Summary and Analysis
When Ivan returns to his barracks, there is a commotion because somebody's bread ration has been stolen while they were at work. Ivan finds his own bread intact in its hiding place and runs to the mess hall to join his gang for supper. In the mess hall, the manager and his orderlies are trying to keep order by using force when necessary. The fight for food is ruthless, and the otherwise meek Ivan brutally shoves a smaller prisoner out of the way when he needs a tray for his gang.
The food rations at supper are measured according to work output, and Ivan is rewarded for his good work by receiving a bigger bread portion than the others. In addition, he also has Caesar's portion, and so he contentedly settles down to his usual meal ritual. While he eats, he watches Y-81, a tall, old prisoner, and he thinks about what he has heard about the man, who has become a legend in the prison camps. After his meal, Ivan sets out to buy some tobacco from a Latvian in another barracks, a plan he put off in the morning on his way to the hospital.
In this episode, then, we see that after the elation of his bricklaying work and the joy of his luck at the search point, the depressing facts of camp life again fill Ivan's mind. Some bread (luckily, not his) has been stolen from his barracks, and the mess room orderlies, prisoners themselves, tyrannize the inmates by exercising the miniscule amount of authority given to them by the authorities. Here, Solzhenitsyn uses a theme which has been used in many works that are set in prisons, prisoner-of-war camps, and in mental hospitals: that is, the oppressed make the best oppressors. Other examples of this can be found in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in Henri Charriere's Papillon, and in Tadeusz Borowski's concentration camp novel, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.
In this episode, Ivan is shown as less than perfect when he brutalizes a smaller and weaker prisoner in a fight for a food tray. In fact, there are a number of small incidents in the story which show Ivan in a less than saintly way, but this is the most negative one. Solzhenitsyn did not intend to make Ivan a "perfect" human being. Yet, in spite of all his shortcomings, Ivan is still the model of the average Russian "common man": kindhearted without being a saint, religious without being a bigot, wise but not intellectual, cunning but not devious, practical and resourceful, yet not coldly calculating.
From the moment that he sits down to his "grand dinner" — two bowls of thin gruel and a double bread portion — until the end of the day, Ivan feels content. He even forgets about the extra work on Sunday and about the two years which he still has to serve. But then he comes face to face with his alter ego of the future: prisoner Y-81.
According to prison lore, Y-81 has been in prison longer than anybody else. Whenever one of his sentences has run out, another one has been added on to it, and yet his back is still as straight as a ramrod. He has lost all his hair and his teeth (Ivan has lost many of his own teeth), and he takes no interest in anything or anybody around him. He is determined never to give in, and he has developed his own rigid code of behavior. His eating habits are impeccable; he does not put his bread on the filthy table, but lays it on a clean rag. We are reminded that Ivan has begun to establish similar habits: he does not eat loose fish eyes (only when they are still in the sockets); he has never bribed anybody or taken a bribe. Solzhenitsyn insinuates that, like Y-81, Ivan will not leave the prison camp, but he will not give in. And he will survive because of his strength of will and his refusal to compromise his human dignity.