Tsezar arrives at the parcel room wearing a new fur hat that had arrived from the outside. Shukhov notes that he must have bribed the guards into allowing him to have it. Tsezar hears that another prisoner has a newspaper and begins talking with him. Shukhov notes that the prisoners from Moscow always recognize each other right away, and talk rapidly in Latvian or Romanian. Eventually Shukhov butts in and asks Tsezar if he can leave. Tsezar tells him to go. Before leaving, Shukhov asks if Tsezar wants him to bring his dinner to the barracks. Tsezar tells Shukhov he can have it, which is what Shukhov wanted in the first place.
Although the camp attempts to instill the Soviet ideal of a class free society, class markers and privilege still exist within the camp, as shown by Tsezar’s fur hat. The men also form friendships based on their pasts, as indicated by the Muscovites’ recognition of one another. Shukhov, who is not privileged or wealthy in terms of the camp’s society is ignored by the men, showing the way that classism is still present as well. Shukhov’s motives are finally revealed once Tsezar gives him his meal, Shukhov had expected the bowl of food, which was why he volunteered to wait in the parcel room in the first place.
Shukhov begins walking toward the barracks, being careful to make sure he takes his hat off when he passes the guard. The camp commandant had recently passed a rule that no prisoner was to walk around the camp alone. This rule was an attempt to shred the prisoners’ last bit of freedom. The new rule made the Zeks’ lives particularly difficult because each man wants to do his own chores during his free time without depending on others.
The oppressive rules are designed to strip the Zeks of every bit of freedom, and prevent them from using their free time constructively.
When he arrives in the barracks, the place is in an uproar. Someone’s bread ration had been stolen during the day. Shukhov hides the piece of metal he’d taken from the worksite and is relieved that the bread he’d sown into the mattress was still there. Then he heads to the mess hall.
While the Zeks are at work, the guards at the camp have time to search the Zeks’ possessions for hidden rations, and those who do not effectively hide their goods are robbed.
Upon reaching the mess hall, Shukhov finds a group of men on the front porch. “The Limper”, a disabled Zek who guards the mess hall with a birch stick, is standing on the porch with them. The men are restless, attempting to break through to get their nightly meal. “The Limper” knows who to hit with his stick and who not to. He only hits those who will not hit back, and the narrator notes that he once hit Shukhov. He is keeping the men from entering the mess hall.
The control of food is the primary way the authorities exert their power over the Zeks. “The limper” serves as a barrier between the Zeks and their rations, acting as an extra layer of control. “The Limper,” however, is not a truly powerful individual, as shown by his attention to whom he abuses—the weak. He seeks to feel strong by abusing those whom he can get away abusing. Although Shukhov is not a weak man, he is wise enough to know the futility of striking back against a person in authority. He would rather take the abuse and stay collected than spend time in the cells, which would ruin his health.
The narrator explains that the mess chief is a “fat pig”. He is a privileged prisoner who wears a white lambskin hat without a number on it and a matching jacket with numbers smaller than a postage stamp on the front, and no numbers on the back. The Zeks are afraid of him, as he holds the lives of the other prisoners in his hands. One time, a group of prisoners had tried to assault him, but his cooks stepped up to protect him.
The mess chief is one of the most powerful men in the camp because he controls the food and, therefore, the Zeks’ lives. His power allows him the privilege of owning a lambskin coat without numbers on it, which suggests his identity is not stripped to the same extent as the other Zeks. His power also provides him protection in the camp. As a leader, his cooks look out for him the same way Gang 104 looks out for Tyurin.
Shukhov makes his way onto the porch looking for the 104th, knowing that if he missed them he would not be let in. The men in the back are pushing those near the door forward, which infuriates “The Limper.” He puts his stick across his chest and pushes back against the men. He is full of strength because he has eaten plenty that day. The Zeks scream at “The Limper”, who yells back for the Zeks to form groups and they will get into the mess hall when he says they can enter.
The struggle on the porch depicts the symbolic struggle the Zeks face each day to attain food from the authorities. Despite their struggles, the Zeks do not receive any food until they submit to the orders of the authorities.
As “The Limper” lets Gang 27 into the mess hall, Shukhov sees Pavlo standing near the door. The mob of Zeks is blocking Shukhov from the 104th, and Shukhov forces his way through, catching a punch in the ribs in the process. “The Limper” calls the 104th to enter, hitting a man from another gang in the back of the neck with his birch club.
The chaos at the door demonstrates the intensity of competition for food, and the jab Shukhov receives in the ribs shows that this competition is often hostile. Ultimately, the gangs are under the control of the authorities, and despite the fervor with which they compete against one another, the guards call the shots.
