Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576
In writing The First Circle, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn included some important autobiographical elements. Like Nerzhin, Solzhenitsyn was a captain in the Soviet army, was arrested for making derogatory remarks about Stalin in a private letter, and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Solzhenitsyn incorporated his personal experiences when creating fictitious characters. At the same time, autobiography was not his primary intent in writing the novel. He used it to draw a bleak picture of the Communist system under Stalin, as he had done in almost all his works.
The Russian, German, and other prisoners at Mavrino are scientists and intellectuals doing research on various projects useful to the state, including those on radio and telephone technology. The novel tells the story of the interrelationships of people in prison whose fate is caused by external political circumstances. Since Solzhenitsyn employs a realist approach, the novel describes documentarily and historically happenings in the Soviet Union in the late 1940’s. Soviet society is understandably depicted through the prisoners’ discussions as bleak. Solzhenitsyn goes beyond the realist description of the prisoners’ conditions. His characters question several premises of their society: the right of one man to rule over others by force, the moral justification of a state built by forced labor, the discrepancy between ideal and reality, the use of technology in the service of an unjust power or state, and the need for good people, even in prisons. The most important theme is the relationship between the individual and society. Thus, Mavrino becomes a microcosm of the Soviet Union.
Soviet society is portrayed as replete with conflicts that are reflected by the novel’s characters. First, there is the conflict between the guards and the prisoners. There are also conflicts among idealistic prisoners and informants, as well as among the authorities themselves. Finally, there are conflicts within individual prisoners, as in the case of Rubin, who still believes in Marxist ideals but questions the guilt assigned to him by a nominally Marxist state.
Solzhenitsyn is at his best when creating multifaceted characters, especially the protagonist Gleb Nerzhin. Even though Solzhenitsyn is completely on the side of such characters, he reveals their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Thus, Nerzhin not only displays kindness and understanding when he deals with fellow prisoners but also demonstrates weakness when he has an affair with Simochka. He strikes a firm relationship with Rubin, who still believes in the Marxism that Nerzhin despises. Nerzhin is steadfast in his refusal to submit to his enslavers without being unpleasant about it. Rubin is also presented as a multifaceted character despite his fanaticism. He is intelligent, good-humored, and courageous in dealing with his predicament. Innokenty, whose name alludes to innocence, is also courageous and versatile. Many other characters are well-rounded, and some are unforgettable.
When The First Circle was published, in Russian and many other languages, the author was already the focus of interest not only in the literary world but in the political world as well. Some literary historians have relegated the novel to a particular moment in time, suggesting that it has not transcended its historical situation enough to remain relevant after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite this claim, The First Circle remains relevant. The acts of inhumanity and cruelty depicted in the novel are examples of human behaviors that have always existed and will always exist. By depicting such behavior in a compelling fashion, the novel achieves universal significance and literary greatness.