One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
There's a huge genre of prison films and stories – The Shawshank Redemption, Escape from Alcatraz, The Great Escape, Stalag 17, Cool Hand Luke, O Brother Where Art Thou, that Prison Break show. The point is that these movies/TV shows reveal that prisoners in jail harbor hopes for the future – namely, getting the heck out of jail. Pronto. Nearly all of these films involve an exciting escape, or an attempted escape at the very least. But no one bothers to escape during One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And it seems that most past escape attempts ended in prisoners getting shot. The hope of getting out of the gulag is described as pretty much hopeless. So hope, like everything else in the camp, is downsized. Prisoners here have hope for something like an extra portion of food. The hope for freedom is practically a pipe-dream. In the camp, the future is measured more in minutes than in years, and the long-term future seems doomed for most prisoners.
Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans
- Shukhov often argues with himself about his future – he dreams of being free but often reminds himself of likely future exile. How is this debate significant and what does it tell us about the role hope plays in a prisoner's life?
- Shukhov worries about his ability to survive in the outside world after he gets out of jail. Going off of the skills and behavior that Shukhov displays in the camp, are his concerns valid? Or is Shukhov actually well equipped to handle tough life in the outside world now?
- Shukhov's first foreman, Kuzyomin, tells him of three signs that a prisoner is doomed (4). Do we see these signs crop up anywhere else in the narrative? How are these signs connected to themes of hope and future survival?
Chew on This
The camp environment makes it nearly impossible to dwell on distant future dreams since there are too many present worries.
The camp provides an excess of time to dwell on the future, to brood, and to make plans, which is a punishment in and of itself since future hopes are largely futile.