Hope In Solzhenitsyn


Hope In Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day In The.. Essay, Research Paper

The Theme of Hope in One Day in the

life of Ivan Denisovich

In Alexander Solzhenitsyn?s novel One day in the life of

Ivan Denisovich, the strong themes of hope and perseverance are

undercut by the realization that for Ivan there is little or no

purpose in life. This is not to say that the themes of hope and

perseverance do not exist in the novel. There are numerous

instances in the novel where Shukhov is filled with hope.

However, these moments of hope amidst the banal narrative of the

novel raise the interesting question: Are these moments of hope

pointless? The answer to this question may lie more in the

individual human nature of the reader than in Solzhenitsyn?s

literary technique. Whether pointless or not, Solzhenitsyn

offers many instances in the novel where the themes of hope and

perseverance are evident. The glimpses of hope which Ivan

Denisovich sees includes the few moments after reveille that the

prisoners have to themselves, respecting his fellow prisoners,

taking pride in a job well done, and enjoying simple food and


Solzhenitsyn wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in

such a fashion that the brutality of the Soviet labor camps is

not emphasized. Instead of focusing on the brutality of the

camps, Solzhenitsyn focused on one day in the life of a very

ordinary prisoner. However, the fact that Ivan Denisovich

Shukhov is such an ordinary man and is still able to find hope in

the most menial of tasks is inspiring. Joseph Frank states that

?Solzhenitsyn?s fundamental theme is precisely the affirmation of

character, the ability to survive in a nightmare world where

moral character is the only safeguard of human dignity and the

very conception of humanity itself is something precious and

valuable? (3302). Much of the Soviet leadership despised

Solzhenitsyn because he instilled within the Soviet people much

of the same hope that is visible in Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.

Solzhenitsyn gave people hope:

Solzhenitsyn?s literary mission, the process of giving

voice to the tens of millions of victims of Soviet

terror, went on secretly, even collectively. Much of

Gulag was based on the hundreds of letters and memoirs

that former prisoners mailed to Solzhenitsyn after One

Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published.

Andropov had an intuitive sense that this new work

could do as much, in its way, to undermine Soviet power

as all the nuclear arsenals in the West. (Remnick 118)

Solzhenitsyn uses the every-day occurrences of Ivan Denisovich

Shukhov?s life to accentuate this point about humanity.

Shukhov?s day began with reveille. ?Shukhov never slept through

reveille but always got up at once. That gave him about an hour

and a half to himself before the morning roll call? (Solzhenitsyn

1). This short amount of time at the beginning of the day was

precious because it was the only time during the day, except for

a few minutes in the evening, that the prisoners had to

themselves. This short amount of time provided hope for the

prisoners in a number of ways. It was ?a time when anyone who

knew what was what in the camps could always scrounge a little

something on the side? (Solzhenitsyn 2). For Ivan Denisovich

Shukhov this meant doing anything from sewing someone a cover for

his mittens out of a piece of old lining to bringing one of the

big gang bosses his dry felt boots while he was still in his

bunk. Tasks like these, done for his own personal satisfaction

rather than the satisfaction of the gang bosses gave Shukhov hope

and reinforced his own personal self worth. On the one day which

Solzhenitsyn presents, however, Ivan Denisovich does not get out

of his bunk at reveille. ?He?d been feeling lousy since the

night before–with aches and pains and the shivers, and he just

couldn?t manage to keep warm that night. All the time he dreaded

the morning? (Solzhenitsyn 3). Is Solzhenitsyn foreshadowing

that because Shukhov did not get out of his bed at reveille, as

usual, this will not be an average day in his life in the labor

camps? In fact, exactly the opposite is the case. Solzhenitsyn

is attempting to express that this could be one day in the life

of any average prisoner in the Gulag. Clive states that ?Ivan

Denisovich is the Everyman of the Soviet prison system? (143).

An average prisoner would not wake up every morning of his

sentence feeling inspired and hopeful. Although Solzhenitsyn

later depicts Ivan as hopeful and inspired, it would have been

misleading to the themes of the novel if he had made Ivan hopeful

and inspired all of the time. While still lying in bed after

reveille Shukhov decided that he ?would try to get himself on the

sick list so he could have the day off. There was no harm in

trying. His whole body was one big ache? (Solzhenitsyn 4). This

attempt to get out of working for the day proved to be futile.

In addition, if Shukhov had managed to get on the sick list and

stay in bed all day it would not have been an accurate depiction

of one day in the life of an ordinary prisoner. In

Solzhenitsyn?s depiction of this ordinary day he manages to show

what could be the worst morning possible for a prisoner. Ivan

does not get on the sick list and he is dragged out of bed to

complete the menial task of mopping a floor simply because he

failed to get up at reveille. While he is moping the floor,

despite his aches and pains and the freezing cold, Shukhov is

able to ponder a hopeful philosophy: ?There?s work and work.

