The Differences of Suffering in Siddhartha and in One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Both the novels Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn share the similar theme of suffering throughout the stories. Although both novels are mainly about suffering, the main characters Siddhartha Gautama and Ivan Denisovich Shukov spend their days suffering in very different ways. Siddhartha’s suffering is based on his own decision, which is to reach Nirvana. This is pure choice, and can be stopped if Siddhartha would like to go back to his old life.

However, Ivan Denisovich suffers because he is forced into a daily lifestyle since he is a prisoner living in a Soviet gulag. He cannot make decisions for himself. Ivan Denisovich’s suffering seems to be an endless cycle of strict work orders, whereas Siddhartha’s suffering is a journey in which he learns many new things about life and changes himself.

Ivan Denisovich Shukov’s life is totally decided by the prison guards at the gulag he stays in.

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Ivan himself does not have any say in when or how much he gets to eat, or how late he can sleep in. For years he has been living how the prison guards have wanted him to. This is his form of suffering—having no choice in how to live. The prisoners are given strict orders and their guards are very quick to give punishments or threaten to open fire if anything goes wrong. This makes Ivan’s life especially difficult, because he has to do exactly what he is told at all times; if he does not, he could risk being kept in the gulag for another ten years, or worse: he could lose his life.

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Ivan’s daily life includes hard labor for extended time periods and following orders all day, which makes just one day in his life seem very long to readers. At the beginning of every day, the commander of the escort gives daily orders, “your attention, prisoners! You will keep strict column order on the line of march! You will not straggle… [or] talk or look around to either side…A step to right or left will be considered an attempt at escape, and the escort will open fire without warning!”” (Solzhenitsyn 30). Since these orders are so strict and demanding, this creates a sense of fear for Ivan and all of the prisoners.

Siddhartha, on the other hand, suffers in a very different way. He makes the choice to suffer. It is a spiritual kind of suffering that he chose to begin in order to eventually reach Nirvana. Siddhartha is committed to his suffering, although his suffering pilgrimage is entirely based on his own decisions and can be stopped if he chooses to do so. Siddhartha begins to feel closer to Nirvana when he reminisces on his past and truly wonders if he was ever happy. Then he suddenly feels a voice from his heart, “A path lies before you which you are called to follow. The gods await you’” (Hesse 83). Siddhartha’s long journey to Nirvana allows him to find joy in small things that he probably never would have enjoyed before he began this pilgrimage, “his glance lighted on the river, and he saw the river…singing merrily. That pleased him immensely; he smiled cheerfully at the river. Was this not the river in which he had once wished to drown himself?” (Hesse 96). This quote proves that Siddhartha’s choice to suffer has changed him. It has made his life simpler, but he also is becoming more appreciative of the life he leads.

Both novels have direct comparisons in the ways that the main characters suffer. While Ivan Denisovich is given a specific time to do something that results in his suffering, such as hard labor or only a small time allotted for a night’s sleep, Siddhartha has no time limit. This is because Siddhartha can control his suffering, and Ivan cannot. In fact, at one point in the novel, Siddhartha sleeps for “many hours… [which] seemed to him as if ten years had passed” (Hesse 90). This shows Siddhartha’s leniency and ability to make decisions, in comparison to Ivan’s inability to decide anything. Ivan is also given a specific time, in years, of how long he will be suffering in the gulag, while Siddhartha has no knowledge of the length he will spend on his journey to Nirvana. This depicts the fact that Ivan’s suffering has no purpose other than forced labor and imprisonment, because there is no goal that neither Ivan nor the gulag prison guards are trying to reach. Siddhartha does have a goal. Siddhartha also makes progress and changes throughout his journey, while Ivan Denisovich stays the same as a person. Although it is hard to infer whether or not Ivan will change himself in the future since the novel is over the course of just one day, it can be assumed that he will stay the same. This is assumed since Ivan’s suffering in the Soviet gulag is like a cycle; after one very long day, another equally long day is expected to take place.

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The Differences of Suffering in Siddhartha and in One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. (2022, Feb 12). Retrieved from

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