Study Guide

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Perseverance

By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


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.