It's no mistake that in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Gang 104 spends most of their day working at an incomplete power station. None of the members of Gang 104 have much power, especially when compared to the guards, with their whips and dogs, the wardens, etc. Futility, or the uselessness of action, is a running theme for the prisoners, as is injustice. Things aren't and never will be fair in the prison camp, and those with even the smallest amount of power often abuse it. But even those with some power have limits, as we see with Tsezar. He's wealthy enough to get packages and to bribe his way into a good work position, but he doesn't have the power (or knowledge) to avoid getting busted by the guards. He has to put himself in Shukhov's debt instead. We don't want to have a cheesy "the more you know" moment, but knowledge is definitely one of the main sources of power in the camps. Ultimately, though, the main power (the oppressive government) that controls everyone in the camps is distant, removed, and at times invisible.
Power is a constant and hierarchies, or ranks, in the camp are firmly fixed.
Power is always shifting in the camps and is highly fluid – anytime someone has the upper hand they can quickly lose it, and vice versa.
In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Shukhov would kill for Hermione Granger's Time Turner. He could get all his little errands done and not have to run around in a panic all the time. Of course, then his day would be even longer, practically never-ending. Days are already nearly never-ending in the camp. All the days seem to run together into endless prison sentences and non-stop work, with no personal time at all. For Shukhov, there's practically no time to relax; survival is highly time-consuming.
In the bizarro world of the camps, time is a zek's most precious commodity, aside from food. There's never enough time, its easily stolen, and all zeks are greedy for precious minutes of personal time. Time is perhaps the worst thing that people in the camp lose. Years of their lives are eaten up in endless prison sentences and long work-days. Zeks aren't even allowed watches; the guards tell time for them. Ultimately, time is a paradox, or a seeming contradiction, in the world of the camp: there's too much of it and not enough of it.
Time, and especially time to the self, is more important than food for a prisoner since survival is highly mental.
Shukhov has a very strong and accurate sense of the passage of time, which is a way for him to fight against the camp life that tries to control and steal his time.
Rules and order are often not really connected in the prison camp, which is odd. There's an excess of rules in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that no one really follows, like the restrictions on clothes or firewood. And there are rules that really can't be followed, like the rule that doesn't allow zeks to walk alone. To make matters worse, some of the rules get in the way of survival, so zeks are in a sense punished for trying to survive half the time.
Regardless of how dumb or illogical they are, rules dominate a zek's life. What makes these rules horrible is that zeks are punished arbitrarily, or randomly, for breaking them. There's no way to predict when or if a stupid rule will be enforced – it's a matter of luck half the time. Life in the camp is extremely unpredictable and illogical, which makes life extremely frustrating for a zek. The rules are there to punish people, not to create any sort of order in the camp, which is dominated by violence and barely controlled chaos most of the time.
The camp rules don't really govern life for a prisoner. Rather, the necessity of survival and rules set-up among the prisoners themselves govern camp life.
Circumventing, or working around, the rules in the camp is the only way for a prisoner to survive.
Let's get some "Eye of the Tiger" going, because nothing says perseverance like Rocky Balboa. Rocky is all about "going the distance." And training montages. But if our zeks in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tried to do a triumphant run up some steps and some victorious fist-pumping, they'd probably keel over. Pesky nutrition deficiency and all. Like most things in the camp, perseverance is downscaled to surviving the cold, the hard labor, and the lack of food. Triumphing over adversity basically amounts to still breathing and moving.
Overall, perseverance is largely a mental thing in the prison camp. Having the will to survive, maintaining a sense of self and a sense of pride, refusing to let go of the past entirely, and refusing to give up hope are all key elements to successfully persevering. Like Rocky, the zeks are all about going the distance. There's no way to truly "win" in the camps, so surviving for the long haul is the only victory the zeks can really have.
Survival is more about mental and spiritual strength than about physical strength.
Shukhov's small triumphs do more to help him persevere than a big, grand gesture would do.
Life in the prison camps is all about survival of the fittest at its most brutal. It's the law of the jungle in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and for the people in the camps, competition for resources is ruthless. Prisoners have to compete for everything here – food, warmth, decent work assignments, rewards, etc. They even compete for cigarette butts.
