One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Study Guide

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Plot Summary

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Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is up before reveille wakes the other political prisoners in the Soviet labor camp. He savors these moments when his time is his own and he can think his own thoughts. All too soon his fellow prisoners in squad 104 are herded out of their barracks for the first head count of the day. It is deep winter, with subzero temperatures, and the prisoners are freezing as they stand in rows waiting to be counted, their thin layers of ragged cotton clothes doing little or nothing to keep them warm. Not feeling well, Shukhov spent a bit too much time in his bunk, and a camp guard, the Tartar, singles him out for punishment. After the count is done and redone, the Tartar leads Shukhov to the guardhouse. Shukhov is afraid he'll be put in a cell, but Shukhov is told to mop the floor instead. Shukhov warms up in the well-heated guardhouse.

After a meager breakfast of a bit of bread and some questionable oatmeal, Shukhov and his squad march toward the camp gate. Again they are counted and searched for contraband. The head of camp security, Volkovoi, has the men strip off their undershirts to see if they're wearing "unauthorized personal" clothing. One member of Shukhov's squad, Buinovsky, has his "cummerbund" taken from him. Later he will be imprisoned in a cell for wearing it, but not before completing a day's work.

After repeated counts, the prisoners leave the camp and head for their work site. Squad 104, because of bribery, has landed a favored job building cement-block walls for a power station, where they begin work after repeated delays. To keep the needed mortar from freezing, Shukhov and Kilgas scrounge roofing felt with which they cover the open window spaces to help the stove keep the men—and the mortar—somewhat warm. Shukhov and Gopchik jury-rig a stove and stovepipe to supply more heat. Shukhov and some other squad members work on the wall. Some prisoners mix mortar and bring it up to the place where Shukhov and Senka are laying the cement blocks other prisoners have heaved up to them by hand because the lift is broken. The work goes quickly, and it's soon time for the afternoon meal.


At the field canteen, Shukhov manages to get two helpings of the squalid food. He feels good. Returning to the work site, Shukhov finds a broken bit of a hacksaw blade. He realizes it may come in handy—as a tool or for barter—and hides it in his pocket. While the prisoners rekindle the stove, Tiurin relates the reason he was arrested: because his family were kulaks, or landowning peasants. When the mortar is ready, Shukhov and Senka call for more cement blocks and begin building the wall. Shukhov gets into a steady rhythm in setting the blocks, and the work goes quickly and well. Hard physical labor warms Shukhov, and he even feels proud of the fine wall he is building. The afternoon passes quickly. Shukhov is so involved in his work, wanting to finish it, that he is late for the return head count. He also has to hide his favorite trowel so it will be there for him the next day. Senka waits for him, and together they rush to join the assembled prisoners.

The prisoners line up in their usual rows of five. As the guards make the count, they discover one prisoner is missing. They soon find the missing man, a Moldavian who fell asleep on the job. Not only the guards are angry with the Moldavian, the prisoners are too. His weakness has made them wait in the freezing cold and delayed their return to camp. Arriving late in camp means having less time to themselves before lights out. It means getting to the mess hall late for supper and perhaps getting shortchanged in their food ration. Prisoners shout abuse at the Moldavian, and some attack him.

The guards count the prisoners again and again. Finally the prisoners reach the gate to the camp where there is another count and a body search. Having forgotten about it, Shukhov now remembers the bit of hacksaw blade and hides it quickly in his mitten. He narrowly escapes having it discovered by the guard frisking him. The prisoners in squad 104 enter the gate and then rush to beat out other squads to the mess hall. Rather than go directly to the mess hall, however, Shukhov saves Tsezar's place in line at the package office. Shukhov does favors like this for Tsezar who may then share with Shukhov some of the food he receives, or at least offer Shukhov his ration. Corruption in one way or another pervades camp life, and prisoners' survival depends on favors and repayment among themselves. When Tsezar arrives and gets in line to replace him, Shukhov rushes to the mess hall.


Shukhov is rewarded for an excellent day's work by getting a few ounces more bread for supper. Shukhov finds an empty tray and observes as the cook ladles stew into each of the bowls on it. Shukhov notes which bowl of stew has the most solid food, and he manages to reserve it for himself. When he has finished eating, Shukhov carries Tsezar's bowl of stew to him in the barracks. (Because of his ability to bribe officials with goods from the frequent packages he receives, Tsezar is one of the few prisoners allowed to eat in the barracks.) Tsezar has the goods from today's package strewn over his bunk. Tsezar offers Shukhov his portion of stew as repayment for saving his place in line. Shukhov feels fine about all the good luck he is having today. He got extra bread and two helpings of stew.

Tsezar is still sorting through the goods when the call comes for a night count of prisoners. Every prisoner must leave the barracks and go outside to be counted yet again. Tsezar is afraid someone will steal his goods while he's outside. Shukhov comes up with a successful plan to protect Tsezar's items from theft. Tsezar then rewards Shukhov with two biscuits and a slice of sausage—a true delicacy in the camp.


Before going to bed, Shukhov smokes some tobacco he bought from the Lett (someone from Latvia, a Baltic country bordering Russia), who gets it sent to him from outside. He eats a bit of bread he has saved from earlier in the day. Shukhov and Alyosha discuss the role of faith, prayer, and religion in the camp. Alyosha insists life in the camp is good for spiritual growth because it frees the prisoner from material distractions. He advises Shukhov to pray more and use his time in prison to enrich his soul. Shukhov is skeptical and cynical. More of a materialist, he does not think praying to God will help him survive in camp. As he goes to sleep, Shukhov reflects on his good fortune that day. The narrator then reminds readers it was just one day in the thousands Shukhov must survive in a prison camp, even more because extra days are cruelly added on for Leap Years.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Shukhov wakes feeling ill but enjoying time for himself.

Rising Action

2 Prisoners are counted repeatedly as they leave for work.

3 Tiurin bribes officials to get his squad favorable work.

4 Kilgas and Shukhov find material to cover the windows.

5 The prisoners have a nourishing dinner at the canteen.

6 After dinner Shukhov finds a piece of hacksaw blade.

7 Shukhov works hard and carefully to build the wall.

8 Shukhov finishes before joining squads to return to camp.

9 Prisoner who fell asleep delays squads' return.

10 Angry guards and prisoners beat the missing prisoner.


11 Shukhov narrowly escapes being found with the hacksaw blade.

Falling Action

12 Tsezar rewards Shukhov with food for doing favors.

13 Shukhov helps Tsezar protect goods from his package.

14 Alyosha and Shukhov discuss faith and religion.


15 Shukhov smokes, eats sausage, and reflects on a good day.

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