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The story “One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” is about the life of millions of people who ended up in Soviet labor camps. The story exposes the cult of Stalin’s personality and the entire Soviet system and society. The story raises many philosophical and ethical question – freedom and dignity of a person, justice of punishment, the problem of relationships between people. Solzhenitsyn shows a little man, and how the numerous Soviet camps were meant to make all people small within the big omnipotent system.
At the same time, those who could not become small, had to perish. Therefore, the story allegorically presents the entire country as a large camp barrack.
In “One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” Solzhenitsyn describes one day, from early morning until late at night, of an ordinary person, a somewhat unremarkable prisoner. Through thoughts and memories of Ivan Denisovich, the reader learns the smallest details of the life of the prisoners, some facts about the biography of the protagonist and his entourage and the reasons why the characters got to the camp.
“At 5 o’clock that morning reveille was sounded, as usual, by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail, hanging up near the staff quarters…” (Solzhenitsyn 6). The first paragraph reveals a lot. Solzhenitsyn talks about the waking up time and the primitive prison gong, about the severity of the climate and the curiosity of an unknown guard who tries to stay warm. The scant details of camp life are represented by a thick layer of frost on the windows and the mentioning of the most comfortable building – the headquarters barrack.
Additionally, the author sets up the emotional dominant of the whole text – an objective manner of the impersonal narrator, which is almost entirely overshadowed by the consciousness of the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a former collective farmer and front-line soldier who is serving his eighth year of the ten-year term.
Shukhov is not very old. As Solzhenitsyn writes: “Shukhov has trodden the earth for forty years, though he’d lost half of his teeth and his head was growing bald…” (19). This description presents the protagonist as someone tired and prematurely aged. It is not because he does not have a half of his teeth or is bald, but because his way of thinking is old-fashioned and is limited by trivial problems. The problems, which preoccupy him range from where to get tobacco to how to eat an extra portion of porridge. The eight-year-old camp experience of Shukhov contains not only his own discoveries about survival methods, but also the wisdoms of old-time prisoners. Shukhov does not blindly trust their advice, mainly counting on his own ingenuity, but his peculiar code of conduct is very stable. His relation to work changes according to the circumstances. If it is for people, then it should be of high-quality, if just for the system- a mere demonstration will serve.
All these postulates serve just the purpose of survival, but this does not mean that the survival is the only moral objective of the protagonist. His everyday behavior demonstrates his system of morality. Shukhov intuitively divides the prisoners to the workers and parasites of the system (whether conscious or not). The story is abundant in both.
The author presents multiple broken destinies to demonstrate the atrocities of the system. Everyone has to adapt to the realities, find a way to deceive the guards, steal something or secretly sell it. For example, many prisoners make small knives out of the tool, then swapping them for food or tobacco. Therefore, Shukhov and all the others in these terrible conditions are like wild animals. They can be punished, beaten up or shot. One has to outsmart the armed guards, and try not to lose heart while straying true to the core ideals. And Shukhov manages to stay kind, conscientious and compassionate. He worries about others. “He was at the point of leaving when he felt a twinge of pity for Tsezar. It wasn’t that he wanted to make anything more out of the man; he felt genuinely sorry for him.” (Solzhenitsyn 59). Ivan Denisovich sympathizes even with the guards, because they have to be on watch in the cold or in strong wind, and it shows his compassion being stronger than his urges to survive.
The inner backbone of the protagonist has its own foundations. Despite decades of Soviet power, communist dogma, state atheism, Shukhov (a believer though not religious) preserved strong Christian principles, such as compassion for one’s neighbor, respect for work. Ivan Denisovich understands the difficulty of his own situation, but does not stop thinking about others. For example, he forbids his wife to send food to him. The man realizes that his wife is also struggling, as she has to raise the children and maintain the budget during the difficult military and post-war years. Therefore the sentence did not break the protagonist. The hero does not compromise on his principles. And even if he has to steal, he does not steal from his comrades, but only from those who work in the kitchen and mock the inmates. Thus, the protagonist becomes a Robin Hood, whose crime is a rebellious act against the social injustice.
The positive image of Shukhov is created throughout the story. His habits of a peasant, an ordinary worker, help him overcome the burdens of imprisonment. At the same time one starts to wonder, why he is in the camp, if he is such a noble man. The answer to come unfairness of the totalitarian regime, imprisoning many simple people, victims of the circumstance.
To conclude, Solzhenitsyn’s work is filled with a hidden irony, exposing the back side of the life of the Soviet country. The writer touches upon an important problem of lack of human value in front the soulless state machine. At the same time, the author believes in a simple person, his spirit and will. Condemning the inhuman system, Solzhenitsyn creates a realistic character of his hero, who is able to endure all the suffering with dignity and not to lose a human within.
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