Study Guide

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Quotes

  • Power

    But at that very moment the hand of authority whipped his jerkin and his blanket away. [...] Down below, with his head on the level of the upper bunk, stood the gaunt Tartar. (25)

    It's interesting that the "hand of authority" is depicted as almost God-like here; it's not an actual person yanking Shukhov's blanket away, but some sort of omnipotent, or all-powerful and all-knowing, force. Or a mad parent. Either way.

    Every portion was underweight - the only question was by how much. Twice a day you looked at it and tried to set your mind at rest. Maybe they haven't robbed me blind this time? (132)

    Injustice is a constant theme throughout this text and the zeks have to confront, and largely let slide, various injustices throughout the day. There's no way to directly fight injustice in the camp, as we see with poor Buynovsky, who gets tossed in the hole after protesting his unfair treatment.

    "Maybe it was in their day!" the captain snapped back. "Since then it's been decreed that the sun is highest at one o'clock."
    "Who decreed that?"

    "The Soviet government."

    The captain took off with the handbarrow, but Shukhov wasn't going to argue anyway. As if the sun would obey their decrees! (363-6)

    We don't get many direct mentions of the Soviet government in the book, but it's definitely the unspoken, and harsh, force behind the entire camp system. It is interesting that the Soviet government is invoked, or brought up, directly in relation to an illogical decree. Like the camps, the entire government itself passed a lot of irrational "decrees."

    "But would it have got past the censor if he'd handled it differently?"

    "Oh well, if that's what matters [....] Only don't call him a genius – call him a toady, a dog carrying out his master's orders. A genius doesn't adjust his treatment of a theme to a tyrant's taste." (495-6)

    We encounter very few prisoners who are in the camp for some sort of cultural activity – most of the men are ex-soldiers, resistance fighters, peasants, etc. This debate stands out for bringing up art, and it also serves as an interesting metaphor for survival in the camps. To rephrase it, should a prisoner openly fight against a tyrannical camp system, or should he adapt to the system in order to survive and resist only in small ways?

    You can turn a man upside down, inside out, any way you like. (827)

    This is a powerful thematic statement for the entire gulag system, and sums up exactly how the gulag operates and exactly what the gulag's power really is.

    Who is the convict's worst enemy? Another convict. If zeks didn't squabble amongst themselves, the bosses would have no power over them. (865)

    We see signs of this sort of chaotic in-fighting among the zeks throughout the entire day, especially in the mess hall, where it is always five seconds away from a food fight/brawl. The bosses just have to set up a system where the zeks are forced to compete against each other.

    [Volkovoy] would pop up when you least expected him, shouting, "Why are you all hanging around here?" There was no hiding from him. At one time he'd carried a lash [...] They said he thrashed people in the camp jail. Or else, when zeks were huddled outside [...] he would creep up and slash you across the neck with it. (173)

    Volkovoy stands in as a representative for all the guards and their worst abuses of power. It's interesting that he is depicted as "surprising" or sneaky multiple times in the book, which is something of a metaphor for prison life: something or someone is always there to catch the zeks off guard.

    "You have no right to make people undress in the freezing cold! You don't know Article 9 of the Criminal Code!"

    But they did have. They did know. It's you, brother, who don't know anything yet! (187-8)

    Poor Buynovsky, still clinging to his ideas of justice and fairness, is punished for this outburst, while Shukhov cynically comments that he doesn't realize how powerless the zeks are yet. In his later work, Solzhenitsyn would discuss how the Criminal Code itself was set up to abuse power.

    All the men in Gang 104 saw Shukhov being led out, but nobody said a word: what good would it do, whatever you said? (34)

    Futility, or the uselessness of taking action, is a running theme throughout the book, and may be the most terrible aspect of camp life. If everything is futile for zeks, then it's a constant battle not to slide into depression or hopelessness.

    What kept body and soul together in these men was a mystery. Canvas belts were drawn tight around empty bellies. The frost was crackling merrily. Not a warm spot, nor a spark of fire anywhere. All the same - Gang 104 had arrived, and life was beginning all over again. (313)

    Shukhov is unusually metaphysical here as he considers how life itself has the power to go on in the camps. Shukhov even uses metaphorical language here as well, when he speaks of a "spark of fire," which can act a symbol for life.

  • Time

    The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o'clock as always. Time to get up. (1)

    The idea of "as always" acts as a constant undercurrent to Shukhov's entire day and it really helps to bring the entire book full circle when it's considered in context with the book's final lines on how many thousands of days Shukhov has in his prison sentence. His days in prison are literally "as always."

    Shukhov never overslept. He was always up at the call. That way he had an hour and a half all to himself before work parade - time for a man who knew his way around to earn a bit on the side. (4)

    We learn a lot about Shukhov's character here, particularly how disciplined he is and how he carefully manages and covets his time. We also learn about how valuable time is in the camps, since there's so little free time available.