It?s like the two ends of a stick. If you?re working for human

beings, then do a real job of it, but if you work for dopes, then

you just go through the motions. Otherwise they?d all have

kicked the bucket long ago? (Solzhenitsyn 14). The glimmers of

hope in this morning are so vibrant that after the publication of

the novel ?Solzhenitsyn was informed by thousands of letters from

former prisoners, the integrity of his peasant hero had returned

to them the conviction of their own human worth? (Kelly 3311).

This morning, like the other three thousand six hundred and

fifty-three mornings which Ivan Denisovich Shukhov had spent in

the camp, was not perfect but instead held glimmers of hope for

the future and for the day to come.

The bulk of Solzhenitsyn?s novel takes place outside the

camp at a work area where Shukhov and his gang, gang 104, are

building a power plant. It is during this period of work that

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is the most inspired and the most

hopeful. Even at the very outset of the workday Shukhov and the

men of gang 104 were hopeful. ?Though they had been sitting down

for barely twenty minutes, and the workday–a short winter

one–went on only till six, they all thought this had been

wonderful luck, and the evening didn?t seem far off now?

(Solzhenitsyn 57). The positive attitudes of these men is

astounding. Shukhov and another prisoner, Kilgas, were first

assigned to find any kind of material which would be sufficient

to cover the large windows of the power plant which gang 104 was

building. Both men were enthusiastic about their task because

not only was it physical it was also mentally demanding. They

had to use the miniscule resourses they had to get the job done.

Perseverance over the cold was also very important to

successfully completing, or starting, a job. Before Shukhov and

Kilgas went in search of roofing felt to cover the windows of the

power plant, Shukhov made sure he had the perseverance to begin

the days work. He thought to himself, ?never mind how hard it

was to begin the workday in such freezing cold, the thing was to

get over the beginning–that was the important part?

(Solzhenitsyn 60). After setting himself in the right frame of

mind Ivan Denisovich Shukhov had to do one more thing before he

would go off with Kilgas in search of the roofing felt. He

needed to find his special trowel. Shukhov knew that after he

and Kilgas had covered the windows of the power plant it would be

their job to lay bricks. For Shukhov, his special trowel was

both a symbol of joy and hope. Shukhov was a skilled man. A

?lack of skilled labor in the camps? made any man with any skill

whatsoever a commodity (Wilson 270). When he had been free he

had been a carpenter. Therefore, he knew which tools he would

work with best. Also, by hiding his special trowel every night,

Shukhov was able to have something which was completely his. In

the camps, ownership of anything was a rare and special

occurrence. Shukhov ?rolled away a small stone and stuck his

fingers in a crack. There it was! He pulled it out?

(Solzhenitsyn 61). Such hope and joy from a tool is

incomprehensible to the modern reader.

It is not only tools from which Ivan Denisovich is able to

find hope but people as well. Once inside the power plant, a

young prisoner named Gopchik comes to Ivan Denisovich and asks

him if he will teach him how to make a spoon out of aluminum

wire. Ivan then reflects upon his feelings for Gopchick and

comes to some realizations about humanity:

Ivan Denisovich liked this little rascal Gopchik (his

own son had died young, and he had two grownup

daughters at home). Gopchik had been arrested for

taking milk to Bendera partisans in the woods. They

gave him the same sentence a grownup got. He was

friendly, like a little calf, and tried to please

everybody. But he could be sly too. He ate the stuff

in the packages he got, all by himself, at night. But

come to think of it, why should he feed everybody?

(Solzhenitsyn 69)

Shukhov does not get any food from this young boys packages and

he doesn?t feel any animosity although he is constantly starving

himself. Ivan Denisovich respects this young boy and possibly

even lives vicariously through his youthfulness. The fact that

Ivan Denisovich respects this young boy is remarkable in the

harsh conditions of the camp. Shukhov respects others because he

respects himself. Terras states that ?Ivan Denisovich is a

survivor, not because he will steal from or inform on his fellow

prisoners, but because he has retained his self-respect and human

dignity? (592). Shukhov also has a great deal of sympathy for

Senka Klevshin. According to all accounts Senka had really been

through the mill. Most of the time he didn?t talk. He couldn?t

hear what people were saying and usually kept his mouth shut.

Therefore, the other prisoners did not know much about him. All

they knew was that he had been in Buchenwald and was in the camp

underground there. He had smuggled arms in for an uprising.

Then the Germans hung him up with his arms tied behind his back

and beat him. Shukhov is always kind to Senka Klevshin. He

explains things to him when he can not hear and is generally

helpful. Almost all of the prisoners displayed this kind of

humanitarianism when it came to helping Senka because they all

knew that someday they might be in the same situation. Levitzky

reiterates this point concerning humanitarianism by stating that

Shukhov?s ?soul is radiated by his belief in humanity, by the

ease with which he establishes human contacts? (3300).

