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Aleksandr I(sayevich) Solzhenitsyn 1918–
Russian novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, and critic.
Solzhenitsyn attained world prominence with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, an authentic portrayal of life in Joseph Stalin's labor camps, where Solzhenitsyn himself had spent eight years. The novel was among the first works critical of the Stalin era to be published in the Soviet Union. It is widely read by young adults for its powerful treatment of the loss of freedom and for its emotional and philosophical impact. Solzhenitsyn's persistent activities as a dissident and outspoken critic of literary censorship led to his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1969 and the censorship of his subsequent publications in Russia.
Now living in the United States, Solzhenitsyn continues to write in exile of the oppression in his own land, as well as to speak of his concern for the political and moral problems of the West. Rejecting the precepts of socialist realism, he writes from a Christian point of view, depicting the suffering of the innocent in a world where good and evil vie for the human soul. In this he is thematically linked to the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. His writing, distinguished by its austere, simple style, shows his compassion and moral concern. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 18 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed., 69-72.)
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On November 20, 1962, Novy Mir, a monthly Soviet literary magazine, published a short novel by an unknown Russian writer, Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, entitled One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was an immediate literary and political sensation…. [The] title character, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, was quickly recognized throughout the country as a touching symbol of the suffering which the Russian people had endured under the Stalinist system.
Was there anything special about Ivan that sparked this lightning response? Not really. Ivan was an ordinary Russian caught up in the swirl and chaos of World War II. Like millions of other Russians, he served uncomplainingly in the Red Army for four years, surviving the bitter cold and hunger of the Western front. In 1945, he and a friend were captured by the Germans. After a few days they managed to escape and returned to Russian lines. Ironically, Instead of being decorated for heroism and loyalty, Ivan was arrested by Stalin's supersensitive secret police, who accused him of high treason and charged that he had returned only to spy for the Germans. Confused and helpless, afraid that he would be shot if he tried to explain. Ivan "confessed." He was sentenced to ten years in a Siberian concentration camp. Solzhenitsyn's book describes one day in that camp, one day no better and no worse than any of the other three thousand six hundred and fifty-two days of Ivan's sentence. Ivan's experience was no isolated miscarriage of justice; it was typical of the Stalinist system, under which the labor camps of Siberia were crowded with Russians whose "crime" may have been nothing greater than a careless remark about Stalin to a tattletale neighbor. There is hardly a Russian family today that managed to escape this tragic fate. Almost every one of them had a father or a husband or a son or a cousin who "sat"—the Russian euphemism for serving a term, generally unwarranted, in the camps. That is why One Day, the first book about this black page of the Stalin era ever to appear in the Soviet Union, has had such a profound impact on the Russian people. By its brevity and simple power, it forces a Russian reader to remember the days of Stalin.
Many Russians do not want to remember: the victims of Stalinist injustice find it too painful; and the accomplices find it too shattering—especially now, after several years of relative normalcy. But there are others—[Nikita] Khrushchev among them—who want Russia to remember. Although Solzhenitsyn is undoubtedly a writer with bold views, it is important to note that his novel was published at this time because it suited Khrushchev's domestic policy. Its unstated but obvious message—the devastating impact of Stalinism on ordinary Russians—fits neatly into the pattern of Khrushchev's continuing attack against Stalin's abuses. (pp. 5-6)
Even without this official encouragement, the book would have been a sensation in Russia—not only because of its sensitive subject but also because of its literary merit. One Day represents no literary innovation. Its form and style are conventional, following the nineteenth-century Russian tradition of the "social protest" novel. But it tells a story about little people trapped in a merciless political machine in a way that lifts it high above the level of the average Soviet "man-loves-tractor" school of literature.
Solzhenitsyn's language is direct and powerful, reminding some Russian critics of the young [Fedor] Dostoevsky, who, in his Notes from Underground, managed to convey a unique impression of nineteenth-century Russia through the eyes and thoughts of a man holed up in a basement. Using this same effective literary device—seeing and understanding the world through the eyes and mind of the leading character—Solzhenitsyn presents an unadorned and starkly disturbing picture of life in a Russian concentration camp. He traces one day in Ivan's life, from reveille to lights-out. He never intrudes in Ivan's story, and the reader quickly identifies with Ivan the man and Ivan the prisoner. (pp. 7-8)
Solzhenitsyn conveys the power and drama of prison life in a style marked by understatement. (p. 9)
It is difficult to imagine Khrushchev endorsing a different kind of literary sensation—for example, one in which the main character openly denounces the Communist Party itself, rather than Stalin, for the evils of the labor camps. It is certainly a step toward internal liberalization when a cutting attack such as Solzhenitsyn's can be published in Moscow; but Russia still has a long way to go before Doctor Zhivagos can be published and freely discussed. (p. 11)
Marvin L. Kalb, "Introduction" (1962), in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, translated by Ralph Parker (translation copyright © 1963 by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, and Victor Gollancz, Ltd., London; reprinted by permission of the publisher, E. P. Dutton, Inc.), Dutton, 1963, pp. 5-11.
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The raw material of life which serves as a basis for A. Solzhenitsyn's [One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich] is unusual in Soviet literature. It carries within itself an echo of the painful features in our development related to the cult of personality that has been debunked and repudiated by the Party…. (p. 13)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is not a document in the sense of being a memoir, nor is it notes or reminiscences of the author's personal experiences, although only such personal experiences could lend this story its sense of genuine authenticity. This is a work of art and it is by virtue of the artistic interpretation of this material from life that it is a witness of special value, a document of an art which up to now had seemed to have few possibilities.
The reader will not find in A. Solzhenitsyn's story an all-encompassing portrayal of that historic period which is particularly marked by the bitter memory of the year 1937. The content of One Day is naturally limited in time and place of action and the horizons of the main hero of the story. But in the writing of A. Solzhenitsyn, who here enters the literary scene for the first time, one day in the life of the camp prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, develops into a picture which gives extraordinary vitality and fidelity to the truthfulness of its human characters. Herein above all lies the uncommon power of the work to impress. The reader can visualize for himself many of the people depicted here in the tragic role of camp inmates in other situations—at the front or at postwar construction sites. They are the same people who by the will of circumstance have been put to severe physical and moral tests under special and extreme conditions.
In this story there is no deliberate concentration of terrible facts of the cruelty and arbitrariness that were the result of the violation of Soviet legality. The author chose instead to portray only one of the most ordinary of days in the life at camp from reveille to retreat. Nevertheless this "ordinary" day cannot but arouse in the heart of the reader a bitter feeling of pain for the fate of the people who, from the pages of this story, rise up before us so alive and so near. Yet the unquestionable victory of the artist lies in the fact that the bitterness and the pain have nothing in common with a feeling of hopeless depression. On the contrary, the impression left by this work is so extraordinary in its unvarnished and difficult truth that it somehow frees the soul of the burden of things unsaid that needed to be said and at the same time it strengthens one's manly and lofty feelings. (pp. 13-15)
One Day is alive and distinctive in its very everyday ordinariness and outward unassumingness; it is least of all concerned with itself and is therefore full of an inner dignity and force. (p. 15)
Alexander Tvardovsky, in his foreword to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, translated by Ralph Parker (translation copyright © 1963 by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, and Victor Gollancz, Ltd., London; reprinted by permission of the publisher, E. P. Dutton, Inc.), Dutton, 1963, pp. 13-15.
