(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962 created a sensation, both in the Soviet Union and abroad, for three reasons: The author was unknown, the novel showed a remarkable maturity for a novice, and the subject matter was daring and explosive. Solzhenitsyn was soon to become well known worldwide; he quickly proved that he is indeed an accomplished writer; and the subject matter soon ceased to be explosive, even unusual. Yet the novel continues to be praised as a genuine work of art.

To a degree, the reason for its high esteem lies in the novel’s remarkable stylistic simplicity. The novel describes one day in a Soviet concentration camp in the 1950’s, as experienced by the protagonist, carpenter Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, and a cast of supporting characters. The reader follows in detail every step of the inmates, from the reveille at dawn, through their work at building an edifice that they do not quite understand, until they return to barracks in the evening darkness. The author concentrates on Shukhov’s reactions to everyday happenings, on his ability to adapt to situations and, simply, to survive. Even though as a carpenter he cannot be taken to speak for the author, there is no doubt that many of Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences are reflected in Shukhov’s actions and reactions.

There is a deliberate reason for the author’s building of Shukhov’s character almost to the point of an archetype....

(The entire section is 553 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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....

(The entire section is 927 words.)