One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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Themes and Colors
Power and Authority Theme Icon
Identity, Principles, and Dignity Theme Icon
Competition vs. Camaraderie Theme Icon
Belief and Faith Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Belief and Faith Theme Icon

Belief and faith are another means through which characters survive the horrors of camp life, find meaning, and maintain a sense of identity. The Soviet regime promoted atheism, as organized religion was viewed as a threat to the soviet project. Belief and faith are elements of a Zek’s life that are systematically stripped from them during their time in the camp. Early in the novel, Shukhov notices a new prisoner cross himself, but quickly notes that the habit will fade over time, showing the way that belief and faith diminish under the oppressive force of the camp. Some characters, however, retain a sense of belief and faith, including Tyurin and Alyoshka. And the characters that hold onto this aspect of their identity do much better in the harsh conditions of the camp. Holding to one’s faith becomes a discrete way to resist the pressure of Soviet power, which seeks to strip the prisoners’ identities.

Alyoshka symbolizes the benefits and disadvantage of maintaining belief and faith in the camp. Alyoshka, a devout Baptist, reads from a hand written portion of the New Testament and prays before work. Shukhov notices him smiling when they arrive at the work site, which strikes him as strange considering the labor set out before them. Alyoshka’s perception of his fate allows him to find happiness in the camp. He views his imprisonment as a cross he is bearing for God, and understands the camp as a good thing for his spirit, as the outside world would distract him with material wants, and distract him from the cultivation of his spirit. Although Alyoshka plays a positive role in gang 104 through his kindness and willingness to take orders, having this attitude in the camp can be dangerous. The meek prisoners at the camp receive harsh treatment from the guards and other prisoners. This fact, however, does not bother Alyoshka because he is more concerned with the development of the spirit, which is enhanced by the abuse he receives, and his views allow him to accept his situation.

Belief in God allows Alyoshka to attain a sense of spiritual freedom in the camp. While the other characters are consumed by their need for material things, including food, clothing, warmth, Alyoshka is interested in cultivating his spirit. From this angle, the camp is the ideal place for him to be. This shift of perspective has a liberating effect, and his message at the end of the novel has such an effect on Shukhov. After hearing Alyoshka’s spiritual message, Shukhov gives him a biscuit without expecting anything in return. Shukhov still thinks that Alyoshka’s way of life is impractical, and gives him the biscuit out of pity because he believes Alyoshka does not know how to take care of himself. Yet Shukov still gives the biscuit in a spirit of pure generosity, asking for nothing in return, suggesting that Shukhov has grown spiritually through Alyoshka’s message, and that Shukov’s view of Alyoshka’s way of life as being impractical may not be correct. After all, in the end, Alyoshka has his needs met without a self-seeking motive behind his kindness, suggesting that belief and faith may be a viable means to exist in the camp.

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Belief and Faith ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Belief and Faith appears in each section of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Belief and Faith Quotes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Below you will find the important quotes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich related to the theme of Belief and Faith.
Section 1 Quotes

From the outside, everyone looked the same—their numbered black coats were identical—but within the squad there were great distinctions. Everyone had his grade.

Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs when Shukhov and his squad eat breakfast in the mess hall.

The bleak homogeneity and repetitiveness characteristic of life as a zek appear here. The prison represses individual identity by branding every zek with a number used in place of their name, and by forcing every prisoner to wear the same uniform, which makes everyone look the same. The prison also radically diminishes spontaneity and possibility from the zeks' lives by turning each day into a repetition of the same, scripted schedule. By strictly regulating the zeks' sleeping, eating, and free-time with mandated inspections, a strictly enforced curfew and wake-up time, and a rationed diet of the same gruel and soup every day, the prison turns its inhabitants' days into one omnipresent routine.

Shukhov notes that all these regulations--the uniform in particular, here--tend to make every zek have the same outward appearance. The prisoners' external appearances, and the external actions which make up their lives (apart from their inner, mental lives), are regulated to the extent that outward differences between individual prisoners become blurred, if not erased. Yet despite this, Shukhov asserts that internally, there are great differences between all the men. In a situation that is as harsh and monotonous as the camp, one's interior experience, beliefs, and identity become the whole of one's dignity and sense of self.


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Section 11 Quotes

And now Shukhov complained about nothing: neither about the length of his stretch, nor about the length of the day, nor about their swiping another Sunday. This was all he thought about now: "We’ll survive. We’ll stick it out, God willing until it’s over.”

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (speaker)
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

Having just had a satisfying bowl of fish stew with his squad in the mess hall, Shukhov's vitality and perseverance to endure his sentence are restored.

The energy and comfort provided by the stew reboots Shukhov's mood, giving him just enough vigor to think about the possibility of his survival and future beyond the prison. Neither the eight years he's lost of his life, the long, tiring day, nor the fact that the zeks' day off has been replaced with another work day--none of this occupies his thought. With the long, physically and emotionally demanding day now coming to a close, this small sliver of hope--"We'll survive . . . God willing until its over"--is the only thought that Shukhov can muster about his future. Entirely at the mercy of the camp authorities, and constantly uncertain about his future, Shukhov suddenly is able to feel--with the burst of joy his soup provides--a sense of possibility.

Section 12 Quotes

“Well,” [Shukhov] said conclusively, “however much you pray it doesn't shorten your stretch. You’ll sit it out from beginning to end anyhow.”
“Oh, you mustn’t pray for that either,” said Alyoshka, horrified. “Why do you want freedom? In freedom your last grain of faith will be choked with weeds. You should rejoice that you’re in prison. Here you have time to think about your soul.”

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (speaker), Alyoshka (speaker)
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange betwen Shukhov and Aloyshka occurs after Shukhov and most of his squad have gone to bed, and just before the guards call for a second count.

Here we witness two radically different views about prison life. For Aloyshka, prison is a religious opportunity where one is able to think about and develop a closer relationship with one's soul. Freedom, for Aloyshka, is something that could easily destroy one's faith; freedom exposes one to a multitude of options and possibilities in life that can turn one away from a religious path. In prison, however, this isn't the case--faith is strengthened by the lack of any worldly distractions. 

For Shukhov, this way of thinking seems twisted and idealistic. Regardless of Aloyshka's piety and devotion, Shukhov says he is doomed to live out his sentence the same as everyone else. He therefore sees no point in Aloyshka's devoutness. But getting out of prison, as we've seen, is not the goal of Aloyshka's faith. This clash showcases an interesting meeting between two minds with diametrically opposed views of their lives in prison.

Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: They hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn't sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner…He’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it…
A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy one.
There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like this in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.
Three extra days were for leap years.

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

The last and perhaps most profound paragraph of the entire novel, this quote ends our glimpse at one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.

Here, Shukhov recounts a day which many people might consider to be a living hell as "almost a happy one." Simply avoiding peril--such as being put in the cells or sent to the settlement--serves as a basic source of satisfaction. The mere evasion of danger or harm becomes something that Shukhov can tally as a source of pleasure in his day. And so his day is "almost a happy one" simply because it didn't have a "dark cloud." 

"Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days"--made into a self-standing sentence--forces us to imagine an overwhelming repetition of the entire novel we've just read, of thousands of more versions of this one day where nearly every thought, with a few exceptions, is wracked with worry, uncertainty, bodily pain, and hopelessness. Multiplied by 3,653, this bundle of experience called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" becomes especially alive: we, as readers, are invited to imagine the vast stretch of identity-erasing monotony, hardship, and flickering hope that still remains in store for Shukhov.