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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich happens to be a masterpiece, but not exactly festive….
On one level it is an account of a prison; on another, a parable of life anywhere in Stalin's Russia. (p. 18)
[Solzhenitsyn] spent eight years in concentration camps….
This is not, however, a book carried off by force of personal involvement alone, an amateur's book. I have read many accounts of concentration camps, Nazi and Soviet, all of them horrifying, some of them acute in their understanding of the role of the camps in totalitarian society and in their observations on the behavior of guards and inmates. Yet none of these accounts has the immediacy, the direct quality of an experience lived, that distinguishes Solzhenitsyn's book. Dostoevsky's Notes from the House of the Dead immediately suggests itself as an apt comparison. But even that great parable of life as a prison, beside One Day, seems a little intellectualized, a little contrived.
Prison, for those who are innocently there, assaults the will to survive and that minimal, basic sense of worth on which the will to survive depends. If the prisoner is to live through conditions of the utmost physical hardship (and to what? sentences in the concentration camps were indeterminate), conditions which force him into a constant and terrifying awareness of his own fragility, he must keep his identity when for everyone else he is a mere number. The concentration camp is ironically named, for its inmate is forced to concentrate, not merely on his soul, but on that frightening dependence of the soul on the bowels. The most meager events become fraught with significance.
Solzhenitsyn conveys all this in a style heavy with camp jargon, but clear, controlled, terse, understated and completely transparent, as though there were no obstacle between the reader and the life represented. The terrifying logic of the body's rebellion against hardship is contrasted with the terrifying absurdity of the camp's routine.
There is no expression of horror or amazement, no attempt at analysis or explanation. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov has been in the camp ten years. Conditions are what they are. He scrounges for food and protects himself against the cold…. He does not try to understand his presence in the camp. (p. 119)
There are no atrocities, no acts of heroism. Ivan Denisovich himself could not be more ordinary. Yet everything he does, thinks or sees is invested with an enormous pathos…. (p. 120)
Sidney Monas, "Ehrenburg's Life, Solzhenitsyn's Day," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1963 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring, 1963, pp. 112-21.∗
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The central problem of socialist realism today is to come to terms critically with the Stalin era. Naturally this is the major task of all socialist ideology. Here I will confine myself to the field of literature. If socialist realism—which in consequence of the Stalinist period became at times a disdainful term of abuse, even in the socialist countries—desires to regain the level it had reached in the nineteen-twenties, then it must rediscover the way to depict contemporary man as he actually is. However, this way necessarily leads through a faithful portrayal of the Stalinist decades with all their inhumanities. Against this, the sectarian bureaucrats raise the objection that one should not rake up the past, but only describe the present. The past is said to be done, already completely outmoded, vanished from the present. Such a claim is not only untrue—the way in which it is presented demonstrates the still extremely influential presence of the Stalinist cultural bureaucracy—but it is also completely meaningless. (pp. 10-11)
Without uncovering the past … there is no discovery of the present. Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a significant overture to this process of literary rediscovery of the self in the socialist present.
The point here is not—at least not primarily—the horrors of the Stalin era, of the concentration camps, etc. This theme has existed for some time in Western literature. Moreover, since the XXth Congress placed a critique of the Stalinist period on its agenda, these horrors have lost their initial shock effect, above all in the socialist countries. Solzhenitsyn's achievement consists in the literary transformation of an uneventful day in a typical camp into a symbol of a past which has not yet been overcome, nor has it been portrayed artistically. Although the camps epitomize one extreme of the Stalin era, the author has made his skilful grey monochrome of camp life into a symbol of everyday life under Stalin. He was successful in this precisely because he posed the artistic question: what demands has this era made on man? Who has proved himself as a human being? Who has salvaged his human dignity and integrity? Who has held his own—and how? Who has retained his essential humanity? Where was this humanity twisted, broken, destroyed? His rigorous limitation to the immediate camp life permits Solzhenitsyn to pose the question simultaneously in quite general and quite concrete terms. The constantly changing political and social alternatives which life places before free human beings are in the nature of the case eliminated, but resistance or collapse are treated so directly in terms of concrete being or non-being of living people that every solitary decision is raised to the level of a true-to-life generalization and typification.
The entire composition, the details of which we will discuss later, serves this purpose. The slice of everyday camp life already described, as the central figure stresses at the end, presents a "good" day in camp life. And in fact nothing unusual, no special atrocity occurs on that day. We see the normal order of the camp and its inmates' typical reactions based on that order. In this way the typical problems can be sketched firmly, and it is left to the reader's imagination to visualize the effects on the characters of even greater tribulations. This almost ascetic concentration on essentials is matched exactly by the extreme economy of presentation. Of the outer world only the elements indispensable for their effect on the inner working of man are shown; of the emotional world of man only those reactions which are directly connected with their human substance in immediately comprehensible ways—and he is most sparing even with these. Thus this work—which is not even symbolically conceived—can exert a strong symbolic effect; thus the problems of everyday life in the Stalinist world—even though they have nothing immediately in common with camp life—are commented on implicitly in this description.
Even this extremely abstract synopsis of Solzhenitsyn's work shows that stylistically it is a story, a novella, and not a novel (however short), despite his efforts to achieve the greatest possible completeness and a mutual complementing of types and fates through concrete description. Solzhenitsyn consciously avoids any perspective. Camp life is represented as a permanent condition; the very few allusions to the expiration of individual terms are kept extremely vague—and the dissolution of the camp does not even appear in daydreams. In the case of the central figure, it is merely stressed that his home has changed very much in the meanwhile, and that he can by no means return to the familiar old world; this too increases the seclusion of the camp. Thus the future is heavily veiled in all directions. What is foreseeable are similar days, better or worse, but not radically different. The past is likewise represented with economy. (pp. 14-15)
The world of socialism today stands on the eve of a renaissance of Marxism, a renaissance whose task it will be not only to eliminate Stalinist distortions and point to the way forward, but above all adequately to encompass the new facts of reality with the old-new methods of genuine Marxism. In literature, socialist realism faces a similar task…. In this process of transformation and renewal, which signifies an abrupt departure from the socialist realism of the Stalin era, the role of landmark on the road to the future falls to Solzhenitsyn's story. (pp. 15-16)
Readers have felt this one day of Ivan Denisovich to be a symbol of the Stalin era. Yet there is not a trace of symbolism in Solzhenitsyn's descriptive method. He presents a genuine, realistic slice of life in which no single aspect obtrudes itself simply for effect or exaggerated effect or for any symbolic motive. To be sure, the typical fate, the typical behaviour of millions is concentrated into this slice. This straightforward fidelity to nature in Solzhenitsyn's work has nothing whatever in common with naturalism—either with direct naturalism or the kind brought about with technical refinement. (p. 17)
Solzhenitsyn's tale stands in marked contrast to all the trends within naturalism. We have already discussed the extreme economy of his descriptive method. The consequence of this in his work is that his details are always highly significant. (p. 19)
The detail in Solzhenitsyn's work has a peculiar function which grows out of the nature of his material: it renders conspicuous the suffocating constriction of everyday camp life, its monotony shot through with peril, the never-resting capillary movements, barely sufficient for the preservation of life. Every detail presents an alternative between survival and succumbing, every object is a trigger of a salutary or destructive fate. In this way the adventitious existence of individual objects is inseparably and visibly bound up with the curves of individual fates. Thus the concentrated totality of camp life is evoked with the very greatest economy, the sum and system of this mean, threadbare reality results in a humanly significant symbolic totality which illuminates an important aspect of human life.
