Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The clang of the wake-up call at five a.m. starts the day for Ivan Denisovich and hundreds of other prisoners at a bleak Siberian labor camp. In this short novel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn offers the reader a view of the realities of life behind the barbed wire. Men struggle to get enough food in the mess hall. They try to keep themselves from freezing in below-zero temperatures. They obey the arbitrary rules of the armed guards and the orders of a few prisoners who have ingratiated themselves with the powers that be and have become camp leaders. They avoid being sent to the punishment cells, where men can weaken and die in a few days. They swear obscenely at one another and at the system. They work when they can and rest when they can, saving their strength to live another day.

The camp is presented through the eyes of a middle-aged man from a peasant village, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. He was sentenced to ten years of hard labor after he had been falsely accused of spying for the Germans during World War II. With no chance for appeal, Ivan was sent off to the camp system, the Gulag. Every day, he tries simply to get by as best he can. He generally obeys the rules, takes small pleasures in small things, and stoically awaits the end of his sentence.

The plot of the story is simply the events of an ordinary day. It is a relatively good day for Ivan. He avoids the punishment cells. He must work outside, building a wall,...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Siberian labor camp

*Siberian labor camp. Concentration camp located somewhere in eastern Russia’s vast Siberian wastes. The novel accurately depicts a single full day in the camp, using the words of one of its inmates, Shukhov, who is Solzhenitsyn’s alter ego. The grim eleven-hour workday in labor gangs subjects camp inmates to a stern test of character. In a situation where everyone fights for oneself, all human beings show what they are made of. Selfishness, cunning, cowardice, anger, hope against hope, and animalistic will to survive are some of the character traits that dominate life in the camp.

Although the individual inmates are named, they seem to exist only as badge numbers, as props in this human tragedy. Their practical anonymity fits the nature of an archipelago (as Solzhenitsyn would call the prison camps with which Siberia was dotted in his later set of novels, titled Gulag Archipelago, 1974-1978). The camps are filled with people sentenced on trumped-up charges. Shukhov himself, for example, after escaping capture by the Germans, is accused of spying for the Germans and is serving a ten-year sentence for treason, even though no one could prove what he was supposed to have done. He signed his own confession, for if he had not, he would have been as good as buried. It is only in a place like the prison camp that the protagonist’s character is fully revealed. He is humble, helpful, polite, forgiving,...

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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Censorship in Russian Literature
The history of Russian literature has been one of censorship, first under the czars and then...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

On Translations
Most critics feel the best of the original translations of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Solzhenitsyn alternates the telling of events between an objective third-person narrator and Ivan Denisovich's interior thoughts. The...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although the system of penal camps ended even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn's novel remains a powerful hymn to the...

(The entire section is 251 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

This slim book describes, with brutal frankness, the reality which no other contemporary Russian writer dared explore: the existence...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1914: Russia enters World War I against Germany and Austria-Hungary, enduring several crushing defeats.

1917: The...

(The entire section is 322 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

During the 1940s and '50s, a practice called "blacklisting" took effect in the film industry in Hollywood. Any writer, director, or actor who...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Solzhenitsyn is an ironist in form as well as theme. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich imitates the conventions of Socialist...

(The entire section is 177 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The first Russian readers praised One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich for its honest portrayal of life under Stalin. Some...

(The entire section is 238 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Finnish director Caspar Wrede filmed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovkh in 1971. Shot in Norway and starring British actor Tom...

(The entire section is 141 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

One Word of Truth in videocassette form is a documentary narrated by Tom Courtney and produced by Anglo-Nordic Productions that...

(The entire section is 57 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, written one hundred years prior to Solzhenitsyn’s novella, provides a...

(The entire section is 290 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

David Burg, and George Feifer, Solzhenitsyn, Stein and Day Publishers, pp. 155-156.

James M. Curtis,...

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