wait in the cold for recounts. While Buynovsky and Tsezar continue their discussion of Eisenstein’s films, the Moldavian shows up. He had fallen asleep at the job site. The crowd reviles him, and some prisoners, including a Hungarian, physically beat him. The guards call for another count. Shukhov realizes the moon is high and half the evening has been wasted. He curses the Moldavian, the guards, and his life. For a moment he is disturbed by a hole in the line, fearing that another man might be missing. But it turns out that Fetyukov has been momentarily out of line, scrounging for a cigarette.
While waiting, Shukhov overhears a conversation about prisoners who had been in the British navy. Shukhov meditates on the irony of an officer once in golden epaulettes who is now a common prisoner in a labor camp. He also recalls that he meant to go to the sick bay. But he doesn’t ache as much now, and decides that he would prefer to go to dinner.
Gang 104 spots a rival gang of engineers racing toward the camp, eager to get first dibs on food and parcels before Gang 104 arrives. Since the engineers may be bearing the knives that have killed stoolies, the guards search them carefully and slowly. Shukhov reflects that at moments like these, guards and inmates are friends: the enemy is the other gang. The engineers fall behind, and Gang 104 rejoices. The search is imminent. Shukhov goes up to Tsezar and asks if he would like Shukhov to stand in line in the parcel room for him, on the off chance that there is a parcel for Tsezar. Shukhov secretly hopes that Tsezar will reward him if he helps deliver a package. Tsezar eventually tells Shukhov to wait in line for him. As Shukhov waits for the body search he remembers the bit of metal blade he picked up earlier. He debates dropping it, but is tempted by the extra bread such a tool could earn him if he were to trade it with a fellow prisoner. He hides the blade in his mitten. The guard shakes one mitten on Shukhov’s hand, and Shukhov is terrified he will shake the other, which contains the blade, but at that moment the engineers arrive. The guard waves Shukhov through.
Shukhov enters the parcel room, and gets in line to wait for Tsezar’s package. He notes that there are fifteen people in line before him, which represents an hour’s wait. Shukhov imagines that someone will come running up to tell him a parcel awaits him, but he knows this will never happen. He received some parcels in his former camp, but he told his wife to keep all supplies for their family. The narrator tells us that most of what is sent to prisoners goes to the guards anyway.
The prisoners’ treatment of the Moldavian shows that brutality is inflicted not just by the guards but also by fellow prisoners. The beating the Moldavian receives is a disturbing reminder that nasty prejudices occur among the inmates as much as among the administrators. This is the first time we see a prisoner’s nationality despised, as this one’s Romanian nationality is (Moldavia is a province of Romania). Nor do we ever see a prisoner brutally beaten by his fellow men (the other beatings are by guards or officers). Solzhenitsyn’s bleak view of the hatred of prisoners by other prisoners comes as something new. We have seen prisoners show mild irritation to other prisoners before, as with Shukhov’s annoyance at Fetyukov’s scrounging, but nothing of this power or magnitude. The optimistic picture of prisoner solidarity we see elsewhere is balanced here by Solzhenitsyn’s reminder that men are often cruel to one another, and Shukhov is no exception.
Solzhenitsyn’s purpose in this scene is not to chide Shukhov for hypocrisy but to point out Shukhov’s human shortcomings. The exchange shows that Shukhov is not the wise man of the camp but rather an ordinary person with limitations. The Moldavian’s beating echoes earlier scenes from the novel. Like many of the characters’ crimes, the Moldavian’s crime is accidental rather than intentional. Just as Shukhov’s illness is not his fault, the Moldavian certainly doesn’t intend to fall asleep before the body count. Punishment seems deeply unjust in both cases. When Shukhov curses the Moldavian, he seems unaware that he could easily have been in the latter’s place if his own oversleeping had occurred a few hours later in the day. This small hypocrisy reveals that Shukhov doesn’t allow sympathy for his fellow inmates to get in the way of his individual needs any more than the average inmate does.
Shukhov’s eagerness to wait in line for Tsezar’s parcel reveals that he may actually be nostalgic for the outside world. On the surface, Shukhov’s motivation is purely practical: he may walk away with a bit of Tsezar’s loot if he does him this favor. However, Shukhov’s real motivation may be deeper. The parcel room is one of the few places in the camp in which prisoners make contact with the outside world of families, friends, and loved ones back home. Prisoners who wait in line for a parcel feel that they have not been forgotten by society, and have not entirely broken off contact with their past. One can argue that Shukhov’s desire to stand in line suggests that he wants to establish contact with his family. His daydream in which someone runs up to tell him there is a package for him shows that in some hidden way he wishes it to be possible. Shukhov may tell himself that he has no real connections with the outside world anymore, but this scene in the parcel room suggests that he cannot leave his past entirely behind.
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