The Theme of Hope in One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich


In Alexander Solzhenitsyn^Òs 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^Òs
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
^ÓSolzhenitsyn^Òs 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^Ô (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^Òs 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^Òs life to accentuate this point about humanity. 
Shukhov^Òs day began with reveille. ^ÓShukhov 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^Ô (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 ^Óa time when anyone who
knew what was what in the camps could always scrounge a little
something on the side^Ô (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. ^ÓHe^Òd been feeling lousy since the
night before--with aches and pains and the shivers, and he just
couldn^Òt manage to keep warm that night. All the time he dreaded
the morning^Ô (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 ^ÓIvan
Denisovich is the Everyman of the Soviet prison system^Ô (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 ^Ówould 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^Ô (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^Òs 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: ^ÓThere^Òs work and work. 
It^Òs like the two ends of a stick. If you^Òre 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^Òd all have
kicked the bucket long ago^Ô (Solzhenitsyn 14). The glimmers of
hope in this morning are so vibrant that after the publication of
the novel ^ÓSolzhenitsyn 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^Ô (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^Òs 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. ^ÓThough 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^Òt seem far off now^Ô
(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, ^Ónever 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^Ô
(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
^Ólack of skilled labor in the camps^Ô 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 ^Órolled away a small stone and stuck his
fingers in a crack. There it was! He pulled it out^Ô
(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^Òt 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 ^ÓIvan 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^Ô (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^Òt talk. He couldn^Òt
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^Òs ^Ósoul is radiated by his belief in humanity, by the
ease with which he establishes human contacts^Ô (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 ^Ódoes an
honest day^Òs work on his work detail, because that is the only
way he knows how to work^Ô (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 ^Óhe didn^Òt know the man who^Òd worked
on it in his place before. But that guy sure didn^Òt know his
job. He^Òd messed it up^Ô (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 ^Ówas now getting used to the wall like it was his
own^Ô (Solzhenitsyn 107). Even after the work day was finished
Shukhov still kept working. He took tremendous pride in his
work. ^ÓHe was pleased. Not bad, eh, for one afternoon^Òs 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, ^Ówhat the hell are we going to do without you when you^Òve
served your time? We^Òll all be crying our hearts out for you^Ô
(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^Òs 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^Òs 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. ^ÓHe 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^Ô (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
^Óthank you.^Ô However, on this one day Shukhov^Òs 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, ^Ówe 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^Ô (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^Òs generosity,
humanitarianism and hope is displayed when ^Óhe pulled out his
pouch. He took out as much tobacco as he^Òd borrowed earlier that
day, reached it over to the Estonian in the top bunk across from
him, and said ^ÑThanks^Ò^Ô (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^Òs very existence may be meaningless.

Works Cited
Clive, Geoffrey. The Broken Icon. New York: The Macmillan 
 Company, 1972.
Frank, Joseph. ^ÓFrom Gogol to Gulag Archipelago.^Ô The Sewanee 
 Review 84 (1976): 314-33. Rpt in ^ÓSolzhenitsyn.^Ô World 
 Literary Criticism: 1500 to the Present. Ed. James P. 
 Draper. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992.
Kelly, Aileen. ^ÓThe Path of a Prophet.^Ô The New York Review of 
 Books 31.15 (1984): 13-17. Rpt in ^ÓSolzhenitsyn.^Ô World 
 Literary Criticism: 1500 to the Present. Ed. James P. 
 Draper. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992. 
Levitzky, Sergei. Ed. George Panichas. ^ÓAlexander 
 Solzhenitsyn.^Ô The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists. 
 Hawthorn Books Inc., 1971. Rpt. in ^ÓSolzhenitsyn.^Ô World 
 Literary Criticism: 1500 to the Present. Ed. James P. 
 Draper. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992.
Lucid, Luellen. ^ÓSolzhenitsyn^Òs Rhetorical Revolution.^Ô 
 Twentieth Century Literature 23 (1977): 498-517. Rpt in 
 ^ÓSolzhenitsyn.^Ô World Literary Criticism: 1500 to the 
 Present. Ed. James P. Draper. Detroit: Gale Research 
 Inc., 1992.
Remnick, David. Ressurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia. 
 New York: Random House Inc., 1998
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. 
 Trans. Max Hayward and Ronald Hingely. New York: Bantam 
 Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc., 1990.
Terras, Victor. A History of Russian Literature. New Haven: 
 Yale University Press, 1991.
Wilson, Edmund. A Window on Russia: For the Use of Foreign 
 Readers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1943.

Quotes: Search by Author