One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Section 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Shukhov wakes up at five in the morning to the sound of reveille. He is in a Soviet labor camp called “H.Q.”, which is designed to house political prisoners. The sound barely penetrates the windowpanes, which are covered in frost two inches thick. The sound ends quickly because the cold drives the guard back to his quarters where it is warm.
From the very moment Shukhov awakens, the authorities at the camp dictate his life. The ice in the windowpanes introduces the oppressive force of the cold, blocking him from the outside world. Unlike Shukhov, the guard has the privilege of going inside to the warmth, while Shukhov’s living quarters are ice cold.
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Shukhov reflects that he never oversleeps reveille. The ninety minutes before work are incredibly valuable to him—they belonged to him, not the authorities. This time in the morning provides the opportunity to do extra work. Some prisoners go to the mess hall and do the dishes in exchange for an extra bit of food. At times, prisoners find a bowl with food caked to the sides and lick it out. Shukhov, however, never licks the bowls. His first captain, a long-term inmate at the first camp where Shukhov was detained, informed him that, “the ones who don’t make it are those who lick other men’s leftovers, those who count on the doctors…and those who squeal on their buddies.”
Shukhov’s refusal to oversleep is one of many ways that he maintains a principled life—an essential element to his survival. A Zek’s free time is his most precious possession, used to procure goods that allow for survival. Shukhov takes pride in his self-sufficiency, refusing to lose his dignity by licking bowls. As his former squad leader told him, self-sufficiency and loyalty to your comrades is essential for survival.
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Shukhov notices that he is feeling sick. He hears his deputy foreman, Pavlo, and the foreman, Tyurin, getting out of bed. Pavlo goes off to the bread storage room, and Tyurin goes to the Production Planning Department. Shukhov realizes that the fate of his gang, the 104th, hinges on Tyurin’s conversation with Production Planning. They are planning to shift the 104th from the building shops, to a new site, “the Socialist Way of Life Settlement.” The settlement is outside in the open country, where there is no shelter. They will have to dig holes for posts, and attach barbed wire, trapping themselves inside so that nobody will run away.
Pavlo and Tyurin, the gang’s leaders, are the first ones out to make sure the gang has what they need for the day—bread and a good job placement—showing their dedication to the gang’s wellbeing. The dreaded “Socialist Way of Life Camp” alludes to the overall critique of communism and socialism found in the novel. It is a place without protection, isolated in the cold, where the men must wire themselves in.
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Tyurin takes a pound of salted pork with him to the Production Planning Department to attempt to persuade the senior official to assign another crew to the assignment.
Even though the camp is intended to instill communist ideologies, good work assignments are gained through the exchange of commodities, suggesting the presence of a capitalist ideal. This reality later creates a strong sense of competition, and establishes a hierarchy of power among the inhabitants.
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Shukhov realizes that a good-natured guard working this morning, so he decides to stay in bed for a few extra minutes. Shukhov hears another guard grumbling about how the gang should have received four twenty-five-ounce loaves of bread, but he was only given three. Meanwhile, Shukhov hears Alyosha murmuring his prayers.
The good-natured guard suggests that all guards do not exert their power the way some do. The guard’s concern over bread rations connects him to the prisoners who share the same concerns. It is no coincidence that Alyoshka is introduced during the act of praying, as his faith becomes the defining attribute of his identity.
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The very moment Shukhov decides to report sick, his blanket is torn off, and Shukhov sees The Tartar staring at him. The Tartar calls Shukhov, “Scha-854”, the number printed in white on Shukhov’s jacket. The Tartar tells Shukhov he will receive a three-day penalty with work. Shukhov asks why, but reflects that three days punishment with work was better than three days punishment without work. Real jail, he thinks, is when you’re kept you back from work and you were trapped with your own thoughts.
The replacement of Shukhov’s name with Scha-854 shows the way the camp attempts to strip prisoners of their identities. His unjust punishment for being sick—something entirely out of his control—begins to show the injustice inherent in a Zek’s existence in the camp. The true punishment, as later revealed, is being isolated with one’s own thoughts.
