(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The First Circle takes place over four days at the end of 1949. The novel is a virtual anatomy of Russian society in the late 1940’s. Solzhenitsyn dissects a wide range of social and character types within that society, including the prisoners, guards, free workers, prosecutors, government officials and ministers, and even the supreme ruler of that society, Joseph Stalin. The center of this society, however, is, for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, not the political or social leader but the prison, the gulag system established by Stalin. All other characters and levels of society are tested by the standard of the moral and realistic vision of the zek, the familiar term for a prisoner.

The novel is set in the hell of the Stalinist prison system, but it begins in the “first circle” of that hell; Solzhenitsyn applies the categories of Dante’s Inferno to the extensive prison system, and the “first circle” is easier and pleasanter than the usual labor camp, but it is still hell. The prisoners are deprived of their freedom of movement, of ownership of all but their meager clothes, of visits and letters from their loved ones. It is a psychological rather than a physical prison and is called a sharaska, which means a fake or sham. Paradoxically, since they are already in hell, they have more freedom to think, speak, and resist threats than those above them who fear the descent into the underworld.

In this privileged first circle, the prisoners are engaged in electronic work; predictably, that work has been perverted from its original purpose, and they are trying to find a safe phone for Stalin and a method of identifying “voice prints” on telephone calls for the secret police. The plot of the novel begins with a telephone call by Innokenty Volodin to warn Professor Dobroumov not to pass on medical information to the West. The seemingly aimless and unproductive work in the laboratory then takes on a sinister meaning. Will the prisoners create a system that will entrap Volodin? Will they manage to produce a “safe” phone for Stalin? At the end of the novel, the phone may be the means to freedom for one prisoner, Sologdin, but Volodin is captured and condemned to the “hell” of the gulag. In another allusion to Dante, the chapter in which Volodin is captured is called, “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here”—the words which greet those who enter Dante’s Inferno.

The other plot interest in the novel is whether the main characters will remain in the sheltered alcove of the first circle of Marvino Laboratory or return to the hard labor of a Siberian camp. The three characters that are most at risk are Gleb Nerzhin, Lev Rubin, and Dmitri Sologdin. In his...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)