One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Summary & Study Guide

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Summary & Study Guide Description

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains For Further Study on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

"Reveille was sounded, as always, at 5 A.M .... "

So begins another day for Ivan Denisovich in a forced labor camp in Siberia, in a pitch-dark room filled with two hundred men, stacked four bunks high. Usually he gets up and finds one of the numerous ways to earn more food, but this morning he's sick. Not sick enough to know he can't work, but sick enough to wonder if he can. He plans on going to the infirmary, but a mean guard, the thin Tartar, catches him in his bunk and sentences him to solitary confinement for three days. Fortunately for Ivan, he only has him mop the floor of the warders' office. Inside the warders check the thermometer. If it is lower than forty below zero, the men won't have to work outside. It registers sixteen degrees below, but the men know it isn't accurate and there's no talk of fixing it. Ivan does a poor job of mopping: "If you're working for human beings, then do a real job of it, but if you work for dopes, then you just go through the motions."

The beginning segment of the novel firmly establishes the prison setting, its unspoken laws, and the goal of the prisoners: to survive. Ivan recalls his former gang boss from another camp who told the men that even though jungle law reigns, certain behavior signals a non-survivor: "the guy who licks out bowls, puts his faith in the infirmary, or squeals to the screws." Another firmly established theme is Ivan's health. Because he starts the day not feeling well, he tracks his health for the rest of the day. His psychological health is closely tied to his physical health. For example, today is the day his gang finds out whether they are to be reassigned to build on an unsheltered area. Since fuel is such a valuable commodity, they won't be able to make a fire. This could spell death for many of the men who already live on the edge of life. Their gang boss is bribing the prison bosses to keep them off this assignment. Another undermining element is the bread ration. Ivan overhears that it's been cut today. Survival becomes a little more challenging.

After a breakfast of gruel and boiled fish bones, Ivan goes to the infirmary where Nikolay Semyonovich Vdovushkin, the supposed medic, is writing poetry. Vdovushkin takes Ivan's temperature. It's ninety-nine degrees, not high enough to be admitted, so Ivan is sent off to work. Besides, Vdovushkin's patron, the new doctor, Stepan Grigoryevich, believes work is the best cure. But Ivan knows even a horse can die from overwork.

Ivan returns to the barracks and receives his bread ration, which is short. He eats half, then hides the rest in his mattress, sewing it in, in case the guards check for hidden items. As Ivan's gang stands outside waiting to be searched, Caesar Markovich, the rich intellectual who receives two packages a month, is smoking. Both Ivan and the scrounger Fetyukov watch him, hoping he'll pass the butt their way. Ivan waits with a semblance of self-control while Fetyukov hovers around like a dog. Caesar gives the butt to Ivan. This is another rule of prison survival: don't lose your dignity. Ivan goes to get his identification tag, S-984, repainted on his cap, chest, knee, and back, and the importance of dignity becomes clearer. The men's identities have been reduced to a letter and some numbers.

The feared Lieutenant Volkovoy supervises the frisk—despite the freezing cold—for nonregulation clothing or food, which might indicate an escape attempt. Captain Buynovsky, a newcomer, is caught with a jersey. He protests that this procedure violates Soviet law and is given ten days in solitary confinement. This means a hot meal only once every three days and a cut in bread rations and could easily mean death.

"The big, red sun,... was slanting through the wires of the gate ... "

As the gang heads to their old work place, thanks to the gang boss bribing their way out of the new and dreaded site, Ivan thinks of his wife and the kolkhoz or collective farm they lived on. She wants him to come back and paint carpets since most of the farmers are finding better incomes outside the farm. But, of course, he can't go home. He has been exiled from home.

When the gang arrives at the site to wait for their assignment, Ivan has a chance to think and observe his fellow gang members. He wonders how Aloysha the Baptist can survive on only the prison rations: religious faith is barely tolerated in the atheist Soviet Union. He likes the minorities and the cultural qualities they bring. He likes the deaf prisoner, Senka Klevshin, who has already survived Buchenwald as a prisoner of World War II. Because of Article 58 of the penal code, Klevshin was given a ten-year sentence for "allowing" himself to become a prisoner of war and, therefore, spying for the enemy. Finally the men's assignments come and the work begins.

Ivan is to work with another Ivan, the Latvian. Since the quantity of work they do is tied to their food rations, there is sufficient motivation. For most of the men, losing themselves in work is their best escape. Still, the mind can wander. Ivan recalls how he came to the camps. Like Senka Klevshin, he too was captured by the Germans, but he escaped to rejoin his regiment, violating Article 58. Only those who consistently won battles or who died evaded Article 58.

The men are so busy working that they are late for their lunch of groats. Their portions are always reduced by other prisoners, especially those in the kitchen. However, the gang boss and his assistant always get double portions. The clever Ivan shows Pavlo, the assistant boss, two extra portions he's managed to steal. Pavlo lets Ivan have one and shows his humanity by giving the Captain the other.

Ivan overhears a debate about art between Caesar and prisoner K-123. Caesar praises the Eisenstein film Ivan the Terrible for its artistic merits while K-123 criticizes any artist who bends himself to the political regime, in this case, Stalin's. All art is a sore point in the Soviet Union, where freedom is not a value. The prime value is following the Communist party line.

Before the men return to work, they listen to Tyurin tell his story of imprisonment. His father was a kulak who resisted the collective farms. Because of this Tyurin was dishonorably discharged from the army and eventually arrested. Before his arrest, he took his younger brother to a street gang and asked them to show him how to survive. Even outside prison, the common Soviet citizen is forced to live like a criminal.

Tyurin tells the men to begin work and the most exhilarating part of the day takes place. Ivan lays bricks and is proud of the results. The men are late to return and have to be subjected to several counts, since the guards themselves could be imprisoned if they lost a man. The missing man is finally discovered, a Moldavian who fell asleep at his worksite. Although he is remorseful, he is sent to solitary confinement.

"The moon was really shining bright."

The rest of Ivan's day consists of earning more food by holding a place in the package line for Caesar, fighting his way past the orderly Clubfoot to get to his dinner, and buying tobacco with money he has made from odd jobs. He even gets Caesar's extra bread ration. Before roll call, Ivan feels pity for Fetyukov, who was beaten up for scrounging. He knows Fetyukov won't survive. He also feels sorry for Caesar, who might have most of the food from his package stolen, so he shows him how to hide it. The men are counted again before lights out. Caesar gives Ivan some of his goodies as thanks and Ivan shares with Aloysha. In bed Ivan hears Aloysha thank God and Ivan reviews his day, concluding that it was an unusually good one.

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