So say you're watching some TV and you turn the volume way down. You can kind of hear what's going on, but it's mainly background noise now. That's sort of the experience of reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The narrative often turns the volume down on emotions, so to speak, so that the tone becomes sort of quiet and muted in a way. This fits with the book's theme on futility, or the uselessness of doing much. Life in the camp is one of putting up with lots of injustice and the exhaustion that comes from that, which is reflected in the novella's overall tone.
But in the overall tone there's also lots of stress and anxiety (and sadness and anger and all the other things you'd expect people to feel in a prison camp). The emotion doesn't whack you in the face though. Shukhov isn't running around delivering anguished soliloquies or ranting and raving. The emotional outbursts we do get in the narrative are either pretty short-lived or are almost perfunctory, or delivered without any real sentiment behind them. Anger and violence seem to be how people deal with each other in the camp, and feeling anger and despair over life in the camp is also a normal state of affairs.
So what connects these deep emotions to the muted, exhausted tone often used in the narrative? That would be irony. Irony is a sort of black humor, a way of saying something that's funny but in a dry, dark sort of way. Irony can be a way to get a serious point across, or to highlight a serious situation, without being overly serious about it. So here's an example:
He's expected it, all right, but hearing it nevertheless cut him to the quick. Who wouldn't be sorry for his precious Sunday rest? Of course, what they were saying in the queue was true enough: your day off could be hell even in camp, they could always think up something for you to do [...]
Nothing seemed to upset them more than a zek sleeping after breakfast. (932-933)
While this scene starts out with some emotion (Shukhov is upset that he won't get Sunday off), it quickly switches over to a sarcastic list of how zeks usually get to "rest" on Sundays and ends with an ironic statement. Irony crops up all over the novel, in the narrator's tone, in Shukhov's thoughts and expressions, and often in the dialogue too.
During an angry scene at the mess hall, this exchange occurs, and Shukhov has a thought to add:
"104, form up in fives," Pavlo shouted down at them. "And you make way there, friends!"
The friends would be hanged first. (979-80)
Calling an angry mob "friends" is pretty funny in a dark sort of way. Sarcasm and irony seem to be good coping mechanisms in the camp, so it makes sense that the overall tone of the book reflects this, along with the emotional exhaustion and the periods of intense anger/sadness/stress that characterize a zek's daily life.
"Dystopian" usually refers to some sort of fictional world where things are bad (a utopia gone wrong), often due to an oppressive government. So things like Blade Runner, Children of Men, Lois Lowry's The Giver, or George Orwell's 1984 count as dystopian literature. But we'd like to make an argument for including One Day here as well. Though it's a work of fiction, One Day is set in the very real gulag prison system of the Soviet Union. But the world within these prison camps is largely a created one: it's a world that totally inverts the normal, outside world. In the camps, social hierarchies are flipped upside down, illogical rules govern everyday life, and arbitrary, or unpredictable, punishments are the norm. As Shukhov himself notes at one point, the world of the camps turns people upside down and inside out (827). If that's not dystopian, we're not sure what is.
Next up we have historical fiction. Historical fiction basically means that the setting and events in the book are real but the characters are largely fictional. One Day definitely fits the bill here. The gulag labor camp is a real, historically accurate place, but Shukhov and his fellow inmates are all fictional characters. The events these men discuss, such as World War II, are all real, historical things as well.
Finally, we have realism. One Day is definitely a realist novel – nothing is sugarcoated or fantasy here. One Day uses highly detailed, and often harsh, language to really capture the actual, lived experience of being in a gulag. It's an unflinching report that has some things in common with a non-fiction newspaper article, in that it deals with a lot of facts and historically accurate details.
Some books have titles that leave you going "huh?" This is not one of those books. This book is about what the title says it's about. Now, you may think there is nothing to talk about here since this title is super literal and obvious. But we here at Shmoop say that there's always something to talk about with literature, so here we go.
Aside from being mega-obvious, this title clues us in to how the story is structured – just like 24 lets you know how that show is set up. That's an apt comparison, since this book follows Ivan Denisovich over the course of exactly one day, from the moment he wakes up till the moment he goes to bed. Why is this particular day worth narrating? Well, we're glad you asked. Really, it's never made entirely clear. You can take Ivan Denisovich's day as a really special and unusual one, making it book-worthy. But this day is also very typical and is a lot like all the other days Ivan has spent in prison. Ivan's day is both average and unusual, and this combo may be why we're hearing about it.
There's another interesting thing about this seemingly boring title. We learn our main character's name right from the get-go: Ivan Denisovich. But when you start reading the book you end up hearing a ton about this dude named Shukhov, which is actually Ivan's last-name. Why isn't the title One Day in the Life of Shukhov then? We're not really sure. But most of the guys in the prison camp refer to each other by their last names. It's sort of like if you're on a sports team and people call you by your last name almost as a kind of nickname. But your first name is your actual name. So, since this story is the personal story of Shukhov, the title refers to him by his first name and not any sort of nickname or more distanced form of address. What do you think? We're just theorizing here.
