Places: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Odin den Ivana Denisovicha, 1962 (English translation, 1963)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: 1951

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Siberian labor camp

*Siberian One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovichlabor camp. Concentration camp located somewhere in eastern Russia’s vast Siberian wastes. The novel accurately depicts a single full day in the camp, using the words of one of its inmates, Shukhov, who is Solzhenitsyn’s alter ego. The grim eleven-hour workday in labor gangs subjects camp inmates to a stern test of character. In a situation where everyone fights for oneself, all human beings show what they are made of. Selfishness, cunning, cowardice, anger, hope against hope, and animalistic will to survive are some of the character traits that dominate life in the camp.

Although the individual inmates are named, they seem to exist only as badge numbers, as props in this human tragedy. Their practical anonymity fits the nature of an archipelago (as Solzhenitsyn would call the prison camps with which Siberia was dotted in his later set of novels, titled Gulag Archipelago, 1974-1978). The camps are filled with people sentenced on trumped-up charges. Shukhov himself, for example, after escaping capture by the Germans, is accused of spying for the Germans and is serving a ten-year sentence for treason, even though no one could prove what he was supposed to have done. He signed his own confession, for if he had not, he would have been as good as buried. It is only in a place like the prison camp that the protagonist’s character is fully revealed. He is humble, helpful, polite, forgiving, thinking of others, conscientious, meticulous even at slave labor, and grateful for every day he survives. For example, after finishing the wall of a nonsensical building the prisoners are erecting in the subfreezing weather, he returns once more to check whether he has aligned the bricks properly. The cathartic experience he, like others, is forced to endure makes him stronger. He also seems to indicate that only with such attitudes can the evil be conquered and life returned to normalcy. The day depicted in the novel, January 1, serves also as a symbol of a new, hopeful beginning.

The fact that the location of the camp is not named underscores the universality of the experience. Literally millions of Soviet citizens were herded through similar camps, and many of them did not survive. The sheer enormity of the state’s crime against its people makes it unnecessary to restrict the novel’s location to a single place. Instead, the whole country identifies with Siberia and, in reality, becomes Siberia during the Soviet period.

Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of the camp is extremely realistic, though most Soviet labor camps looked alike. To be sure, Solzhenitsyn was less interested in its description, preoccupied as he was with the conditions under which the inmates lived and suffered. This approach added to the universality of this experience. Perhaps for that reason, he did not deem it necessary to pinpoint the exact geographical location of the camp. By the same token, the camp could have been located anywhere in this huge archipelago of human sorrow, and the impact upon the reader would have been the same.

BibliographyBarker, Francis. Solzhenitsyn: Politics and Form. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1977. A study of Solzhenitsyn’s various works, with emphasis on their very important political aspects and on the way political considerations shape his works.Curtis, James M. Solzhenitsyn’s Traditional Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. Examines the currents of imaginative thought in Solzhenitsyn and emphasizes his transformation of traditional material into new, creative forms.Ericson, Edward. Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1993. Recent book that examines Solzhenitsyn in light of the collapse of Communism in Russia. Answers some of the common criticisms that are leveled at his writing.Ericson, Edward. Solzhenitsyn, the Moral Vision. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980. Excellent overview of Solzhenitsyn’s works with an eye to their sources, origins, and relationship to modern political and social reality.Nielsen, Niels Christian. Solzhenitsyn’s Religion. Nashville: Nelson, 1975. A discussion of the very important religious aspect in Solzhenitsyn’s writing, tracing it through all his early works.
Categories: Places