Study Guide

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962 created a sensation, both in the Soviet Union and abroad, for three reasons: The author was unknown, the novel showed a remarkable maturity for a novice, and the subject matter was daring and explosive. Solzhenitsyn was soon to become well known worldwide; he quickly proved that he is indeed an accomplished writer; and the subject matter soon ceased to be explosive, even unusual. Yet the novel continues to be praised as a genuine work of art.

To a degree, the reason for its high esteem lies in the novel’s remarkable stylistic simplicity. The novel describes one day in a Soviet concentration camp in the 1950’s, as experienced by the protagonist, carpenter Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, and a cast of supporting characters. The reader follows in detail every step of the inmates, from the reveille at dawn, through their work at building an edifice that they do not quite understand, until they return to barracks in the evening darkness. The author concentrates on Shukhov’s reactions to everyday happenings, on his ability to adapt to situations and, simply, to survive. Even though as a carpenter he cannot be taken to speak for the author, there is no doubt that many of Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences are reflected in Shukhov’s actions and reactions.

There is a deliberate reason for the author’s building of Shukhov’s character almost to the point of an archetype....

(The entire section is 553 words.)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the story of a typical day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp. It is set in 1951, near the end of the rule of Joseph Stalin, and is, on one level, an expose of Stalin’s brutal forced-labor camps, a central but suppressed fact of modern Russian history. The novel follows the title character during the course of a not-unusual winter day, in the process eliciting great respect for a simple, unreflective man and offering a commentary on life in a totalitarian society.

Ivan Denisovich (Shukov) is awakened with the rest of his work gang at five in the morning on a January day. The temperature hovers around twenty degrees below zero. His first thoughts, as always, are of what he can do to increase his chances for survival. The time before breakfast is precious to him not only because he can find ways to obtain a bit of tobacco or extra food but also because, for a short while, his time is his own to use as he pleases.

After what passes for breakfast, Shukov stops on his way back to the barrack to try to get on the sick list for the day. Camp (Soviet) bureaucracy, however, dictates that no more than two prisoners will be sick each day, and, even with a fever, Shukov is too late to be one of those two. While waiting in the cold to march out of camp to work, Shukov sees Caesar finishing a cigarette. Shukov wants very much to have the butt that Caesar will leave but, significantly, will not beg for it, or even stare at Caesar while he smokes, both of which the wretched Fetyukov does. Caesar demonstrates the code of the camp by giving the butt to Shukov, not to Fetyukov.

Because of the negotiating skill of their work gang leader, Tyurin, the gang has the relatively easy job that day of building a power station. Shukov ruminates on the importance of a gang leader to the survival of the prisoners and on their allegiance to him. After the morning’s work in the snow and cold comes the noon meal. Meals are the single most important part of the day, although they are pathetic, consisting, for example, of a small allotment of bread and a soup made of water and oats and an occasional fish head. It is crucial, however, that one not be further weakened by missing any of this meager repast....

(The entire section is 927 words.)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Reveille begins the day for Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a victim of the mass imprisonments that took place in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era. Ivan has been unjustly sentenced to ten years imprisonment on spurious charges of espionage while serving in the Soviet Army during World War II. He is serving his term in a labor camp in a remote corner of Siberia. It is the dead of winter, and Ivan wakes up feeling ill. He intends to report for sick call.

Ivan’s plan to report for sick call is apparently thwarted when a camp guard detains him for violating a rule: not getting up at reveille. Ivan is told he will be sentenced to ten days in the guardhouse but soon discovers the prison guard only wants someone to mop the guardhouse floor. Having been thus “let off,” Ivan adroitly manages to get out of the work he was assigned as punishment and returns to his barracks. The sort of adroitness he demonstrates in this incident is a necessary characteristic for survival in the brutal environment of the camp.

Ivan then begins the routine of his day. After a trip to the mess hall, he still has time to go to the infirmary and try to get on sick call. At the infirmary, he is turned down because the daily quota of two prisoners exempted from work because of sickness has already been filled. A bureaucratic culture rules the camp. In contrast to the filth of the barracks and the mess hall, the infirmary is clean, quiet, orderly, and warm. When Ivan enters, the doctors are still asleep. The orderly on duty is writing not a medical report but poetry for the doctor in charge. The orderly, one of the better-off prisoners, has an easy job and some privileges because of his education level. There is a definite hierarchy in the camp, even among the prisoners, or “zeks.”

Ivan reports to his squad, which moves out to the work site. As the squad members begin their work, they start telling the stories of their lives. The prison camp is a microcosm of Soviet RussiaL Tiurin, the squad leader, has been imprisoned because his father was a kulak (a well-to-do peasant), a member of a group persecuted by Stalin. Senka is a deaf former soldier who survived the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald; Fetikov, a former high-ranking member of the Communist Party, was arrested in one of Stalin’s purges; Captain Buinovsky is also a loyal Communist and a Soviet naval captain unjustly accused of spying; Alyosha, a Baptist, has been imprisoned for practicing his religion; Tsezar is an intellectual. These men together with other squad members, struggle through the day with Ivan,...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Summary

"Reveille was sounded, as always, at 5 A.M.…"

So begins another day for Ivan Denisovich in a...

(The entire section is 1348 words.)