Shukhov enters the mess hall and begins looking for space for his squad. He notices that S208, a man from another gang, is carrying a tray with only five bowls on it, meaning it was the last tray he would need for his gang’s food. Shukhov asks the man for the tray, but S208 tells him someone else had already claimed it. Shukhov tells him to let the lazy bastard wait. Shukhov grabs the tray from S208 after he unloads it. The man, who’d been promised it, ran over and tried to grab it, but he is smaller than Shukhov, so he shoves him away.
As an experienced prisoner, Shukhov is able to tell by the number of bowls on the tray that the tray is up for grabs. Shukhov despises laziness, as shown through his contempt of Fetyukov, and as a result believes he is entitled to the tray before the man who had claimed it. Shukhov is not afraid to fight for the tray when the man attempts to take it from him, showing that he is willing and able to compete.
Shukhov finds Pavlo at the counter. He is happy to see Shukhov has a tray. They see Gopchik approaching with another tray, and Shukhov notes that he will make a good Zek after a few years in the camp—he is well on his way. When the bowls are full, Shukhov notes which ones were full of food, and which ones are just broth ladled from the top of the pot. He makes his way to the table, yelling at Zeks in the crowded room to make way as he goes carefully through not to spill any food. He places the tray on the table so the best bowls are facing him. Kildigs arrives with a tray of bread, which is distributed based on the amount of work the men completed. Some are given six ounces, others nine, and Shukhov is given twelve.
Gopchik is connected to Shukhov in this scene as they both bring empty trays to the counter. Shukhov sees something of himself in Gopchik, and respects him for his eagerness to become an effective prisoner. He is sure that Gopchik will become a good Zek in time. The way Shukhov evaluates the bowls shows that although he respects his men, he will look out for himself when it comes to food. Shukhov gets twelve ounces of bread because of his hard work. Although a collective society would mean equal rations, the rules of the camp actually force men not to operate according to the communist ideal.
The other men arrive, and Shukhov distributes the bowls. Fetyukov arrives, but leaves quickly to go scrounge for leftovers. He puts Pavlo and Tyurin’s supper to the side, making sure they are “thick bowls” with plenty of food with the broth. Everyone grows quiet as they begin to eat, the narrator stating that the “sacred moment” had come.
Fetyukov receives poor rations because he doesn't work hard, but makes up for it by scrounging, which costs him his dignity and respect. Although Shukhov takes hearty bowls for himself, he saves two for Pavlo and Tyurin, showing the amount of respect he has for them. Because all of a Zek’s time is focused on survival in the present, eating becomes the sacred consummation of all of his efforts.
Shukhov takes off his hat and drinks the broth from his first bowl of soup. Then he dumps the cabbage and fish from it into the second. While he eats, he complains about nothing, and forgets the length of his stay. His only thought is, “we’ll survive, God willing, till it’s over.” He looks to his neighbor’s bowl, noticing that it is little more than water, and calls the servers snakes for the tricks they play on their fellow Zeks. He saves his bread for the morning, although he is still hungry, noting that a Zeks stomach is a demon that doesn't remember how well it was treated the day before, that each day it cries out for more.
The care with which Shukhov eats shows how important food is to him, and saving his bread for the morning despite his hunger reveals his discipline and principals. Like the Zeks themselves, their stomachs live in the present. The food they eat in the past or will receive in the future does not calm the demon. Because a Zek spends all of his time trying to attain food, nothing else, including the length of his stay, matters during the moment when he finally gets to eat. Shukhov’s mention of God’s will suggests that he does have some kind of faith in God, even though he recognizes that God may will something other than his survival.
Shukhov notices a man sitting at another table across from him named U81. His hang had been sent to the Socialist Way of Life camp that day. U81 sits up straight at the table, and does not lean forward toward his bowl, but brings his spoon all the way up to his mouth. U81 places his bread on a clean piece of rag instead of the dirty table. Shukhov notes that he is a man who has never had an easy job in the camp, his hands are blackened and cracked, and he has lost all of his teeth, but he will not let the camp break him.
Shukhov identifies with prisoner U81. Even though U81 worked at the Socialist Way of Life Camp that day, he sits up straight and eats in a dignified way. Even though he has been incarcerated for many years and the camp has been hard on his body, the camp has not destroyed his inward sense of identity and dignity.
Having finished his supper, Shukhov goes to visit the Latvian prisoner who has tobacco for sale. The tobacco in the camp is cheaper than on the outside, as the economy in the camp is local and based on the amount of money the Zeks have, which is very little. When Zeks receive money from the outside, they are not given physical money, instead it is put on their “account”, and they are only able to buy from the camp commissary. Because Shukhov does not receive money, he does jobs in the camp for other Zeks, including repairing torn jackets and making mittens.
The economy within the camp furthers the idea that it is a symbolic microcosm of the Soviet Union. The way that the guards hold all of the Zeks’ money reflects the overt power of the Soviet Union inside and outside of the camp. Shukhov uses his skills to attain goods, showing the way in which he survives without having to lose his dignity.