One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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Critical Evaluation

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is considered by many to be the greatest Russian author of the twentieth century. His writing has attracted worldwide attention, and he has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970.

Solzhenitsyn’s own experience as a prisoner in a Siberian labor camp is the basis for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918, received a degree in mathematics and physics in 1941, and began teaching high school. He served with distinction as an artillery officer in World War II but was arrested in 1945 for allegedly making a derogatory remark about Stalin in a letter to a friend. Sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, he was incarcerated in a camp similar to the one described in the novel. He survived and was released in 1953, but he was exiled to Central Asia until Stalin was denounced by the new Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, in 1956, and restrictions upon those who had suffered during Stalin’s political purges were eased.

Solzhenitsyn moved to a small Russian town near Moscow and began to teach mathematics and to render some of his experiences in fictional form. It was the anti-Stalinist mood of the day that enabled him to get his first novel published. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich appeared in the November 20, 1962, issue of Novy Mir (new world), the official literary journal of the Communist Party. It was published largely because the editors of the journal thought it represented a specifically anti-Stalinist piece of literature. The work’s success was immediate. The entire November run of Novy Mir sold out in a day, and Solzhenitsyn was catapulted to international fame.

The officials of the Soviet Communist Party soon realized they had made a mistake. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was not, as they had assumed, a piece of literature denouncing Stalin, but an indictment of the Soviet system as a whole, a denunciation of the repression and totalitarianism of Communist Russia. Solzhenitsyn became a symbol of freedom for the persecuted Soviet artistic community and of courage and individualism to all who read him around the world. The government soon moved against him. He was denounced, dismissed from his teaching position, and exiled from Moscow. In 1974, he was arrested, charged with treason, and imprisoned; he was exiled from the Soviet Union that same year. Solzhenitsyn resided in the United States until returning to Russia in 1993, after the collapse of communism.

Solzhenitsyn’s output as a writer is tremendous. Some of his more important works of fiction include Rakovy korpus (1968; Cancer Ward, 1968), V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968), and Avgust chetyrnadtsatogo (1971, expanded version 1983; August 1914, 1972, expanded version 1989 as The Red Wheel). He is also well known for his massive nonfictional chronicle of the repressive activities of the Stalin era, Arkhipelag GULag, 1918-1956: Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniya (1973-1975; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1974-1978). Like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, these works championed human rights and denounced the totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime. After the Soviet Union’s fall, Solzhenitsyn attempted to set Russian literature back on course, seeing Socialist Realism as a hiatus that stultified Russian arts and letters during the years of Communist domination. His historical novels recall the rich Russian literary heritage of the nineteenth century, an influence that almost disappeared during the years of Soviet realism.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a prime example of...

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Solzhenitsyn’s art; it makes political statements but never falls to the level of a mere tract or manifesto. The story of Ivan Denisovich and his companions creates feelings of fellowship, empathy, and admiration in readers, but it does not force or impose such reactions—unlike Socialist Realism, which tends to impel readers toward approved conclusions and to demand certain reactions to politically approved storylines. Solzhenitsyn’s approach is indirect, ironic, even humorous.

At times, the novel seems almost allegorical. Ivan Denisovich represents an Everyman figure, the average Russian peasant persecuted by larger forces he does not understand. The other characters in the book fill similar symbolic slots: Tsezar represents the persecuted artist; Fetikov, who is called the jackal or the scavenger, symbolizes the Communist Party opportunist who has no morals or scruples and has ironically landed at the bottom of a system he helped create; Captain Buinovsky is a loyal Communist officer imprisoned by Stalinist paranoia and completely bewildered by this turn of events; Tiurin, the squad leader, is another innocent Russian persecuted merely because his father was a kulak; Alyosha, representing all those who experienced religious persecution, has been sentenced to twenty-five years merely because of his Baptist religion. All these are “types,” figures of the groups who suffered under Soviet totalitarianism.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is labeled by Solzhenitsyn as a povest’, or novella, so it is short and moves quickly. Its crisp, fast-paced narrative enables the author to sketch his characters quickly and to involve readers in the thoughts of Ivan Denisovich, from whose perspective the action is often reported by means of indirect discourse. That is, the narrator speaks from Ivan’s point of view, ventriloquizing his thoughts without directly quoting them. In these passages the narrator’s consciousness and knowledge are limited to what Ivan is capable of observing and knowing. In addition, there is an omniscient authorial voice that employs more literary, formal language and provides information and observations that are outside Ivan’s ken.

Solzhenitsyn also employs defamiliarization in the novel. That is, he describes the details of an event or phenomenon from the viewpoint of a naïve observer who lacks the sophistication to process the data. For example, when Ivan observes the medical orderly Vdovushkin writing something at his desk, the narrator takes note of the even lines, each of which begins with a capital letter, but Ivan concludes only that this activity is not official work but something “on the side.” A reader may recognize this as a description of a poem, an assumption the authorial voice later confirms, but Ivan himself does not register the writing as poetry. The chronicle of the day is told in the racy slang of the camp, often profane, always colorful and rich, giving readers a further sense of participation.

Overall, readers are likely to come away from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich with a sense of triumph. Though the conditions in the camp are brutal, though the prisoners have been stripped of all human rights and are harassed and badgered through the day, life in the concentration camp has not broken them. An implicit theme lodged strongly in the story is that the rulers of the Soviet regime that created the camp will no more succeed at stifling the spirit of freedom in the Russian people than the local camp officials have succeeded in stamping that spirit out of Ivan Denisovich and his fellow prisoners. The human spirit, which always craves freedom, will ultimately triumph.


Critical Context (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)


Critical Overview