Study Guide

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Memory and the Past

By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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.