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 b****es!" 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.