One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born in Stavropol Krai, Russia, in 1918. He was raised by his mother after his father was killed in a hunting accident, and she encouraged his interests in literature and science. Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov State University, while simultaneously studying literature and history at the Moscow Institute of Philosophy. Solzhenitsyn served in the Red Army during WWII, and during this time, began developing doubts regarding the moral foundations of the Soviet Regime. In 1945, Solzhenitsyn was sent to a work camp for writing derogatory remarks about Joseph Stalin in a private letter to a friend. He was detained at several camps before transferring to a “special camp” for political prisoners, where he worked as a miner, bricklayer, and foreman. After being released, Solzhenitsyn was exiled. During his imprisonment and exile, Solzhenitsyn abandoned his Marxist ideologies, gradually developing a philosophical Christian outlook. After Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” in 1956, Solzhenitsyn was exonerated, and returned to European Russia where he began teaching and writing at night. In 1962, Solzhenitsyn published his first story, One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich in Novyi Mir, a popular Russian literary journal, granting Solzhenitsyn literary notoriety in the Soviet Union and in the West. Although Solzhenitsyn continued writing, after Khrushchev was ousted in 1964 his work was denied publication. The controversial works Solzhenitsyn wrote after One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich lead to great controversy and even an assassination attempt by the KGB and the eventual removal of his Russian citizenship. In 1990, his Russian citizenship was reinstated, and he returned to Russia where he died of heart failure in 2008.
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Historical Context of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was inspired by Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience while incarcerated in the Soviet Gulag system, which was active from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. Stalin’s regime was notorious for detaining Russian civilians without due cause, and the experiences of the characters in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich depict the injustice and abuse of power inflicted upon Russian citizens during Stalin’s reign. WWII plays an important role in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as many of the characters were serving in the military prior to their incarceration. During and after WWII, the number of inmates in forced work camps rose drastically. Like Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, the novel’s protagonist, Solzhenitsyn was a soldier in the Russian army during WWII and was incarcerated while serving.
Other Books Related to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
As a work exploring the experience of incarceration, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich joins a long list of prison novels written in the 20th century that deal with issues of survival under inhuman conditions during incarceration, including, Papillion by Henri Charriere, The Survivor by Terrence Des Pres, and even films such as The Shawshank Redemption and The Great Escape. As a criticism of Communist ideologies, Solzhenitsyn’s work joins Russian novels such as Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, as well as works of American and English literature, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Finally, as a text that revolves around a man’s search for meaning, the novel’s existential nature connects to works such as Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and other Existentialists.
Key Facts about One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
  • Full Title: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
  • When Written: 1959-1962
  • Where Written: Ryazan, Russia
  • When Published: 1962
  • Genre: Realism, Historical Fiction, Russian Literature
  • Setting: A Soviet work camp (Gulag) known as H.Q. in an unspecified location in Russia
  • Climax: The building of the wall in the power station, followed by Shukhov’s close call with being late for the head count
  • Antagonist: The Soviet Regime, the camp, and the guards (embodied by Lieutenant Volkovoy)
  • Point of View: A blend of limited omniscient, first person (narrated by Shukhov), and second person
Extra Credit for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Censorship. Beginning with Stalin’s rise to power during the 1920’s, literature was subjected to immense censorship, especially literature that questioned the moral foundations of Stalin’s ideologies or revealed the oppression Russian citizens experienced under his rule. Under the Stalinist regime, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich would have never seen the light of day, but when Nikita Khrushchev took power in Russia, he denounced Stalin, and literary censorship was greatly reduced. In 1962, Khrushchev gave Solzhenitsyn’s novel his official sanction, viewing the book as an asset in his goal of denouncing Stalin. Although the book found publication with Khrushchev’s approval, there are still some scholars who believe the book would have been bolder had it not been limited by the still present system overseeing publications at the time the work was released.

The Skaz. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn employs a narrative technique called, the Skaz. This technique is a variation on traditional forms of Russian narrative, often used in Russian folktales. In this form, the anonymous narrator possesses the same educational and social background as the characters in the story, is able to relate the main character's actions, and relay his or her thoughts. Skaz narratives use a close third-person point of view, and sometimes the first-person plural, allowing the reader to feel close to the characters, and even give the impression that the narrator is actually a character in the story.