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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