Critical Essays Levels of Meaning in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


A Prison Novel

Most worthwhile pieces of literature operate on multiple levels of meaning. One of these is the literal level — that is, a level on which one requires only an understanding of the basic denotation of the terms and concepts employed by the author. Expressed simply, on this level the author communicates with the reader in a "realistic," non-symbolic fashion. The reader has to transfer very few terms and concepts to a non-literal, symbolic or allegorical level.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is literally a prison story, and thus, it takes its place in a long list of similar works which deal with conditions in prisons, labor camps, concentration camps, mental hospitals, or POW camps. As such, it deals with many of the same problems that works like The Survivor by Terrence des Pres, Pierre Boulle's The Bridge on the River Kwai, Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Henri Charriere's Papillon, and many German, French, and British POW novels attempt to come to grips with.

Like all of these works, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich deals with the struggle for survival under inhumane conditions. What must a man or a woman do to get out of such a camp alive? Is survival the only and most important goal, or are there limits to what a person can and should do to stay alive? Is religious faith necessary or vital for survival? All of these are questions which this work attempts to answer on a literal level.

Solzhenitsyn, who has first-hand experience of the camp conditions which he describes in this story, relates the actual experiences of millions of his compatriots, and his Russian readers could not help but ponder the real possibility of their being confronted with Ivan Denisovich's situation.

Like the authors of other prison novels, Solzhenitsyn concludes that it is the duty of a human being not to resign and give up the struggle for survival. However, it is wrong to concentrate on what one must do to survive. It is better to establish a personal code of behavior which dictates what one will not do just to preserve one's physical existence.

Existence without dignity is worthless — in fact, loss of human dignity will also diminish the will and the capacity to survive. Compromises are certainly necessary, but there is a vast moral gap between Ivan and Fetyukov: Fetyukov will do anything for a little more food, and he is properly referred to as a scavenging animal; Ivan, in contrast, will swindle and bully, at times, but basically, he relies on his resourcefulness to achieve the same goal. He does not lick bowls, he does not give or take bribes, and he is deferential when necessary, but he never crawls. With some improvement in his habits of personal hygiene, he will probably, eventually, become what might be termed "the ideal prisoner," represented by Y-81, the meticulous old camp inmate whom Ivan admires.

Survival is a task which needs Ivan's constant, simple-minded attention. Abstractions, esoteric discussions on religion or on art are irrelevant and counter-productive. Caesar Markovich can survive only as long as his packages arrive. The Captain, if he survives solitary confinement, will have to give up his unrealistic ideas about communism and his overbearing manner if he wants to live. Alyosha the Baptist is, by the very nature of his faith, more interested in an afterlife than he is in physical survival during this lifetime. Clearly, Fetyukov and most of the informers will not live long.

Only Ivan combines all the qualities necessary to survive: he works for himself and for his comrades, but not for the authorities; he does not rely on outside help, but on his own skill and craftiness; he is used to obeying sensible orders and circumventing absurd ones; he has faith, but it is a faith designed to help him cope with the realities of this life, not one which exhausts itself in dogmatic theological debate. Ivan believes in the strength and the dignity of the simple Russian worker and peasant without being a doctrinaire Communist. He is, with some lapses, a compassionate human being who looks at his fellow prisoners with sympathy and understanding. Most of them appreciate this attitude and treat him with the same respect.

A Social Commentary

The population of Ivan's prison camp contains a cross section of Russian society. There are prisoners representing virtually every professional, social, and ethnic group in the Soviet Union: we find artists, intellectuals, criminals, peasants, former government officials, officers, Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians, and gypsies (Caesar Markovich), just to name a few. If one looks, therefore, beyond the literal level of the novel, it becomes clear that Solzhenitsyn not only wanted to give a realistic description of life in a Siberian prison camp, but that he also wanted the reader to understand that the camp — on an allegorical level — was a representation of Stalinist Soviet Russia.

In an interview, Solzhenitsyn once stated that he had been interested in a statement made by Leo Tolstoy, who said that a novel could deal with either centuries of European history, or with one day in a man's life. (This statement by Tolstoy may have also been the reason why Solzhenitsyn changed the title of this work from S-854 to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.) During his own prison term, the author made up his mind to describe one day of prison life, one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, whose fate Solzhenitsyn once called "the greatest tragedy in Russian drama."