The most hopeful part of the entire day for Ivan Denisovich

was during the period of hard labor when he worked laying a brick

wall with Kilgas in the power plant. Ivan Denisovich ?does an

honest day?s work on his work detail, because that is the only

way he knows how to work? (Terras 592). Shukhov took pride in

his work and did not take kindly to those who did not. Of the

brick wall Shukhov said that ?he didn?t know the man who?d worked

on it in his place before. But that guy sure didn?t know his

job. He?d messed it up? (Solzhenitsyn 107). It was moments like

these that Ivan Denisovich lived for. To make a wall out of

brick and mortar was the closest thing to art that anyone in the

camps would ever create. Art gives people hope. The

construction of the brick wall gave Shukhov hope. He took pride

in the wall; he ?was now getting used to the wall like it was his

own? (Solzhenitsyn 107). Even after the work day was finished

Shukhov still kept working. He took tremendous pride in his

work. ?He was pleased. Not bad, eh, for one afternoon?s work?

(Solzhenitsyn 123) Not only did Shukhov take pride in his own

work but others took pride in what he was capable of as well.

This was inspirational for Ivan Denisovich. The boss of gang 104

asked, ?what the hell are we going to do without you when you?ve

served your time? We?ll all be crying our hearts out for you?

(Solzhenitsyn 123). By portraying this one day in the live of

Ivan Denisovich in such a positive light, Solzhenitsyn is

allegorically and symbolically representing the Soviet system.

Luellen Lucid states:

the novel?s portrayal of one good day in the life of a

typical prisoner constitutes a reversal of socialist

realism, which Solzhenitsyn underscores stylistically

by referring to the prisoners familiarly through the

consciousness of Ivan Denisovich while regarding the

prison personnel and government officials impersonally

as they. (3304)

Therefore, Solzhenitsyn?s use of style is also responsible for

accentuating the theme of hope in the novel.

Food also gave Ivan Denisovich Shukhov hope. Time in the

camp was not measured by days or hours or minutes but by meals.

To Shukhov the time between meals could seem an eternity if there

was nothing else to occupy his mind. Shukhov had come to the

realization that to enjoy the time he had eating his food he had

to concentrate on nothing else but the food. ?He had to give all

his time to eating. He had to scrape the stuff out from the

bottom, put it carefully in his mouth, and roll it around with

his tongue? (Solzhenitsyn 88). Shukhov would do favors for

others with the small chance of getting a food reward. When the

gang returned from their work detail, Shukhov saved a place in

line for the captain so that he would be able to take his time

reading the list to see if he even had a package. If there was

no package then Shukhov would get no other thanks than a simple

?thank you.? However, on this one day Shukhov?s humanitarianism

paid off once again and the captain rewarded Shukhov by giving

him his meal. Situations like these gave Ivan Denisovich Shukhov

a great deal of hope. Apart from the hopefulness of Ivan

Denisovich and his good-natured, peasant cunning, ?we feel in him

a man of goodwill whose spirit is not filled with bitterness,

despite the crying injustice of his punishment and despite, too,

the inhuman conditions of life in the so-called corrective labor

camp? (Levitzky 3300). Often, after eating, Shukhov would find

hope and comfort in smoking a cigarette. This, however, was not

an easy task. Tobacco was a very rare and precious commodity in

the camps. While gang 104 was working at the power plant Shukhov

had had the desire to smoke and had borrowed just enough tobacco

from a generous Estonian. Later in the day, after Shukhov had

saved the captains place in line and had eaten his dinner and the

captains portion as well, he went and spent two precious rubles

on a small amount of tobacco. Shukhov?s generosity,

humanitarianism and hope is displayed when ?he pulled out his

pouch. He took out as much tobacco as he?d borrowed earlier that

day, reached it over to the Estonian in the top bunk across from

him, and said ?Thanks?? (Solzhenitysn 183). The fact that so

much pleasure and joy is derived from food and tobacco makes Ivan

Denisovich Shukhov a very hopeful character.

Solzhenitsyn presents the reader with an average day in the

life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. A day remarkably similar to the

other three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days which

Shukhov has spent in the forced labor camp. This day was filled

with small glimpses of hope. Are these glimpses of hope

pointless due to the fact that if Shukhov does serve his ten

years the camp will simply add another ten or maybe twenty-five

years to his sentence? No, of course that is not the case.

Whether, Shukhov spends the rest of his life in that camp or not,

he has found a way to find pleasure and hope in the most brutal

and difficult of situations. Therefore, the theme of hope in One

Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is not undercut by the fact

that Shukhov?s very existence may be meaningless.

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