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
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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.
Competition vs. Camaraderie Theme Icon

Although the stated goal of the camp is to rehabilitate its political prisoners into citizens of a collective Soviet society, the camp fails to instill and cultivate these values. As opposed to a collective atmosphere, the life of a Zek is defined by competition. On an individual level, the men compete to meet their basic needs—including access to food, warmth, and supplies—placing one’s survival over the ideal of working toward a collective environment. The same competition occurs on the group level, as the work gangs compete for job assignments, tools, and supplies to complete their jobs. The very structure of the work camp is flawed, as Zeks pay off the guards in order to attain assignments and privileges, which aligns with a capitalist system, as opposed to the communist ideal. This environment of competition for survival makes the camp a particularly hostile place to live and a profound critique of the methods the Stalinist regime uses to try to impose a Soviet ideal.

A sense of camaraderie does develop among the members of gang 104. As the group works, the hierarchy within the group is leveled to a certain extent. Pavlo and Tyurin, who are the leaders of the gang, work alongside the men, and although they are strict, they establish a sense of camaraderie. Shukhov suggests that prisoners will not work for a boss who is distant and acts superior to his gang, but will work hard for a foreman that they admire. This sense of camaraderie is heightened when Tyurin tells his story, which depicts the way he is connected to the men he oversees through their shared experience of injustice. Shukhov describes the gang as a family during this scene. This sense of camaraderie that occurs during work, however, unfolds on an individual, as opposed to an ideological level, based not so much on the desire to work for the good of the whole, but based on the merits of the individual. This too works against the Soviet ideal, where the state is valued over the individual. In the end, the Zeks work hard to have their own needs met and to meet the needs of the individuals they respect, as opposed to working for an ideological cause.

The only moment of true camaraderie comes at the end of the novel after Alyoshka talks to Shukhov about turning away from the material world toward the spiritual. “Of all earthly and mortal things,” Alyoshka says, “Our Lord commanded us only to pray for our daily bread.” Unable to think in spiritual terms because of the struggle for physical sustenance, Shukhov asks Alyoshka if he is talking about their daily rations. Alyoshka, however, is talking about bread that feeds the spirit. Shukhov is touched in some way by their conversation, and offers Alyoshka a biscuit without expecting anything in return—a true act of camaraderie. Through this action, it becomes clear that true camaraderie can occur by moving away from the material world toward the spiritual. This change, however, remains particularly difficult in an environment where your life hinges on the attainment of resources. And it is further ironic that the Soviets were extremely hostile to religion in general—the religion that inspired Alyoshka and Shukov’s camaraderie. The conditions of the camp prevent camaraderie, and in a larger sense, make collectivization impossible, as the individual’s fight for survival through attainment of the material remains the primary and necessary focus.

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Competition vs. Camaraderie ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Competition vs. Camaraderie 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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Competition vs. Camaraderie 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 Competition vs. Camaraderie.
Section 3 Quotes

The thoughts of a prisoner—they’re not free either. They kept returning to the same things. A single idea keeps stirring. Would they feel that piece of bread in the mattress? Would he have any luck at the sick bay that evening? Would they put Buynovsky in the cells? And how did Tsezar get his hands on that warm vest. He’d probably greased a palm or two in the warehouse for people’s private belongings? How else?

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (speaker), Buynovsky, Tsezar
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs while Shukhov and his fellow zeks are marching from the prison camp to the town where they'll be working for the day.

Here, we get a sense of how imprisonment in the camp affects not only a prisoner's external actions and behaviors--what he does and does not do in order to avoid punishment--but a prisoner's inner mental life as well. The psychological realm of one's inner thoughts--which some might conceive as a private, inner refuge which the outer world cannot ultimately influence--is revealed here, in the case of Shukhov, to actually be deeply impacted by the prison environment.

