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 11 (Night) | Summary



This section describes the nighttime just before the prisoners go to sleep and begins with "At first he elbowed his way."

Shukhov braves the cold to be among the first to leave his barracks for the evening count. He smokes a cigarette and lines up in the back row of squad 104, the nearest spot to the barracks. Two guards drag Tsezar, loath to leave his unprotected goods, out of the barracks. The guards hit the prisoners until they're lined up in rows of five. As soon as the first count is complete, and correct, the prisoners rush back to their barracks. Most run to put their felt boots in the drying shed. Shukhov heads for Tsezar's bunk and sits on it waiting for Tsezar to return. When Tsezar arrives, he thanks Shukhov.

Returning to his own bunk, he begins to "make his bed," a procedure that means rearranging his raggedy mattress, blanket, and pillow stuffed with wood shavings. Then Shukhov basks in the feeling that "he'd had such a good day." He will end it by smoking a cigarette and finishing his last few ounces of bread.

Shukhov thanks God for letting him survive another day in the camp. In a nearby bunk Alyosha is reading his Bible and praying. When he has finished, he asks Shukhov to pray to "free" his soul. Shukhov is too cynical to pray, saying his prayers "don't get through or they're returned with 'rejected' scrawled on them." Alyosha counters; if Shukhov prayed more, his prayers would be answered. Unconvinced, Shukhov asks, "Did you make a single mountain move?" Alyosha explains he prays for his spirit, not for material things.

Their discussion continues with Shukhov describing the corrupt priest in his local village. Shukhov claims to believe in God but rejects "paradise and hell," emphasizing that prayer doesn't shorten a prison sentence. Again Alyosha counters by saying prison is a blessing in a way because it gives prisoners the time and freedom to think about their souls. Shukhov considers freedom. In a way he has given up all hope of being freed from the camp, wondering if he even wants to be free. Although he realizes Alyosha is happy in prison, Shukhov is not, because he was put there unjustly.

As the prisoners are thinking they can go to sleep, the guards storm into the barracks for a second count. At least this count will take place indoors. Tsezar gives Shukhov "two biscuits, two lumps of sugar, and a slice of sausage." Shukhov offers to hide Tsezar's package under his mattress during the second count. The count does not take long, and soon Shukhov is back in his bunk. He puts on all his ragged clothes and his coat and gets under his threadbare blanket. Shukhov gives Alyosha one biscuit, noting Alyosha is a good man but doesn't know how to do favors that benefit him. Shukhov puts the slice of sausage in his mouth and savors it. He will save the biscuit for tomorrow. Rolling over, Shukhov falls asleep "fully content" and "almost ... happy."


The motif of faith dominates much of this section, as opposed to its occasional appearance in others. Alyosha and Shukhov debate faith and religion and its relationship to imprisonment. Alyosha contends even if prison controls the body, the soul remains free to pray to God. Alyosha equates prayer and attention to one's soul with freedom and implores Shukhov to "give [his soul] its freedom" by praying more often. Shukhov is far more cynical, especially as Alyosha was arrested and sentenced to 25 years because of his religion. Shukhov cannot understand Alyosha's equanimity in the face of this injustice. Shukhov, too, is a victim of injustice and cannot maintain peace of mind through faith and meekly accept that injustice.

In his argument against religion, Shukhov describes the corruption of his village's priest. There is some situational irony here. Shukhov uses the example of a corrupt priest to reject religion even though he too is involved in the camp's culture of corruption and remarks cynically, "However much you pray it doesn't shorten your stretch." Alyosha's approach to prayer is antithetical to Shukhov's method of surviving in the camp. Alyosha insists prayer will not work if it focuses on gaining material things. But these material things are the focus of Shukhov's life in the camp. Alyosha is completely disengaged from camp corruption, whereas Shukhov is deeply engaged in it.

Both before and after speaking with Alyosha, Shukhov is concerned with materialism, with Tsezar's packages, and with rewards he might get for helping Tsezar. Shukhov acts out those behaviors Alyosha warns against as undermining faith. Shukhov realizes that "Alyosha was speaking the truth. His voice and his eyes left no doubt that he was happy in prison." Yet Shukhov also understands faith like Alyosha's is not for him. He even scorns Alyosha when he thinks he's "Impractical, that's [Alyosha's] trouble. Makes himself nice to everyone but doesn't know how to do favors that get paid back." True enough, but Alyosha is unconcerned with the material world.

Just as he is about to fall asleep, Shukhov reveals he is capable of gratitude for even the smallest bits of good fortune. He thanks God and gives Alyosha a biscuit. Shukhov thinks he has "had many strokes of luck that day ... without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day." In the end Shukhov's contentment rests on material things and on having the good fortune not to get into trouble. Alyosha's devotion and faith may nourish his soul, but Shukhov remains committed to physical well-being and staying alive. Still, the book ends with the lines "There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days. The three extra days were for leap years." Shukhov had a good day, but the author hammers home the almost unthinkable number of additional days Shukhov will have to live through at the camp.

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