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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich!