One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: Novel Summary
Chapter 1 (pages 1-25, sounding of reveille through Shukhov’s frustrated visit to the medic)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich takes place in the early 1950s. The novel opens to the early morning sounding of an improvised reveille at a Stalinist labor camp referred to as “HQ.” It is so cold that the warder banging the rail tires quickly, and the prisoner and protagonist Ivan Denisovich Shukhov atypically lounges in bed for a moment. Usually, he is up at 5:00 a.m. to make use of the hour and a half before roll call when he can earn a bit on the side by running errands or otherwise doing favors for his fellow inmates. But today he is all aches and pains after a restless night during which he just couldn’t stay warm, so he stays in bed listening to the morning sounds of the camp: the orderlies carrying the latrine can, the dumping of boots from the drying room. He knows the routines well, and remembers with a jolt that this day is special, for his Gang, 104, may be switched to building a new “Socialist Community Development.” The gang boss, Tyurin, is a talented negotiator, and the gang’s fate lies in his hands and ability to incentivize the chief clerk to give the nasty job in the cold to another group. Shukhov thinks of trying to get himself put on the sick list, and thinking that the warder on duty, Big Ivan, is the easiest for avoiding punishment in the “can,” he takes his time, observing his bunkmates and the interaction with he members of the neighboring gang. Alyoshka the Baptist whispers his morning prayers while Captain Buynovsky cautions it’s at least 20 degrees below zero outside where the men are headed for the day’s work. That confirms Shukhov’s plan to head for the infirmary, just as the warder “Thin Tartar” discovers him still in bed and punishes him with three days in the can. He dresses resentfully and follows the warder to the Commandant’s office.
After traipsing through the blistering cold to the warders’ room, Shukhov is relieved to have his suspicion confirmed that he has not been brought to be put in the can, but rather to scrub the floor. Since the special prisoner responsible for this job decided it was beneath him, ordinary prisoners like Shukhov are given the job. As he washes, he listens to the conversation of the gang bosses, having hidden his all-important felt boots under some foot-cloths in a corner. He has learned in his eight years at the camp just how important it is to keep his boots warm and protected from others. He finishes mopping and grins, revealing the teeth he lost due to scurvy at another camp, Ust-Izhma, in 1943. Then he rushes to claim his breakfast. He is lucky that his fellow gang member Fetyukov has saved him a portion of gruel, and with relish he removes an aluminum spoon he fashioned himself from its hiding place in his boot. He removes his cap before eating and is pleased to realize that since he hadn’t yet collected his bread ration, it will give him a snack to break his hunger later. He licks his spoon clean and heads for the hospital block, ducking to avoid being seen by the warders. He remembers the Latvian had told him he has some tobacco to sell, and is faced with the dilemma of whether to turn back to claim some before it is all gone, but decides since he is already close to continue to see the medic, Nikolay Semyonovich Vdovushkin, who tells him it was a mistake to come in the morning rather than the night before, since the sick list has already been sent in to the Production Planning Section (PPS). As his temperature is taken, Shukhov thinks all he wants is a few weeks of being sick in bed, but Vdovushkin, who is actually a poet and not a medic at all, sends him back to work since his temperature is only 99 degrees, short of the 100+ line required to let him off. Shukhov accepts his fate without expression, rams on his cap and heads out without so much as a nod.
Major themes of injustice and cold are presented from the very beginning of the novel, as Shukhov is punished for his slowness in getting up although it is rare behavior for him and three days of solitary confinement seems not to fit his “crime.” The prison authorities are presented as cruel and self-interested, and the “good” news that Shukhov will not be sent to the can but rather just asked to wash the floor indicates how arbitrary life in the camp is. The cold has crept inside his body and his only hope is to be spared a day’s work to recover his health, but like the unrelenting temperatures, the conspiring officials and medic have devised a system which will never let newly sick prisoners off from work since the day’s sick list is generated the night before. These inhumane practices are presented as normal and acceptable; Shukhov no longer thinks how outrageous it is that his name has been replaced by a number, 854, but instead rejoices that he has not missed the minimal ration of meal and mush he is given to fortify him for another day’s work.