    A convict's thoughts are no freer than he is: they come back to the same place, worry over the same thing continually. (219)

    Life in the camps is almost suffocating in many ways and zeks are imprisoned both physically and mentally. The diction here, the word "continually" especially, help us to see how the zeks are forced to fight the same battles day after day, as if they were on some sort of perpetual treadmill just running in place.

    Apart from sleep an old lag can call his life his own only for ten minutes at breakfast time, five at lunchtime, and five more at suppertime. (86)

    This statement is actually rather ironic since it is later proven false; throughout his day Shukhov worries through all his meals about how to score more food. Shukhov's mind never stops working or planning.

    The sick bay was in the most out-of-the-way corner of the camp, and no sound whatsoever reached it: there was not even the ticking of a clock - prisoners were not allowed clocks. The big boys tell the time for them. (112)

    The fact that zeks aren't allowed clocks is hugely important, and acts as a symbol for the type of overpowering control that the guards have. Prisoners can't even call time their own in the camps.

    A zek's day is a long one, though, and he can find time for everything. (248)

    Time is a bit of a paradox, or a contradiction, in the camps. Prisoners have no time of their own and their time is eaten up in worry over matters of survival. But at the same time, pun not intended there, the prisoners' days are horribly long. There's never enough time and there's also too much of it. So maybe it comes down to different types of time here – personal time, work time, etc.

    Amazing how time flew when you were working. He'd often noticed that days in the camp rolled by before you knew it. Yet your sentence stood still, the time you had to serve never got any less. (355)

    Shukhov really gets at the heart of the time conundrum, or question, here when he notes that the days in the camp just keep piling up but the end of it all never approaches – like that never-ending first period class that you hate which crops up every morning like a bad penny. You know the one.

    When you're flat on your face there's no time to wonder how you got in and when you'll get out. (388)

    This is a really powerful image for how downtrodden the prisoners are in the camp. There's no time for anything but survival.

    The whole crowd, Shukhov as well, were furious. What sort of rotten creep, louse, shit, swine, murdering bastard was he? The sky was dark, what light there was must be coming from the moon, the frost was hardening for the night, and the mangy cur was missing! Hadn't the shit had his fill of work? Wasn't the official working day, eleven hours of it from dawn to dusk, long enough for him? (761)

    Stylistically, this is a great example of stream-of-consciousness, which is where we hear Shukhov's thoughts reflected in the general narrative itself. We don't have quote marks to signal it, but the furious language and the thoughts about all the wasted time indicate that this is coming from Shukhov himself.

    Well, it was no joke - he'd robbed more than five hundred men of more than half and hour of their time. (784)

    The diction here is interesting – time can be "robbed" or stolen in the camps, and time itself is a precious possession for the prisoners.

    Ten days! Ten days in that cell block, if they were strict about it and made you sit out the whole stint, meant your health was ruined for life. It meant tuberculosis and the rest of your days in the hospital. (1126)

    Though the camp sentences and the days in camp seem almost impossibly long, it's interesting that we get a contrasting picture here, with the idea that a prisoner's health can be totally ruined after just ten days.

    Just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell. (1232)

    The final sentences of the book really help to put Shukhov's story in perspective; it's really hard to fathom, or understand, exactly how many stressful and demoralizing days Shukhov has to spend in the camps.

  • Rules and Order

    Washing the floor was a job for the hut orderly, a zek who wasn't sent out to work. But he had made himself so much at home in the HQ hut that [...] for some time now he'd regarded cleaning floors for mere warders as demeaning. They'd sent for him a time or two, then realized how things stood and started "pulling" one or another of the working prisoners to clean the floor. (41)

    Informal rules and understandings dominate everything in the camp, to the point that living and surviving there requires learning of tacit, or understood but unspoken, agreements about how things work. It's almost like learning a whole new language.

    There are two ends to a stick, and there's more than one way of working. If it's for human beings - make sure and do it properly. If it's for the big man - just make it look good. (71)

    Shukhov here references what is one of the main "laws" that prisoners follow. They may have limited power, but they obviously resist the guards when and where they can.

    You had to be wide awake all the time. Make sure a warder never saw you on your own, only as one of a crowd. He might be looking for somebody to do a job, or he might just want to take his spite out on you. (94)

    This idea of being "wide awake" really sums up the experience of being in the camps. As we see throughout the day, Shukhov has to be constantly alert and thinking in order to navigate the rules of camp life. It gets exhausting.

    Those numbers were the plague of a zek's life. A warder could spot him a long way off. [...] And if you didn't get it touched up in time, you were in the hole for not looking after it! (157)

    The numbers act as a symbol in the book. They represent how dehumanized the prisoners are in the camp, and they also represent the rules and anxiety prisoners have to deal with on a daily basis.