On this experimental basis Solzhenitsyn builds a particular form of the novella whose parallels and contrasts with the … great modern novellas of the bourgeois world cast light on the historical situation of both. In both groups man struggles against an all-powerful and hostile environment whose cruelty and inhumanity reveal its nature-like essence. In [Joseph] Conrad or [Ernest] Hemingway, this hostile environment is actually nature. (Storm or calm in Conrad; but even where strictly human destinies are at work, as in The End of the Tether, growing blind—the cruelty of his own biological nature—is what the old captain has to contend with.) The social nature of human relationships is thrust into the background and often pales to the point of disappearing altogether. Man is set against nature itself; either he must stand up to it relying on his own strength or he must perish. (pp. 20-1)
In Solzhenitsyn's works too, the totality portrayed has nature-like features. (p. 21)
[But survival] or the failure to survive are also seen in directly social terms; even if this is never openly stated, they refer to a future real life, to a life in freedom among other free men. Of course contained in this is also a "nature-like" element of immediate physical survival or immediate physical destruction, but the dominant factor is objectively the social one. (pp. 21-2)
This leads back to the symbolic effect of Solzhenitsyn's story: it results, implicitly, in a concentrated prelude to the approaching artistic debate with the Stalinist period in which such slices of life did in fact symbolize everyday reality. This was a prelude to the portrayal of the present, of the world of the people who—directly or indirectly, actively or passively, strengthened or broken—have passed through this "school" [of human education], and whose present-day lives and activities were formed in it. Herein lies the paradoxical character of Solzhenitsyn's literary position. His laconic expression, his refraining from any allusion that would point beyond the immediacy of camp life nevertheless sketches in the central human and moral problems without which contemporary man would be objectively impossible and subjectively incomprehensible. Precisely in its concentrated, economical reserve, this immediate, extremely limited slice of life is an overture to the great literature of the future. (pp. 22-3)
Georg Lukács, "Solzhenitsyn: 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'" (1964), in his Solzhenitsyn, translated by William David Graf (translation copyright The Merlin Press, 1970; originally published under a different title in his Solschenizyn, Luchterhand, 1970), Merlin Press, 1970 (and reprinted by The MIT Press, 1971), 7-33.
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The writer's craft begins with his language.
Solzhenitsyn is undoubtedly an innovator in the field of language. His efforts to enliven the modern Russian language with the freshness and richness of popular speech, to soften the congealed bookishness, lifelessness, and platitudes in the literary language with living conversational elements, which are themselves based on the honesty and directness characteristic of common speech—these are his innovations. (p. 19)
Sincerity—merciless, courageous, and honest—is the essence of Solzhenitsyn's literary creations, a sincerity in which poetic and ethical elements merge into one definitive feature of his style and craft.
But sincerity demands the categorical rejection of clichés and hypocrisy, which had become rooted in the language of the literature contemporary to Solzhenitsyn. He had to find an equivalent mode of expression for sincerity. (pp. 23-4)
There was a need to find if not a "sting" (even though Solzhenitsyn uses satire), then a language which, as [Nikolai] Gogol wrote "tore itself from the very heart,… seethed and surged," a language with a peculiar inner brilliance, clarity, and warmth—spontaneous and more sincere.
Solzhenitsyn discovered this language by turning to the colloquial conversational language, in an original oral počvennost'—just as some time ago Dostoevsky after four years in prison found a redefinition of his views in počvennost'. (p. 24)
Solzhenitsyn's turning to popular speech is not of course confined to its vocabulary. It includes the entire syntactic-stylistic system, rhythm, sound—the entire structure of oral expression. From popular speech Solzhenitsyn borrows its spontaneity, its emotional overtones, its figurative expression. [Alexander] Pushkin once said that [Nikolai] Karamzin restored freedom to the Russian language, "turning it towards the living sources of popular speech." No comparison intended, one can say something close to this about Solzhenitsyn: his verbal innovation makes him the creator of a new style of modern prose. (p. 25)
[Speaking of] the innovation in Solzhenitsyn's stylistic manner as a whole, one unusually important literary device must be mentioned. This very device significantly creates that spontaneous, sincere, and intelligible tonality of oral communication that is perceived as the chief distinction of Solzhenitsyn's prose.
When introducing a character's speech Solzhenitsyn almost plunges his story into the speech pattern of that character. This device slightly resembles the form of "indirect speech," but in Solzhenitsyn's case the device is structurally quite different. It is not simply two or three of the character's words or expressions that sprinkle the author's words, but a kind of organic fusion between the language of the author and that of the dialogue. This is based on the fact that both of these languages (the author's and the character's) are inspired by the folk elements of speech. (pp. 29-30)
In Solzhenitsyn's books there are quite a few characters who from time to time become the author's focal point. Thus a very interesting and original polyphony of narrative speech emerges. (p. 30)
Leonid Rzhevsky, in his Solzhenitsyn: Creator & Heroic Deed, translated by Sonja Miller (translation copyright © 1978 by Leonid Rzhevsky; reprinted by permission of the author; originally published as his Tvorets i Podvig, Possev-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Federal Republic of Germany, 1972), The University of Alabama Press, 1978, 124 p.
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Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been described by different critics as both an old-fashioned writer and a genuine innovator. Paradoxically, both of these views are correct. In the early 1930s, when his fame in the Soviet Union was at its height, the official aesthetic of socialist realism, with its emphasis on optimism and education, was beginning to give way to a more candid and exploratory approach to Soviet life. Writers were being admitted to those dark areas of social and political evil which they had hitherto been obliged to by-pass. They were acquiring the freedom to question the assumptions which they had been expected to affirm. They were gaining the right to express private thoughts and exercise their consciences on moral and ethical problems, independently of official ideology. In other words, Soviet literature was quietly repossessing the traditions of critical realism bequeathed to it by its nineteenth-century forebears. (p. 28)
Solzhenitsyn's stories were, by common consent of those who liked them and those who did not, the most important contributions to this new literature of 'exposure'.
