The First Circle portrays an upside-down society. In this strange world, the prisoners, the supposed Fascist scum, are the true communists, and the leaders are the ones who are cheating and benefiting from the unequal system. The debate between Clara Makarygin and her father, who is a prosecutor, reveals this paradox most clearly: He defends the benefits he receives as “accumulated labor,” but he knows his answer is inadequate and he refuses to relinquish the benefits he receives from the system. The contrast between these two worlds is also shown in the way the prisoners help and care for one another; the few informers are exposed and ridiculed near the end of the novel, and they do not belong to the family of zeks. The leaders of the society do not act in this altruistic fashion; Yakanov obstructs the work at the laboratory so that his rival, Roitman, will not be victorious.
Another theme grows out of the many references to Dante. The prison may be only the “first circle” of hell, but the whole society is surely a hell, a kind of parody of the promised withering-away of the state in Marxist theory. In the center of the deepest circle of this hell is Joseph Stalin and not the sharaska or even a Siberian labor camp.
The gulag may be a hell, but it also is an opportunity to sort out what is important in life. Nerzhin sees his experience as a means of becoming an individual in the midst of a collective society. He first must develop a personal point of view and then “polish [his] soul so as to become a human being.” That assertion of individuality does not, however, end within oneself; it will lead Nerzhin to become “a tiny particle of [his] own people.” It is impossible for the leaders to become individuals; they have surrendered their individuality to the positions they hold, refusing the opportunity for suffering and growth. As one of the prisoners says, “Only a zek is certain to have an immortal soul.”