One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: Top Ten Quotes

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  1. “Shukhov said nothing.  He didn’t even nod.  He rammed on his cap and went out.  When you’re cold, don’t expect sympathy from someone who’s warm.”(p. 25)
    Shukhov visited the medic Vdovushkin in the morning but his temperature of 99 was one degree short of earning him a day’s bedrest, and he’s sent to work by his fellow prisoner, who actually had studied literature at university before being arrested and wasn’t a medic by training.
  2. “Even a prisoner’s thoughts weren’t free but kept coming back to the same thing, kept turning the same things over again.  Will they find that bread in the mattress? Will the medics put me on the sick list this evening?  Will they put the Captain in the cooler or not? And where did Caesar get that warm shirt?  He must’ve gotten it out of someone in the stores with a bribe.  Where else?”(p. 43)
    Shukhov’s morning thoughts while getting into formation in columns turn to the usual, typical not only of him but also of the other prisoners given the limits imposed upon their bodies, and, the author argues, their minds, by the prison system.  The comment further suggests that under the similarly confining structure of communism, human beings are not truly free to think their own thoughts, but are rather re-thinking the same sorts of limited thoughts due to their state of deprivation.
  3. “Easy money doesn’t weigh anything and it doesn’t give you that good feeling you get when you really earn it.  The old saying was true - what you don’t pay for honestly, you don’t get good value for.  Shukhov’s hands were still good for something.  Back home he’d surely find himself work making stoves, or something in the carpentry line, or mending pots and pans.”(p. 48)
    Ten years after leaving home in 1941, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov’s thoughts turn to a letter his wife once wrote him about painting carpets instead of doing the carpentry their village had been known for.  Even now, in 1951, having been through eight years of life in a prison camp that has meant losing half his teeth and going bald at forty, he prefers the honest life to trying to make a living dishonestly.
  4. “You might well ask why a prisoner worked so hard for ten years in a camp.  Why didn’t they say to hell with it and drag their feet all day long till the night, which was theirs?  But it wasn’t so simple.  That’s why they’d dreamed up these gangs.  It wasn’t like gangs “outside,” where every fellow got paid separately.  In the camps they had these gangs to make the prisoners keep each other on their toes.”(p. 66) This passage follows Gang 104 beginning work on the cement mixer, and describes the interdependence of the prisoners, who motivate each other to work due to their common plight.  Just as communism “outside” relied on individuals reporting on each other, so are gang members incentivized to cooperate by the threat of collective punishment.
  5. “Beat a dog once and you only have to show him the whip.  The cold was vicious, but it had nothing on the gang boss.”(p. 68)
     
    Tyurin’s threats are sufficient to stop the men trying to warm up even for a minute, especially as their very lives depend upon finishing laying pipes to heat the space.  Tyurin’s talents as gang boss include fixing the work rates, and he can leave Pavlo in command to attend to this pressing business assured that the gang members will behave.
  6. “The great thing about a penal camp was you had a hell of a lot of freedom.  Back in Ust-Izhma if you said they couldn’t get matches “outside” they put you in the can and slapped on another ten years. But here you could yell your head off about anything you liked and the squealers didn’t even bother to tell on you.  The security fellows couldn’t care less.  The only trouble was you didn’t have much time to talk about anything.” (p. 177)
    Shukhov’s thoughts wander as someone in the room yells that Stalin couldn’t care less about the camp’s inhabitants, favorably comparing the freedom of speech here with his previous residence at Ust-Izhma.  But the ability to express oneself “freely” is limited, too, in that the prisoners are kept so busy with work they rarely exercise this privilege.  The comment applies also to life “outside” where the communist system keeps the majority of citizens silent.
  7. “Some fellows always thought the grass was greener on the other side of the fence.  Let them envy other people if they wanted to, but Shukhov knew what life was about.  And he was not the kind who thought anybody owed him a living.” (p. 180)
    Shukhov thinks how even those fortunate enough to receive packages really don’t get to keep much of it, do to the many favors “owed” all those willing to look the other way.  While many prisoners lamented their present circumstances and fantasized about a better life elsewhere, Shukhov has resigned himself to his fate and is committed to working hard regardless.  Unlike others, he does not expect anyone to make his life easier, and realizes his life will be what he alone makes it.
  8. “I’ll tell you why, Alyoshka.  Because all these prayers are like the complaints we send to the higher-ups-either they don’t get there or they come back to you marked ‘Rejected.’”(p.196)
    Shukhov compares prayers to requests to the prison authorities, and asserts that neither receive favorable responses.  In contrast to the religious man’s belief that God has already given the daily bread that is all men are warranted to expect, Shukhov feels shunned by both the leadership and the God he says he believes in, but without the complete devotion of his comrade Alyoshka “the Baptist.” Although Shukhov’s spiritual quest continues from this moment and he becomes somewhat more a man of faith towards the novel’s end, this key moment illustrates the distance between the two men and their attitudes towards leadership both human and divine.
  9. “The thing is, you can pray as much as you like but they won’t take anything off your sentence and you’ll just have to sit it out, every day of it, from reveille to lights out.” (p. 198)
    Shukhov, despite his belief in God, has just announced to Alyoshka he does not believe in Heaven and Hell and his religious friend responds in horror that he must not pray for freedom, but ought instead to rejoice that he is in prison where he can think of his soul.  This exchange prompts some deep soul searching in the protagonist, whose longstanding hope to return home is undergoing a transformation.  His bitter sentiment that prayers do not result in any leniency or signs of God’s listening contrasts with Alyoshka’s unquestioning devotion.
  10. “He didn’t know any longer himself whether he wanted freedom or not.  At first he’d wanted it very much and every day he added up how long he still had to go.  But then he got fed up with this.  And as time went on he understood that they might let you out but they never let you home.  And he didn’t really know where he’d be better off.  At home or in here.”(p. 199)
    Alyoshka’s comment that Shukhov ought to rejoice that he is in prison profoundly affects Shukhov, who begins to wonder whether he really wishes to go home after his experience in prison.  Although he responds that their cases are different, that Alyoshka came to the camp via Christ’s will while Shukhov came because the Russians were unprepared for war in 1941, his reflection that he may actually not prefer home to here has major consequences.  When the warder calls a second check and Caesar desperately gives Shukhov two cookies and sugars and a slice of sausage in gratitude for his help hiding the remainder of his package, Shukhov rushes back to the bunk to reclaim the package and share one of the cookies with Alyoshka, who otherwise has no hope of claiming extra food since he cannot so easily earn it.  This gesture of sharing shows that Shukhov has reached a sense of peace with his present circumstances, and he has made a home for himself in this community of prisoners whose days and nights are so routine.

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