The difference between most of the new writers and the Stalin Prize novelists of the 1940s and 1950s was not as great as some Western critics imagined it to be. For one thing, they were still 'social command' writers, responding to, and ultimately controlled by, current Party dictates. They differed mainly in the degree of truthfulness with which they approached their subjects. And it was not only the critical stance and moral seriousness of the nineteenth-century novelists which inspired them. They also followed their manner of writing. They were still realists. The basic principles which governed the new wave of Soviet writing were still those of socialist realism, demanding a direct and rational treatment of surface reality. Cut off for nearly forty years from their own modernist movement and virtually unaffected by Western experimental developments, few Soviet writers knew anything different. They had been brought up on their own national classics and remained heavily in debt to them. (p. 29)
Solzhenitsyn's artistic range is not as restricted as that of most of his contemporaries. Indeed, it is an indication of the breadth of his literary education that critics have been able to detect in his work the influence of nearly all the major nineteenth-century prose styles and writers. But he, too, has responded only to the realist traditions. Solzhenitsyn owes nothing [to] the Symbolists or later modernist trends…. There is little arrière-plan of meanings in his work, no distorted chronology, and sparing use of such figurative devices as metaphor and simile. Although he is said to be well read in foreign literatures, no critic has found this reflected in his own writing. On the contrary, Solzhenitsyn is intensely, even aggressively Russian in his outlook…. He frequently exhibits an almost mystical reverence for old Russian customs; his ideas reveal the inspiration of such nineteenth-century Russian thinkers as [Vladimir] Solovyov and Dostoevsky; and in the language of his books as well as in his own speech, he deliberately eschews the numerous foreign borrowings which have, he considers, disfigured the Russian language during the last two and a half centuries. (pp. 29-30)
Solzhenitsyn may be regarded as an old-fashioned writer in the sense that nearly all contemporary Soviet writers are old-fashioned. He has made no contribution to the advancement of the novel or the short story as a genre. Nor does he display the influence of those who have been advancing it in the West. That he is a significant figure in world literature, worthy of a Nobel Prize, is due to the fact that, besides being acutely sensitive to the issues confronting his native land, his themes and his treatment of them transcend local conditions and have a universal relevance in the latter half of the twentieth century. Perhaps most important of all, he is a remarkable artist with words and, at his best, an impeccable stylist. (p. 30)
One Day was published exactly one hundred years after Dostoevsky's Notes from the House of the Dead, in which he described his own experience during a four-year term in a Siberian penal colony. The coincidence is fortuitous, but a comparison is instructive on both literary and historical grounds. The similarities between the two works are in fact superficial, but both writers had the avowed aim of exposing, as never before, the camps to the Russian public. Dostoevsky chose to present a broad view of the camps, through the eyes of an aristocrat, an intellectual who could rationalise his experience and philosophise about crime. Solzhenitsyn's hero Shukhov, however, is a simple peasant, innocent of any crime and able to comprehend little beyond the day-to-day problems of survival. Although, unlike Dostoevsky's story, One Day is not a first person narration, the point of view and even the language are consistently Shukhov's. Solzhenitsyn himself does not interpose extended comment, and thus the deeper thoughts of the more sophisticated prisoners are left unexpressed. Such questions as how communists and other thinking people explain to themselves the injustice which has condemned them to the camps, or how they have become reconciled to a twenty-five-year sentence, are left unanswered. There is no explicit generalisation in One Day. There are no politically motivated characters and Solzhenitsyn refrains from any overt political statement on the burning issues raised by the very existence of the camps. (p. 31)
Solzhenitsyn does not build up his characters or the episodes in their lives from an accumulation of minute detail. The reader gains only a vague idea of Shukhov's appearance. Solzhenitsyn's technique of evoking a whole impression by means of a few carefully selected, emotionally neutral, facts, is Chekhovian. And the artistry with which he accomplishes his effects is comparable with [Anton] Chekhov's. He needs no more than two laconic sentences to convey fully the sensation of the cold and the early morning at the beginning of the story: 'The intermittent sounds barely penetrated the window panes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they had begun. It was cold outside, and the campguard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.'… And the simple remark 'the snow creaked under their boots' conjures up the entire image of the freezing snow-covered camp.
As Solzhenitsyn takes his little hero through every stage of an ordinary camp day, he builds up a comprehensive account of all the essential activities in a zek's life and a picture of the camp itself and of its inmates, both prisoners and guards. Without distorting the simple central thread of the action he employs, though sparingly, the common devices of realistic narrative to give breadth and perspective to his picture. (p. 32)
Comment is generally confined to Shukhov's own frequently interposed remarks, which although reflecting a limited point of view, nevertheless impart a personal eye-witness quality to the story. Solzhenitsyn, in fact, rarely intrudes at all in the capacity of omniscient author. (p. 33)
There is not a trace of romanticism in Solzhenitsyn's description of Ivan Denisovich's day. (p. 34)
It is unlikely that had Solzhenitsyn tried to emulate Dostoevsky, and elaborated his own opinions, One Day would have been published. But it was an artistic choice which led him to describe the undramatic experience of such an ordinary hero (he has even been called an anti-hero) as Shukhov. Shukhov is a simple, even naive, man whose perception of the world is purely physical. He does not search for meanings or draw conclusions. He doesn't possess the mental equipment to do so. He happily accepts the folklore explanation of the behaviour of the moon and stars. His one cry of protest is very muted by comparison with Dostoevsky's: 'You see, Alesha,' Shukhov explained to him, 'somehow it works out all right for you: Jesus Christ wanted you to sit in prison and so you are—sitting there for His sake. But for whose sake am I here? Because we weren't ready for war in forty-one? For that? But was it my fault?' (pp. 34-5)
The choice of detail in Solzhenitsyn's picture of the labor camp is effectively Shukhov's. Things are presented as they appear to him. The language is colourful and rhythmical because it reflects the cadences of Shukhov's peasant speech, with frequent use of aphorism. But there is no sentimentality in the descriptions, no lyricism such as [Ivan] Turgenev might have brought even to this harsh scene. The narrative is confined to the unembellished facts, conveyed dispassionately in spare prose with an elliptical economy of words. [Georg] Lukács has called this method 'non interpretative description'. It is a measure of Solzhenitsyn's self-discipline and control over his medium that he is able to maintain a consistent tone and pace from the first page of his story until the last.