Shukhov really sums up the ending best: he says that his day was "almost happy." "Almost" being the key word there. It's not really possible to have an actual "happy" day in a prison camp after all. And the things that make Shukhov happy are kind of pathetic really – he gets some extra food, he scores some tobacco, he avoids getting tossed in the "hole" (the punishment cell). This type of ending actually packs more of an emotional punch than an ending where Shukhov is actually in the hole. It shows us what his definition of "happy" has become, which demonstrates how awful camp life is. This ending also emphasizes how Shukhov is a survivor. His life may massively suck, but he still manages to look on the bright side of things.
The final sentences of the novella really put the whole story in perspective. We learn that this is just one day out of the 3,653 days of Shukhov's prison sentence. It's hard to get your head around, and it's the type of sentence that makes you go back and think about the entire book all over again.
Our overarching setting is the gulag system in the Stalin-run Soviet Union. It's important to make a distinction between the gulag system and the "outside world" of the Soviet Union. The gulag prison system is a whole world unto itself. It's like a hidden universe with its own rules and language and people and places.
Before we get into the gulag itself, it's worth noting the historical setting here: the Stalinist Soviet Union in 1951. We didn't say Russia here because the Soviet Union was composed of a lot of different countries, most of which Russia had invaded and taken over. You can see this sort of international smorgasbord in the camp – there are lots of Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, and even a Moldavian running around. Through backstories and flashbacks we hear about an outside world that is violent and dangerous. Stalin's oppressive government practically arrested people for sneezing, people were poor and struggling, and most of the prisoners had been involved in violent wars, either World War II or some sort of national resistance movement, like the Ukrainian one.
It's also worth noting the year here before we get to the camp itself. Stalin died in 1952, so by setting the book in 1951, Solzhenitsyn may be giving his readers a hint that times are changing and that many of the prisoners we read about may actually survive to get out of the gulag. (Want to read more about Soviet politics in this period? Check our "Intro" section).
And now for the camp itself. The camp here is unnamed and in an unspecified location, though it's likely somewhere out in a place like Siberia. The camp is a dirty, oppressive, and dangerous place. There's a ton of rules, mean guards, violence, and harsh living conditions. People here are exhausted, weak, starving, and freezing.
Life in the camp is almost claustrophobic. Shukhov often thinks about how their sentences are never-ending and how horribly long the days are. There's a sense that the camp is hopelessly inescapable. Shukhov is also always surrounded by people. There are hundreds of zeks and they are packed into huts and mess halls like sardines.
The mess was its usual self - frosty air steaming in from the door, men at the tables packed as tight as seeds in a sunflower, men wandering between tables, men trying to barge their way through with full trays. (990)
It's constant chaos, constant crowds, and constant confusion. The moments when Shukhov is alone are notable, and this is usually when he stops to consider his environment and to give us some detailed descriptions.
A dim red sun had risen over the deserted compound: over pre-fab panels half buried in snowdrifts [...] over the broken crank of an earthmoving machine, a jug, a heap of scrap iron. There were drains, trenches, holes everywhere. (250)
Winter plays an extremely important role in the setting. It adds to the harsh world of the camp and the ubiquitous (or present everywhere) snow and cold make the entire universe of the camp seem endless. The detail of all the broken equipment, and unfinished building projects also adds to this sense of endlessness. Whether he's surrounded by frozen, desolate space or is crowded in with hundreds of other prisoners, Shukhov experiences the sensation of being permanently trapped in the camp.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a pretty fast read. It's short and the language isn't difficult at all. In fact, this book uses fairly short sentences and lots of slang and curse words. You probably won't need to dig up a dictionary for this one. You may need some sort of history book though. The really tough thing about this book is that it assumes that you have some basic familiarity with Stalinist Russia. So before diving into this text, we'd recommend checking out some basic Russian history book/online resource, or use this super-handy guide (we here at Shmoop are shameless self-promoters). Once you have some basic understanding of the historical events discussed here, this book isn't overly difficult to read.
Light imagery plays a major, recurring role in the book. We frequently get descriptions of different kinds of light, most notably the glaring lights of the prison compound and the natural light of the sun and the moon. Both sets of lights play different roles in the life of the zek:
Two big searchlights from watchtowers in opposite corners crossed beams as they swept the compound. Lights were burning around the periphery, and inside the camp, dotted around in such numbers that they made the stars look dim. (36)
The lights of the camp are numerous, harsh, and controlling. They are there to reveal zeks to the eyes of the guards, and the zeks are basically under constant surveillance day or night. What's interesting here is that the lights are so bright that they even "dim" the stars. In a way the prison camp lights interrupt normal patterns of day and night. This fits in with another motif that crops up along with the light motif: time and clocks.
