The novel begins with a description of Ivan's waking up to the sound of a hammer being banged against a metal rail, the sound muffled by a thick crust of heavy ice on the windows. Usually, Ivan gets up immediately to begin his battle for survival by doing odd jobs which will bring him extra food, but on this particular day, he feels ill and stays in his bunk.
He listens to the noises of the awakening barracks, afraid that the rumors of an impending reassignment of duties for his work gang might be true. He hopes that Tyurin, his gang boss, can bribe the authorities to let them keep their current work project, since reassignment could mean working without shelter on a bare field for at least a month, and without being able to make a fire. A new assignment could also mean grave illness or death to him and his fellow gang members.
As Ivan makes up his mind to go to the infirmary and put himself on the sick list, he is surprised by the arrival of a sadistic guard, nicknamed the Thin Tartar, who announces that Ivan will have to spend three days in "the can," the prison blockhouse, for not getting up immediately. Ivan is relieved. At least he will get hot food, and he won't be forced to go outside to work. Protesting all the while, however, Ivan follows the Thin Tartar to the Commandant's office, sure that his comrades will keep his breakfast for him.
Solzhenitsyn chooses to open his story at reveille in a labor camp in Siberia, describing his protagonist as he is being awakened. This seems to be a logical place to start an account of a typical day in such a camp, but we must remember that several masterpieces of modern literature use the same technique for their opening scene. In Franz Kafka's enigmatic existentialist novel The Trial, the protagonist Josef K. awakens to find himself being arrested for having committed a crime which is never explained. In Kafka's story The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awakens from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic, odious insect, without ever finding out explicitly for what reason. Other authors place their protagonists into this state between sleep and waking, where the character and the readers have difficulty deciding whether or not the events to follow are a dream or reality.
On one level, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is certainly a story about the nature of man, defined by his inability to make sense of the universe, surrounded and threatened by forces which he is unable to control or even explain. At this level of meaning, the work aligns itself with those of other existential writers who see human beings trapped in a monotonous daily routine very similar to that of Ivan's labor camp (see the essay on "One Day as an Existential Commentary").
This impression is reinforced by the use of numbers instead of names -Ivan is called S-854 by the Thin Tartar — a technique used by many modern writers; for example, it is used by Elmer Rice in his play The Adding Machine, and by Karel Capek in R. U.R. Interestingly, Solzhenitsyn had originally chosen the title S-854 for the novel.
Ivan's day begins on a negative note in this first episode. He feels ill, which does not happen often; he remembers the work reassignment, which is possible; and he is surprised by the Thin Tartar, who has come on duty instead of Big Ivan, a humane and lenient prison guard (he is associated with Ivan, the protagonist, because of the similarity of their names). Finally, Ivan is sentenced to three days in "the can," but even here, the counterswing of the pendulum begins: Ivan's sentence is "with work as usual," words which are important to Ivan, because not being allowed to work would be real punishment for him. Ivan is not worried about losing his share of the food allotment: the ethics of survival dictate that his comrades will keep his breakfast for him. We should also note that Ivan, while trying against hope to persuade the Thin Tartar to change his mind about the punishment, does not grovel in a demeaning manner but only protests because it is part of the game.
This opening episode establishes some of the ground rules in the camp — a camp which is, in many ways, a paradigm for Soviet Russian society. Improved conditions can be attained only by bribery. Ivan hopes that his gang boss can bribe the chief clerk not to change their work assignment. This means, of course, that some less fortunate gang will be assigned to the job and exposed to its hardships. Ivan does not waste much sympathy on these fellow prisoners. The struggle for survival demands some human decency, of course, but ultimately, the law of the jungle prevails.
Ivan remembers Kuzyomin, his first gang boss in another camp, reminding some newcomers that the first one to die is always the prisoner who licks out bowls, puts his faith in the infirmary, or turns into an informer.