Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: World Fiction Series)
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.)
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Solzhenitsyn interweaves three themes. The first is the injustice of the camp's very existence: It is the Soviet government's crime against the nation's greatest resource: courageous, long-suffering people. The second theme is the incredible resiliency of the ordinary peasant and citizen, like Ivan Denisovich, to preserve his body, maintain his sanity, and save his soul.
The third theme — deeply, blackly ironic — emerges from the juxtaposition of the labor camp itself with the work squad of twenty-four men to which Ivan Denisovich belongs. The macrocosm, the labor camp which is an image of the Soviet nation, purportedly works toward the perfection of socialist society. To achieve its end, it turns the population into slaves who labor without reward for the benefit of the Party rulers. The microcosm, Denisovich's 104th work detail, is purportedly a collection of the enemies of the state. To survive, the zeks must pool their energies, work cooperatively, and share hardships. The squad becomes an example of the socialist ideal, but the macrocosm is blind to the achievement of the microcosm. The self-proclaimed Communist society of politicians, bureaucrats, and guards cannot recognize real socialism in its midst.
Shukhov sums up the theme of the work's true meaning in his unstated rule-of-thumb for surviving in the camp: when work benefits human beings, do it properly and conscientiously; when work benefits only party bosses, do only enough to...
(The entire section is 230 words.)
Man versus Society
Ivan represents the common man; the immediate society he lives in is prison. Every day he struggles to survive physically and psychologically. The prison supplies him with the bare necessities: food, shelter, and a job. His choices are few, but the one great choice is his: to live or to die. His choice to survive impacts the greater society: man can go on despite whatever cruelties society imposes.
The Truth versus the Lie
Ivan was imprisoned in the forced labor camp for the crime of high treason. During World War II, the Germans captured a great many Soviet soldiers. Ivan was one. However, he escaped and returned to his own lines. The Soviets believed he lied about escaping and was really spying for the Germans. Ivan realized if he told the truth, he'd be shot, but if he lied and said he was a spy, he'd be sent to prison. When one lie is stacked upon another, the light of truth is obscured. This is what happened under the tyranny of Josef Stalin, the So viet leader—the vast majority of the Soviet people became accomplices to lies.
Life versus Death
Ivan chose living with lies over dying for truth. In his case, was the truth worth dying for or was surviving the better choice? What is the value of life and the value of the life Ivan is living? When is death of more value?
Good versus Evil
Every choice Ivan makes in his day is a moral one and is motivated by...
(The entire section is 408 words.)