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The Tartar tells him that he is being punished for failing to get up at reveille. Shukhov, feeling resentful about the charge, reflects that he wouldn’t have been so upset if he was being charged with something he deserved. The charge is particularly hurtful because he is always the first one to be up. He gets dressed and follows the Tartar out of the bunkhouse. None of his fellow prisoners protest his punishment, knowing it would be no use, but Shukhov knows they will save his breakfast for him.
The injustice is furthered by the fact that Shukhov is always up on time. The other prisoners do not speak up for him because they realize their powerlessness, but Shukhov’s knowing that they will save his food suggests that camaraderie exists among the gang members.
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The Tartar brings Shukhov to the wardens’ quarters, and Shukhov realizes that he is not going to the cells. The Tartar simply needed someone to scrub the guardroom floor. Cleaning the guardroom floors was the job of another prisoner, but he grew big headed as he overheard information even some of the guards didn't know. After the guards caught wind of his egoism, they started calling on other prisoners to do the job.
The fact that the Tartar was looking for someone to punish depicts the way in which prisoners are exploited by the guards. The story of the prisoner who was fired for becoming big headed shows that the guards will not tolerate any reduction of the power they hold over the Zek’s.
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The wardens’ quarters are warm, and two guards are playing checkers. Another guard is still sleeping in his sheepskin valenki (knee high felt boots). Shukhov is delighted that he is not going to the cells, and thanks the Tartar. He promises he will never oversleep again. Having been given his work to do, Shukhov’s aches and pains seem to disappear.
The guards inside of the quarters are enjoying leisure activities and still sleeping, showing the way in which they are privilege with warmth and free time. The disappearance of Shukhov’s aches begins to show the way in which work connects to Shukhov’s means of survival in the camp.
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Shukhov goes outside to fill a bucket of water to clean the floor. He sees the guards examining the thermometer. One of the guards, a hero of the Soviet Union, climbs up the pole to check the temperature. Another guard yells at him not to breathe on the thermometer because that will push the temperature up. The guard reports that the thermometer reads seventeen and a half degrees. It must be below negative forty for work to be canceled. Another guard complains that the thermometer is crooked and never tells the correct temperature. Shukhov fills the bucket and brings it back to the guardroom.
The arbitrary rules around the cancelation of work only when the temperature is below negative forty shows the way in which power leads to unjustified oppression. The guards’ conversation reveals their wish to have the day off from work. This wish connects the guards to the prisoners, showing that the oppressive powers that be effect all of the inhabitants in the camp, including the guards.
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The Tartar is gone when Shukhov returns, but there are four guards in the guardroom arguing over how much food they will get in January. Food is scarce in the camp, but the guards have access to certain articles sold to them at discounted prices that are not available to the prisoners.
Although the guards enjoy many pleasures the Zeks are denied, they are hungry and worried about attaining food. The guards’ concern leads to further oppression and competition for resources.
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Shukhov decides to take his boots off to do the washing to avoid getting them wet. There wouldn't be another pair for him to change into when he returned. During the eight years he’s been in the camp, he’d developed various ways of creating footwear. There were winters during which he’d made due with rope sandals or boots made of old tires. Things had grown better after Pavlo had provided Shukhov with a pair of boots big enough for a double layer of rags inside, and in December the valenki arrived. His good fortune, however, was stifled when the commandant made a rule that prisoners are only allowed to have one pair of footwear. Shukhov’s boots were thrown into a common heap.
As an experienced Zek, Shukhov knows the challenges of camp life, which leads to his decision to remove his boots. Shukhov’s resourcefulness is a part of his identity he is proud of, as shown by his mention of making boots. Pavlo’s gift of boots shows the way in which the gang leaders provide for their men, but even this act of kindness is stifled by the oppressive and arbitrary rules in the camp.
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One of the guards berates Shukhov for using too much water. The guard asks him if he ever watched his wife wash the floors. Shukhov reveals that he has been imprisoned since 1941, and doesn't really remember his wife. He finishes the floor by simply wetting the surface to make it look clean, noting that when one works for the “knowing” one should do a quality job, but when working for a fool, one should give them eyewash. When he finishes he dumps the remaining water in the bucket on the guards’ path and heads to breakfast.
