Study Guide

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Themes

  • Power

    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.

    Questions About Power

    1. Can Shukhov be described as a powerful figure? How does he have power and how does he lack power in the camps?
    2. How can power be defined in the camps? Is it a matter of physical strength, mental strength, etc?
    3. There seems to be a correlation, or a relationship, between power in the outside world and a lack of it in the camps. Former bosses like Fetyukov perform menial labor, for instance. Social hierarchies are flipped around. Which characters demonstrate this trend, and who disproves it?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Time

    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.

    Questions About Time

    1. Shukhov is primarily concerned with two things: food and time. How are the two things connected in the book?
    2. For Shukhov, time alternately moves quickly or very slowly. How does the narrative style reflect this?
    3. What is the significance of the fact that prisoners aren't allowed watches?
    4. Shukhov and Buynovsky have a conversation about when the sun is highest, disagreeing over what time it is. How is this conversation thematically significant?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. There are lots of chaotic, violent scenes in the novel. How are these scenes significant to the overall narrative?
    2. Do the prison guards seem effective at maintaining order?
    3. Shukhov seems very self-disciplined. How are the rules he establishes and enforces for himself important, and what do they tell us about his character?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Perseverance

    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.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Which prisoners seem set to actually go the distance and survive the camp? Do they have any traits in common, or does everyone take a unique approach to survival?
    2. How is Shukhov's work ethic significant? In terms of his ability to persevere, is it a good thing or a bad thing, or a mixture of both?
    3. How are physical and mental perseverance connected in the book?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Competition

    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.

    Questions About Competition

    1. Who does Shukhov actively compete against the most, and how is this significant?
    2. We see instances of both violent and non-violent (physically at least) competition for resources in the camp. How are different forms of competition depicted in the text, and how are these forms of competition important for the narrative overall?
    3. Could you describe Shukhov as the most competitive member of Gang 104?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Principles

    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.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Shukhov says he won't be a scrounger more than once. What does Shukhov mean by this, and how does he seem to define a scrounger's behavior?
    2. Aside from Alyoshka, do any other characters show signs of religious beliefs? How do they demonstrate religious ideas?
    3. Do we see any characters who have been totally corrupted by camp life, or does every character seem to have some principles?
    4. How does the camp system discourage people from helping one another or for caring about one another?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Memory and the Past

    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.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Does the importance of the past vary for each character? How is the past important for some characters and not for others, and how is this significant to the narrative?
    2. Which characters seem to have the hardest time adjusting to camp life? Are there any common elements in their pasts?
    3. Shukhov often says he doesn't have the time to dwell on the past, but he seems to do it a lot anyway. Is this a narrative device to give us necessary information about Shukhov's character, or is Shukhov dwelling on his past inadvertently, without meaning to do so?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    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.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Shukhov often argues with himself about his future – he dreams of being free but often reminds himself of likely future exile. How is this debate significant and what does it tell us about the role hope plays in a prisoner's life?
    2. Shukhov worries about his ability to survive in the outside world after he gets out of jail. Going off of the skills and behavior that Shukhov displays in the camp, are his concerns valid? Or is Shukhov actually well equipped to handle tough life in the outside world now?
    3. Shukhov's first foreman, Kuzyomin, tells him of three signs that a prisoner is doomed (4). Do we see these signs crop up anywhere else in the narrative? How are these signs connected to themes of hope and future survival?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. How are family relationships significant for a zek's survival?
    2. Shukhov tells his family not to send him parcels. What does this decision tell us about Shukhov's character?
    3. In what ways have the work gangs replaced families in the outside world?
    4. What family roles would you assign to the various members of Gang 104?

    Chew on This

    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.