One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Struggle for Human Dignity
The Stalinist labor camp in which Shukhov is imprisoned is designed to attack its prisoners’ physical and spiritual dignity. Living conditions are nearly intolerable. Mattresses do not have sheets; prisoners eat only two hundred grams of bread per meal; and guards force prisoners to undress for body searches at temperatures of forty below zero. The labor camp also degrades its prisoners spiritually. By replacing prisoners’ names with officialistic combinations of letters and numbers, the camp erases all traces of individuality. For example, the camp guards refer to Shukhov as “Shcha-854.” This elimination of names represents the bureaucratic destruction of individual personalities.
Shukhov does not passively accept this attempt to dehumanize him, however. He shows that the way to maintain human dignity is not through outward rebellion but through developing a personal belief system. At meal time, no matter how hungry he is, he insists on removing his cap before eating. This practice, a holdover from his upbringing, gives Shukhov a sense that he is behaving in a civilized manner. No matter how ravenous he becomes, he never stoops to Fetyukov’s scrounging and begging for scraps. He scorns Fetyukov’s behavior, which he believes is subhuman. Shukhov may be treated like an animal by the Soviet camp system, but he subtly fights back and refuses to submit. His insistence on his own dignity amounts to an underground declaration of war against the state that imprisons him.
The Outrage of Unjust Punishment
An important aspect of the Stalinist work camp that the novel describes is that the inmates have been convicted of activities that do not seem criminal to us. Gopchik took milk to freedom fighters hiding in the woods; Shukhov was captured by Germans and then accused by the Russians of being a spy; Tyurin was the son of a rich peasant father. We do not know much about the crimes of their fellow inmates, but none of them appears to be a terrible criminal. Whether the Soviet government has enforced unfair laws or simply made false charges, the inmates’ back-breaking labor in subzero temperatures is grossly unjust punishment.
The laws and punishment within the labor camp are as unjust as those outside the camp. Shukhov gets into trouble and is threatened with three days in the hole not for any active wrongdoing but simply for being ill. Similarly, Buynovsky receives ten days in the hole for trying to bundle up against the cold with a flannel vest. Neither Shukhov’s illness nor Buynovsky’s attempt to stay warm harm anyone, but the camp treats both as deep violations of the law, worthy of severe punishment. Such harsh retribution for such small offenses is absurd, and the heaping of more punishment upon men already locked into long, hard prison sentences seems like nothing more than a cruel exercising of power by Soviet officials.
The Importance of Faith
Although Shukhov does not think or talk about religion for the bulk of the novel, his final conversation with Alyoshka, a devout Baptist, reveals that faith can be a means of survival in the oppresive camp system. Shukhov’s interest in Alyoshka’s discussion of God, faith, and prayer marks Shukhov’s expansion beyond his usual thoughts of work, warmth, food, and sleep. Alyoshka’s urging of Shukhov to pursue things of the spirit rather than things of the flesh renders Shukhov speechless, as if he is deeply reflecting on this philosophy. More important, he actually follows this advice in giving Alyoshka one of his biscuits, voluntarily sacrificing a worldly good. Shukhov’s sense of inner peace in the novel’s last paragraph, which resembles Alyoshka’s sense of inner peace throughout the novel, demonstrates that religious faith offers strength in the face of adversity.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Lack of Privacy
The prisoners’ lives show how the Soviet regime makes private events public in order to exercise control over individuals. The inmates have no space to call their own, and their every move is monitored. At one point, the commander decrees that even a walk to the latrine cannot be made alone; even this has become a public event. The camp has replaced prisoners’ names, which represent their private identities, with letters and numbers. Prisoners are no longer private individuals, but rather symbols in a public system. The state’s elimination of privacy is not totally successful, however. The prisoners cling to their private worlds at all costs: Alyoshka latches on to his faith; Tsezar to his care packages; and Shukhov to his precious spoon. In an official and dehumanizing environment, each manages to keep one foot in his own private world, thereby preserving his humanity.
