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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich!