Solzhenitsyn wrote a number of novels, stories, and works based on documentary, political, and sociophilosophical matters. Several dominant themes recur. First, almost all of his works are autobiographical, directly or indirectly. He was compelled to transform his turbulent personal experiences into artistic expression, transcending the experiences of an individual. In several of his works, Solzhenitsyn himself can be easily detected. Through such methods, he gave his works authenticity and veracity. His artistic acumen, however, allowed him to raise his writings above mere description of his experiences.
Because the everyday life that Solzhenítsyn depicts is inseparable from historical and political reality, his works deal, in one form or another, with the peculiar experiences of his characters before, during, and after World War II. For that reason, his writings are imbued with political and social issues, perhaps more so than those of many other writers of his stature. Consequently, his works can be seen as overly politicized and lacking universal appeal, leaving indifferent those readers uninterested in historical and political issues. Solzhenitsyn’s powerful artistic abilities, however, lend his potentially pedestrian subject matter an aura of high artistic quality.
Similarly, because Solzhenítsyn was obsessed with issues that were often a matter of life or death to him, his works seem to lack versatility, and he is in danger of being called a one-theme writer. That, however, is an oversimplification. While it is true that most of his characters are faced with similar dilemmas and ordeals, they also differ enough to make distinct individual responses.
The overriding theme in Solzhenitsyn’s works is the relationship between the individual and his or her society. Drawing from his own experiences (incarceration, a long stint in concentration camps, his struggle against an oppressive regime), he presents with an uncanny sharpness and candor the dilemmas that his characters face. The characters continually wrestle with, or openly ask, searing questions: How can the Soviet society treat its own citizens with such unconcern and brutality? Have the people really transgressed against the law, and, if so, is the punishment commensurate with the crime? Why do no extenuating circumstances or leniency exist in civilized societies? Why must the accused always prove his or her innocence while the state is not required to prove his or her guilt? Even worse, why is the state not even concerned with this process at all? Most important, who has given those representing the state the right to judge another individual, imprisoning and often killing that individual? Even though his characters are concerned with other necessities of everyday life, such as food, clothing, work conditions, love, hatred, and relatives left behind, they return constantly to these questions, groping for answers.
The answers that Solzhenitsyn provides are few but convincing. While it is true that his characters are victims of injustice unparalleled in history, they are not without salvation. The author sees that salvation in the need, even the imperative, for each character to preserve his or her dignity in the face of the frontal assault upon it. Solzhenitsyn believed that tyrants are helpless against victims who have nothing left to lose; moreover, the tyrants cannot give back the freedom they have taken away from the victims because they themselves are not free. Furthermore, if the victims can preserve their dignity, they can in the end claim victory even if they pay the ultimate price of death.
In dealing with highly ethical issues, Solzhenitsyn followed the tradition of great Russian writers of the past, such as Fyodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy, and Anton Chekhov. He had more in common with them, however, than simply a concern with morality. His...
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style is closer to that of the nineteenth century writers than to that of his contemporaries. For that reason, some critics consider Solzhenitsyn a throwback—a splendid one, to be sure—to the high standards of the golden age of Russian literature. His style is no simple imitation of the past masters by any means. There is a high dramatic quality in his novels and stories (he has also written a few plays), in his building and resolving of conflicts, and in the interaction of his characters, including a keen understanding of them that at times ranks with the best of Dostoevski. There is also an unmistakable poetic quality in his works (he also wrote poems in prose), which, unfortunately, is often lost in translation.
The fact that Solzhenitsyn wrote in several genres speaks not only for the versatility of his talent but also for his total commitment to his vocation. He is a perfect example of an engaged writer, a writer with theses, common in twentieth century world literature. He was also a writer with a mission, with which he seemed to be obsessed. That mission was to return to human beings the dignity taken away by the unfeeling force of political totalitarianism. He achieved that purpose with the power of his artistic talent.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
First published: Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha, 1962 (English translation, 1963)
Type of work: Novel
Humankind can survive all indignities inflicted upon it by preserving its own dignity.
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. Undoubtedly, in years of incarceration and isolation from the outside world, Solzhenitsyn had thought often about the reasons for the unjust mistreatment of himself and his compatriots, but also about the answer to such injustice. In Shukhov he found the answer. A simple, hardworking man (it is no coincidence that he is a worker, for whose benefit the revolution was allegedly fought), a good man who bears no grudge even against his torturers, a level-headed and resourceful man who sees a silver lining in every cloud, he accepts the undeserved punishment stoically and without philosophizing about it. He would rather help his fellow inmates than make it harder for all of them; he would rather work than dwell on his misery; and he does not want the circumstances to consume him. Moreover, he takes great pride in his work, as if he were working for himself. Whenever he helps more fortunate inmates, he expects to be rewarded, but if he is not, he does not lose any sleep over it. At the end of the day, as he prepares for sleep, he considers it to have been an almost happy one:They hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill.
