The story opens with Ivan Denisovich (Shukov) rising in the frigid, predawn Siberian darkness and ends with his return to his bed after what he considers a very good day.
That very good day consists of earning a few extra portions of bread and diluted soup, getting a few drags on the butt of someone else’s cigarette, beating another brigade back to camp from their work assignment, smuggling a piece of scrap metal past the guards, not getting sick, and the like. If this does not sound like much to celebrate, that is exactly the point.
The novel is intentionally not sensational. It is an expose of Stalinist labor camps, and of the Soviet system generally, but it accomplishes this through understatement and indirection.
This work, however, is much more than a political indictment. Its power derives from its depiction of a man retaining his humanity under inhumane conditions. Shukov is not a heroic figure, but he wins our admiration for his cleverness, his endurance, and his simple integrity.
Through Shukov, Solzhenitsyn suggests that there are certain qualities which must be retained no matter what the circumstances if we are to maintain our humanity. Primary among these is self-respect. Shukov works constantly to increase his odds of survival, but there are definite things, lying and begging among them, which he will not do.
The pivotal scene in the novel, the building of a brick wall, demonstrates not only Shukov’s sense of worth, but also the importance of human solidarity and cooperation in the face of evil. The novel’s ambivalent conclusion, however, precludes seeing it as a simple celebration of human endurance. Solzhenitsyn takes evil too seriously for that.
Barker, Francis. Solzhenitsyn: Politics and Form. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1977. A study of Solzhenitsyn’s various works, with emphasis on their very important political aspects and on the way political considerations shape his works.
Curtis, James M. Solzhenitsyn’s Traditional Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. Examines the currents of imaginative thought in Solzhenitsyn and emphasizes his transformation of traditional material into new, creative forms.
Ericson, Edward. Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1993. Recent book that examines Solzhenitsyn in light of the collapse of Communism in Russia. Answers some of the common criticisms that are leveled at his writing.
Ericson, Edward. Solzhenitsyn, the Moral Vision. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980. Excellent overview of Solzhenitsyn’s works with an eye to their sources, origins, and relationship to modern political and social reality.
Nielsen, Niels Christian. Solzhenitsyn’s Religion. Nashville: Nelson, 1975. A discussion of the very important religious aspect in Solzhenitsyn’s writing, tracing it through all his early works.