Shukhov’s inability to remember his wife shows the way that the camp disconnects the men from their pasts. Shukhov, who is later revealed to be a good worker, does a poor job on the floor because he is working for the guards, not for his gang or himself—it is not a job he can take pride in. Instead of protesting the unfair punishment, which would lead to more punishment, he dumps the water on the guards’ path where it will freeze, a passive form of resistance.
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Shukhov is pleased to find no crowd at the mess hall. Two or three men from each gang get the bowls of food for their group. Shukhov makes his way to the table quickly, and the narrator notes that standing in the aisle between tables, looking for food to wipe off of the plates of others is dangerous.
Because the men compete for food, standing in the aisle looking for food to swipe can lead to retaliation from other Zeks.
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Shukhov notices a young prisoner at the table cross himself before beginning to eat. He notes that the habit will fade after some time in the camp. The rest of the men sitting at the table were already eating with their hats still on. They eat slowly, spitting fish bones onto the table. It is considered bad manners to spit them onto the floor. All of the prisoners look the same at the table, wearing identical clothing with white numbers painted on them, but there are great distinctions in the squad. Fetyukov, the lowest ranking member of the gang, gives Shukhov his food, telling him he almost ate it thinking Shukhov was in the cells.
The young prisoner will stop crossing himself because the camp is designed to stifle the Zek’s beliefs, as religion was seen as a threat to the Soviet cause. Although the men live in terrible conditions, they maintain their dignity through small actions, such as spitting the bones onto the table, not the floor. The camp attempts to strip their identities by making them dress the same, but as Shukhov notes, they maintain their identities in other ways. Likewise, the men are ranked, showing that a hierarchy exists among the prisoners, which contrasts the camp’s attempt to create a collective society.
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Shukhov takes his spoon, which he calls “his baby”, from his boot and takes off his hat before he begins to eat. He eats slowly, as the only time a prisoner has for himself is while he is eating. His breakfast consists of magara, a grass-like, tasteless grain, and soup with cabbage and small fish—mostly bone and fin. Shukhov does not eat the fisheyes that have fallen out of the eye sockets, for which the other prisoners laugh at him.
As his only possession, Shukhov’s spoon symbolizes the identity he works hard to maintain. Shukhov maintains his dignity through removing his hat, a respectful gesture he’s maintained since being incarcerated. The other’s laughing at Shukhov’s refusal to eat the eyes shows that the camp has been effective in stripping their dignity.
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After eating, Shukhov heads to the sick bay. Shukhov hides from the Tartar as he makes his way to the sick bay—it is against the rules to be seen walking alone in the camp. The prisoners must also take their hats off if a guard passes. Shukhov explains that some guards don’t bother to enforce the absurd rules, but others stick to them strictly. As he nears the sick bay, Shukhov remembers that another prisoner had offered to sell him some tobacco he’d received. This could be his last opportunity to buy any for a month because parcels are only allowed once a month and the supply is limited. He decides to go the dispensary instead of getting the tobacco.
The camp’s absurd rules make a Zeks’ life especially difficult and show the extent of the oppression in the Zeks’ lives. Furthermore, there is no consistency in the enforcement of these rules, so a Zek is never sure when he will be punished. The control over the parcels is another form of oppression, keeping the prisoners disconnected from the outside world.
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The sick bay’s interior is completely white and makes Shukhov uncomfortable. The doctors are all still sleeping, but Shukhov discovers Kolya Vdovushkin, the medical assistant, sitting at a clean little table. Kolya is writing poetry, although Shukhov does not understand what he is doing. After Shukhov tells Kolya he is sick, he tells Shukhov that the clinic is closed. He asks why Shukhov didn’t report sick the night before, since the sick report is filed in the evening. Shukhov explains that he was not sick then. Kolya is only allowed to exempt two prisoners from work a day, and the spaces had already been filled.
Shukhov’s discomfort with the clean white space shows the way he has become acclimated to the squalor of the camp over the years. Kolya’s focus on his poetry over Shukhov’s sickness is a critique of art that ignores the suffering of real people. The fact that only two people are able to stay back sick is another arbitrary rule that reflects the abusive power and authority present in the camp.
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