    So the rule was that every zek carried some firewood every day. Sometimes you'd get it home, sometimes it would be taken from you. You never knew. (747)

    This idea of "never knowing" is a running theme in the book. For all the rules and regulations of camp life, it is ultimately highly unpredictable. The guards can ignore or enforce rules whenever they feel like it, which makes a prisoner's life very tenuous, or uncertain.

    "Why so late? Why didn't you come last night? Didn't you know there's no clinic in the morning? The sick list has gone over to PPS already."

    Shukhov knew all that. He also knew it was no easier to get off work in the evening.
    "Yes, but, Kolya, it didn't start hurting last night, when it ought to have." (104-6)

    Rules in the camp aren't just uncertain and stressful; they are also irrational. The rules regulating sickbay are really absurd, which Shukhov sarcastically notes in his statement to Kolya here.

    "Step on it!" the guard commander shouted. "Front marker - step on it!"

    Like hell we will!

    The zeks plodded on, heads down, like men going to a funeral. Nothing to lose now, we're last back in camp anyway. You wouldn't treat us like human beings, so bust a gut shouting. (830-2)

    The guards and the zeks are in a constant tug-of-war. Though they have limited power, the prisoners can often act in a way that challenges the guards. And for all their power, the guards only have so much control over the prisoners, as we see here.

    He hadn't remembered having anything forbidden, but wariness had become second nature after eight years inside. (882)

    This idea of wariness is important since it highlights they type of "education" a person gets in the camps. Prisoners have to "learn" certain kinds of behavior in order to survive and to deal with the ridiculous rules that govern the camp.

    The commandant set great store by that order. Nobody dared argue with him. The warders grabbed lone wanderers, took down their numbers, hauled them off to the jailhouse - but in the end the order was ditched. Quietly, as so many loudmouthed orders are. (952)

    This episode really sums up how the camp is run in a nutshell. In a lot of ways it's just a stupid bureaucratic system that's really inefficient. This episode also helps to explain why the rules of the camp are so confusing – prisoners can't follow half of them, and the guards can't really enforce all of them either.

    Just then the gangs began heaving and shoving (nothing else for it - lights out soon!), as though they were storming a fortress, taking the steps one at a time and swarming onto the porch.

    "Halt, you sons of bitches!" Limpy roared, raising his stick at those in front. "I'll split somebody's head open in a minute!" (967-8)

    This sort of scene is the end result of the types of rules governing the camp. Limpy isn't allowed to let everyone in the mess hall, but the prisoners have to be in their huts at "lights out," so the two end up fighting. There's really no way to actually follow every rule of the camp.

    Oh, yes. Slitting a few throats had made a difference. Just three of them - and you wouldn't know it was the same camp.

    Der was afraid to stay, and afraid to go down. He stood still, hiding behind Kildig's back. (620-1)

    This small scene, and the references to all the throat cutting, hint at a shift in the balance of power in the camps. The prisoners are starting to establish a new "order" here, so to speak.

  • Perseverance

    He'd learned to keep his whole mind on the food he was eating. (258)

    This sort of single-minded focus doesn't just characterize Shukhov's eating habits; it characterizes his entire approach to living and surviving in the camp.

    [Senka had] escaped death by some miracle, and now he was serving his time quietly. Kick up a fuss, he said, and you're done for.

    He was right there. Best to grin and bear it. Dig in your heels and they'll break you in two. (268-7)

    Senka's attitude here touches upon the running theme of futility, or worthlessness of action. Prisoners who really fight back are easily "broken." But "bearing" it doesn't mean happily accepting things. As Shukhov shows, there's a lot of bending going on, or quiet resistance.

    But then, of course, Kildigs could count on a square meal, he got two parcels every month, he had color in his cheeks, and didn't look like a convict at all. He could afford to see the funny side. (293)

    Kildigs shows a different approach to camp life than Shukhov. Kildigs has a sense of humor and turns everything into a joke. But Shukhov notably points out the reason for Kildigs good sense of humor, hinting that, for the average prisoner, it's a hard attitude to maintain.

    "You just try eight years' hard labor. Nobody's gone the distance yet." (388)

    Did Solzhenitsyn predict the movie Rocky here? At any rate, this idea of "going the distance" is central to the camp survival mindset. Surviving the camp is a lot like running a marathon.

    Moments like this, though he didn't know it, were very important to him: they were turning the loud and domineering naval officer into a slow-moving and circumspect zek: only this economy of effort would enable him to endure the twenty-five years of imprisonment doled out to him. (467)

    We see how camp is like running a marathon here with Buynovsky. He's learning to slow down and to conserve his energy in order to survive. It's interesting that this process is such a transformation. In a way Buynovsky won't really be Buynovsky for much longer. We wonder what Shukhov used to be like before he adapted so successfully to camp life. It's important that while we see Tsezar and Buynovsky struggling to adapt, we meet Shukhov when he's already successfully acclimated, or used to, camp life.

    But he refused to knuckle under: he didn't put his three hundred grams on the dirty table, splashed all over, like the others, he put it on a rag he washed regularly. (1029)

    Shukhov here is discussing the legendary prisoner Yu-81. Yu-81 is a picture of Shukhov's possible future in a lot of ways – the long-time prisoner who refused to give in and lose his sense of self-respect.

    Fetyukov passed down the hut, sobbing. He was bent double. His lips were smeared with blood. He must have been beaten up again for licking out bowls. [....]

    You felt sorry for him, really. He wouldn't see his time out. He didn't know how to look after himself. (1078-9)

    This detail about Fetyukov licking bowls is important. The idea is introduced at the very beginning, when Shukhov how his first foreman pointed to licking bowls as a sign that a prisoner won't survive long. Perhaps because licking bowls hints at desperation and a lack of self-respect that will lead to a zek's decline. Fetyukov may be a scavenger because he's so desperate and because he isn't savvy enough to find better ways to survive.

    "That's just the sort of think you shouldn't pray for! What good is freedom to you! If you're free, your faith will soon be choked by thorns! Be glad you're in prison. Here you have time to think about your soul." (1198)

    Alyoshka has a radically different attitude towards prison, compared to the rest of Gang 104. Alyoshka is actually happy to be there. But Shukhov hints that his positive thinking may not be such a good thing since Alyoshka lets it drown out his common sense. Alyoshka lacks the sharp survival skills that need to go along with a positive attitude.

    He immediately stopped expecting anything from the goodies on display. No good letting your belly get excited when there's nothing to come. (1072)

    We see here more evidence of how well-trained Shukhov is. He has a ton of mental discipline and self-control.

  • Competition

    But he was authorized to let off only two men in the morning. And there were already two names under the greenish glass on top of the desk. With a little line drawn under them. (109)

    The little line under the two names really symbolizes how tough competition is in the camps. Here there are only two slots "open" in the hospital for hundreds of men who would welcome, and who probably need, medical care.

    Some other lot, poorer and more stupid, would be shunted off to Sotsgorodok. It would be murder out there - twenty-seven below, with a mean wind blowing, no shelter, and no hope for a warm! (147)

    It's important that Shukhov points out how another gang is going to suffer because his own gang got out of the bad work assignment. Competition is definitely brutal in the camps and if somebody wins something, somebody else gets seriously screwed over.

    He knew from what the free workers said - drivers and bull-dozer operators on construction sites - that the straight and narrow was barred to ordinary people, but they didn't let it get them down, they took a roundabout way and survived somehow. (231)

    It's interesting that the outside world really mirrors the camp world in a lot of ways. In both places, people have to fight hard to survive and often have to do it in very roundabout ways.

    Their places were grabbed immediately. Men hovered around the stove as though it was a woman they wanted to get their hands on. (402)

    This scene, and the simile used here, really demonstrates how eager and desperate the men are for something as simple as warmth by a stove. (A simile, just so you know, is a comparison that uses "like" or "as.") _QUOTE_END_ _THOUGHT_START_

    He also managed to get back to the table and to do a quick count - yes, they were all there, the neighbors hadn't got around to pinching any, though there was nothing to stop them. (446)

    Shukhov here demonstrates how fierce competition in the camp is and how alert a prisoner has to be at all times. Someone is always trying to steal from someone else.

    But he had to hurry, so that Pavlo would see him finish and would offer him the second portion. And then there was Fetyukov, who had arrived with the Estonians and had spotted him swiping the two bowls, and was now eating on his feet across the table from Pavlo, ogling the gang's four unallotted portions. (459)

    Shukhov's thoughts here reveal how stressful camp life is. Even while eating, Shukhov has to plan and worry and position himself, literally, to beat out another gang member.

    (Shukhov had another reason for hurrying. They'd drawn only one plumb line from the tool store and he wanted to get hold of it before Kildigs.) (539)

    Once again, Shukhov shows how competition happens even within a gang, which often operates like a family or at least a cooperative unit.

    "Right, then!" Pavlo sprang up. A young man, with fresh blood in his veins. The camps hadn't knocked the stuffing out of him yet. [....] "If you're going to lay yourself, I'll make mortar. Let's see who gets most done." (543)

    This is one of the very rare instances of friendly competition that we see in the book. Pavlo, young and energetic, is in many ways a foil for Buynovsky, who is also young and bold, but hasn't yet adapted to life in the camps.

    But when the camp suddenly needed a bricklayer - Shukhov thought he might as well be one. If you can do two things with your hands, you'll soon pick up another ten. (597)

    Shukhov's attitude here demonstrates how he's managed to stay ahead in the competitive world of the camps. He's very savvy and he always places himself in a position to do well. As a skilled worker, Shukhov gets a better food cut for supper, and he also helps to improve his mindset since he actually somewhat enjoys his work. It's better than hauling a wheelbarrow at any rate.

