One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 445 words.)