It is this attitude that, Solzhenitsyn believed, can enable the victim not only to survive but also to preserve human dignity in the ordeal and one day rebuild a seemingly shattered life. Thus, amid grim reality and seeming hopelessness, Solzhenitsyn saw a ray of hope.
The First Circle
First published: V kruge pervom, 1968 (English translation, 1968)
Type of work: Novel
One who wants to remain a decent human being should not serve the Devil under any circumstance.
The First Circle depicts four days in December, 1949, in a special prison near Moscow where people are conducting research on specific projects for the state and the secret police. Again drawing from his personal experiences, Solzhenitsyn speaks out through the protagonist of the same age, mathematician Gleb Nerzhin, who is serving a ten-year sentence for having been suspected of unspecified activities against the state. He is surrounded by fellow inmates, the assisting personnel (all of them secret police agents), and the authorities. The inmates enjoy a favored status because of their expertise and potential usefulness to the state, which explains the title, taken from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1820) as the first and the least punishing of the nine circles of Hell designed for sinners in Christian mythology. The inmate specialists are working on two main projects, a decoder of human voice and a scrambler, both of which the state intends to use in controlling the telephone communications of their citizens. Many of the inmates are reluctant to lend their services to the evil intentions of the state, but some want to use their service to attain benefits for themselves, even an early release. The real competitors, however, are prison authorities who are vying among themselves for success of the projects, so that they can impress the ultimate order-giver, Stalin. Within these two spheres, the dramatic tension of the novel uncoils.
Nerzhin is an intelligent, humanistically inclined person, fully aware of the moral dilemma confronting him and other inmates (Zeks, as they are called). He is torn between pangs of conscience and personal sorrow stemming from the suffering of his faithful wife, who endures much on account of her husband. In constant meetings with his colleagues, Nerzhin discovers that they all react differently to the dilemma: from willingness to cooperate for personal gain, to reluctance to “sell one’s soul” to the devil, to outright rejection after a painful soul-searching. Nerzhin belongs to the last category, refusing to help the state entrap other victims; he would rather go to the next, much harsher circle of Hell instead, realizing that it may be ten or twenty-five years before he regains his freedom, if at all. His reasoning is firm, however: “If you know when you die that you haven’t been a complete bastard, that’s at least some satisfaction.” Thus, Solzhenitsyn reduces a complex ethical dilemma to the simple preservation of one’s personal dignity, which, in turn, is perhaps the most difficult thing a person can do. As in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he points at the solution of the central problem that his compatriots are forced to face.
Aside from this central dilemma, the novel offers many other aspects: several sharply sketched portraits of Soviet rulers and officials, from Stalin down to the smallest henchman; the way the Soviet prison operates; several heartrending human dramas, some of which concern love between Zeks and their families and between Zeks and their female assistants; the enormous waste of human potential; a rich variety of psychology of the imprisoned; and various aspects of freedom among both the rulers and the ruled. Solzhenitsyn also depicts the relationship, and conflicts, between the prisoners and guards, prisoners and higher authorities, authorities themselves, prisoners and other prisoners, and prisoners and their own consciences. These concentric circles reinforce structurally the basic premise of the novel, that of the nine circles of “guilt” and punishment. In building such a monumental edifice, worthy of Tolstoy and Dostoevski, Solzhenitsyn wrote a work of lasting and universal value.
First published: Rakovy korpus, 1968 (English translation, 1968)
Type of work: Novel
Faced with a life-threatening disease, a man is forced to reexamine his entire life and thinking.
Cancer Ward is also based on Solzhenitsyn’s personal experiences, this time on his bout with cancer. The protagonist, Oleg Kostoglotov, a thirty-four-year-old political exile, is afflicted with cancer in the prime of his life and approaches it with a mixture of hope and despair. The entire novel takes place in a cancer hospital separated from the world; this circumstance makes for an oppressive atmosphere of isolation, but it also enables the patients to turn inward and reexamine their past. Solzhenitsyn again creates a score of characters, each different in his or her reaction to the illness and in the ability to cope with it, yet all coming to the same conclusion that this experience is an ultimate test of their will to survive, not all of which depends on the doctors and medicines alone. Predictably, all patients show different fortitude and reaction to the blow that fate has dealt them.