In the novel, the cold is a physical manifestation of the coldness with which the managers of the labor camp treat the prisoners. Body searches that would be humiliating in the best of climates are physically torturous in temperatures of forty degrees below zero. Wearing ratty prison clothes would be degrading enough for the inmates even in summer, but wearing them in the biting Siberian winter makes constant suffering a part of their prison sentence. Not only does Shukhov have to concentrate on avoiding punishment at the hands of the enforcers of the camp’s often absurd regulations, but he also has to protect himself from the cold.
Solzhenitsyn’s constant emphasis on the biting cold reminds us that Shukhov is not only a political prisoner but a prisoner of nature as well. No one ever considers trying to escape from the camp, for the obvious reason that the intense weather would cause a quick death. The combination of the hard camp life and the forbidding weather creates the sense that the whole universe is against Shukhov and his fellow inmates—their lives are hindered by both humans and nature. This sense of oppression highlights the anguish of the human condition. The world is inhospitable, and yet it is the fate of humans to carry on, one day at a time.
Although the labor camp is designed to discourage frienship and camaraderie, many of the inmates form a bond that sustains them in the face of adversity. Making friends would seem to be next to impossible in the camp: the prisoners come from different countries, social classes, and educational backgrounds, and they are encouraged to spy on one another, presumably for hefty rewards. Creating a friendless existence is no doubt part of the Soviet plan for the camps: being deprived of the glorious camaraderie enjoyed by free Soviet citizens is a punishment in itself. Nevertheless, there is a deep trust among many of the prisoners, despite the gruesome punishments that could ensue if that trust were ever broken. For example, although Shukhov knows that the Estonians and Alyoshka have seen him sew his bread into his mattress, he is not worried that they will report him. Part of the miracle of survival that Solzhenitsyn represents in this novel is that a feeling so noble as solidarity with one’s fellow men can persist even in subhuman conditions.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The spoon that Shukhov hides in his boot after every meal represents his individuality. The spoon is a useful tool, but it also makes Shukhov feel unique because it is something that the other prisoners do not have. The camp tries to destroy this sense of uniqueness, and Shukhov must hide the spoon from camp officials in order to preserve the individuality he has carved out for himself in the camp. The spoon becomes a symbol of how each prisoner must hide away the special and unique part of himself in the camp’s atmosphere of impersonal officialdom and dehumanization. That Shukhov’s most prized possession is this spoon, a nurturing tool, rather than his folding knife, a cutting, destructive tool, symbolizes his focus on himself. He is committed to taking care of himself and to preserving his identity, giving himself the nourishment he needs not just physically but also spiritually.
Bread is a symbol of physical and spiritual sustenance in the novel. Although the physical sustenance that bread gives the prisoners is more important to most of them than its religious significance, Alyoshka’s reference to the Lord’s Prayer and its mention of “our daily bread” alludes to the spiritual nourishment that bread offers. At the end of the novel, Alyoshka urges Shukhov to give up his eternal quest for material bread and to start pursuing spiritual satisfaction instead. When Shukhov willingly gives Alyoshka one of his precious biscuits, without any hope of payback, we see that, for the first time in the novel, Shukhov is putting the needs of his soul in front of those of his flesh. His near bliss in the last paragraphs suggests that he has found nourishment for his soul at last.
Tsezar’s parcel of fine food symbolizes life’s worldly pleasures. In the camp, hunger controls the prisoners, forcing them into a subhuman existence in which undignified scrounging and begging are the only alternatives to outright starvation. The sole exception to this poverty is the abundance associated with Tsezar. His mysterious care packages from the outside world make the rest of the camp envy him, and guards and officers give him special privileges in exchange for a share of his bounty. Tsezar’s bag of goodies is a symbol of all good things to be enjoyed on earth.
The biblical connotation of Tsezar’s name, however, highlights the fleeting nature of his material wealth. “Tsezar” is a Russian version of the name “Caesar.” According to the New Testament, Jesus urged his disciples to “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” pointing out the difference between worldly riches and spiritual well-being (Matthew 22:21). Similarly, Alyoshka urges Shukhov to look beyond this life—symbolized by Tsezar’s parcel of treasures—toward a spiritual existence.
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