In order to survive and to maintain a competitive edge against others, a zek has to be constantly alert. Shukhov is especially aware of this need. If he could have a motivational poster by his bunk, it would probably feature Mad-Eye Moody yelling "Constant Vigilance!" Since the stakes of competition in the camp are literally life and death, no relationship is sacred and prisoners often screw over their "friends" in an effort to keep themselves alive. Unlike Blanche DuBois, of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, prisoners can't rely on the "kindness of strangers" here. Prisoners must rely only on themselves in order to maintain a necessary competitive edge.
Though competition is important, not all prisoners actually do it. Some survive in different ways, such as receiving help from friends.
All prisoners compete against one another constantly. Even acts of charity are forms of competition since they involve favors and manipulation.
Morals and principles might seem like an odd thing to discuss in a prison environment. But if you've seen the Shawshank Redemption, you get the gist here. There's good and bad (and principled and unprincipled) people in prison, like in any other place. In fact, the gulag of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has mostly decent people in it who were arrested for unjust reasons. These people were decent before the gulag, at any rate. Life in the camp definitely changes people, and surviving the gulag system requires some moral compromises.
But characters like Shukhov have certain lines they won't cross. Shukhov refuses to become a "scrounger," or someone without honor or moral qualms. Shukhov does some shady stuff and isn't afraid to work the system to his own advantage, but he'll only go so far. In the outside world, the pious Alyoshka would probably be the only person in Gang 104 with "principles," but in the camp someone like Shukhov qualifies as principled, especially when compared to some of the more ruthless and violent prisoners.
Shukhov shows that holding onto some principles is vital to survival, since principles help a person maintain dignity in a dehumanizing place.
The camp system is deliberately set up in a way that tries to destroy people's morals and values.
The past really seems to fly out the window in the alien world of the prison camp. Everyone is a prisoner now after all, and a prison sentence is a sort of great social equalizer, impacting rich and poor, young and old. But what people were in the outside world definitely effects the type of prisoners they become, as well as their chances for survival. The ex-Captain Buynovsky is used to giving orders and can't adjust to taking them in the camp; the ex-carpenter Shukhov carves out a niche for himself as a skilled laborer.
In fact, the past might dictate a person's future in the camps more than it ordinarily would in the outside world. For a prisoner in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the present is sort of frozen in the camps, and the future is put indefinitely on hold since prison sentences are practically never-ending. In a way, the past becomes the main source of a person's identity in the camp. It's no mistake that Shukhov often describes people by what they were in the outside world. Buynovsky is still "the Captain," even if he technically isn't anymore. The camp disconnects people from their past, but the past still remains an important factor in daily camp life.
Shukhov's past, and the other characters' pasts, provide interesting contrast to their present lives, but the pasts ultimately do little to define who they are as prisoners in the present.
For all of Gang 104, the past remains hugely important since a unique, individual past is one of the only ways to distinguish the mass of zeks from one another.
There's a huge genre of prison films and stories – The Shawshank Redemption, Escape from Alcatraz, The Great Escape, Stalag 17, Cool Hand Luke, O Brother Where Art Thou, that Prison Break show. The point is that these movies/TV shows reveal that prisoners in jail harbor hopes for the future – namely, getting the heck out of jail. Pronto. Nearly all of these films involve an exciting escape, or an attempted escape at the very least. But no one bothers to escape during One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And it seems that most past escape attempts ended in prisoners getting shot. The hope of getting out of the gulag is described as pretty much hopeless. So hope, like everything else in the camp, is downsized. Prisoners here have hope for something like an extra portion of food. The hope for freedom is practically a pipe-dream. In the camp, the future is measured more in minutes than in years, and the long-term future seems doomed for most prisoners.
The camp environment makes it nearly impossible to dwell on distant future dreams since there are too many present worries.
The camp provides an excess of time to dwell on the future, to brood, and to make plans, which is a punishment in and of itself since future hopes are largely futile.
Family is turned on its head in the prison camp. All the zeks in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are separated from their families in the real world, some for decades. In fact, there is so much time and space between families that they almost cease to operate as such. Shukhov's relationship with his wife and his children seems almost meaningless in the camps; he's largely disconnected from them. Shukhov can scarcely understand their experiences since he's been away, and they probably can't understand his life either. Other zeks have completely lost their families, like Tyurin, or have been abandoned by their families, like Fetyukov. In the camp, new families form and the work gangs start operating as a type of family, albeit a cutthroat mafia family.
Shukhov is definitely the brains of his camp "family," and he might be the most valuable member of his gang.
The role of father figure in the gang seems to shift around and depends on which characters are interacting at the time.