One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in a Nutshell

There can be few more worthy winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature than Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who illustrates in his life and work the power of literature to transform society.

There can be few more worthy winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature than Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who illustrates in his life and work the power of literature to transform society.

Born in 1918, only a year after the Bolshevik Revolution had unleashed the terror of communism on the peoples of what would become known as the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn would become one of the most influential figures in his nation’s quest for freedom from Marxist tyranny.

Sentenced to seven years in the Soviet labor camps for the “crime” of criticizing Joseph Stalin in private correspondence, Solzhenitsyn would expose the horrors of the camps in his three-volume magnum opus, The Gulag Archipelago, and also in the short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Whereas the former, which was subtitled “an experiment in literary investigation,” was a sweeping panoramic history of the whole labor camp system, the latter focused on a single day in one particular camp. The former surveyed the landscape of the camps through a literary telescope; the latter placed the day-to-day life of the prisoners under a microscope.

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Solzhenitsyn drew on his own personal experience of the camps in his writing of One Day in the Life. The fictional camp in which the novel is set is based on a camp in northern Kazakhstan in which Solzhenitsyn had spent part of his sentence; and the novel’s eponymous protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, bears a certain resemblance to Solzhenitsyn in his characterization. There is, therefore, a quasi-autobiographical dimension to the story.

As the title suggests, the whole action of the novel takes place on one solitary day in the life of the protagonist. In this way, Solzhenitsyn takes the reader into the claustrophobically monotonous life of the prisoners, who follow the same routine day in, day out, with no seeming end in sight. We experience not merely the claustrophobic monotony but the chilling physical intensity of the experience. We are marched out with the work party in sub-zero temperatures to a construction site at which Shukhov works as a bricklayer. It’s so cold that the bricks must be laid quickly before the mortar freezes.

The reader also feels the pangs of hunger that are a permanent part of the lives of the prisoners. Shukhov’s life is spent finding ways to filch or scrounge additional scraps of food; and one of the most memorable parts of the novel is the description of the spiritual, almost sacramental act of eating the daily rations. We are told, as Shukhov sits down to eat, that “the sacred moment had come”:

Shukhov took off his hat and laid it on his knees. He tasted one bowl, he tasted the other. Not bad, there was some fish in it. Generally, the evening skilly was much thinner than at breakfast; if they’re to work, prisoners must be fed in the morning; in the evening they’ll go to sleep anyway.

He set to. First he only drank the liquid, drank and drank. As it went down, filling his whole body with warmth, all his guts began to flutter inside him at their meeting with that skilly. Goo-ood! There it comes, that brief moment for which a zek [prisoner] lives.

And now Shukhov complained about nothing: neither about the length of his stretch, nor about the length of the day…. This was all he thought about now: we’ll survive. We’ll stick it out, God grant, till it’s over.

A potato had found its way into the bowl, which was unusual, but not much fish, “just a few stray bits of bare backbone”: “But you must chew every bone, every fin, to suck the juice out of them, for the juice is healthy. It takes time, of course, but he was in no hurry to go anywhere.” Having supped, he resisted the temptation to eat the bread ration. “The bread would do for tomorrow. The belly is a rascal. It doesn’t remember how well you treated it yesterday, it’ll cry out for more tomorrow.”

Apart from detailing the grim and grueling minutiae of the day’s rituals and routines, One Day in the Life focuses on the relationships of the prisoners with each other and how each of them copes with the degradation of their daily existence.

Tyurin, the leader of the work party, is a survivor. A veteran of the camp, having been sentenced nineteen years earlier for the “crime” of being from an affluent farming family, he is respected by the other prisoners for his fortitude and his courage, the latter of which is tempered prudently to avoid falling foul of the camp guards.

Fetyukov has abandoned all traces of his human dignity in the pursuit of gratifying his appetites, begging shamelessly for food and tobacco. In slavishly serving his body, he has lost his soul. 

At the other extreme is Buynovsky, known as “the Captain” because of his service as a captain in the Soviet Navy. A newcomer to the camp, he takes the dignity of his rank too seriously, lacking the necessary submissiveness. If he is to survive in the camps, he must learn to bend without breaking, as Shukhov and Tyurin have learned to do.

Finally, there is the inspirational figure of Alyoshka the Baptist, who is the Christian presence. He is at peace with himself, with his situation, and with his fellow prisoners because he is at peace with God. He embraces his suffering with the hope of final deliverance. He is not merely surviving physically amidst the hardship and harshness of his prison sentence but is thriving spiritually. He serves as a witness to the presence of Christ, a light in the darkness.

The final judgment on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich does not belong to the literary critics but to the former prisoners of the Soviet labor camps who wrote to Solzhenitsyn following the novel’s publication. “I could not sit still,” one former prisoner wrote. “I kept leaping up, walking about and imagined all those scenes as taking place in the camp I was in.” “When I read it,” wrote another, “I literally felt the blast of cold as one leaves the hut for inspection.”

Another former prisoner, after declaring that his own life was described exactly in the novel, recounted his riposte to a woman who had criticized the novel for being too depressing: “It’s better to have a bitter truth than a sweet lie,” he had replied. The final words belong to a woman whose husband had died in the camps:

I see, I hear this crowd of hungry, freezing creatures, half people, half animals, and amongst them is my husband…. Continue to write, write the truth, even though they won’t print it now! Our floods of tears were not shed in vain—the truth will rise to the surface in this river of tears.

Solzhenitsyn would continue to write. He would continue to speak the bitter truth and to expose the sweetness of the lie. He would be a tireless advocate for the millions who died in the camps and for the millions who mourn them. Ultimately, his words would prove powerful enough to help bring down the Soviet tyranny. Such is the living legacy of this true hero of the twentieth century.

Editor’s Note: This is the forty-sixth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

  • Joseph Pearce

    Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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