    There's thieving on the site, there's thieving in the camp, and there was thieving before the food ever left the store. And not one of those thieves wields a pickax himself. You do that, and take what you're given. And move away from the serving hatch. It's dog eat dog here. (414-5)

    Thieving, thieving everywhere. The sentence structure here is really interesting. The first section starts out with a lot of repetition ("thieving") and a longer sentence length. The final sentence is much shorter and blunter and helps to hammer the point about competition and unfairness home.

    Whatever they'd been talking or thinking about was forgotten. The whole column had one thing and one thing only on its mind.

    "Get ahead of Ten! Beat them to it!" (843-4)

    This is one of the rare examples where a group competes together against another group; the bulk of the competition we see in the book is of an individual nature, which highlights how isolating and lonely camp life is.

    Shukhov, behind him, slipped the words into his ear: "I'll come and get the tray, pal - I'm right behind you."

    "That fellow over by the window's waiting for it, I promised him [...]"

    "He can take a running jump - should've kept his eyes open."

    They made a deal. (991-4)

    Shukhov often does nice things for fellow gang members throughout his day, but he definitely has a ruthless streak and he has limited sympathy for prisoners who aren't competitive or aware.

  • Principles

    Next, he removed his cap from his shaven head - however cold it was, he wouldn't let himself eat with his cap on (85)

    This detail about the cap crops up multiple times in the book and starts acting like a sort of character barometer, or measurement. Characters who remove their caps while eating have both self-respect and good survival skills. Pavlo, Tyurin, Shukhov, and Yu-81 all fit in this category.

    Right then he seemed to yearn for that [cigarette] butt more than for freedom itself, but he wouldn't lower himself like Fetyukov, wouldn't look at Tsezar's mouth. (162)

    Shukhov definitely has maintained some standards and pride in the camp, unlike Fetyukov, who seems to constantly debase himself. Shukhov's pride isn't often dangerous, though, unlike Buynovsky, who is far too stubborn.

    Shukhov had been knocking around for forty years, he'd lost half his teeth and was going bald, but he'd never given or taken a bribe outside and hadn't picked up the habit in the camps. (232)

    Again Shukhov's honorable nature is mentioned, but it's important to note that it's tied to his past. We get a hint here that Shukhov hasn't completely transformed as a person in the camps and that he was moral in the outside world as well. Shukhov has transformed physically, as the first sentence demonstrates, however the "but" in the sentence emphasizes how Shukhov has maintained his character.

    Easy money had no weight: you didn't feel you'd earned it. What you get for a song you won't have for long, the old folks used to say, and they were right. (233)

    Shukhov's work ethic is one of the most important aspects of his character, and we get an early hint of how he approaches work before we get to the actual work day.

    The scavenger gave a nasty little snigger - half his teeth were missing - and said: "Just you wait, Captain, when you've been inside eight years, you'll be doing the same yourself."

    True enough, in its time the camp had seen off prouder people than Buynovsky. (265-6)

    This idea of pride is an important one in the text. We see lots of different kinds of pride. Some pride is a good thing, but too much pride and stubbornness can be dangerous, as Buynovsky reveals.

    "People are getting their throats cut in bed. And he says it's more peaceful!"

    Pavlo raised a threatening finger at Fetyukov. "Stoolies, not people!" (393-4)

    We get a couple of hints of the prisoners' moral code in the book, but this is the most definite statement. Pavlo considers good prisoners "people," implying that snitches and guards are not. Shukhov agrees with this sentiment – when he is mopping the floor he mentions good work should only be done for "human beings." (Check out that Quote in the "Rules and Order" quote section.)

    Pavlo tantalized him a bit longer while he finished his gruel, licked his spoon clean (but not the bowl), put it away safely, and crossed himself. (463)

    Again, the idea of licking out bowls pops up. This time we see that Pavlo isn't in danger of totally falling apart in the camp. Furthermore, Pavlo shows a hint of his morals here when he crosses himself. A lot of people in the camp fail to maintain their religious beliefs, so it's notable that Pavlo appears to do so.

    He worked fast and skillfully, but without thinking about it. His mind and his eyes were studying the wall, the facade of the Power Station, two cinder blocks thick, as it showed from under the ice. Whoever had been laying there before was either a bungler or a slacker. Shukhov would get to know every inch of that wall as if he owned it. (538)

    Even though he is being used as slave labor, Shukhov still works hard and works well. He takes pride in his abilities and his work, and he seems genuinely miffed, or displeased, at the "slacker" who worked on the wall before him. In a way, Shukhov's work ethic lets him "own" his work, and fight back against his enslavement, which tries to take everything from him.

