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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary
devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich!