How is the theme of survival developed in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn develops the theme of survival through both the singular focus on the title character and showing a panorama of various characters's actions. He delves into the strategies, (including friendships) and tactics, extending to apparently quite trivial items. He also shows the effects of survival.

Ivan Denisovich Shukov, like...

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn develops the theme of survival through both the singular focus on the title character and showing a panorama of various characters's actions. He delves into the strategies, (including friendships) and tactics, extending to apparently quite trivial items. He also shows the effects of survival.

Ivan Denisovich Shukov, like the others, can never let survival out of his mind. Once he got oriented to prison life, he embraced the routine. Getting up on time and setting about his daily routine is part of that.

Shukov also operates as one cog in the larger mechanism. They all depend on support and advice from the others. One example is the rule that they don't tell the authorities who broke a rule; the others will turn against such a rat. Some men develop stronger bonds, finding strength as a team like the Estonians.

Useful material objects are scarce, so they are treasured and must be guarded. One example is Ivan's boots. He is happy to acquire them, although they are too big and must be stuffed, because they are sturdy and will help him survive. A seemingly trivial example is a crucial object: his spoon. He carries it with him because if he loses it, he may not get another and will not be able to eat.

Ivan, when we meet him, has been in the Gulag camp for seven years. Some men have been there much longer, and survival has cost them dearly. One has survived with as much dignity as possible, with erect posture, but the man referred to as "Y-81" has lost his teeth, his hair, and even his name.

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Ivan is confronted with almost unimaginable hardship, and at several points consciously chooses survival over death. For instance, he winds up in prison in the first place because he lies and claims to be a spy for the Germans, when in fact he had simply been captured by them while serving in the Soviet army. Had he claimed to be an escaped prisoner of war, he likely would have been shot. Once in the prison camp, he labors, and survives, under conditions that kill many of his fellow prisoners. He manages to survive by just doing enough work to avoid the ire of camp guards, doing additional work to get food at the end of the day, stashing away bread inside his mattress where it will not be detected, and currying favor with the gang boss. Above all, he maintains his dignity and his mental health, both of which, we learn early in the book, are essential to survival in these unspeakably harsh surroundings:

If you’re working for human beings, then do a real job of it, but if you work for dopes, then you just go through the motions. Otherwise they’d all have kicked the bucket long ago. That was for sure.

Solzhenitsyn thus explicitly links survival to maintaining one's humanity. This is the overriding theme of the story, that even in a system designed to destroy it, man can maintain his dignity, which is in fact a precondition for human survival.

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