One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Ivan Denisovich Shukhov
Tip of the Iceberg
We spend an entire day with Shukhov. Or more accurately, we spend an entire day through Shukhov; everything is filtered through him and we spend a lot of the narrative inside his head, hearing his thoughts. But there's only so much you can learn about a person in one day. In a lot of ways, what we get of Shukhov is a snapshot. And this really acts as a metaphor for the camp as a whole.
See, it's not like the prisoners have tons of time to chat and become BFFs there, once again proving that this is the worst camp ever. We'd demand a refund. And the prisoners are also disconnected from their pasts and their own identities – they're just numbers, one of hundreds of zeks.
So how does Shukhov's character come into all of this? Well, we may not learn all we want to about Shukhov and his life, but in a lot of ways we learn exactly enough. Life in the camp strips people down to the bone and, not too get overly cliché here, it's about boiling people down to their essence. Like a boot camp, the prison camp is all about tearing people down to "see what they're made of." The prison camp just forgot the bit about building everyone back up again, but that's neither here nor there. Since Shukhov acts as a sort of ambassador of the zeks for us, it makes sense that we'd get a twenty-four hour character portrait of him that emphasizes who he is at the core and not, say, what his kids are named (which we were wondering actually).
Of course, who Shukhov is isn't just handed to us on a silver platter. We have to infer a lot of stuff, or read between the lines, to get a good sense of him. There's definitely a few key aspects that help to illustrate the kind of person Shukhov is. And these character traits also help to shed some light on why we're hearing about his day out of all the hundreds of zeks in the camp and about this day out of all the thousands of days in Shukhov's prison life.
Carpenter, Farmer, Soldier, Survivor
(Just so you know, the above is a play on the title of a novel by John Le Carre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.)
Shukhov had a couple of "careers" that we hear about. Before arriving in the camp, he lived in a village and presumably worked on a farm. He references things like owning a horse and "haymaking" (227), so he presumably has some sort of agriculture experience. He was also a soldier in World War II, until he was unjustly arrested. And he also notes that his village was famous for its carpenters.
Shukhov is good with his hands: he can build things, make things, hide things, take things. The last two are camp skills, and we'll get to those in a bit. Shukhov's role as a "builder" is directly linked to his personal work ethic, which is in turn at the core of his character:
If there was one thing Shukhov couldn't endure, it was these spectators. Trying to wangle himself an engineer's job, the pig-faced bastard. [...] Till you've built one house with your own hands, you're no engineer. That's how I see it. (596)
For Shukhov, engineering is about hard work, pride, and honor; a person can't just scam their way into an engineer job, they have to have skill. So Shukhov's work ethic is also closely tied to his sense of personal honor.
Unlike a lot of the prisoners, Shukhov refuses to completely abandon his past and his sense of self-respect. He continues to remove his hat when he eats, since it's polite; he refuses to "scrounge" for things without any dignity; and he refuses to slack off when he's working. This attitude comes close to getting Shukhov in serious trouble though:
The foreman had ordered them not to worry about wasting mortar [....] But Shukhov was the sort of fool who couldn't let anything or anybody's work go to waste, and nobody would ever teach him better.
Mortar! Block! Mortar! Block!
"Enough, damn it!" Senka shouted. "Time to be off!" (681-683)
Following this scene, Shukhov is almost late lining up to leave and nearly gets into big trouble. As savvy as he is, Shukhov, like all the other prisoners, sometimes forgets exactly where he is. In this scene he approaches his work, and the work of others, honorably, refusing to "waste" anything. But he's forgetting that the camp itself is all about waste and useless work and slave labor. Shukhov's work ethic isn't just what makes him a decent person; it's also what helps him to resist, however quietly, the oppression of the camp.
Shukhov's refusal to "waste" anything is also what makes him a smart prisoner. Which brings us to the last of Shukhov's "jobs": survivor.
Just like the dude with the show on the Discovery Channel, Shukhov has lots of survivor skills, some of which he tries to teach to others in his Gang. Shukhov's self-respect, work ethic, and sense of honor help to set him apart from zeks like Fetyukov, who has no sense of shame.
Now, for the most part, Shukhov and the narrator don't just come right out and say "Check out Shukhov, isn't he nice and cool?" So how can we tell he's an honorable guy? Well, we see evidence with how he thinks about and approaches his work. We also see evidence in how he acts towards his fellow prisoners. He gives Alyoshka a biscuit, for instance, and he helps Tsezar hide his package during roll call.
But Shukhov also looks out for himself; he's definitely not always altruistic, or self-sacrificing. He's competitive, he schemes, and he sometimes screws people over. In fact, he may only offer help to Tsezar because Tsezar is wealthy and can do things for him later. Shukhov is a master strategist, and he approaches survival in the camp like he does his work:
And Shukhov no longer had eyes for the distant view [....] Shukhov saw only the wall in front of him [....] He ran an invisible ruler over the wall, deciding how far he would lay from the stepped brickwork in the corner, and where Senka would start working toward Kildigs on his right. (558)
Stitch, stitch, stitch and he'd tacked up the hole over the hidden half ration. [...] His fingers were wonderfully nimble, and his mind raced ahead, planning his next move. (134).
Shukhov is a lot like a chess player. He's always "planning" what he'll do next, but at the same time he's always focused on the task at hand. Since he's very smart and savvy, Shukhov often comments on how stupid everyone else is around him. Really. He comments on how the other zeks are morons for doing things like crowding the gate; he notes that Tsezar, Buynovsky, and Fetyukov aren't very sharp and can't take care of themselves; he thinks that the wardens are all idiots.
Since Shukhov is pretty clever, it makes sense that we would spend our day with the him. By following Shukhov around, we really learn what's what in the camp. And this brings us to the last important feature of Shukhov's character: why he is our narrator/main character.
Camper of the Month
Out of all the other prisoners we see, Shukhov is best able to introduce us to life in the camp. And he's also one of the best representatives of the prisoners as a whole. He's been in the camp long enough to tell us what's up, but not so long that he can't also comment on the outside world. He was a farmer and a soldier, which puts him in good company, since a ton of the zeks were one or the other in the outside world. And, as a skilled worker, he can also give us a good view of the type of work done in the camp. His foreman even comments on how crazy awesome Shukhov is at the whole prison camp thing:
The foreman laughed. "They'd be crazy to let you out! Any jail would be lost without you!"
Shukhov laughed back at him. And went on laying [bricks]. (671-672)
Since Shukhov is a sort of prisoner par excellence, good at survival and at maintaining some morality in the camp, it makes sense that he's our guide for the day, so to speak. But being the Number One Zek is also something of a double-edged sword. It's sort of like comedian Demetri Martin's joke on Employees of the Month: if you make employee of the month somewhere it's not all that great because it means that your job probably isn't the best in the first place.
Shukhov is a savvy prisoner and has the skills to survive, as well as the principles to maintain some personal dignity. But what does this all mean for his future? Because of his principles, Shukhov isn't going to rise very far in the corrupt camp system, and if he ever gets out, how will his camp skills translate in the outside world? Shukhov wonders about this throughout the day, worrying that he'll never be free and worrying that he will be. Questions about his future, as well as his past, hover on the fringes of Shukhov's narrative.
In a way we see Shukhov on a perfect day that ends "happily" for him. Shukhov is the best narrator we could have in the camp, and this day is the best day we could hear about, in terms of learning about camp life and Shukhov. This day has a neat beginning, middle, and happy end; but it is also just one day among thousands. Shukhov's day, as well as Shukhov himself, are quick snapshots in a lot of ways that stand still among the hundreds of zeks and thousands of days that we don't see.