What is the significance of the conversation at the end of the novel between Shukhov and Alyosha?
Toward the end of the novel, Shukhov and Alyosha have a conversation about prayer. Shukhov, though he was just praying, does not see how prayer can help when one is in a labour camp. He says a "reply doesn't come. Or if it does its only 'rejected'" (138 of Penguin's 2000 edition). Alyoshka argues that prayer needs constancy and true faith, which he thinks Shukhov does not have.
This is a significant passage because it addresses the religious concerns of the novel, and takes on the themes of hope, freedom, and religious faith. Earlier on, Shukhov makes it clear that he does not care for organized religion, and though he does believe in God, he frequently prays and mentally compliments the Baptists (he says "[they] had got something there" (89)). Alyosha is championing an appreciation for the little things. He prays for simple things such as "daily bread" (138) and "for the spirit" (139). Shukhov considers Alyosha's words, and seems to concede that prayer might help with these small things, but it "doesn't shorten your stretch" (140) in the camps. Alyosha also has a reponse for this, saying freedom will choke any faith from you. Shukhov realizes that Alyosha "[is] happy in prison" (140). He considers if it would be any better out of the camp than in, and perhaps momentarily sees Alyosha's point. But Shukhov wants freedom, and his home.
This raises many questions for discussion: Are freedom and faith at odds in the novel? does hope help or hinder faith? is there an underlying benefit to the camps, and if so, what does that mean for the Soviet regime?