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 tobacco. 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.
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