In addition to the patients’ silent but excruciating process of reexamination, there is a relationship between doctors and patients to be considered. All doctors make gallant efforts to save their patients, fully aware that their resources are limited; in fact, the main doctor eventually succumbs to cancer herself. Solzhenitsyn uses this relationship to test the ability of medical science to save lives, and also to voice, through Kostoglotov and the doctors, his views about the meaning of life in general. The final outcome, illustrated by the protagonist’s (and Solzhenitsyn’s) seeming conquest of the disease, indicates a hope that even such calamitous misfortune can be successfully averted, if only temporarily; the main thing is to keep fighting.
There is a much wider interpretation of Cancer Ward. In limiting the action to the hospital inhabited by patients from all walks of life, Solzhenitsyn creates a microcosm in many ways resembling the larger world outside. By forcing patients to wrestle with existential topics such as the meaning of life and death, guilt, punishment, and the relationship between human beings, he symbolically transfers the focus to the whole state, the macrocosm of the Soviet Union. The implication is that the entire state is stricken with a deadly disease and that the only way to overcome it is by reexamining the basic premises of its existence and by fighting through determination and hope toward healing. The brotherhood of pain and the common menace of death thus become the only way of realizing the severity of affliction, personified best by the painful reevaluating process of the main character, Kostoglotov. His insistence on knowing everything about his illness, for example, is a reflection on his suppressed right as a citizen to know the truth.
The supporting cast of characters fits this scheme. A former high official, Pavel Nikolaevich Rusinov, represents the unfeeling ruling class unable to understand how disease can afflict them also. The two chief doctors, Ludmila Afanasyevna Dontsova and Vera Kornilovna Gangart, do everything in their power to help, that is, to right the wrong. The young boy Dyomka, dying from leg cancer contracted by playing football, symbolizes the heavy price that the future of the nation has to pay. Several other patients demonstrate, one way or another, the generality of affliction and the common effort necessary for restoration to health.
To reduce the interpretation of Cancer Ward to political symbolism, however, robs it of its much wider application. The novel also applies to all humankind and, in doing so, attains a universal meaning.
First published: Avgust chetyrnadtsatogo, 1971; revised, 1983 (English translation, 1972; revised, 1989)
Type of work: Novel
The novel examines the circumstances leading to the Russian Revolution in an attempt to establish the truth about it.
August 1914 is the first installment in a four-volume effort under the common title Krasnoe koleso (The Red Wheel). The first Russian edition was published in Paris in 1971 and in English in 1972; the second, enlarged edition appeared in Russian in 1983 and in English in 1989. The second volume, Oktiabr’ shestnadtsatogo (1984), appeared in English translation in 1999 as November 1916; the third and fourth volumes, Mart semnadtsatogo (1986-1988) and Aprel’ semnadtsatogo (1991), have yet to be translated.
Solzhenitsyn relied heavily on documentary material, obtained from historical archives, and on historical figures active in the first month of the war between the Russians and Austrians and their allies, the Germans. At the same time, he created fictitious characters who serve the purpose of commenting upon the war and expressing the author’s views, especially Colonel Vorotyntsev, who is to a large degree the author’s alter ego. Solzhenitsyn exchanges the masterfully depicted battle scenes with those of civilian life, all contributing to the reader’s understanding of the events. As was customary with him, he surrounds the main figures, such as General Samsonov, with a host of minor characters. The result is a huge, mosaic-like canvas of a historic event in the tradition of Tolstoy.
As in practically all of his works, Solzhenitsyn is primarily after the truth. His prime concern is magnified here by the simple fact that the events in 1914 directly led to the revolution in Russia and that the history of World War I was tailored heavily to reflect the views of the victors—the Bolsheviks. The ultimate truth of August 1914 is, as Solzhenitsyn saw it, that the czarist government was inept and corrupt and that its weaknesses, rather than the strength of the Bolsheviks, prepared the way for their eventual triumph. This premise is illustrated best at the end of the novel by the generals’ blaming Samsonov for the defeat, rather than admitting their own failures.
Solzhenitsyn also pursues his well-established thesis that the responsibility of the individual—that is, his or her dignity—is the ingredient that spells victory or defeat in the constant struggle for a decent life. The treatment of fellow human beings goes a long way toward determining how he or she will react; the better the treatment, the greater the chances for a success, and vice versa. Thus, Solzhenitsyn went beyond the mere writing of a historical novel; he used this book to establish some basic truths about how humans behave as social beings, which could then be used to understand the subsequent events in Russia.
The enlarged edition of August 1914 contains fifteen new chapters amounting to more than three hundred pages, all running consecutively. They do not change the basic premises of the first edition’s plot, but they do add considerable material pertaining to the machinations behind the front lines, as well as further historical background.