Themes and Meanings
How does one retain one’s full humanity in a social system that is designed to debase it? This question is just as pertinent to people in the West as to those in totalitarian societies, for the forces of dehumanization are strong in all modern societies. Solzhenitsyn offers Shukov and his fellow prisoners as a partial answer to this question. Most important to their survival is their ability to retain their dignity under the worst possible circumstances. Given numbers in place of names, made to undergo humiliating and arbitrary rituals (for example, repeated “counts”), forced to do often-meaningless labor and compete for inadequate resources, the prisoners somehow manage, nevertheless, to maintain a sense of themselves as individuals and, on key occasions, to help one another. This last activity underscores another key part of Solzhenitsyn’s answer, the role of camaraderie or community as a defense against inhumanity. Despite Shukov’s comment that the other prisoners are often one’s worst enemy in the fight to survive, the reader sees many examples of mutual dependence and even selflessness.
The key scene in the novel illustrates the importance of both dignity and community. In working together on the wall, the members of the work gang discover both their own ability to do something of value and the encouragement of a shared goal. Ignoring the danger of being late, Shukov stops to look at the wall he has laid: “Not bad. He went up and looked...
(The entire section is 418 words.)