Soviet critics complained at the apparent absence of indignation and civic protest in One Day. They were unable to appreciate that Solzhenitsyn's restraint, his unpretentious and even artless simplicity, were a more eloquent protest than emotionally charged rhetoric, that his artistic detachment disguised a passionate engagement. (pp. 34-5)
A Soviet reader of One Day might identify many practices familiar in Soviet life—the callous attitude of authority and the need to outwit it (the worksheets), the self-seeking, scrounging and working on the side. A comparison between human behaviour in the camps and in Matryona's Home, which depicts life beyond the wire, is revealing. Solzhenitsyn shows how many of the negative features of camp life have their exact counterparts among the inhabitants of an ordinary Russian village. There one finds a heartless collective-farm management, the authorities confiscating the peasants' fuel, falsified school records, unsympathetic medical services and a general lust for private gain. This comparison of a place of confinement with the outside world is a favourite source of irony with Solzhenitsyn. Shukhov wonders whether life will be any better if he is released and several times in One Day, Solzhenitsyn underlines the paradox that in general, it will not be. (pp. 37-8)
By choosing peasants as the central protagonists of his first two stories, Solzhenitsyn was upholding one of the enduring traditions of Russian literature. For the aristocrats of the nineteenth century, the peasant held an almost mystical fascination. He was idealised by [Leo] Tolstoy, Turgenev and [Nikolai] Nekrasov in their search for truth, as the repository of natural wisdom and simplicity. It was this wishful image which Chekhov and [I. A.] Bunin attempted to correct with their ruthlessly objective glimpses of peasant life at the end of the century. Soviet critics were quick to see both these views reflected in Solzhenitsyn's stories. (p. 39)
There is a superficial resemblance between Shukhov and Tolstoy's Platon Karataev, skilfully sewing a shirt for the French corporal. Karataev 'knew how to do everything, he was always busy', while Shukhov 'knew how to manage everything.' But the parallel between the two is confined to their external characteristics. In Shukhov there is nothing of 'the unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth' which Pierre thought he had found in Karataev. Nor is Shukhov in any meaningful sense a religious believer. Solzhenitsyn does not idealise Shukhov or hold him up as the embodiment of some abstract principle. It happens to be Shukhov's nature that he is simple and submissive. Such qualities were cultivated as the essential prerequisites for survival even by more assertive characters like Tiurin. It is the lesson of the camps which Buinovsky must learn. And Shukhov's practical wisdom and adroitness are no more than refinements in a man accustomed to earn his living by the use of his hands. (p. 40)
The portrait which emerges of Ivan Shukhov, is of an unexceptional little man, wielding the practical guile native to the Russian peasant, simple but not innocent, sly but not dishonest, insulted but not a weakling, and submissive but not degraded. A man with sufficient force of character not only to preserve his primitive moral sense and feelings of common decency but even to benefit in some small way from his ordeal. Shukhov commands pity but also respect. Those who complained that his behaviour in camp was unworthy of a Soviet man were doing him less than justice. But if they meant that none of the qualities exhibited by Shukhov and the other prisoners were particularly attributable to their Soviet or socialist upbringing they were right…. In One Day, there is no suggestion that the virtues which enabled the prisoners to endure came from anywhere but their own inner being. As in The First Circle and Cancer Ward each prisoner is ultimately thrown back on his own personal resources…. In One Day, the only character to invoke the name of communism is the Captain, a camp novice. And he must learn to sublimate his ideals, not parade them. If there is a doctrine which fortifies the prisoners in the camp, it is the camp itself. It is the camp which has toughened Shukhov just as it made Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward 'sharp as an axe.' The hardy Tiurin is also 'a true son of Gulag'. It was this lack of clear ideological orientation which finally disqualified One Day from official favour when a more orthodox interpretation of socialist realism began to be applied after Khrushchev's departure. (pp. 42-3)
Solzhenitsyn depicts his characters in extremis, but the situations in which they find themselves are all such as Solzhenitsyn has himself experienced or witnessed. The dilemmas they face are the fundamental problems of human existence, in One Day how to live, and in Cancer Ward how to die. But Solzhenitsyn's characters are also social beings and he identifies and examines the values which govern human relationships. Political values are ultimately irrelevant…. Nor is it possible to discover a metaphysical dimension to Solzhenitsyn's thinking, beyond the occasional glimpses of mystical intuition. Christianity, although it attacts Solzhenitsyn's sympathy, is practically irrelevant too. (p. 48)
The destinies of all Solzhenitsyn's characters are in their different ways subject to the interplay of good and evil, which are in turn the product of the presence or the absence of conscience and justice; conscience at a personal level and justice as the expression of the communal conscience. The all-pervading theme of Solzhenitsyn's work at every level is the quest for justice. (p. 49)
Christopher Moody, in his Solzhenitsyn (copyright © Christopher Moody 1973; reprinted by permission of the author), Oliver & Boyd, 1973, 184 p.
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The structural framework of One Day is obvious: Ivan Denisovich is described from the time of waking to the time of falling asleep. We follow him step by step through his daily routine, witnessing all of his tasks, experiences, and thoughts. We see the sun rise and set, the sky change colors, the moon rise, the stars come out. We notice also that the day falls into three periods (before work, work, after work), and that this imparts a certain "natural" symmetry to the piece: Alyoshka says a prayer in the beginning and at the end, Ivan hides his bread in his mattress in the morning and recovers it at night, Buinovsky is sentenced in the morning and taken to the cooler at night, the men march to work and back from work. The list could be extended, because the parallels are not simply natural but composed. The author places them on each side of the work period, making the period the epicenter of the novella with parallels radiating out from it. Such is the overall scheme of the piece.
Within this scheme, the descriptions are scattered. With very few exceptions, no person or procedure is described to completion in any one passage. Of course, this may happen in any novel, but here the technique is extreme: essential features of a character's appearance, history, and personality are cut up and strewn throughout the work in no easily comprehended manner. We have to keep a record of the characters, and even then we cannot visualize them well on a first reading. Such scattering produces an unusual esthetic effect: pleasure is postponed, and confusion and discomfort are stimulated. The parcelling of information has another effect: the units of this prison society cannot be comprehended until they are totalled up. And only when they are totalled up can the moral argument become known. It seems likely, in the Soviet context, that this would serve the purpose of baffling potential censors, but it also corresponds to the impressions of an initiate (the reader) into the labor camp.
The devices of chronology, parallelism, and scattering may be observed in the description of the prison camp's conditions. Again, the chronology is most prominent, since it is simply added to bit by bit. A schedule emerges: 5 AM—reveille, 6:30 AM—roll call, 8 AM to 6 PM—work (shortened winter hours), 9 PM—roll call, 10 PM—lights out. Parallels fall into place: Ivan's personal tasks—before the morning and evening mess; mess—before the roll calls; friskings and countings—before and after work, etc. But the scattering of information, in this case, acquires something like a reverse movement, a subtraction. The units usually do not add up in a cumulative way, but rather negate what has been given. It works out something like this: the author first states a condition (e.g., the food ration) along with its rule (e.g., the time to eat) or its limitation (e.g., weight). The reader assumes that this is poor, but at least it's something. Then the author discloses a further limitation (e.g., cuts in the ration) and then still another limitation, so that the reader is left with impoverished poverty. It's like a bitter joke with not just one punchline but a whole series of "toppers." (pp. 5-6)
[For example, the] zeks do not have to work in blizzards, but the days lost are made up on Sundays. Sundays are considered days off, but when there are five in one month the zeks must work on two of them. And on the Sundays off they are made to do odd jobs—clean-ups, inspections, check-ups. In other words, there are no days off. (p. 7)
The effect of these ironic reductions, naturally, is to increase the feeling of deprivation. In a sense, the entire day of Ivan Denisovich is a bitter joke: it is an excellent day for him, with a number of little successes and unexpected rewards. But if this is an excellent day, the reader can surmise what is a terrible one. And, as the author jokes in conclusion, there are 3653 days in the 10-year term—with the three extra days for the leap years. (p. 8)
Thus the details of the prison camp's conditions are not thrust upon the reader in a way that will shock him, but rather in a way that will cause him to think—to add, subtract, and compare. He will not receive much immediate esthetic pleasure (there are other deterrents, such as the camp lingo), but if he goes on thinking and if he calculates, the impression will deepen. The effect of One Day is much greater after the first reading. (pp. 8-9)
The curse words are the novella's most shocking element, unprecedented in the entire history of Russian literature: "you fu-u-ck off! Stu-u-pid prick! Cheater! Dirty squealer! Filthy slime! Rotten hunk of meat!… Bastard! Puke! Rotten turd!"… The sheer abundance of these vulgarisms may blind us to the fact that everyone uses them and uses them against everyone else. However, if we follow the word gad (snake, vermin, pest, skunk, stinker, stoolie, disgusting person) through the novella, we shall see that such is the case…. [Everyone] curses and is cursed: the curses create an environment of brutalization.
