One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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Identity, Principles, and Dignity Theme Analysis

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Identity, Principles, and Dignity Theme Icon
Competition vs. Camaraderie Theme Icon
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Identity, Principles, and Dignity Theme Icon

The prison camp is designed to strip the Zeks of their individual identities and dignity, reflecting the larger goal of the Stalinist regime—to create a collective society where the individual identity and desires are replaced by a national identity and dedication to the collective good. The prisoners’ names are taken from them and replaced by numbers, their boots are tossed into a common heap, their social standing outside of the camp is rendered useless, and prisoners are strip searched for personal possessions several times each day. The stripping of identity and dignity destroys many prisoners, such as Fetyukov. Shukhov does not respect Fetyukov because he is always nagging and begging for food and cigarettes. At the end of the novel, the guards beat Fetyukov for licking bowls, showing how losing one’s dignity has a destructive effect on the Zeks.

Many of the Zeks, however, do retain individual identities. Shukhov tells that, “from the outside, everyone in the squad looked the same—their numbered black coats were identical—but within the squad there were great distinctions.” Because the Zeks are stripped of all material possessions and markers of external identity, maintaining strong principals and one’s dignity becomes a means by which some characters survive in the camp and maintain their identity. Shukhov, the novel’s protagonist, is the primary example of how prisoners maintain identity and dignity. He is a rigorously principled man, refusing to stoop to the degradation of the other characters. Despite the cold, he takes his hat off before he eats. Despite his hunger, he does not eat the eyes of the fish in his soup. Despite his needs, he certainly does not beg for anything.

Work provides an opportunity for Shukhov to gain a true sense of identity and dignity. Even though he does not receive a wage for his work and will not benefit from the labor he puts in, his work ethic and skills allow him to feel some ownership over it, which is immensely important for a man who owns nothing else. Although it appears that Shukhov is acting out the Soviet ideal—giving of oneself for the state—the pride he takes in his work is not rooted his service to the Soviet state, but in the fact that it allows him to feel useful as an individual. Interestingly, the very activities in which the Soviet ideal seems most present are the activities in which Shukhov finds the dignity to resist the stripping of his identity. In the end, his work on the wall and the satisfaction he gained from putting his skill to use stand as a major factor in what made his day “an almost happy one”. This final moment shows that maintaining one’s dignity through a principled life makes living in the camp slightly more bearable.

Identity, Principles, and Dignity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Identity, Principles, and Dignity 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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Identity, Principles, and Dignity 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 Identity, Principles, and Dignity.
Section 1 Quotes

Shukhov never overslept reveille. He always got up at once, for the next ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, belonged to him, not the authorities, and any old-timer could earn a bit.

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Page Number: 3-4
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage appears at the beginning of the novel, after the reveille--the prison camp's morning alarm--has sounded.

Here, we see one way in which the prison camp has affected Shukhov's thinking about time. He conceives of time in terms of ownership, his days being divided into periods that either do or do not "belong" to him. The ninety minutes that follow the sound of the reveille belong to him: he is able to exercise some control over what he will do during that time--but this brief bit of independence by no means entails leisure for Shukhov, who takes advantage of this sliver of freedom by performing chores to earn extra money. 

This quote gives us a first glimpse into the radical lack of control Shukhov has over planning his life, and how he views that life as being fundamentally divided into parts which he does and does not own. 


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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.

Section 6 Quotes

And then every thought was swept out of his head. All his memories and worries faded. He had only one idea—to try to fix the vent in the stovepipe and hang it up to prevent it smoking.

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs as Shukhov works to warm up the room of the power plant in which his squad is working. Tyurin has assigned him the task of fixing a stovepipe so that a fire can be kindled.

The sense of Shukhov's extreme psychological absorption in the present, day-to-day experience of reality and work is further echoed here. His connection to the past and his ideas about the future are wiped away as "every thought [is] swept out of his head" except the idea of his current task: fixing the stovepipe and making the room warm.

This passage gives a concrete shape to Shukhov's relationship with the present--we witness his thinking about time having a definitive impact on his immediate experience--as well as a glimpse into the dedication and dignity with which he performs his work. Even though Shukhov is performing slave labor, he feels connected enough with his task such that it becomes the sole occupation of his thought, and even gives him pleasure and a sense of purpose. Another possible reading, however, might deny that Shukhov's focus has anything to do with dignity and a principled work ethic, but rather that, by turning his thoughts solely towards his task, Shukhov is trying to escape the anxiety and misery that characterize the rest of his experience.

Section 7 Quotes

[Buynovsky] was a newcomer. He was unused to the hard life of the Zeks. Though he didn't know it, moments like this were particularly important to him, for they were transforming him from an eager, confident naval officer with a ringing voice into an inert, though wary, Zek.

Related Characters: Buynovsky
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs during the dinner scene at the work site. Buynovsky is behaving obnoxiously; the narrator claims he's just yelled at several people to leave the work site canteen and is sitting somewhere in the way of the incoming squad.

The narrator hints here at the process by which Buynovsky's confidence and vivacity will be broken and torn from him by the challenges of prison life. But the narrator goes on to say that it is only through the process of becoming an "inert" zek that Buynovsky will be able to survive his twenty-five-year sentence. Only by succumbing to the harsh reality of prison life and putting aside his pride (and even his individuality) will Buynovsky acquire the personality and way of thinking required to meet the challenges of his new environment.

Section 8 Quotes

And now Shukhov was no longer seeing that distant view where the sun gleamed on snow…Shukhov was only seeing his wall…he worked with drive, but his thoughts were elsewhere.

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Page Number: 90
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Shukhov is busy laying brick with Kilgids at the work site.

This passage reveals how important construction work and the craftsmanship it requires are to Shukhov. He's able to lose himself in his work--to focus solely on the wall--but in a way that also bolsters his sense of identity. By having a craft to which he can wholly dedicate himself, Shukhov can find an escape from the bleakness of imprisonment. The fact that Shukhov works with "drive" and lets his thoughts drift elsewhere conveys the pleasurably dissociating effects he derives from the labor. Further, Shukhov's work is a source of dignity and pride amidst a degrading, authoritarian climate of Soviet power. 

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

Even eight years as a convict hadn’t turned him into a jackal—and the longer he spent at the camp the stronger he made himself.

Related Characters: Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Related Symbols: Bread, Tsezar’s Parcel
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs when Shukhov delivers Tsezar's bread ration. Shukhov, having stood in line to receive Tsezar's ration while he went to see if a parcel had arrived for himself, arrives at Tsezar's bunk and sees him surrounded by various foods. Having received a bountiful parcel, Tsezar tells Shukhov to keep his ration of bread.

Instead of directly asking Tsezar whether his parcel arrived or not--for this would give a hint that Shukhov held Tsezar's place in line in order to have rights to part of his parcel--he simply says: "Your bread, Tsezar Markovich." After Shukhov refrains from asking about the parcel directly, the narrator explains that "even eight years as a convict hadn't turned him into a jackal." 

Shukhov's ulterior motive for standing in line for Tsezar, however self-interested, is counterbalanced in this scene by Shukhov's dignity in respecting Tsezar's right to his own parcel. Shukhov doesn't pressure Tsezar into giving him anything; he doesn't behave like a desperate, starving "jackal" (a kind of small wild dog). Instead, he gladly accepts Tsezar's bread ration. Further, the narrator reveals that prison hasn't eroded Shukhov's principles of self-conduct--prison hasn't made him into a meaner, rougher, or more aggressive person. Rather, prison has been a place where Shukhov has strengthened his sense of self-control.

“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.