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. Undoubtedly, in years of incarceration and isolation from the outside world, Solzhenitsyn had thought often about the reasons for the unjust mistreatment of himself and his compatriots, but also about the answer to such injustice. In Shukhov he found the answer. A simple, hardworking man (it is no coincidence that he is a worker, for whose benefit the revolution was allegedly fought), a good man who bears no grudge even against his torturers, a level-headed and resourceful man who sees a silver lining in every cloud, he accepts the undeserved punishment stoically and without philosophizing about it. He would rather help his fellow inmates than make it harder for all of them; he would rather work than dwell on his misery; and he does not want the circumstances to consume him. Moreover, he takes great pride in his work, as if he were working for himself. Whenever he helps more fortunate inmates, he expects to be rewarded, but if he is not, he does not lose any sleep over it. At the end of the day, as he prepares for sleep, he considers it to have been an almost happy one:They hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill.
It is this attitude that, Solzhenitsyn believed, can enable the victim not only to survive but also to preserve human dignity in the ordeal and one day rebuild a seemingly shattered life. Thus, amid grim reality and seeming hopelessness, Solzhenitsyn saw a ray of hope.
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...
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