Next, he removed his cap from his shaven head—however cold it was, he wouldn’t let himself eat with his cap on—and stirred up his skilly, quickly checking what had found its way into his bowl.
This account of Shukhov’s breakfast in Section 1 shows Shukhov’s struggle for dignity despite the degradation of camp life. Shukhov has no say over what goes into his morning meal, as the passive syntax reinforces: he has no knowledge of what “had found its way into his bowl,” as if the contents of the meal had more of an active control over their destiny than he does. Nonetheless, he stirs, despite knowing that stirring will only show him what fate has brought him. Shukhov’s stirring is a quiet reminder that he yearns to keep any shred of control over his existence, even if he knows it is futile.
Removing his cap is Shukhov’s gesture toward the appearance of civilized life. Camp regulations do not require prisoners to remove their caps at meals, and as the mess hall is cold, taking his cap off causes Shukhov some discomfort. But this sacrifice does not bother him. He feels that civilized people remove their caps before eating, and does so to assert his humanity. Shukhov’s attachment to this piece of civilized etiquette shows us that the camp is not entirely successful at removing the prisoners’ humanity.