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 5 (Dinner) | Summary



This section describes the afternoon dinner period and begins with "Suddenly the whistle blew."

The work site canteen is little more than a shack. Each prisoner gets a starvation serving of grits. Only 50 bowls are available for all, so bowls must be washed after each use in readiness for the next squad. Sometimes prisoners steal bowls or leave them lying around. The prisoner who collects these bowls gets an extra helping of food. The cook has little to do preparing the grits, and a "sanitation inspector" sits around and watches. These workers, as well as certain squad leaders, get extra helpings; zeks get the smallest portions.

The canteen is even warm. Pavlo goes to the cook's window to get bowls and food for his squad. This is a good day because the oatmeal is real and good quality, not magara, a cheap Chinese oatmeal substitute. Once a full tray of bowls is ready, it is put on a table that has space available. The bowls must be watched so other prisoners don't steal the food. Today the cook is confused about the bowl count and accuses Shukhov of "swiping" extra bowls. Pavlo sorts out the problem as the rest of the squad enters the canteen. In the confusion it turns out there are two extra bowls of food. Shukhov uses his handmade spoon to eat his oatmeal, which he eats with intense concentration, consuming every bit and scraping the bowl with his bread crust. Then Pavlo gives Shukhov one of the extra bowls of food. Buinovsky has finished eating but lazes in the canteen's warmth. Others yell at him to leave so they can sit down. Pavlo reproaches them by giving Buinovsky an extra helping of food.

Shukhov takes Tsezar's bowl of oatmeal to the office, which unlike everywhere else is so hot it's "like a Turkish bath." Tsezar eats his lunch there, not deigning to eat with the others at the canteen. As Shukhov arrives with the oatmeal, Tsezar is arguing about Russian art films with others in the office. In another part of the office the superintendent is yelling about "an overdraft of expenses" and the misuse of materials at the work site. As Shukhov leaves the office, he finds a piece of hacksaw blade, which he puts in his pocket. Back at the power station Shukhov retrieves his trowel from its hiding place and gets ready to work.


The theme of corruption is closely associated with food. The process of doling out dinner is highly significant. Ordinary prisoners get near-starvation portions, but anyone who can wheedle his way into some type of coveted "helping" position receives extra food. For the cook it is "better to give the 'helper' an extra portion at the zeks' expense than burden his own back" by carrying grits himself. The extra food given to "helpers" reduces the portions given to those who labor, who "swing a pick." Men who do the hard physical work "get no more than the damned authorities give" them of what's left over after "the cook and the 'help' and all the other trustees in soft jobs" get their extra portions. Squad leaders get extra helpings, too, but prisoners do not begrudge them additional food because the prisoners' lives depend on a good squad leader who knows how to game the system. Keeping the squad leader well fed is a small price to pay for easier work assignments and other perks.

Lying and stealing might be offshoots of corruption, but when involving food, they seem less objectionable. Again Shukhov easily lies to improve his and his squad's chances of survival. Shukhov has adopted the morality of the camp that makes lying acceptable when in the service of living one more day. Pavlo and Shukhov thus lie to the cook by denying he gave them two extra bowls of food. The lie will keep two prisoners in squad 104 better fed and more likely to survive—so the lie is worth telling. The need to watch the food bowls on the tables to prevent theft may be less justifiable but still understandable. Stealing food from prisoners in other squads illuminates the tenuousness of comradeship and trust. Most prisoners would be unlikely to steal food from their own squad members, among whom there is a degree of trust if not true friendship.

The same trust does not seem to exist among prisoners in different squads. Pavlo shows comradeship, compassion, and wisdom when he offers the inexperienced Buinovsky one of the extra bowls to allow him to retain his seat in the canteen as well as to rebuke the other prisoners for harassing and bullying Buinovsky. The morality surrounding food can be ambiguous in a mentality of survival first.

More of Shukhov's character is revealed in this section. Shukhov has useful skills for making items, like his spoon, that help him survive and give him a sense of pride and individual identity. He keeps it hidden to avoid its being confiscated. Using it is a gesture that signifies Shukhov's freedom as a man with private possessions, an object that gives him pride for having made it himself and kept it hidden from authorities. Shukhov shows foresight and independence when he picks up and hides the scrap of hacksaw blade. Although possessing such an item might get him into trouble, Shukhov has enough free will—and experience in labor camps—to understand he must assert his independence at every opportunity. This action, in a way, refutes his previous notion of no longer being able to think for himself. In picking up and hiding the blade he is exercising free will with an eye to the future. He will keep the blade hidden until he needs to use it. However, his thinking is in the moment and in the camp; long-range planning may still elude him because of who he is and what he has endured.

The conversation between Tsezar and the others in the warm office is incongruous and even absurd, given the surroundings. The debate between avant-garde and traditional filmmaking may have been a current topic of debate outside the prison, but in a Siberian labor camp, where every day is a matter of survival, Tsezar's opinions on film seem irrelevant. Yet the humble Shukhov on entering with Tsezar's oatmeal—what rank-and-file prisoners fight over in the mess hall—lacks "the nerve to interrupt such a learned conversation." That Tsezar's conversation is about food is even more incongruous, as what is ordinary in the film—"bread and butter"—is life itself in the camp, minus the butter. Tsezar is no ordinary prisoner, however. He is not broken by the camp and is so far better nourished than the others that he is able to think about things other than his food ration coming through the door. Readers may interpret the conversation as an authorial commentary on contemporary art forms or as an anomalous diversion for a fortunate prisoner.

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