This brutalization is underscored by the metaphorical scheme of the work, based almost entirely on animal images. The zeks in a convoy are driven like a flock (stado) of sheep …; they are "a black flock of zeks" …, a flock of calves…. They are driven by guards with dogs … and are themselves often compared to dogs…. There are other derogatory animal images: the hateful Der is a bloodsucker and a pig's snout …, the rapacious storeroom guard is a rat …, and the frightened Moldavian is a little mouse…. (pp. 10-11)
All of these examples emphasize their subhuman condition….
The last motif we will consider is that of the law (zakon). The zeks, almost to a man imprisoned on false charges, must master new concepts of the law. Ivan recalls the words of an old camp wolf: "The law here, boys, is the taiga. But people can still live here. In a camp the guy who croaks is the guy who licks bowls, the guy who depends on the infirmary, and the guy who raps at the door of the godfather (i.e., squeals to the security officer …)". This law serves Ivan well; he knows what to avoid. And so long as he follows the rules of the camp, he will earn his rightful (zakonnaya) gruel…. However, the law of this camp is not always the same as the Soviet law…. And neither law is reliable: when your sentence is up, you may get another. "The law can be twisted any way you like," thinks Ivan…. But the Soviet law is omnipotent. (p. 12)
The motifs examined here, by their consistency and their wealth of detail, establish the social and economic conditions of the camp. Within these conditions, the zeks must struggle for physical and spiritual survival. They must satisfy the laws of the camp to survive; they have a degree of choice in their method of survival. The more they oppress or deprive others to survive, the more they degrade themselves. The more they achieve self-sufficiency and even helpfulness to others, the more they gain dignity and self-respect. (pp. 12-13)
Ivan does not work for immediate rewards. To demonstrate this point, Solzhenitsyn constructs a situation free from any utilitarian benefit, one which epitomizes Ivan's spiritual contradiction to the pressures of his environment. This occurs at the end of the work period. Ivan is finishing his fifth row of bricks, the activity of the entire gang has converged on this work, but they must immediately run back for the counting. Tyurin tells them to dump the remaining mortar ("Ekh, who cares about that shit!"…), but Ivan does not want to waste it. He tells the others to turn in their tools and leave him to finish the row with his extra trowel—Klevshin can hand him the bricks. Everyone leaves but the two. Ivan finishes up, and Klevshin runs down the ladder with the hod. Ivan is alone. There is not a moment to spare, no work to be done, and yet he remains:
But Shukhov, even if the convoy guards should set the dogs after him now, ran back over the floor, took a look. Not bad. Now he ran right up—and along the wall, from the left, from the right. Heh, an eye like a water-level! Even! The hand hasn't gotten too old….
This scene may be called an epiphany—the moment in which Ivan's nature and the argument of the book are most fully revealed. For this single, dangerous moment of self-congratulation, Ivan has had to oppose all obstacles, work superbly, and again endanger his life. No one gives him this moment; no one would even permit him to take it. He must seize it for himself as the most precious moment of his day—the moment which preserves his spirit and consequently his self. (pp. 22-3)
This does not make Ivan a so-called "individualist," an alienated being with a hateful and superior attitude toward others. Although he has a singular role in the novella, the features of his portrayal mark him as an "ordinary" man, a simple honest worker…. In effect, by this portrayal of an ordinary man, Solzhenitsyn has turned the Marxist formula upside-down: it is not Ivan or anyone like him who is alienated from this society, but the society which is alienated from him. His is the positive force, enacted regardless of circumstances. It is the society, not Ivan, who has failed its human potential. It is this society which experiences "false consciousness."
Therefore it is quite natural that Ivan escapes subjective alienation entirely. One writer has listed five states of subjective, or psychological alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation, and self-estrangement. Ivan does not experience any one of these states. He feels powerful when working on the wall; he finds meaning in a good job; he makes his own norms despite chaotic conditions; he overcomes isolation by directing the gang, and he realizes himself in his self-congratulation. And yet, let us remember, he is in a concentration camp, working under extreme duress. How does he achieve this miracle of non-alienation? Is this only a fictional dream?
I think the answer lies in the insufficiency of Marx's theory—which, after all, is no less a fictional construct than Solzhenitsyn's novella. Marx assumes that man makes himself in his work and that this work is essentially practical, utilitarian. In this view of man's "praxis," Marx eliminated man's spiritual needs: he did not conceive of artful performance as a human need apart from any material benefit; he neglected the realm of man's thought and activity which requires no utilitarian motive; he forgot about the sense of wonder and joy which comes from no calculation. Surely man is alienated by systems of exploitation, but he alienates himself when he accedes to pure practicality. A man makes himself by the totality of his physical and spiritual life, and anything that prevents its expression may alienate him. Complete alienation would be total external control. Solzhenitsyn, in his portrait of Ivan Denisovich, and especially in his description of Ivan's celebration of labor, reminds us of man's power to realize himself, whatever his circumstance.
Let us consider another aspect of alienation—religious alienation. From a Marxist viewpoint, it would be natural for Ivan to seek escape from his oppressive circumstance by the projection of his own thwarted potential onto an imaginary omnipotent being and the expectation of a reward in a fictional afterlife. But Ivan refuses this escape: he cannot believe in heaven and hell—no doubt, because the prison camp is hell enough…. Yet he does believe in God…. From [certain] episodes we may conclude that Ivan has a basic faith in God and calls on him when in danger, but does not rely on religion to help him through the normal course of the day. It is his work and his services which perform this function, as well as his camp cunning. In this sense, Ivan is not alienated—estranged from his environment or himself—by his belief in God. For him, God helps those who help themselves.
We must remember, however, that One Day was originally a Soviet text. It would have been completely impossible to draw a hero as a Christian believer and expect to publish the work. Ivan's superstitions, criticisms of the priest, and irony about prayers fall well within acceptable Soviet practice and serve to undercut his religious beliefs. They also seem to refute the utterances of his bunk-mate, Alyoshka. It is only from other works of Solzhenitsyn that we can understand that Alyoshka's message is very close to the heart of the author: "If you will keep your faith and say to the mountain—move!—it will move."… Needless to say, the author rejects outright the whole notion of religious alienation. He is closer to the traditional, pre-Marxist understanding of alienation as separation from God.
