One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
From Tsezar’s arrival in the parcel room to Shukhov’s going to bed
When there are ten men left in line ahead of Shukhov, Tsezar arrives in the parcel room. He is wearing a distinctive new fur hat that someone has just sent him from outside. Tsezar smiles at Shukhov and falls into conversation with another man from Moscow. Eventually Shukhov is able to explain to Tsezar where his place in line is, and he asks whether he should fetch Tsezar’s dinner that evening, secretly fishing for an offer of Tsezar’s rations. Tsezar gives Shukhov the right to eat his own dinner that night, since Tsezar will dine on the contents of his parcel.
Outside, Shukhov finds the camp filled with groups of inmates walking around. This bustle is the result of the camp commander’s recent order against prisoners wandering the camp singly. Shukhov reflects on how silly this order is, since no one needs to be accompanied to the latrine. He predicts that, like similar orders, this one will be quietly forgotten soon enough. Another of the commander’s orders is that gangs should enter the mess hall two at a time. The result of this order is a madhouse in the mess, with Limpy, the mess orderly, struggling to maintain order as the crowd fights to get in to eat. Limpy tells the men at the door to halt, but they shout back that they are being pushed from behind. Shukhov is at the back of the crowd, and worries that he will not be able to enter with Gang 104—in which case he may not be allowed to eat at all.
Shukhov breaks through and enters the mess. He grabs an empty tray from another inmate and makes his way to the cook’s hatch to fill it with bowls for Gang 104, to the joy of Pavlo. Gopchik snatches a tray too. Shukhov carefully notices which bowls have the watery gruel, and makes a note to keep the thickest bowls for himself. Though the gruel is always thinner in the evening, it tastes heavenly to Shukhov when he sits down and starts eating. He thinks to himself that they will all survive. Shukhov notices that the man to his left has only water in his bowl, and he curses the inmates for treating their fellow prisoners so ungenerously. Shukhov savors his double meal, eating slowly. He watches an old prisoner, thin and worn from labor, longer than he watches anyone else. Shukhov then suddenly licks his spoon, shoves it in his boot, and departs.
The moon is high. Shukhov decides to buy some homegrown tobacco from the Latvian. Watching the Latvian pack his portion full, to get his two rubles’ worth, Shukhov listens to a prisoner shout criticism of “Old Man Whiskers,” a disrespectful reference to Joseph Stalin. Shukhov reflects that in a political prison camp, unlike an ordinary prison, you can say whatever you like. The secret service officers couldn’t care less.
Shukhov pays a visit to Tsezar to give him his bread, hoping to be allowed to keep it for himself. Tsezar is deliriously joyful at the feast before him, having received his parcel. Tsezar allows Shukhov to keep the ration of bread. Shukhov is not envious of Tsezar, however, since he understands that any gift must be shared with innumerable mouths in the camp.
Shukhov’s unwavering attention to food in this section demonstrates how much of a basic struggle for survival his camp life is. This section is even more food-oriented than the rest of the novel, not only because we are at dinner-time in Shukhov’s day but also because the dinner is so unusually abundant. The thick gruel and the bread ration from Tsezar are quite a windfall for Shukhov. Having witnessed his long and anxious struggle to obtain enough bread to live on, we share his feeling now that he has stepped into a nutritional paradise. The bread from Tsezar, in particular, comes as manna from heaven, and is a marvelous blessing. The fact that Shukhov spends so much energy getting and preserving food reveals how vital a part of his existence the pursuit of food is.
Solzhenitsyn also turns this scene into a philosophical meditation on the question of how much a man needs. This section can be seen as a subtle criticism of Shukhov’s physical satisfactions. Shukhov does not share his abundance with his fellow prisoners. He has been given far more than his daily bread, and it may not be a spiritually good thing. Excess can corrupt, according to both Christian and communist thought, both of which explain that anything beyond what an individual needs should be shared with others. Yet Shukhov does not share; in fact, he actively ignores any impulse to be generous. Shukhov jelaously guards his food from his more needy companions. Although we might expect Shukhov to give the prisoner with the water gruel or the old man a handout, he does not. Even the privileged Tsezar distributes his wealth more evenly than Shukhov does. We sense that worldly pleasures have dulled Shukhov’s sense of the fellowship of mankind.
Although the prisoners give up almost all of their freedom, they are also given a few rights that civilians do not enjoy. The Latvian’s howling criticism of Stalin shows that, ironically, the camp inmates have considerable freedom of expression even though the ideology behind the camp suppresses that freedom. The prisoners’ freedom of expression, however, is a result of the dehumanization of the labor camp rather than a sign of the guard’s leniency or respect. Because the guards to not view the prisoners as human, they do not care what the prisoners say. The fact that they can make whatever statements they like about Soviet leadership shows that the authorities regard their opinions as utterly inconsequential.
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