A wake-up call sounds in a Stalinist labor camp in 1951, on a bitterly cold winter morning. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a prisoner in Camp HQ, is usually up on time, but this morning he suffers a fever and aches, and yearns for a little more time in bed. Thinking that a kindly guard is on duty, he rests past the wake-up call a while. Unfortunately, a different guard is making the rounds, and he punishes Shukhov for oversleeping with three days in the solitary confinement cell, which the characters call “the hole.” Led off, Shukhov soon realizes that the sentence is just a threat, and that he will only have to wash the floors of the officers’ headquarters. Shukhov removes his shoes and efficiently completes the job, proceeding quickly to the mess hall, where he worries he has missed breakfast. He meets the sniveling Fetyukov, a colleague who has saved Shukhov’s gruel for him. After breakfast, Shukhov heads to sick bay to get his fever and aches examined. The medical orderly, Kolya, tells him he should have been ill the previous night, since the clinic is closed in the morning. Shukhov’s fever is not high enough to get him off work.
Shukhov returns to the hut in time for the body search and body count, in which the prisoners are searched for forbidden articles and counted to make sure none have escaped. He carefully hides the bread he has taken at breakfast, sewing it into his mattress. The men undress in the freezing cold for the search. One inmate, Buynovsky, is wearing a flannel vest. He is sentenced to ten days in the hole for this infraction. Shukhov is happy not to have any forbidden things on him. He has neither food nor letters to his family, which he does not write anymore. He reflects on his wife’s recent letter urging him to take up carpet-dyeing when he gets out of prison. But Shukhov is not interested in this opportunity, despite the easy money.
After the search, Shukhov’s group, Gang 104, is marched off for work at the Power Station, a building site in the open fields. At the site, Shukhov looks at his colleague Alyoshka, a devout Baptist who seems happy to slave away. Shukhov is filled with respect for his foreman, Tyurin, a big tough man with a decent soul. Though they are forbidden to do so, the men try to keep the wind out of the windows by covering them with tar paper. The teenage prisoner Gopchik fetches wire for piping, and asks Shukhov to show him how to make a spoon. They all rest a while. It is too soon before the noon meal to start laying bricks, as the mortar would only dry in the trough while they ate.
At the noon meal, Shukhov sneaks a second helping of food. He is full after eating two bowls of gruel. The gang returns to the work site. On the way, Shukhov spots a bit of scrap metal in the snow, which he takes and hides in the hopes of making a knife out of it later. The prisoners stoke the stove. While preparing to work again, the gang hears Tyurin’s tale of being imprisoned for having a rich peasant father. The men begin to mortar the wall. One of the deputy foremen, Pavlo, agrees to be on the mortar team, though, as an officer, he is not required to mortar. Pavlo’s friendliness earns him the men’s respect. The bricklaying begins. Shukhov works feverishly and makes no errors. A camp manager stops by to chide Tyurin for the tar paper illegally hung in the work site windows. He threatens to punish Tyurin, but Tyurin waves him off. Alyoshka works selflessly. Time passes quickly, and the men hear the meal signal. Shukhov continues working, even after his colleague Kildigs has stopped. He is late to lunch now, but he wants to hide his precious trowel, a tool that is hard to get, so that another man will not take it. He is nearly unable to join his gang, but catches up when the gang is delayed by preparations for another body count. The men discover that a man from Moldavia is missing from another gang. The man, who has fallen asleep at the site, is finally found. The other men are furious at him for delaying their meal.
Shukhov remembers his earlier intention to go to sick bay but reflects that he would rather have supper. At the body search, Shukhov suddenly panics, remembering the bit of steel he has hidden in his mitten. He prays to God to be kept out of the hole. By a stroke of good luck, the guard does not discover the bit of steel. Shukhov returns to the camp. On the suspicion that a fellow inmate, Tsezar, has received a rich parcel of food, he offers to wait in line in the parcel room for Tsezar. Shukhov waits until Tsezar comes. There is indeed a package. Shukhov makes his way to the mess hall for supper, where the gangs are being admitted by twos instead of singly, creating a chaos inside. He manages to find his comrades, grab an empty tray, and bring their rations to the table. For his outstanding labor at the Power Station, Shukhov has been awarded 400 grams of bread. He eats in bliss, eyeing his extra rations to make sure no one grabs them. He takes Tsezar’s ration to the hut, where Tsezar, in exception to the camp rules, is allowed to eat. Tsezar has displayed the contents of his parcel to everyone, and he allows Shukhov to keep Tsezar’s supper ration.
After the body count, Shukhov prepares to sleep, though the second count has not yet been completed. He revels in his abundance of bread. At the second roll call, Tsezar panics, unsure what to do with his parcel. Shukhov helps him guard it from the other prisoners. Tsezar rewards Shukhov with a couple of biscuits and a bit of sausage. Before sleeping, Shukhov thanks God for getting him through another day. Alyoshka hears Shukhov’s prayer, and urges Shukhov to pray properly. He also encourages Shukhov to pursue the goods of the spirit and not, as Tsezar does, those of the flesh. Shukhov reflects on Alyoshka’s sentiment. Suddenly, for no reason, he hands Alyoshka one of his biscuits. Shukhov meditates that his day has been almost happy. The narrator adds that this day has been just one of the 3,653 days of Shukhov’s sentence.