One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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How does the narrative technique in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich aid characterization?

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Unsurprisingly, Solzhenitsyn's narrative is from his title character's point of view. The result of this decision is that we see the situations and the characters as Shukhov sees them, not from an omniscient perspective, though it is a third-person account. What, one might ask, does an author gain or lose by presenting the scenario this way?

In this case, it has the effect of convincing us, as readers, that the story is probably Solzhenitsyn's own history, even though it's not given in the first person. Paradoxically, a first-person narrative might weaken the objectivity of his account of events. His first readers would have known it was his own story anyway, because the novel was published with Khrushchev's approval as an indictment of the Stalinist system under which the author had been imprisoned. But even if we know nothing about Solzhenitsyn, the manner in which Shukhov sees himself and sees the others has a special kind of veracity to it.

This is partly because the writing style, at least as it comes across in translation, is totally unsentimental. It has the same features Orwell described in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon : "the grownup quality, [and] the lack of surprise or denunciation." The narrative is effective because of the slow accumulation of detail given us. Instead of a large amount of interior monologue, the activities we see Shukhov engaged in allow us to get inside his head. The action is like a series of snapshots. Perhaps any novel is like this to an extent, but One Day in the Life is possibly more effective simply for being so fast-moving and streamlined, as these snapshots of life in the gulag are rapidly shown to us.

A sample of details we might look at follows. Some of the characters have retained their religious beliefs, and most have not. We're shown Alyoshka "the Baptist" (unusual in Russia, obviously, even before it became an officially atheistic state) who is copying the Gospels in his notebook. A Western Ukrainian "still knows how to cross himself," which the Russians no longer remember. Shukhov must be so careful about his boots that he takes them off and washes the floor in his bare feet. The Ukrainians, in addition to retaining religion, are polite because they address you by your full name (this means first name plus patronymic). Men are dying for a few puffs of tobacco. The "Captain" is a former naval commander used to giving orders, and rather pathetically, he is still trying to do so although he's a prisoner. Shukhov overhears a conversation in which men are discussing Eisenstein's films and their aesthetic versus propagandistic attributes.

The above grab-bag of observations and events are seemingly disconnected, but this is the way the narrative becomes effective: by showing these characters going about their business of survival in the harshest of conditions. Solzhenitsyn's technique is less to tell us explicit things about them than it is to allow us to draw conclusions about them from the external environment that unforgivingly impinges upon them at every moment.

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In November of 1962, Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This narrative follows a day of a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s. Its publication was noteworthy, because this is the first piece of literature which openly addressed repression and imprisonment at the hand of Joseph Stalin.

The novel is told through the first-person limited point of view, which means that the narrator is only aware of the inner thoughts, feelings, and motives of the titular character. This is ultimately a successful narrative technique, because it allows the reader to experience both the intimate and inner thoughts of a prisoner while also conveying a sense of isolation.

Since the reader only understands the thoughts of Ivan, the reader must infer the thoughts of the other prisoners as well as the guards. One of the main themes of the narrative is how the idea of survival changes in a totalitarian setting (which can be compared to survival in the Soviet Union). The prisoners adopt the idea of the "survival of the fittest," both working hard and scheming in order to acquire additional food rations. The reader can see Ivan make these decisions but is forced to make inferences about the other characters, which helps reinforce the isolation felt by prisoners.

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The narrative perspective of this illuminating text is third person limited. This means that the story is told by an external narrator to the story who is able to see everything that happens but is only privy to the thoughts and feelings of one particular character, which is of course Ivan Denisovich. The narrative therefore includes the full thoughts and feelings of Ivan but of no other characters, and the narrative perspective therefore only allows for general remarks to be made about others. For example, note how the external narrator describes the following scene:

But now all at once something happened in the column, like a wave going through it… . The fellows in the back—that's where Shukhov was—had to run now …

Whilst the point of view allows for such comments to be made about what happens to the prisoners, it does allow for a fully developed psychological presentation of Ivan Denisovich. Consider the following quote that describes his approach to his new task:

His mind and his eyes were studying the wall, the façade of the Power Station, two cinder blocks thick, as it showed from under the ice. Whoever had been laying there before was either a bungler or a slacker. Shukhov would get to know every inch of that wall as if he owned it.

The narrative choice allows the reader to fully understand and be aware of the inner character of Ivan and the pride that he takes in his work. Even though he is a prisoner and he has no reason to care about the work he has been ordered to do, he takes incredible pride in his work and is obviously dismissive of the efforts of the person who was working there before, who Ivan dismisses as a "bungler" and a "slacker." Given the title of this novel, the narrative perspective is therefore important in helping to build up a psychologically developed portrait of this central character centred on his thoughts and feelings.

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