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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Study Guide

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich | Section 1 (Wake Up) | Summary


The section divisions correspond to events or times of day. They are not present in the novella, which is not organized into sections but flows in one uninterrupted body of detail.


This section describes early morning at the labor camp and begins "At five o'clock that morning."

The clanging sound of reveille wakens Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, prisoner number S 854, at 5 a.m. as he lies in his bunk at the labor camp where he is a political prisoner. It's still dark as Shukhov makes his way to the "bucket," the barracks' toilet. Shukhov relishes this "free" time between waking and going to work. This morning, however, Shukhov remains in bed because he feels "feverish" and thinks of going to the medical dispensary to skip work for the day.

The prison camp is located in a place with bitterly cold winters, and it is now winter, with frost inside the barracks. Shukhov tries to get warm under his threadbare blanket and in his ragged cotton coat and other clothes. He hears some prisoners getting their felt boots, or valenki, from the drying shed, and he hears Tiurin, the leader of squad 104, Shukhov's squad, leave the barracks. Shukhov hopes Tiurin can arrange for the squad to avoid being sent to work at a new development site where there is no protection from the cold and wind. Tiurin probably will have to bribe a camp official to ensure a better assignment.

Shukhov hears Alyosha and Captain Buinovsky, his bunkmates, getting up off their sawdust-filled mattresses. Alyosha begins praying. Buinovsky has checked the thermometer and announces it's "twenty below, for sure." The Tartar, a guard, looms over Shukhov and gives him "three days' penalty with work" for staying in bed too long. Shukhov follows the Tartar to the commandant's office. In the warm guardroom the Tartar orders Shukhov to scrub the floor. While the guards argue about food rations, Shukhov scrubs, and the guards treat him with contempt. What matters is that the floor looks clean, even though it isn't. He does a quick job and leaves.

Shukhov hurries to the mess hall for breakfast—oatmeal and thin boiled cabbage stew. Fetiukov, a fellow prisoner, is saving Shukhov's meal for him. Shukhov ponders the status among prisoners in the squad, thinking "everyone has his grade." Some zeks (prisoners) are too high-status to save Shukhov's breakfast, which Shukhov eats cold with the spoon he made and keeps hidden in his boot. He eats everything, including the scales of the tiny fish in the stew, but because of his guardroom punishment he has missed his ration of bread.

After breakfast Shukhov goes to the dispensary hoping the doctor will find him too sick to work, foregoing tobacco from the Lett's newly arrived package. Busy writing, the medical assistant consents to take Shukhov's temperature, which is barely above normal and won't merit a sick day. If Shukhov waits for the doctor and he finds he's not sick, Shukhov "will be locked up." Shukhov leaves.


The main character, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, is revealed as an "everyman," a peasant with little education, who seems reasonably adapted to his life in the labor camp. The author uses skaz to further lower the level and tell the story from Shukhov's point of view and through Shukhov's experiences during a single day in the camp. Using slang and dialect, the narrator illuminates Shukhov's character and background and enhances the realism of the setting. For example, Shukhov refers to valenki, the slang for the felt boots the prisoners wear in the camp. He talks about how much "squealers" are detested by other prisoners (zeks). Prisoners use slang such as "cockeyed," "Chetezes," "croaked," and "swipe." The guards refer to the prisoners as "scum" and "pigs." The language places the story on a colloquial level and allows readers to connect more easily with the characters and their situations.

The culture of corruption is introduced in this section. While lying in bed, Shukhov thinks of the "favors" he does for other prisoners, such as "sewing a pair of mittens" or how he helps officials by tending camp facilities. Readers should not interpret these deeds as noble or altruistic; Shukhov, like others in his position, does good deeds so others will do the same for him or give him something, like extra food; one favor eventually requires another in return. In these basic ways, Shukhov participates, although fairly harmlessly, in the culture of corruption that pervades the camp. Participation is a means of survival, and he basically tries not to use the system to hurt fellow prisoners.

Tiurin, the squad leader, is a master of camp corruption on a higher level. To ensure his squad is not sent to the exposed work site, he must bribe camp officers and would "have to take a pound of salt pork to the senior official ... if not a couple of pounds" to convince the official not to send squad 104 to the new site. Of course, if Tiurin's bribe succeeds, another squad with perhaps a lesser bribe or less skillful leader will be forced to go instead. But with matters of life and death like these, no one in squad 104 objects.

Other forms of corruption arise from prisoners who get parcels containing food or other items useful for bribes and in trades. These fortunate prisoners get perks, such as "individual kitchens." Officials give special privileges to the prisoners who bribe them with "package" goods. Shukhov, too, tries to ingratiate himself with prisoners who get packages. He does favors for the Lett, whose packages contain coveted tobacco. These packages thus determine a prisoner's status and even his likelihood of survival.

In addition, the theme of injustice and irrational rules appears here as camp officials' exercise of power reflects the workings of the camp. Shukhov is stung by the injustice of the Tartar's punishment because the Tartar knows Shukhov is an early riser. Shukhov thinks, "Had he been punished for something he deserved he wouldn't have felt so resentful." Injustice and arbitrary punishments are common in the camp. So are irrational camp rules. Nonsensical and counterproductive, they reflect the arbitrary use of power. For example, prisoners are not allowed to walk around camp on their own. If they do, they are "to be picked up and thrown into the guardhouse." Yet after he finishes cleaning, Shukhov must leave the guardhouse on his own with no one to accompany him. A camp official's order forces Shukhov to break the officials' own rules.

Later, the reader learns prisoners "had to take off their hat for a guard five paces before passing him, and replace it two paces after." If the number of paces is not followed precisely, the prisoner can be punished. Dispensary rules also allow only two prisoners a day to be put on sick call. Because two prisoners already are in the dispensary, Shukhov cannot be the third. Such rules are intended to snare prisoners in untenable and possibly deadly situations or punishments, thus undermining them and their ability to think rationally and reasonably.

Sustenance, as revealed in the food served, is an important part of this section. Beginning with bread, symbolizing nourishment and thus life, prisoners' food rations are at starvation level. One squad is justifiably upset when cheated of their allotment. They have no recourse with camp officials, but the shortage of bread might seriously harm those who get less to eat. Also part of the prisoners' sustenance is the daily stew. If bread is not the highest quality, it is nonetheless semi-palatable; the stew is much less so and underscores Shukhov's hunger as he devours tiny fish skeletons, eating "the gills, the tail, the eyes when they were still in their sockets but not when they'd been boiled out and floated in the bowl separately." Despite his hunger, he retains a bit of dignity when others laugh at him for doing that; others, however, may eat even the floating fish eyes remaining in his bowl.

The symbol of Shukhov's handmade spoon, an object of pride to him, first appears in this section. Proud of having crafted his possession, Shukhov eats his breakfast with the spoon, which represents Shukhov's self-respect as an individual. That he keeps the spoon hidden in his boot indicates his limited freedom from the control of the camp officials. Knowing he has it—and camp officials don't know—gives Shukhov a sense of control over his life, and removing his hat while he eats gives him a sense of dignity.

Two motifs consistent in the book first appear here. The intense cold that constantly torments the prisoners shows itself in the frost that forms inside the barracks and in the prisoners' thin, inadequate blankets and ragged cotton clothing. Withholding the means to combat the cold is a deliberate form of torment the camp inflicts on prisoners as part of their punishment; the cold weather outdoors is a constant but something no one can control. The motif of comradeship appears as well. Fetiukov saves Shukhov's breakfast for him. Readers don't know, however, if Fetiukov is repaying a favor, so it is implied, to some extent, that prisoners look after and help one another in a survivalist form of friendship.

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