Zeks aren't allowed to own clocks, and the guards tell time "for them." In a sense, the prison uses lights to control not only the zeks but also day and night and time more generally. The zeks can only tell time by natural light, the sun or the moon, which the prison camp lights often drown out rather symbolically. Throughout the text, Shukhov makes note of the position of the sun and the moon, since it's his only way to tell time on his own. The frequent mentions of the sun and moon also help to emphasize how insanely long a zek's day is. Shukhov gets up when it's still dark and he doesn't get to leave the worksite until after the moon has risen.
We get some signs of religion and polite manners, generally when people are eating. Signs of religion include prisoners who cross themselves before eating, like Pavlo, or who stop to say prayers periodically, like Alyoshka. Polite manners basically amount to removing a cap when eating, which is something that Shukhov and Tyurin are noted for doing. These little gestures tell us a lot about a character and about what sort of person they are. Through these gestures we can also see a contrast between the types of conscientious people that Pavlo and Shukhov are and the sort of person that Fetyukov the scrounger is.
The snow and the freezing temperatures are practically characters in and of themselves here. Anytime Shukhov pauses to describe a scene, he mentions the snow and how cold it is. In fact, the cold winter weather is the first thing we hear about after Shukhov wakes up.
The ragged noise was muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows and soon died away. Too cold for the warder to go on hammering. (1)
The cold and the snow is a constant concern for the zeks, who struggle against freezing to death all day, and the frequent mentions of the cold weather help to hammer home the type of horrible conditions the zeks are facing. The snow also helps to emphasize the desolate and inescapable environment the zeks inhabit. The cold gets in everywhere and the snow seems to go on forever.
The column went [...] out onto the open steppe, walking into the wind and the reddening sunrise. Not so much as a sapling to be seen out on the steppe, nothing but bare white snow to the left or right. (221)
It's fitting that this book occurs in the winter where everything is dead and there's nothing but snow in any direction. The snow here might symbolize the sort of endless sameness of a zek's existence.
Like snow and the cold, food is like another character in this book. And aside from worrying about keeping warm, food is the primary concern of a zek. Shukhov spends the bulk of the book thinking about food: planning what he's going to eat and when, scheming to get more food, longing for good food, worrying about bad food, etc. This total fixation on food really helps to emphasize the horrible conditions in the camps, where zeks barely get enough food to survive. Food also helps to tell us a lot about our different characters. The way characters eat, and what they eat, are all important tools of characterization in the book.
Shukhov definitely doesn't own much, but the few things he does own deserve special mention. We hear a lot about Shukhov's spoon, which acts as a little memorial to his time as a prisoner since Shukhov carved when and where he made it into the handle. In a way the spoon serves the same function as Shukhov's practice of removing his hat before meals: both gestures are a way for Shukhov to hold on to some sense of self and his past in the camps, instead of just existing on a day to day basis as a mindless robot. Shukhov works hard not to lose himself or his past in the camps.
Shukhov's other notable possessions also help to give us increased insight into his character. He owns a needle and thread, and he plans to make a bread knife out of the piece of steel he finds. He also has a trowel that he hides for safekeeping at the worksite. All of these objects are signs of how industrious and hard-working Shukhov is, as well as evidence of how well he plans ahead. He takes good care of his possessions, and he uses them to help him survive.
Finally, we have the lost possession that Shukhov takes the time to mourn: his lost shoes.
He'd taken such good care of his nice new shoes, he'd greased them to make them soft [...] He'd never missed anything so much in all those eight years. The shoes were all tossed on one big pile [....] (58)
Shukhov's shoes represent how cruel camp life can be – everything is stripped away from inmates in the prison, and prisoners can lose their belongings at any time. Since Shukhov has almost nothing that is his own, his belongings become hugely important to him, and are almost like friends. So losing something like his much-loved shoes is really quite painful.
This may also be a somewhat subtle dig against the sort of communism practiced in the Soviet Union. Private property was "bad" and the government went around seizing people's belongings, much as Shukhov's beloved shoes are tossed into an impersonal pile.
We hear about how some "stoolies," or prisoners who act as informants for the guards and snitch on fellow prisoners, have gotten their throats cut. The throat cutting spree has definitely shaken things up at the camp, and we can see a gradual shift beginning in the balance of power. Shukhov comments on this in one scene:
Der turned pale and moved away from the ramp.
"Steady on, boys! Take it easy!" he said. [...]
Pavlo walked slowly down the plank with his shovel.
