Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the story of a typical day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp. It is set in 1951, near the end of the rule of Joseph Stalin, and is, on one level, an expose of Stalin’s brutal forced-labor camps, a central but suppressed fact of modern Russian history. The novel follows the title character during the course of a not-unusual winter day, in the process eliciting great respect for a simple, unreflective man and offering a commentary on life in a totalitarian society.
Ivan Denisovich (Shukov) is awakened with the rest of his work gang at five in the morning on a January day. The temperature hovers around twenty degrees below zero. His first thoughts, as always, are of what he can do to increase his chances for survival. The time before breakfast is precious to him not only because he can find ways to obtain a bit of tobacco or extra food but also because, for a short while, his time is his own to use as he pleases.
After what passes for breakfast, Shukov stops on his way back to the barrack to try to get on the sick list for the day. Camp (Soviet) bureaucracy, however, dictates that no more than two prisoners will be sick each day, and, even with a fever, Shukov is too late to be one of those two. While waiting in the cold to march out of camp to work, Shukov sees Caesar finishing a cigarette. Shukov wants very much to have the butt that Caesar will leave but, significantly, will not beg for it, or even stare at Caesar while he smokes, both of which the wretched Fetyukov does. Caesar demonstrates the code of the camp by giving the butt to Shukov, not to Fetyukov.
Because of the negotiating skill of their work gang leader, Tyurin, the gang has the relatively easy job that day of building a power station. Shukov ruminates on the importance of a gang leader to the survival of the prisoners and on their allegiance to him. After the morning’s work in the snow and cold comes the noon meal. Meals are the single most important part of the day, although they are pathetic, consisting, for example, of a small allotment of bread and a soup made of water and oats and an occasional fish head. It is crucial, however, that one not be further weakened by missing any of this meager repast. Shukov shows his cleverness in getting two extra bowls of soup for his work gang and is rewarded by having one of them allotted to him.
The afternoon is spent building a wall in the power station. The men, except for the shirker Fetyukov, begin to work with enthusiasm. Momentarily forgetting the circumstances of their lives, they work faster and faster, feeling both the camaraderie of common effort and a reminder of their own abilities. During this time, they also come to the aid of their gang leader when a supervisor threatens to get him in trouble. In his desire to finish his bricklaying and to contemplate for a moment his craftsmanship, Shukov risks being late for the return to camp and being punished. His friend, Senka, takes the same risk by waiting for him, but the two men make it back without trouble.
Shukov manages to smuggle back into camp a piece of metal that he found during the day. Once inside, he runs to the place where packages are handed out so that he can save a place for Caesar, who, unlike Shukov, often gets packages. Shukov is rewarded for his efforts when Caesar does receive a package and tells Shukov to eat his evening meal for him.
Shukov helps his gang get their soup and bread, again playing all the angles in order to increase his own share. He meditates on the sacredness of eating and its centrality to the life of the prisoner. As he eats, he observes the others, noting especially an old man whose many, many years in prison have not destroyed his spirit, though they have ravaged his body. After the meal, Shukov goes to buy some tobacco from another inmate. Back in the barrack, he watches Fetyukov enter, in tears and with a bloody face. Shukov speculates that Fetyukov has been beaten again while trying to scrounge an extra bowl of soup and surmises that the man will not last in the camp, because he simply does not know how to survive. Despite the efforts of the gang leader, the Captain is led off to begin his ten-day sentence in solitary confinement, a punishment that he may or may not survive in the January cold. Shukov helps Caesar keep his package of food from being stolen during the night count and returns to his bed feeling very good about his day.
Unable to sleep immediately, Shukov talks to Alyoshka the Baptist. Alyoshka tries to persuade Shukov to see the time in prison from a different perspective and suggests that one should even thank God for being in prison, because it keeps one from being misled by the false values of the outside world. Shukov likes Alyoshka but does not understand him. Shukov falls asleep recounting the day to himself, with its many small victories, and he decides that it was “almost happy.” The reader is then offered the bleak reminder, “There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like this in his sentence, from reveille to lights out.”