The theme of time reaches across many levels in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In the broadest sense, the novel is about “doing time”, or being incarcerated. The narrative unfolds over the course of a single day, from the morning reveille to lights out, and the depiction of this single day over the length of the entire novel shows that even this short period remains an immense obstacle for the prisoners. In addition, the loss of time is one of the primary ways prisoners are punished, which is shown figuratively in the fact that prisoners are not allowed to have watches—the guards tell the time for the prisoners—and literally in the fact that the Soviet government has the power to add time to any prisoners sentence without justification.
In another sense, a prisoner’s free time is his most precious possession. The prisoners are held at the camp for extended periods, but they are afforded little time for themselves. Apart from sleep, a prisoner’s only free time is during meals, for a brief time upon wake up, and a few minutes before work. This “time to oneself”, however, is not actually something men can enjoy, as it is spent trying to survive by attaining basic needs, such as food, clothing, and supplies. Because time is necessary for a Zek’s survival, taking away someone’s free time is one of the greatest sins in the camp. When one prisoner falls asleep during work, causing the others to get held up during the count, he is verbally and physically assaulted, depicting the seriousness of his crime.
Because each Zek’s primary focus is his survival on a daily basis, he is essentially trapped in the present. By its very nature, the camp is designed to separate prisoners from their pasts by removing them from their families and communities, and allowing them to write only twice a year. For Shukhov, the past, or more specifically, the time period before Stalin took power in Russia, is reflected on fondly, but seems so distant it isn’t worth much thought. Shukhov treats the future with the same indifference, since he knows either his sentence will be extended, or he will be exiled.
The past, however, does make its way into the present through the characters’ perceptions of themselves and others. Although the camp is designed to strip one of one’s past, Shukhov continues to refer to people based on their standing before entering the camp, and he retains a sense of his own identity through his expertise as a tradesman and upholding the beliefs he developed before coming to the camp. Using these skills, which connect him to his past, are part of what make his day, “an almost good one”. This positive note, however, is stifled by the novel’s final lines, which remind the reader that this day is only one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty three more days Shukhov will be in prison. The last sentence, which states, “the three extra days were for leap years,” leaves the reader with a new perspective on the life of a Zek: that there is no relief in a prisoner’s sentence, and even the extra three days will be an immense struggle.
Time Quotes in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
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.
From the outside, everyone looked the same—their numbered black coats were identical—but within the squad there were great distinctions. Everyone had his grade.
Apart from sleep, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner, and five at supper.
No clocks or watches ticked there—prisoners were not allowed to carry watches; the authorities knew the time for them.
During his years in prisons and in camps he’d lost the habit of planning for the next day, for a year ahead, for supporting his family. The authorities did his thinking for him about everything—it was somehow easier that way.
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.
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.
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.
“The sun’s already reached its peak,” he announced.
“If it's reached its peak,” said the captain reflectively, “it’s one o’clock, not noon.”
“What do you mean?” Shukhov demurred. “Every old-timer knows that the sun stands highest at dinner-time.”
“Old timers, maybe,” snapped the captain. “But since their day a new decree has been passed, and now the sun stands highest at one.”
“Who passed that decree?”
Even those serving three-year sentences were kept for another five. The law can be stood on its head. When your ten years are up they can say, “Here’s another ten for you.” Or exile you.
Yes, you live with your feet in the mud and there’s no time to be thinking about how you got on or how you’re going to get out.
[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.
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.
It isn't so terrible to unbutton your coat now. We’re going home.
That’s what everyone used to say: “going home.”
We never had time to think of any other home.
That bowl of soup—it was dearer than freedom, dearer than life itself, past, present, and future.
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.”
The belly is a demon. It doesn't remember how well you treated it yesterday; it’ll cry out for more tomorrow.
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.
“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.”
Freedom meant one thing to him—home.
But they wouldn’t let [Shukhov] go home.
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.