Oh, yes. Slitting a few throats had made a difference. Just three of them – and you wouldn't know it was the same camp. (616-620)
It's no mistake that the zeks seem to be fighting back and that things seem to be changing in the camp. This book is set in 1951, one year before Stalin's death, which would kick off a "thaw" where lots of prisoners were released from the gulags in the late 1950s. In a way this throat cutting spree is a sign that change is on the horizon, and it also acts a warning to people who enforce oppressive systems like the gulag. (Want to read more about the history of Stalin's regime and the gulag? Check out our "Intro" section.)
We're not gonna lie: the narrative point of view in this book is weird. Really, really weird. We actually have three different narrative techniques that work together here. So let's break them down and see what we've got.
First, we have Shukhov himself as a narrator. Shukhov often narrates using the first person. And we often hear his direct, inner thoughts, which are usually offset by the lack of a subject. In other words, when we hear Shukhov's thoughts, the subject of his sentences is often implied. If you are thinking about what you need to do today, you probably don't think in complete sentences; your thought would be something like "Need to buy some milk," with the "I" being implied. Here's an example of Shukhov doing that:
Down into the mixing room. Can't just leave the trowel lying around. Might not be brought out tomorrow. (690)
So we have first person, and implied subjects. Shukhov often speaks directly to the audience using the second person "you." Though it is debatable as to whether or not he's actually addressing anyone directly, like Ferris Bueller. When Shukhov uses "you" it could sometimes be a way of psychologically distancing himself from his awful situation, so that the bad stuff is happening to some sort of distant "you" and not to him directly. And Shukhov also sometimes uses "you" when he's silently addressing another person in his head.
On top of all of this, we also have a limited omniscient narrator who uses the third person. This limited omniscient narrator is "limited" because we only have access to Shukhov's inner thoughts, not the thoughts of all the characters. This narrator tells us what Shukhov is doing and sometimes what Shukhov is thinking/feeling, even though Shukhov often does this himself. What's truly weird about these narrative points of view is that they switch back and forth constantly, even within the same paragraph.
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. Started showing me how to lay blocks once. Laughed myself sick. Till you've built one house with your own hands, you're no engineer. That's how I see it. (596)
So within one paragraph we have a narrator talking about Shukhov in the third person; a sentence with an implied subject; a first person address from Shukhov; and a second person address from Shukhov. Sheesh. In some ways the lack of a break between different styles of sentences mirrors Shukhov's stream-of-consciousness thought process, which means that his thoughts tend to jump around to different things constantly.
If you're wondering how the "riches" part applies here, just bear with us, we think it'll make sense. Shukhov feels ill here and has a stressful morning in the camp where he is unjustly punished for "sleeping late" and is turned away from sickbay. He then has to line up and march to the worksite for a long day.
Shukhov's day starts improving some. He and his gang get a decent assignment, he gets some extra food at dinner, and he finds his work as a bricklayer enjoyable.
After a frantic rush to finish his job, Shukhov is nearly late lining up and gets yelled at by hundreds of tired and angry men. Then the gangs are all late leaving the worksite since another worker was missing. Shukhov is frustrated and tired.
Shukhov makes it back to camp at an OK time and his time is his own now. However, he must pick up a package and get through a chaotic scene in the mess hall.
Shukhov ends his day happily after he picks up some good tobacco and earns a reward of food after helping out a fellow inmate. See? He has "riches" now.
We meet our protagonist here and get an initial introduction to gulag life, as well as to two of the book's most important themes: injustice and futility, or the uselessness of protesting to people in power.
A series of bad things happen to Shukhov here – he has to clean a floor, he doesn't get much for breakfast, and he is turned away from sickbay. Things seems to be improving when his gang avoids a bad assignment, but then they all have to take off their jackets during the morning search, so everyone is colder than usual.
Shukhov solves a whole series of problems here, from how to warm up the work site to how to get some extra dinner, and each time one problem is solved, another one arises.
Shukhov narrowly avoids a bad situation when he is almost late in lining up at the end of the work day. This is a very tense scene and right after it is even more tension, as the gangs leave the work site late after a series of frustrating head counts.
A whole series of suspenseful, but successful, events happen to Shukhov here: his gang beats the engineers, he smuggles a blade in, he picks up a package, and he successfully navigates the chaos of the mess hall.
The day starts winding down as Shukhov picks up some tobacco, heads back to his hut, and helps out Tsezar during the roll call.
Shukhov discovers a reward from Tsezar when they get back inside and they only endure one more roll call before finally going to sleep. Shukhov is pretty happy with his day as he drifts to sleep.
Morning in the camp – from when Shukhov wakes up till the gangs arrive at the worksite.
The workday – the entire period at the worksite until the gangs march back to camp.
Nighttime in the camp – from the arrival back at camp that night until the end of the book.