Critical Context

The First Circle has a complex history. Although not Solzhenitsyn’s first novel to be published, it was his first to be completed. He began it in 1955, while in exile in Kazakhstan, completing the first version in 1957. Despite the liberalization that followed Stalin’s death, there was no hope at that time of publishing The First Circle in the Soviet Union; in fact, Solzhenitsyn destroyed several drafts of the novel rather than risk premature exposure. By 1962, when he published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he had completed another redaction of The First Circle. This ninety-six-chapter version, however, contained material which, he believed, would still prevent its publication in the Soviet Union, so in submitting the novel for approval he prepared a self-censored eighty-seven-chapter version. When, after much debate, the novel was rejected for publication in the Soviet Union, it was this truncated version which appeared in the West. A restored text of the ninety-six-chapter version, with some additional changes made by Solzhenitsyn, was published in Russian in 1978 in the ongoing edition of his complete works which he is issuing from Vermont.

While there are significant differences between the version of The First Circle available in the West and the novel as Solzhenitsyn intended it, the substance of the work is intact. Earlier critical responses to the novel stressed its ideological content rather than its artistry, acknowledging the power of Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of the Soviet system. Now, however, there is greater critical appreciation of Solzhenitsyn’s art. Particularly noteworthy is what Solzhenitsyn himself has described as the novel’s “polyphonic” style, in which no single character is at the center of the action; in Solzhenitsyn’s words, “Each person becomes the main hero as soon as the action reverts to him.” This approach allows Solzhenitsyn to present the conflicting worldviews of an extraordinarily diverse range of characters.