But a problem still lingers. Even if we accept the argument that Ivan does not alienate himself in his labor and does not seek escape in religion, can we overlook the fact that he benefits the system? He is treated as a slave and yet returns quality work. Whatever the value to his self-esteem as a skilled worker, he produces for a state which robs and degrades him. In a sense, he perpetuates the system by overcoming its injustices. This would seem to be self-alienating, in the sense that it helps those who mean to crush Ivan. On the other hand, a renunciation of his work-ethic would diminish his own self-esteem and alienate him from his labor. Ivan appears to be caught in a paradoxical situation, where the only choice is self-alienation.
This is by no means a semantic problem, but a real and vital issue to anyone attempting to survive in conditions of coercive labor. (pp. 25-8)
[Ivan] cannot opt for the alienation of sloppy work or sabotage, and his benefit to the present system is absolved by his benefit to future generations. As a result, Ivan does not entirely alienate himself by benefiting the system. When good work is stolen from you, in some instances you can regard it as a gift. On his return to the camp, Ivan is frisked in the future public square, where someday, as he imagines, there will be parades.
Therefore, Ivan benefits the system and in this sense alienates himself, but he also benefits future generations and so absolves himself. Does his tactic not help to undermine the system and turn it from bad to good? Does he not subvert the system by refusing to crack, by proving himself each day? These are questions which admit no final answers. We know only that Ivan does the best he can do; he creates the most freedom he can within a coercive system. (p. 29)
Gary Kern, "Ivan the Worker," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1977 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, U.S.A.), Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 5-30.
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A completely authentic account of life in the forced-labor camps under Stalin, [One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich] is cast in a fictional form superbly adapted to its subject. Its narrative tone and method, relying on the selective accumulation of minute factual particulars, finely controls the powerful emotional content, never getting out of hand, never descending to rhetorical presentation or to any sort of preaching and moralizing. (p. 232)
The experience recorded in One Day no doubt parallels [Solzhenitsyn's] own, but he is not the novel's protagonist. That role, from first page to last, is reserved for the simple village workman, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who has no head for politics or any kind of "learned conversation." He is a wonderful creation, exhibiting certain traits that are new as well as traits deeply rooted in the Russian literary tradition. The figure in that tradition he most reminds me of is Tolstoy's Platon Karatayev. But there is also a significant difference between them. For Karatayev, standing somewhat apart from the other characters in War and Peace, who were portrayed with surpassing realism, is in the main a mythic figure, an abstraction of Christian goodness, while Shukhov, in no way dependent on religious doctrine or precept, is invested with a goodness that is altogether credible, altogether imbedded in the actual. He fills in every crevice of his own nature, without appeal to higher powers, or utopian and ambiguous dreams of saintliness.
As all ideologies are alien to Shukhov, so none can ruin him. Neither hero nor saint, existing in an environment where the only time the prisoners are not marched out to work in the early mornings is when the thermometer goes down to forty-two degrees below zero, he yields neither to hope nor despair but depends for survival on his own largely unconscious and invulnerable humanity. Though in no way exceptional, he is the unbeatable human being whom the regime can at any time destroy but never convert nor make over in its own image, thus giving the lie to [George] Orwell's nightmare of total demoralization in 1984. Humble yet extremely resourceful in small ways, a man whose self-respect demands that he do his work properly and even joyfully, Shukhov has been "walking this earth for forty years. He'd lost half his teeth and was getting bald. He'd never given or taken a bribe from anybody, and he hadn't learned that trick in the camp either."… And why was Shukhov put in a concentration camp? He had escaped from a German prisoners-of-war cage and upon returning to his own lines found himself accused of treason. Though guiltless, he was forced to give evidence against himself: "The way he figured, it was very simple. If he didn't sign, he was as good as buried. But if he did, he'd still go on living for a while. So he signed." Shukhov's fate is the essence of the Stalinist terror-system.
However, the way in which the author chiefly succeeds in his characterization of Shukhov is not by harping on his innocence or putting any kind of political gloss on his ordeal but by depicting him throughout as a person in his own right—not merely a victim and least of all a symptom but always a person, even when ill, starving, and freezing. The secondary characters, such as Alyoshka the Baptist and Tyurin the boss of the work squad, are portrayed with equal responsiveness to their personal qualities. Now it is precisely this newly won and truly existential personalization of vision, so long outlawed in the Communist theory and practice of literature, which surprises and impresses us most in One Day. As a novel it is not, in my view, the "great work of art" that some people say it is; its scale is too small for that. But it is a very fine book in which not a false note is struck. (pp. 232-33)
Philip Rahv, in an extract from "Two Subversive Russians" (originally published in a slightly different form as "House of the Dead?" in The New York Review of Books, Vol. I, No. 1, 1963), in his Essays on Literature and Politics: 1932–1972, edited by Arabel J. Porter and Andrew J. Dvosin (Copyright © 1978 by Arabel J. Porter and Andrew J. Dvosin, Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Philip Rahv), Houghton Mifflin, 1978, pp. 232-34.
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Early reviews [of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich], even in the most orthodox of Soviet sources, were overwhelmingly favorable. Pravda remarked on Solzhenitsyn's "profound humanity, because people remained people even in an atmosphere of mockery." Zhores Medvedev, who was later to write Ten Years after Ivan Denisovich, emphasized the artistry of the novel. But most responses, in keeping with Khrushchev's motivation for allowing publication, centered on the book's political significance. Importantly, most Western reviews also emphasized the political dimension; the book's publication was viewed as an event illustrating the increasing thaw within the Soviet Union, thus auguring well for future East-West relations. So from the beginning Solzhenitsyn's work was viewed through the wrong lens.
A political approach does not penetrate to the heart of One Day. The novel is not, in its essence, about Stalin's inhumanity to man; it is about man's inhumanity to man. Stalin is not some aberration in an otherwise smooth progression of humaneness in history. The evil of the human heart is a universal theme: this is Solzhenitsyn's approach.
Perhaps never has the political appropriation of a work of art by state authorities backfired so dramatically and totally as in the case of One Day. Once having been catapulted into the limelight of world attention, Solzhenitsyn would not be silent. Now he had a platform, and his sense of duty urged him on. Khrushchev had let out of the bottle a genie which his successors could not put back in. (pp. 35-6)
Despite the fact that some critics consider One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich the best piece Solzhenitsyn ever has written, he seems to have felt that he was still at a kind of apprenticeship stage. (p. 36)
If One Day was part of a period of apprenticeship, it stands near the end of that period. The author was about to embark on those long novels of his maturity. And this novel is a piece of such consummate artistry that to call it the work of an apprentice seems ultimately inadequate. Had Solzhenitsyn written nothing after One Day, his reputation as an author of note would have been secure. With this short novel he had arrived, whatever his further ambitions. His literary situation at this stage is interestingly parallel to that of [John] Milton: had Milton written nothing after "Lycidas," he would still be an anthologized poet; but he went on to Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes.