    He and the other Baptists spent their Sundays whispering to each other. Life in the camp was like water off a duck's back to them. They'd been lumbered with twenty-five years apiece just for being Baptists. Fancy thinking that would cure them! (236)

    It appears that Alyoshka isn't alone in his religious zeal and his attitude towards camp life. His fellow Baptists also fight back using their religious beliefs and dedication.

    But even after eight years on general duties he was no scrounger, and as time went by, he was more and more determined not to be. (1066)

    This one sentence may be at the very heart of Shukhov's character. His refusal to become a "scrounger" really sums up who he is as a person.

    "I'm quite ready to believe in God. But I just don't believe in heaven or hell. Why do you think everybody deserves either heaven or hell? What sort of idiots do you take us for? That's what I don't like." (1195)

    We get practically no philosophical statements from Shukhov in the book; his actions generally do more to reveal his beliefs. It's really interesting that Shukhov doesn't think men deserve either heaven or hell. It would stand to reason that he'd want the prison guards to go to hell, at least. But his religious beliefs reveal the impact of camp life on him: life in the camp is futile, things happen regardless, and everyone is morally compromised to some degree.

  • Memory and the Past

    He couldn't see anything but he knew that from the sounds just what was going on in the hut and in his own gang's corner. (9)

    The idea that the days in the camp are very similar, and in a sense one gigantic, never-ending day, appears here. Shukhov can know exactly what's happening without even looking. It's like Groundhog Day.

    Shukhov drew his spoon from his boot. That spoon was precious, it had traveled all over the north with him. He'd cast it himself from aluminum wire in a sand mold and scratched on it: "Ust-Izhma, 1944." (84)

    Shukhov's few possessions are very precious to him. His little spoon almost acts like a portable memorial for him since he's confronted with how many years he's been in the camp every day when he uses it.

    The way his brush moved as he painted a number on a cap made you think of a priest anointing a man's forehead with holy oil. (158)

    This little throw-away reference of Shukhov's is really quite revealing. Shukhov often mentions how prisoners have little time to recall the past and how home is very hard to recall. But here he seems to remember something almost unconsciously because of the artist's manner, which may be the artist's own way of holding onto his own past and his own dignity.

    Writing letters home was like throwing stones into a bottomless pool. They sank without a trace. (224)

    The imagery here is quite powerful, especially the idea that the past itself is some sort of "bottomless pool." Shukhov will really never be able to go home in a way, or to fully regain his past. In a way the prisoners themselves are like the stones sinking here. They too disappear without a trace.

    Since he'd been in the camps Shukhov had thought many a time of the food they used to eat in the village [...] But he knew better now that he'd been inside. (258)

    Shukhov's considerable self-discipline also extends to his thoughts on the past. He seems to have schooled himself, or at least attempts to school himself, to not dwell on the past.

    Shukhov stared into the flames and his seven years in the north came back to him. Three years hauling logs for crates and rail ties to the log slide. (390)

    Though Shukhov has been in the gulag system for eight years, we learn that he's only been in this particular camp for one year. Shukhov is very well-adjusted though, so either he is a fast learner or all the gulag camps are pretty similar. However, as this scene reveals, there were some definite differences between the camps and it sounds like Shukhov's life was much harder there.

    The long suffering Senka was mostly silent. Couldn't hear and didn't butt in. So nobody knew much about him except that he'd gone through Buchenwald, been in an underground organization there, and carried weapons into the compound for an uprising. (386)

    Shukhov discusses many of his fellow prisoner's pasts confidently, as if he knows all he needs to know about them. Senka, though, is definitely an enigma. We only know enough about his past to make us curious, which definitely contrasts to a lot of the other characters in Gang 104.

    They could all hear the captain barking in the doorway as though he was still on the bridge of his ship: "Must you clutter up the place like this? Eat up, get out, and give somebody else a chance." (453)

    The captain often seems to forget where he is entirely and to behave as if he is still a naval captain on a ship. The captain shows how dangerous it can be to live wholly in the past in the camps. But there's also something amusing about the captain yelling at everyone constantly – he provides unintentional comedy.

    You don't need brains to carry a handbarrow. That's why the foreman put those ex-bosses on the job. Fetyukov was supposed to have been a big boss in some office. Went around in a car.

    When they first worked together, Fetyukov had tried throwing his weight around and shouting at the captain. But the captain smacked him in the teeth, and they called it quits. (320-1)

    There's a lot of interesting social class commentary done through the character of Fetyukov. The ex-boss is now the low man on the totem pole, while formerly lower class people like Shukhov are skilled laborers in the Gang. The social classes of the outside world are flipped in the camp. Though the captain wasn't exactly lower class before, he would have ranked below Fetyukov socially in the outside world.

