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 4 (Work Begins) | Summary

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Summary

This section describes the beginning of work and begins with "Just then Tiurin walked in."

Tiurin gives the prisoners their assignments. Most will be working on a half-completed building, part of the power station. Shukhov and Kilgas will lay cement blocks to build a wall. Meanwhile they must find a way to cover window openings in the machine room. Kilgas has put aside a roll of roofing felt, and the two go out to "scrounge." Before carrying it back to their work site, Shukhov retrieves his hidden trowel. On the way back, they pass another squad trying futilely to dig holes in the frozen ground. Shukhov suggests they light a fire over each hole site, but absurdly there's no firewood allowed for that purpose.

Shukhov and Kilgas carry the roll of material vertically between them to fool any guards who might see them into thinking it's another zek, and they reach their building site without incident. Some prisoners are mixing mortar. A power lift on the site has been broken for months, so the prisoners will have to haul the mortar up to the level of the unfinished wall. While waiting for the mortar to be prepared, Shukhov fixes the stovepipe so the stove can be lit and warm the workspace. Other prisoners make wooden laths to attach the roofing felt to the window openings. Everyone works hard, for if one prisoner slacks off, officials will punish the entire squad. Such methods are employed to get squads to work and punish slackers themselves.

Tiurin goes to the office to file his work report. "More depended on the work report than on the work itself." A good squad leader like Tiurin knows how to write a report that makes his squad's work look impressive and important, for a well-received work report might earn the zeks a few more "ounces of bread for ... supper."

A young prisoner, Gopchik, approaches Shukhov with some aluminum wire and asks Shukhov to teach him how to make his own wire spoon. Shukhov likes Gopchik, who reminds him of his dead son. Gopchik is "like a puppy ... and fawn[ing] on everyone," but he is also "cunning" and never shares his food packages. Gopchik finishes fixing the stovepipe. The prisoners cover the window openings with the roofing felt. Trucks bring the first load of cement blocks. The prisoners determine that heaving the blocks from one level to the next is the best way to get them up to the unfinished wall.

Before they can start laying cement blocks, it is time for the afternoon meal; the prisoners stop work and gather around the stove. They tease Shukhov about his prison term being nearly over. He doesn't mind their kidding but wonders if the state will slap another term on him for no reason other than to keep him imprisoned, as sentences can be extended at will. The narrator then reveals why Shukhov was sentenced for "high treason." He had been captured by the Germans during the war but escaped after only a few days and admitted this to the Soviet authorities when he returned home. To them, being captured made him a spy. Had he lied and said he had gotten lost, he would not have been sentenced. The prisoners then speak about real or imagined "squealers" in the camp who have had their throats cut during the night.

Analysis

In parts of this section skaz is used to humanize Tiurin, who says colloquially "Well, look here, boys" when giving Shukhov and Kilgas their assignments. It is used also to describe actions and characters: the two men "scrounge" roofing felt from the prefabs the prisoners "didn't give a damn about"; Der is deemed a "bastard" who mistreats the prisoners. Prisoners "egg each other on" to work hard, saying "Put your guts into it, slob." The narrative reinforces this work ethic: "you all got a bit extra or you all croaked." The laziness of one zek could mean punishment for the whole squad. The narration is from the prisoners' point of view and in their informal language. The narrator describes Shukhov's arrest and sentencing as "the law can be stood on its head," since Shukhov was condemned for "telling the truth."

The injustice of the Soviet system of law and punishment is clarified by the fact of arbitrary sentencing. Nearing the end of his 10-year sentence, Shukhov recognizes that officials might add another 10 or 25 years to prevent him from being set free. In addition, Kilgas must endure the new typical and doubled sentence of 25 years: "When your ten years are up they can say, 'Here's another ten for you.'" There is no justice in such sentencing.

Everyday injustice also may be irrational. Assigned to block the window openings, Shukhov and Kilgas are not given material to do the job and must "steal" roofing felt from another part of the work site. If their theft is discovered, they and the entire squad are likely to be punished. Despite his honesty, Shukhov is not above lying to the authorities to provide for himself and his squad; he knows the ways of the camp. Like Kilgas, Shukhov will lie and say they found the roofing material at the work site so they will not be punished for stealing it. Lying can be key to survival.

Absurdity reappears in the work the prisoners are asked to do. The unfortunate prisoners tasked with hacking holes in frozen ground have a nearly impossible job to do. Although the earth is rock hard, camp officials refuse them firewood to thaw the earth sufficiently. Readers may infer that this squad will be punished for not digging the holes they were assigned to dig, even though official meanness or stupidity makes it impossible for them to do the job. Absurdity even becomes laughable when prisoners are told the noonday sun no longer indicates noon. Buinovsky tells them that in Soviet labor camps "a new decree has been passed, and now the sun stands highest at one." "Soviet power" revises astronomy to suit its own ends!

Lying, also a type of corruption, in general is necessary for survival. Kilgas will lie about where he found the roofing felt to avoid punishment. Tiurin will lie on his work report because the report is more important than the work done. Had Shukhov lied, denying he was captured by the Germans during the war, he would not have been imprisoned. Shukhov's honesty destroyed his life because ideology and paranoia rule the Soviet state in which honesty and truth are at best irrelevant and at worst potentially deadly.

The theme of dignity and the symbol of identity are related here to privacy and self-interest. Shukhov stole a good trowel from the tool store and has kept it hidden at the work site. Using this trowel gives Shukhov's work a kind of dignity because he knows he does a better job using the better tool. Yet his dignity is based on dishonesty and stealth. He does not let others in his squad know where he hides the trowel; keeping it to himself bolsters his sense of identity and independence, as it is something all his own apart from the state and the camp.

The symbol of packages from home represents something different for Kilgas, who does not use them for bartering. Although good-natured, Kilgas is "cunning" enough to keep for himself his "two food parcels a month," viewing them as his personal property and representing his individuality, identity, and good fortune. They give Kilgas a sense of worth and independence, which the other prisoners don't begrudge him. Shukhov thinks, "After all, [Kilgas] couldn't feed everyone." Perhaps Kilgas's good humor and better physical condition stem from the extra nourishment in his packages.

The theme of trust among prisoners surfaces yet is shown to be questionable and even fraying. Zeks have murdered two prisoners they believed to be "squealers," but one victim was not. Shukhov thinks "perhaps he [had] gone to the wrong bunk" and was murdered by mistake. The murders suggest the sense of comradeship and trust among prisoners is tenuous.

Finally, readers may sense that the characters, for the most part, seem like stock figures representing a cross-section of the prison population: for example, Shukhov the hard-working peasant; Alyosha the unworldly man of faith; Tiurin the strong, resourceful leader; Fetiukov the sniveling, servile office worker; Tsezar the rich intellectual; Buinovsky the military officer; Gopchik the teenager learning the ropes; Der the bullying but cowardly go-getter. From other sections readers can add Volkovoi the sadistic security chief and later the Limper, the brutal mess orderly.

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