The novel depicts a single day in the life of a simple peasant, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who has been unjustly thrown into a prison camp. While we see many of his fellow zeks, the focus remains rather tightly fixed on Shukhov. (pp. 36-7)
Solzhenitsyn shows great respect for his title character…. The clearest sign of respect is in the mere naming of the hero. The combination of given name (Ivan—significantly, the most common of Russian names) and patronymic (Denisovich—son of Denis) is a polite form most readily used for persons of high station or intrinsic importance. Solzhenitsyn applies it to a simple peasant. The author deems his character worthy of the respect usually reserved for "important" people.
The most memorable technical trait of One Day is its understatement. The novel depicts horrors which might well elicit white-hot anger—or, if not that, a kind of sentimentality over the suffering of innocents. The novel makes no such explicit claim on our emotions. Rather, it describes the day of Shukhov and his fellows as not too bad, as almost a good day. (p. 37)
As is typical of Solzhenitsyn's works, One Day shows us suffering humanity in extremis. But because of Shukhov's limited perspective, suffering here is depicted as primarily physical…. [Still], the suffering of the body takes on a metaphysical dimension—through the mediation of the author, who can go beyond the ken of the main character. The inhospitably cold climate becomes a symbol of the inhumane setting for human life in general, and the reader comes away feeling moral outrage rather than mere vicarious physical pain. When a medical assistant finds the feverish Ivan not ill enough to exempt from the day's work, the author queries, "How can you expect a man who's warm to understand a man who's cold?" It is one of those microcosmic remarks from which ray out large symbolic meanings. The warm man is the one open to perpetrating injustice. Solzhenitsyn devotes his life to making warm men feel the cold. (pp. 38-9)
The arbitrariness of the life of the zeks is all-governing. The guards are not allowed to recognize the diversity and unpredictability of life; only two zeks may be sick per day; only two letters per zek may be mailed out per year. "Soviet power," Solzhenitsyn satirizes, has decreed that the sun stands highest in the sky not at noon but an hour later. Being dehumanized entails being denatured.
Given the collectivist ideology of the Soviets, an ironic effect of their prison regimen is that it breaks down the sense of human solidarity. Solzhenitsyn, who speaks consistently on behalf of individual dignity, always speaks with equal consistency on behalf of human solidarity. So he laments that in a zek's mind it is another zek who is one's worst enemy. Occasional displays of solidarity, which should be a natural out-flowing of the zeks' common humanity and their shared plight, usually succumb to the camp attitude, "You croak today but I mean to live till tomorrow."
Nevertheless, however much the grim environment and the need to adapt somehow to it may reduce the basic humanity of the zeks, such pressures can never eradicate the human essence. To be sure, Shukhov is constantly and instinctively concerned with self-preservation. When he was accused, absurdly, of high treason for surrendering to the Germans with the intention of betraying his country, he coolly calculated: "If he didn't sign, he was as good as buried. But if he did, he'd still go on living a while. So he signed."… But there is more. A man will assert his wants as well as his needs. For instance, he wants to smoke; it is an unnecessary small pleasure, but he will find a way. Then, there is satisfaction in work. Ivan works poorly only when given meaningless tasks. Laying bricks well pleases him, even if in prison. Constructive work brings out in him the ennobling quality of self-validation through creative effort…. The camp system would grant him the status only of an animal, a workhorse. It is up to him to insist, however inarticulately, that he is more than that, that he is spiritual, too, and not only material.
The greatest of all human capacities demonstrated by Ivan Denisovich is his capacity to absorb pain and yet to endure with at least some vestiges of humanity intact. This enduring humanity is one of Solzhenitsyn's most important themes, and it is his great consolation as he weeps for mankind. The best efforts to reduce humanity to the level of the animal are never entirely successful; and, by definition, a process of dehumanization which is not totally successful is a failure: some humanity remains. (pp. 39-40)
Ivan Denisovich's attitude toward religion is much like Matryona's in "Matryona's House." Both show little interest in formal religion, either ecclesiastical or credal. Yet both breathe a kind of natural piety, and religious references pepper their everyday talk. Ivan's ready response to his tribulations in prison is, "As long as you're in the barracks—praise the Lord and sit tight." (pp. 40-1)
Ivan's faith is naive and unreasoned, and includes a sizeable dose of superstition. He believes in God: "When He thunders up there in the sky, how can you help believe in Him?"… Atheistic rulers may curtail the growth of religion "The Russians didn't even remember which hand you cross yourself with,"… but it is beyond their power to shake the faith of the Matryonas and Ivans.
While Solzhenitsyn clearly admires Ivan's faith, Ivan does not represent his religious ideal. A character who comes closer to doing so is Alyosha (or Alyoshka) the Baptist. It is intriguing that Solzhenitsyn, who has returned to his ancestral Russian Orthodox Church, gives the deepest religious sentiments in this novel to a character who is hostile to Orthodoxy…. The fact is that the author is simply being faithful to the quality of the persons whom he knew in the camps. In addition, Solzhenitsyn's handling of Alyosha shows that his primary religious concerns are not with the particularities of Orthodoxy but with those central aspects of the Christian faith held in common by all Christians.
The climactic conversation of the novel is between Ivan and Alyosha. Alyosha's prominence here has been prepared for by frequent earlier depictions of him as a good worker and kind person. Alyosha's faith does not incapacitate him for survival. On the contrary, it is a source of the inner strength that so often characterizes Solzhenitsyn's little heroes, the small people who somehow are able to withstand everything that a soulless bureaucracy inflicts on them. (pp. 41-2)
The climactic conversation begins when Alyosha, reading his Bible, overhears Ivan's routine, day's end prayer and says, "Look here, Ivan Denisovich, your soul wants to pray to God, so why don't you let it have its way?"… But Ivan, for whom camp experience is a microcosm of all of life, doubts the efficacy of praying…. (p. 42)
Ivan does not want to be misunderstood. Although disillusioned by a bad priest, he insists that he believes in God. "But what I don't believe in is Heaven and Hell."… The afterlife, after all, is not open to empirical verification, as are monthly new moons and falling stars. When he prays, he says, it will be for something real, like release from prison. This attitude scandalizes Alyosha, who consciously suffers for Christ. He counters, "What do you want your freedom for? What faith you have left will be choked in thorns. Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul."… This spiritual focus, which Solzhenitsyn elsewhere asserts in his own person, affects Ivan: "Alyosha was talking the truth. You could tell by his voice and his eyes he was glad to be in prison."…
Solzhenitsyn admires the Baptist's ability to give a positive meaning to his prison experience; Alyosha is the only character in the novel who can do so. Ivan admires that, too. But it just will not do for him. (p. 43)
Ivan and Alyosha are brothers under the skin. Both are models of humanity in the midst of inhumanity; both care for others as much as for themselves. Ivan represents the best possible from a man without an articulated faith; a man can act very well without faith in a transcendent reality. Such a one is in no position, however, to explain the mystery of suffering. This crucial matter, which Ivan deeply needs, is what Alyosha can add. Without Alyosha, the novel would be much diminished. Ivan, as good as he is, needs Alyosha's insight to complete the picture. (pp. 43-4)
Edward E. Ericson, Jr., in his Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision (copyright © 1980 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; used by permission), Eerdmans, 1980, 239 p.
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