    It was strange when you came to think of it. [...] The black herd of zeks. One of them, in the same sort of jacket as the rest, Shch-311, had never known life without golden epaulettes, had been pals with a British admiral, and here he was hauling a handbarrow with Fetyukov. (826)

    This idea of social classes being flipped around are further demonstrated here. This scene is also notably for being one of the few places where Shukhov actually considers how bizarre the world of the camps really is. He usually just accepts it at face value and deals with it.

    Yes - that's what they all called it, "home."

    Their days were too full to remember any other home. (873-4)

    In a way, the present life of the camp is actually drowning out Shukhov's past, as well as the past of the other prisoners. His old home has been replaced by a "new" one, or the closest thing to a home now.

    As time went by, he had less and less to remind him of the village of Temgenyovo and his cottage home. Life in the camp kept him on the go from getting-up time to lights-out. No time for brooding on the past. (929)

    Shukhov makes statements about how full his days are and how he has little time to dwell on the past, but his thoughts often seem to contradict these assertions. Shukhov seems to recall his past, even as he tells himself to stop recalling it.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    His wife's dearest hope was that when he got home he would keep clear of the kolkhoz and take up dyeing himself. That way they could get out of the poverty she was struggling against, send their children to trade schools, and build themselves a new cottage in place of their old tumble-down place. (227)

    Shukhov's wife is a really interesting character, though she never appears and we hear comparatively little about her. The fact that her future hopes hinge on Shukhov's return creates a lot of pathos for Shukhov's overall situation. Pathos is a literary device, and it's basically a way of saying that the language creates sympathy in the reader. For instance, the diction here – words like "struggling" and "tumble-down" – help us to feel sympathy for Shukhov's family.

    Shukhov still had quite a bit of time to do - a winter, a summer, another winter, another summer (228)

    The time Shukhov measures out here sounds deceptively short, which is interesting given that before his seasonal list he notes he has "quite a bit" of time left in the camps. Shukhov's future is largely a question mark and he often has trouble planning beyond the end of his sentence.

    His fingers were wonderfully nimble, and his mind raced ahead, planning his next moves. (134)

    This is one of the best characterizations of Shukhov in the whole novel. Shukhov is a lot like a chess player and he's very strategic in his thinking, always planning out his next "move."

    In jail and in the camps Shukhov had lost the habit of scheming how he was going to feed his family from day to day or year to year. The bosses did all his thinking for him, and that somehow made life easier. But what would it be like when he got out? (230)

    Shukhov underestimates himself here, to a point, since he's a master schemer in the camps. However, he only schemes for himself in the camps, and relearning the habit of thinking of others rather than competing against them is probably daunting, or scary. It's also really interesting that Shukhov describes camp life as somehow "easier" than life in the outside world. In a way it is simpler – everything in the camps boils down to life or death survival.

    Only - would they ever let him go? Maybe they'd slap another ten on him, just for fun? (234)

    Shukhov often wonders what "they," the powers that control everything, will do to him in the future. As with everything else in the camp world, even people's sentences are uncertain. There's no telling if they will be ten years or twenty.

    His one dream now was to fall sick for two or three weeks. Not fatally, of course, and he didn't want an operation. Just sick enough to be put in the hospital. He could see himself lying there for three weeks without stirring (68)

    Shukhov's dream is really telling about how awful life in the camps is. He basically just wants to sleep for an extended period. Considering this, it's really amazing that Shukhov is able to stay as alert as he does throughout the day.

    Shukhov enjoyed it. He liked people pointing at him - see that man? He's nearly done his time - but he didn't let himself get excited about it [...] They could twist the lost any way they liked. When your ten years were up, they could say good, have another ten. Or pack you off to some godforsaken place of exile. (377)

    It's interesting that Shukhov becomes something of a minor celebrity for nearing the end of his sentence. The idea of someone having a future outside of the camps is pretty novel, or new, for the people with twenty-five year sentences, which may as well be life sentences.

    But not for the foremen. A work assigner rounds them up with shouts of "Foremen! To the PPS!"

    To try on tomorrow's horse collar. (916-7)

    This blunt statement of metaphor of Shukhov's helps to point out how exhausting and similar the days are in the camp. The work never stops.

    For the moment that ladleful means more to him than freedom, more than his whole past life, more than whatever life is left to him. (912)

    Life in the camps has a definite way of blotting out not only the past but also the future, so that the present becomes all-consuming. Here Shukhov's hunger dominates his thoughts.

    That's what he'd decided, but whenever anybody in the gang or the hut got a parcel [...] he felt a pang - why isn't it for me? And although he had strictly forbidden his wife to send anything [...] he sometimes found himself expecting somebody to come running and say:

    "Why don't you go and get it, Shukhov? There's a parcel for you."

