At five o’clock in the morning, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov awakes to the morning reveille in a Soviet labor camp. Shukhov always wakes up on time, but this morning he is feverish and his body aches. He decides to stay in bed for a few extra moments of rest, believing that a sympathetic guard is on duty that morning. Just as Shukhov decides to report sick, his blanket is torn off of him, and he realizes another guard, The Tartar, is on duty. The Tartar punishes Shukhov with three days in solitary confinement. As The Tartar walks Shukhov through the camp, Shukhov realizes that he will not be sent to solitary, but will clean the floor of the officers’ headquarters instead. They pass a group of guards checking the temperature, which is negative seventeen and a half degrees. Shukhov removes his shoes and cleans the floor quickly. Then, he makes his way to the mess hall for breakfast.
A fellow prisoner, Fetyukov, has saved Shukhov’s meal for him, a soup made with black cabbage and putrid fish. Shukov takes out his spoon, which he calls “his baby”, removes his hat, and eats. After eating, Shukhov heads to the sick bay to report sick for work that day. The medical orderly, Kolya, tells Shukhov that it’s too late to report sick, and he should have come the night before. He takes Shukhov’s temperature, but it is not high enough to exempt him from work. Shukhov returns to the barracks to join his work gang before the count. Shukhov is given his daily bread ration, which he breaks in half, sewing half into his mattress and putting the other half in his coat. The men are then called out into the cold and forced to take their jackets off in the frigid air for the search. One prisoner, Buynovsky, is sentenced to ten days in solitary for wearing extra layers. Shukhov, however, gladly accepts the search, knowing he has nothing to hide.
The gang then begins the grueling march to work. Shukhov’s back aches as he marches, so he begins to reflect on his separation from his family. He states that there is no sense in writing to them since he has nothing to write about. He has more to talk about with his fellow prisoners than his family. He remembers the last letter his wife wrote him in which she suggested he take up rug dying, a new way to earn quick money in the village where he is from. Shukhov finds this idea insulting, as he would rather use his skills in the trades to earn money.
The prisoners arrive at the work site, and Shukhov notices that Alyoshka, a devout Baptist, is smiling and seemingly happy to be at work. The gang is assigned to work on a power station. Tyurin, the foreman of Shukhov’s gang, gang 104, assigns Shukhov and Kildigs the task of covering the power station’s windows to warm up the space. Shukhov retrieves a trowel he has hidden, and the men retrieve a hidden roll of tarred paper and cover the windows. Then Shukhov is tasked with fixing the stove. A teenaged prisoner, named Gopchik, helps Shukhov. Gopchik asks Shukhov to teach him to make a spoon out of a length of wire he has stolen. Meanwhile, Tyurin decides to wait until after lunch to begin laying bricks. Before lunch, the gang takes a quick break. Kildigs mentions that Shukhov is almost done with his sentence in the camp, and Shukhov reveals that he was imprisoned after being wrongly accused of being a spy during WWII.
At lunch, Shukhov manages to swipe a second helping of food, which fills him up. On the way back to work, Shukhov finds a piece of scrap metal in the snow and hides it, hoping to make a knife out of it. The men gather around the stove to warm up before starting work again. Tyurin tells the story of his unjust incarceration for being the son of a wealthy peasant. He, like the other prisoners, is confined without due cause. Shukhov notes that the men of gang 104 respect Tyurin and work hard for him because he is a fair leader who cares about the welfare of his men. The men begin working on the wall of the power station. Pavlo, the deputy foreman, works with the rest of the men, although it is not required for him to help. Shukhov notes that the men respect him for working alongside them, and men will work hard for a foreman they respect. The time moves quickly as Shukhov works, and he takes great pride in his skills.
When the work day ends, Shukhov hangs back to make sure his work is solid and hide his trowel, even though he is risking punishment for being late for the count. Shukhov is almost unable to get back to his gang for the count, but is saved when it is stalled because the guards discover a man is missing from one of the gangs. The man, who had fallen asleep during work, is found and the other prisoners berate and physically assault him for wasting their time.
Upon returning to the camp, the prisoners are searched again. Shukhov submits to his search, but quickly remembers the piece of metal he has hidden in his mitten. He prays that the guard will not find the metal, and providentially, the guard does not discover the contraband. Once Shukhov has been cleared, he volunteers to save a place in line at the parcel room for Tsezar, a fellow prisoner who receives regular parcels, in hopes of receiving a cut for his service. When Tsezar arrives to claim his place in line, Shukhov heads to the mess hall. The men are being admitted in pairs instead of singly, creating a chaotic scene. Inside, Shukhov joins his gang, and is awarded with extra bread because of his work that day. When he is finished eating, he takes Tsezar’s ration to the barracks. Having received a parcel, Tsezar allows Shukhov to keep his supper ration.
Another count is conducted. Afterward, Shukhov gets into bed, even though a second count is imminent. When the second role call is conducted, Tsezar panics, as the contents of his parcel are out and will be stolen if he doesn't hide them. Shukhov offers to hide the parcel in his bunk. Afterward, Tsezar gives Shukhov a piece of sausage and a couple of biscuits. Before sleeping, Shukhov thanks God for allowing him to survive another day. Alyoshka the Baptist overhears his prayer and begins talking to Shukhov about God. He tells Shukhov that a man should only pray for his daily bread. Shukhov misunderstands, and asks Alyoshka if he means his daily ration. Alyoshka explains he is talking about bread that feeds the spirit. After hearing Alyoshka’s message, Shukhov offers him one of the biscuits he received from Tsezar. After, he reflects that his day was an “almost good one”. The narrator concludes by stating that this was only one day of 3,653 left in Shukhov’s sentence.