One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Senka might just be the most interesting person in Gang 104. His backstory reads like some sort of epic action/adventure tale – deafened in battle during World War II, captured by Nazis, escaped POW camp multiple times, participated in an underground in Buchenwald, tossed into a gulag.
If anyone has a raw deal, it is definitely Senka. After all he's gone through he's now unjustly stuck in a gulag, and he's deaf to boot, which really isolates him from others. But what exactly is Senka doing here as a character? Is he a mysterious action-hero? Is he a sympathetic figure because of his disability? Well, Senka's backstory and his deafness are definitely crucial to who he is and to what he's doing in the novel.
First off, like a lot of the characters in Gang 104, Senka is a mystery. We get hints about who he is and what he did before he was in the camp, but overall we don't know much about him. Even his own gang finds him curious and mysterious:
Senka Klevshin made out through is deafness some talk about escaping and said loudly: "I've escaped three times and been caught three times."
The long-suffering Senka was mostly silent. Couldn't hear and didn't butt in. So nobody knew much about him. (385-386)
What's funny about this section is that Shukhov goes on to list a fairly extensive amount of things they do know about Senka, the action-hero adventure. Silent and mysterious as he is, the gang, and the reading audience, arguably know as much about Senka as they do any other character. Senka is particularly notable though because his backstory is so crazy and because he arguably inspires the most curiosity.
Senka is interesting because even if people wanted to find out more about him, they probably couldn't. He keeps to himself and he's hard to talk to because of his hearing impairment. So, as a character, Senka sort of represents the barriers present in the camp that prevent people from really knowing each other or from getting a chance to know each other.
Senka's deafness is a major part of this barrier and of his character. After all he's suffered, Senka definitely seems to think it wise to just quietly do his time in the gulag. No more heroics for him. He's a good worker and is something of a jokester too. So aside from making us feel sorry for him, what's the deal with his deafness? Well, due to his deafness, Senka likely experiences camp life in a radically different way. Here's some thoughts of Shukhov that may help explain it:
The sick bay was in the most out-of-the-way corner of the camp, and no sound reached it [....]
Shukhov felt strange sitting under a bright light doing nothing for five whole minutes in such deep silence in such a clean room. (114-115)
Normally, the camp is filled with noise for Shukhov: people are always yelling and cursing and fighting. So his time in sick bay is almost creepy because it's so silent. He's awkwardly left alone with his thoughts there. Shukhov even begins his day by noting the sound of a banging hammer.
Sound is a very important part of the camp, and it's largely absent for Senka. How Senka must experience the camp is really a fascinating question to consider. All the other zeks probably experience the camp, superficially at least, in very similar ways. But Senka isn't really a part of that. We see a few scenes where he literally stands out in a crowd, which helps to emphasize his odd role in the camp:
The men went on yelling and cursing horribly. Yelling so loud that even Senka heard quite a bit; he took a deep breath and roared back. He lived his life in silence - but when he did sound off [...]! (102)
Shukhov was so happy it hurt when he spotted what looked like Senka Klevshin's head right up by the porch. He set his elbows to work as fast as they'd go, but there was no breaking through that solid wall of backs. (975)
Senka definitely stands out in a crowd, literally. He's often mentioned apart from the "mass of zeks" that Shukhov sees. In a way Senka hints at the differences that exist, but are normally hidden, from the mass of prisoners. He also hints at the different ways the camp can be experienced through individuals. Shukhov's day isn't the definitive, or ultimate, camp experience, just the one we get.
Senka also acts as something of a symbolic figure. In the previous quote, Shukhov notes how Senka is normally silent but will occasionally sound off and stun everyone. In a way, Senka is a representative of all the oppressed people living in the camp. They normally suffer in silence and put up with a lot of crap, but, as we see through the recent Sweeney Todd-inspired throat cutting spree, the prisoners sometimes fight back with really dramatic results. Overall, Senka hints at a lot of the other possibilities in the camp, types of experiences mainly, that we don't always get in Shukhov's narrative.