Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341

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.

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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.”

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 287

The title suggests the major themes of the novel, deriving from the epic spiritual poem of the medieval Italian poet Dante, The Divine Comedy (c.1320), whose hero visits Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Dante's hell is a tapering funnel of ten circles or levels. Its first circle, the abode of good pagans, lacks the fiery tortures of the other nine circles which entrap various kinds of sinners. Mavrino is the first circle of the hell of the labor camp system, inhabited by zeks leading relatively easy lives in exchange for being good prisoners and cooperating with the State.

The title also connotates the first circle of the Communist Party leadership. General Secretary Josef Stalin and his chief lieutenants. This circle is not as far removed from Hell as power and privileges suggest. One false step by a lieutenant — an unfulfilled assignment, a hint of ingratitude — sends him plunging down into the camp system. This circle is also a prison of its own: For safety, Stalin lives in a small bunker encased by iron walls, as powerless to get out as potential assassins are to get in.

A third connotation of the title is the first circle of any individual, the family circle. As long as a Soviet citizen avoids prison, life is good in this circle. Yet if any family member plunges into a sharashka (or worse), the bonds of blood or marriage torture the imprisoned and the free alike. Like life in the first circle of the party, life in the family can be materially and spiritually pleasant but precarious.

The ultimate implication of the title is that all elements of Soviet society are perched dangerously on the rim of the infernal camp system, the notorious Gulag.

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