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 9 (Supper) | Summary



This section describes what happens at supper in the mess hall and begins with "The prisoners were scurrying."

Prisoners now have some free time. They ignore the senseless rule, rarely enforced, forbidding individual prisoners to walk around the camp on their own. After all, if a prisoner "is sent for ... must [he] take another four or five with [him]?" Shukhov runs alone to his barracks, which he finds in chaos as someone's bread ration has been stolen. Shukhov gets into his bunk and is relieved to find his chunk of bread still hidden in the mattress. Then he runs to the mess hall for dinner.

The line for the mess hall is also chaotic. The camp commandant has imposed another ridiculous rule requiring inmates to line up in twos on the porch and in groups of five off the porch. Another rule forces all squad members to enter the mess hall together. Shukhov is late and can't find his squad. If squad 104 has already gone into the mess, "Shukhov would be in hot water." Zeks are shoving to get inside, but the brutal Limper, the mess orderly who acts as gatekeeper, beats them back. Shukhov sees Pavlo near the Limper and vaults over the porch rail, finding a spot near Pavlo. The 104th squad is called into the mess hall.

Inside the steamy mess hall, Shukhov must find an empty tray for the squad's food bowls. He makes a deal with a prisoner to give him his empty tray. Shukhov takes the tray to the serving window. Another squad member, Gopchik, also has a tray he grabbed while two other prisoners were fighting over it. Pavlo has Gopchik patrol the tables to reserve seats for squad 104. As the cook ladles stew into the squad's 24 bowls, Shukhov notices when the ladle takes stew from the middle of the pot where it is neither watery nor thick and notes which bowls have the thickest stew—he will be sure to take one of those for himself.

Shukhov carries his tray of 10 bowls to a table Gopchik has found and reserved for his squad. Kilgas brings the bread rations. The amount of bread a prisoner gets reflects how well he has worked that day. Shukhov is rewarded with 12 ounces. Pavlo gets two bowls of stew. Shukhov, too, gets two bowls—one for him and Tsezar's portion. First he eats the thin soupy part and saves the solid bits of fish, cabbage, and potato for last. He scrapes the bowls clean with his personal spoon and saves his bread ration for tomorrow.

The old prisoner seated opposite Shukhov at the table worked all day at the exposed work site. He looks frozen and worn out. Shukhov seems to remember hearing that this man served multiple 10-year sentences. When one sentence ended, another was slapped on. Yet unlike the hunched and defeated men in the mess hall, this man holds his back straight. He has a face "hard and dark like carved stone," and Shukhov judges him as someone "who would never give in" no matter what they did to him.

Shukhov leaves the mess hall "with a full belly" as well as his and Tsezar's bread rations and stops off to get some tobacco from the Lett.


This section opens with a description of nonsensical rules. The first is that prisoners are forbidden to "walk about the camp on their own." The absurdity of the rule has led both prisoners and guards to ignore it. Another rule dictates the way prisoners must assemble to enter the mess hall; rows of five men lined up off the porch must somehow regroup into orderly columns of two on the porch before being allowed inside. The stipulation that squads must enter together may make more sense, but it guarantees the lining-up rule will result in chaos because prisoners often head to the mess hall individually and must find their squad members among a mob of pushing, shoving, and hungry others.

Skaz is particularly apparent here when the narrator, using the voice of a zek, describes the mess chief as "a fat pig with a head like a pumpkin"—a vivid description that might easily come from men with a rural or farming background. The mess chief yells he'll "bash your heads in" if the prisoners don't line up in an orderly way. The prisoners yell back, "You fucking Limper, we'll fix you." Slang and expletives reveal intense animosity on both sides. The Limper, a disabled prisoner, is a figure of injustice and cruelty. In charge of creating order out of the chaotic crowd waiting to enter the mess hall, he uses violence and brutality, thereby using the rule and the disorder it generates "to hit anyone who came up the steps without his say-so." That prisoners may be climbing the steps to find their squad is immaterial to him.

The inhumanity and injustice of the camp can infect even good-hearted prisoners like Shukhov, who reveals a meaner, more aggressive side of his character. He cheats other prisoners and even engages in mild violence, behaving uncharacteristically. When he bargains with another prisoner to get his empty dinner tray, the prisoner who was originally promised that tray naturally objects and confronts Shukhov, whose response is to shove him away "and throw him against the post." Shukhov justifies his action because he "came to an understanding" with the bearer of the empty tray. Aware the tray is promised to the other man, Shukhov lets self-interest dictate his action. He must do whatever it takes to get the tray for himself and his squad. When it comes to food—survival—this kind of cheating is acceptable.

Shukhov's self-interest is highlighted in saving for himself a bowl of thick stew, relegating the thinner portions to others in his squad. But Shukhov must do what it takes to survive. He puts his personal spoon in the bowl of stew he knows is thickest with solid food. Is this corruption? Is he different from the "fat pig" mess chief who controls the distribution of food—and makes sure he gets plenty for himself? The mess chief "holds the lives of thousands in his hands ... and all the zeks were afraid of him."

In this scene Shukhov holds the nourishment (and possible survival) of his squad mates in his hands. The mess chief is despised because he selfishly feeds himself well on food intended for prisoners. This bears consideration, given that Shukhov shares some of these traits in his fight for food and survival. The mess chief, like Shukhov, takes advantage of his situation to feed himself and stay alive. Camp life corrupts everyone as the price for survival.

Shukhov is part of the corrupt prison system because he knows whom he can take advantage of and whom he must do favors for—to benefit himself. Shukhov unfairly obtains the tray from the prisoner it had been promised to because this low-status zek is "punier than Shukhov." Yet Shukhov leaves the mess tent carrying Tsezar's bread ration, which he'll give to him later. Shukhov would never mistreat or cheat Tsezar because Tsezar gets packages full of goods he can hand out to those, such as Shukhov, who do him favors. So Shukhov is shrewd enough to treat prisoners of different status differently to seize advantages for himself.

Shukhov sees an exemplar of a kind of desperate dignity in the person of the old, worn-out prisoner sitting across from him in the mess hall. The old man has had one 10-year sentence after another heaped upon him. Yet he evinces a rare and impressive dignity, unbroken by the system. He sits with perfect straight-backed posture and eats his meager broth with table manners suited to a dinner party, not a labor camp. Shukhov wonders at this strength of character. "All the life had drained out of his face but it had been left, not sickly or feeble, but hard and dark like carved stone ... You could see that he was never going to give in, oh, no!" The old prisoner is the embodiment of self-respect and dignity maintained in the face of unspeakable hardship.

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