    Nobody came running. (926-8)

    Aside from wishing for sleep, Shukhov's other wish is for a package, a piece of his home and his past essentially. The final sentence here really helps to create a lot of sympathy for Shukhov. It's a bit reminiscent of the final lines of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as well, where the narrator talks of how the mermaids sing to each other, but not to him.

    No Sunday off this week, they were being cheated out of Sunday again. [...] He'd expected it, all right, but hearing it nevertheless cut him to the quick. Who wouldn't be sorry for his precious Sunday rest? (932)

    Shukhov definitely tries to remain cynical and practical in the camp, but he can't stop himself from hoping for things entirely, as we see here with the loss of his "Sunday rest."

    The one thing he might want to ask God for was to let him go home.

    But they wouldn't let him go home. (1200-1)

    In a way, Shukhov's major wish is more about rewinding time than actually going home. The home Shukhov wants to go to probably doesn't really exist anymore, except in his memory.

  • Family

    After nineteen years inside, the foreman wouldn't hustle his men out a minute too early. When he said "Out," you knew there was nothing else for it. (140)

    We hear many times throughout the book how the foreman of Gang 104 is a really good foreman. He's definitely like the father-figure of the gang.

    Nowadays you had more to say to Kildigs, the Latvian, than to the folks at home.
    They wrote twice a year as well, and there was no way in which he could understand how things were with them. (224-5)

    Shukhov's odd connection/disconnection with his home is a running theme in the book. He definitely still has ties to his home and longs for it, but his life in the camp has also created a huge distance between him and his home. His gang is more like family now than his own family.

    Outwardly, the gang all looked the same, all wearing identical black jackets with identical number patches, but underneath there were big differences. You'd never get Buynovsky to sit watching a bowl, and there were jobs that Shukhov left to those beneath him. (87)

    As within any family, there are roles that people play, and a sort of hierarchy at work. Shukhov's work gang is no different in that respect, though the hierarchy and the competition are much more pronounced than in the average Leave it to Beaver clan.

    Your foreman matters more than anything else in a prison camp: a good one gives you a new lease on life, a bad one can land you six feet under. (240)

    The foremen are almost more powerful than the guards in some ways; a foreman's mismanagement means the gang won't eat or will get bad work assignments. So the foremen is really like the "breadwinner" of the gang.

    The two Estonians sat like two brothers on a low concrete slab, sharing half a cigarette in a holder. [...] They clung together as though neither would have air enough to breathe without the other. [...] On the march, on work parade, or going to bed at night, they never stopped talking to each other in their slow, quiet way. Yet they weren't brothers at all - they'd met for the first time in Gang 104. (260)

    Life in the prison camp may be awful, but the Estonians show that something decent came out of it. Their brother-like relationship stands in contrast to all the violence, backstabbing, and ruthlessness we see from many of the other prisoners.

    Fetyukov had three children on the outside, but when he was jailed they'd all turned their backs on him, and his wife had married somebody else, so he got no help from anywhere. (262)

    Though Fetyukov is largely contemptible, he merits some sympathy from Shukhov. The fact that Fetyukov's family abandoned him is also an example of some class commentary. As a former rich man, Fetyukov's family probably had some good social standing that they wanted to maintain. So they ditched their embarrassing relative who is in jail.

    Either everybody gets a bonus or else they all die together. (315)

    Forcing the gangs to "sink or swim" together really causes a lot of the problems in the camp, but it also helps the gangs to cooperate sometimes and probably helps to foster a family-like environment.

    His trowel was hidden not far away. The other men in the gang were his friends, but they could easily take it and leave him another. (318)

    The family environment of the gang only goes so far, though. Of course, the gang members could be likened to squabbling siblings fighting over clothes/computer time/the car.

    Stared at the fire, huddled together in the half dark. Like a big family. That's what a work gang is - a family. (512)

    It's interesting that this scene occurs around a fire, which is sort of a romantic/homey image. It almost seems like seeing the fire prompts Shukhov to think of the gang as a big family.

    I saw some young riffraf sitting around a tar boiler. I sat down by them and said, "Listen [...] take my little brother as an apprentice, teach him how to live!" They took him [...] I now wish I'd joined the band of thieves myself."

    "And you never saw your brother again?" the captain asked.

    Tyurin yawned. "No, I never did." (528-30)

    Tyurin's family story really demonstrates how many families were broken apart in Soviet Russia, and especially by the gulag system.

    Tsezar came back. Shukhov lowered the bag to him.

    Now Alyoshka was back. He had no sense at all, Alyoshka, never earned a thing, but did favors for everybody.

    "Here you are, Alyoshka!" Shukhov handed him one biscuit.

    Alyoshka was all smiles. "Thank you! You won't have any for yourself!"

    "Eat it!" (1222-5)

    Shukhov's act of kindness towards Alyoshka is a bit like an older sibling looking out for a younger one. For all the cutthroat competition, Gang 104 still has their kind and even affectionate moments.