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.
Signs of Religion and Polite Manners
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.
Snow, Ice, and Cold
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.)