41 pages 1 hour read

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1962

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Summary and Study Guide


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, first published in 1962 in the USSR, is a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It follows the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, during a typical day in the forced labor camp where he is imprisoned. The novel explores the human cost of Stalinism in Soviet Russia. Shukhov and the other prisoners waver between unity and division as they attempt to survive in the labor camp, which is situated far north in the Taiga. Despite the difficult conditions, Shukhov manages to find contentment in his daily activities, demonstrating the strength of the human spirit. Solzhenitsyn himself spent eight years in a forced labor camp and was exiled for a short time. He wrote and published the book, his debut, after returning from exile.

This guide uses the version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that was translated by Ralph Parker and published by Signet Classics in 1963.

Plot Summary

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov awakes at reveille but does not get out of bed because he feels ill. A guard, the Tartar, pulls off Shukhov’s covers and orders him to wash the floor of the guardroom. After the guards yell at Shukhov for using too much water, he quickly wipes the floor and goes to the mess hall for a breakfast of cold stew and oatmeal before reporting to the dispensary. Vdovushkin, the medical assistant who is working the desk, tells Shukhov that he has already excused his allotted two prisoners for the day. Shukhov’s temperature is 99.2 degrees, which is too low for him to be declared ill. He chooses to join his squad rather than wait for the doctor and risk getting sent to the guardhouse for faking an illness. Back in the barracks, he gets his bread ration, puts half in his pocket, and sews the other half into his mattress. The prisoners have a few moments to relax and are then called out for work.

Shukhov’s squad, the 104th, was slated to work in the barren Socialist Way of Life Settlement, but the squad leader, Tiurin, successfully bribed the guards to secure a better work assignment building up the second wall of a power station building. The prisoners are counted multiple times and escorted across the frigid steppe to the work area. Tiurin hands out work assignments: Shukhov is to lay bricks after lunch, but they first need to warm the stove room to keep the mortar from freezing, so Shukhov and Kilgas, another mason, are sent to patch the windows. Shukhov retrieves the trowel he keeps hidden, and then Kilgas leads them to an area of prefab buildings where he has stored a spare roll of roofing felt and they bring it back to the power station. Gopchik, a young prisoner, removes the guardrail from the icy stairway to make laths to hold the felt in place, while Shukhov fixes the stovepipe and Kilgas repairs the mortar box. Once those jobs are done, the squad works on the hods they need to carry the supplies to the second story. Shukhov, Kilgas, Gopchik, and Senka—a deaf prisoner—are given permission by the deputy squad leader, Pavlo, to sit by the stove for a few minutes before lunch.

The lunch signal sounds, and Pavlo, Shukhov, and Gopchik go to the canteen. Gopchik is sent back to get the rest of the squad while Pavlo and Shukhov collect the squad’s rations. Shukhov seizes the opportunity to sneak two extra portions for the squad, and Pavlo, who is in charge of handing out the extras, gives one to Shukhov. Shukhov takes a bowl to Tzesar, a 104th member who works in the office, then returns to his squad. On his way, he finds and pockets a small piece of hacksaw. He borrows a pinch of tobacco from the Estonians, two prisoners who look alike and do everything together. The prisoners start working again a little before break is over; the layer of ice on the partially finished wall needs to be cleared before they can start laying bricks. Tiurin, Kilgas, Shukhov, and Senka start laying bricks, and Shukhov focuses on and enjoys the work. They work quickly and repeatedly call out for more mortar. Buinovsky carries the mortar with Fetuikov, but Fetuikov is slow, so Buinovsky demands a better partner and is given Alyosha, a Baptist. Tiurin calls for another box of mortar to be mixed shortly before the end of the day, and they struggle to use it up in time. Gopchik collects and returns the tools, and most of the squad departs to gather by the gates while Shukhov and Senka continue working. They stop, and Senka yells for Shukhov to hurry and starts to run, but Shukhov first hides his trowel. However, Senka would not leave a squad member behind, and he waits. The two sprint toward the 500 impatient prisoners, who boo and curse them.

The evening count is off, causing a delay. A Moldavian from the 32nd had fallen asleep, and when he gets to the gate, his fellow prisoners hit him. The guards are careful with the count, and when they finally lead the prisoners back across the steppe, the prisoners refuse to move quickly until they see another group of prisoners heading toward the prison gates. They break into a run and beat the other group. Before the final count to get inside, the prisoners go through a search. Shukhov finds the hacksaw blade in his pocket and decides to risk smuggling it through. He manages to get it past the guard by hiding it in his mitten. Once in the prison, Shukhov runs to the parcels office to hold a spot in line for Tzesar. He learns that they will work on Sunday, and then Tzesar comes to claim his spot in line. Tzesar tells Shukhov to eat his dinner, and Shukhov departs for the mess hall. The Limper, a prisoner assigned to work as the mess orderly, beats prisoners back from the mess hall step with his club, and Shukhov fights his way through the crowd to get to his squad, who luckily haven’t gone in yet. He enjoys his two bowls of stew, saving his evening bread ration for later.

He leaves and goes to visit the Lett, a prisoner in another squad, who sells him tobacco. In the barracks, Tzesar, who gets a bountiful package, lets Shukhov keep his bread ration. Shukhov repays the Estonians for the tobacco he borrowed, and Buinovsky, who was caught with a civilian vest during the morning search, is taken for a 10-day sentence in the guardhouse cells, which are freezing and barren. The evening count is announced, and Tzesar is nervous because he hasn’t stored his package contents. Shukhov runs ahead to be early in the count so that he can get back quickly and guard Tzesar’s supplies. After the count, Alyosha talks to Shukhov about praying, and Shukhov questions whether he wants freedom since he has no chance of returning home even if he is let out after serving his term. A recount is ordered, and Shukhov hides Tzesar’s belongings. Tzesar repays Shukhov by giving him sausage, biscuits, and sugar. After the final count, Shukhov gets into bed and shares his biscuits with Alyosha. He falls asleep feeling content with his work and extra portions of food and grateful that he got over his illness.