Even Shukhov's intimate, internal train of thought is somehow regulated by the prison: he's worried that his hidden piece of bread might be discovered, that he'll be rejected again by the sick bay, and he envies Tsezar's vest, which leads him to speculate about the manner in which Tsezar acquired it. This illustrates the severity of the anxiety which occupies much of Shukhov's thought. A moment of peace and contentment--though such a thing does exist, however crudely, at certain points in the novel--is something which seems very out of reach for Shukhov, here. His mind can never be steady or contently rested, for his thoughts are always "returning to the same things." Shukhov's thoughts are almost always subconsciously running through a mental checklist about the rights and wrongs of his behavior in order to gauge the probability of his being punished by the authorities.


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Section 4 Quotes

Writing now was like dropping stones in some deep, bottomless pool. They drop; they sink—but there is no answer. You couldn't write and describe the squad you were working with…just now he had a good deal more to talk about with Kildigs the Lett than his family at home.

Related Characters: Kildigs
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs shortly after the previous one, as Shukhov and his fellow zeks march from the prison camp to the town where they're working.

Here Shukhov is discussing the difficulty he has with writing letters to his family. Having been imprisoned for over eight years, Shukhov has acquired a life separate and isolated from his family. Since Shukhov, therefore, no longer has a clear image of what his family is like, sending letters to them is like "dropping stones in some deep, bottomless pool." He would be sending his letters out towards something (his family) which he no longer knows. Like a bottomless pool, the family to which he writes perpetually recedes his dated ideas about them. Furthermore, most of the prison experiences he might convey to his family would (he thinks) be of no interest to them--thus, at this point he ultimately feels a closer connection to his fellow prisoners than to his own family.

Section 6 Quotes

Why, you might wonder, should prisoners wear themselves out, working hard, ten years on end, in the camps? You might think they’d say: No thank you, and that’s all. We’ll drag ourselves through the day till evening, and then the night is ours.
But that didn't work. To outsmart you they thought up work squads—but not squads like the ones outside the camps, where every man is paid his separate wage. Everything was arranged in the camp that the prisoners egged one another on. It was like this: either you all got a bit extra or you all croaked.

Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs at the work site, when Shukhov and Kildigs are trying to warm up the room that is under construction in the power station.

Here, the fundamental question is raised: why, exactly, do the prisoners feel compelled to work so hard? The answer reveals the cunning strategy of how the Soviet authorities socially engineered the prisons. To ensure a high output and quality of work, the authorities organized the prisoners into "work squads," which promotes competition among fellow zeks because they must constantly be checking up on each other to see if everyone is performing satisfactory work. The zeks are punished or rewarded in rations on a collective, not individual, basis--another way in which individual identity is sacrificed for the collective, but also a sign of the hypocrisy of collectivism itself--for it's only in individual competition (a generally capitalistic idea) that good work is done by the Communist collective.

Section 8 Quotes

It was a family, the squad.

Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after dinner at the work site has ended, and Shukhov and his squad are sitting and conversing in the room where he fixed the stove.

This moment in the novel celebrates the camaraderie and deep bonds formed between the prisoners. Having been torn from their families and faced with long-term imprisonment, the zeks could either turn to each other or keep to themselves. The novel seems to suggest, however, that keeping to oneself and/or remaining attached to the memory of one's independent, self-governed past, is basically a death sentence. Survival depends largely on self-sacrifice and the relations subsequently formed with one's fellow prisoners, especially one's squad-mates. 

Section 10 Quotes

Who’s a Zek’s main enemy? Another Zek. If only they weren’t at odds with one another—ah, what a difference that’d make.

Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs when the zeks, returning from the work site, are approaching the main camp. The guards order them to drop the firewood they've gathered, and the zeks begin to quarrel with one another about who should and should not drop their firewood, since the placement of some zeks in their marching columns are more favorable for concealing firewood than others, and if a zek on the outside edge of a column is seen with wood, then those on the inside will likely be searched.

In seeming contradiction of the narrator's former claim that a squad was like a family, this statement highlights the element of competition involved in the relations between prisoners. Throughout the novel we are exposed to the contradiction at the core of the camaraderie and social bond shared by prisoners: the fact that everyone is ultimately vying to survive, to fend for oneself among incredibly sparse rations, and to acquire and maintain goods (like tobacco) that provide the minimum amount of comfort required to tolerate daily existence. In this way, despite the familial nature of the prison community, interpersonal relations among the zeks are fundamentally split between collective and individual interests.