Read on this level, the novel becomes a scathing indictment of the Soviet system during the Stalin era. Solzhenitsyn would now certainly extend this indictment to the Soviet system as a whole. There are chronic food shortages, except for a privileged few who can bribe advantages out of corrupt officials. There is vandalism and bureaucratic inefficiency, leading to waste and sabotage. To dispel any doubt that all this applies only to camp life, Solzhenitsyn introduces Ivan's thoughts about the collective farm from which he comes ('Daydreams of Home and of the Kolkhoz"), which is barely functioning. The men there have bribed the officials to relieve them from farm work so they can paint the profitable, sleazy carpets. In addition, there is also the constant spying and informing activities which are typical of Soviet society, and Solzhenitsyn deplores them most of all, for they create distrust among people who should cooperate against the authorities rather than against themselves. A prisoner, he says, is another prisoner's worst enemy, not the authorities. It is interesting to note that, in spite of serving ten- or twenty-five-year sentences, all of the prisoners seem to be serving life terms. Nobody is ever released from the larger Soviet prison; when one term ends, another one is added on.

It was probably an accident that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published exactly one hundred years after Letters from the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky's famous account of his own experiences in prison under the Czar. But certainly, many Russian readers would immediately recognize the connection between the two works and realize the irony inherent in the comparison: prisons under the hated Czars were, by far, more humane than those under Stalin, and far fewer people were imprisoned in them.

What can be done to overcome these wretched social conditions? It is clear that Solzhenitsyn sees as little possibility for a successful, violent overthrow of the Soviet regime as he does for an armed revolt in Ivan's camp. The real hope is that the corrupt, inefficient system will destroy itself from within, and that Russia will return to a system which is founded on the qualities which Ivan represents: hard work without too much reliance on technology.

Here, Solzhenitsyn follows Dostoevsky's anti-Western, anti-technological attitude. He calls for (1) a revival of the old Russian folk traditions, (2) a simple, mystic faith without the dogmatic bureaucracy of any established church, (3) cooperation between the multitudes of ethnic and social groups in Russia who are now divided and, thus, "their own worst enemies," and (4) an attitude of non-cooperation and non-violent undermining of the bureaucracy and the authorities.

Even if it appears that conditions will not change soon (another prison term may be added on), the actions of the Russian people should be designed to survive with dignity and pride, not with groveling and crawling. It should be noted that Solzhenitsyn does not expect any leadership from intellectuals, churchmen, or artists in this struggle. Their love for abstractions and endless discussion is shown as not producing practical results.

An Existential Commentary

Beyond the literal and the social level, we can detect in this work a theme which aligns it closely to many works of modern fiction. Its theme is the fate of modern man who must make sense of a universe whose operations he does not understand. Thus, the level of meaning which addresses the questions "How is one to survive in a prison camp?" and "How is one to survive in the Soviet Union, which is like a prison camp?" is extended to this question: "According to what principles should one live in a seemingly absurd universe, controlled by forces which one can't understand and over which one has no control?"

Ivan's fate closely resembles that of Josef K. in Franz Kafka's The Trial. Josef K. is arrested one morning without knowing why, and he attempts to find out the reasons. In his search, he encounters a cruel court bureaucracy which operates according to incomprehensible rules; lawyers and priests cannot provide him with reasonable answers for his fate, and so he finally concludes that he must be guilty. Accordingly, he willingly submits to his execution.

Ivan is also arrested and sent to prison camps for absurd reasons, and so are most of his fellow inmates. He does not understand the legalities of his case. He is, after all, only a simple worker, and he never encounters the highest authorities who might provide him with an answer. He meets only cruel, minor officials of the system, who only obey orders but do not give explanations. The intellectuals around him do not seem to have the right answers, and the religious people, like Alyosha the Baptist, are very similar to the comforters who try to explain to job the reason why he must suffer so cruelly. Their arguments are dogmatic; they are not logical or practical.

A man who finds himself in such a situation has several options. One is despair, a passive acceptance of whatever fate has in store for him. This, as Camus indicates in The Myth of Sisyphus, is unacceptable behavior for an intelligent human being. An extension of that option is suicide, an alternative that is not even mentioned in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Another alternative is to search for a system of thought which will provide an explanation for such a basic existential question as "Why is all this happening to me?" These could be philosophical, religious, or political systems of thought, most of them having spokesmen who seemingly are able to give answers. Unfortunately, they all require that a person accepts at least one basic point of dogma on faith — that is, one must not ask for proof. And that is unacceptable to many practical, logical people like Ivan. Therefore, Ivan must ultimately reject Alyosha the Baptist's interpretation of the universe.

Despite the fact that Ivan does believe in God, albeit a pantheistic pagan god, his answer to the existential question of modern man is fundamentally that of jean-Paul Sartre and other Existentialists. He decides to adopt a personal code of behavior similar to that of Hemingway's so-called "code heroes," whose highest satisfaction is derived from demonstrating "grace under pressure." Rather than adopting other people's behavioral codes (for example, the Ten Commandments), Ivan establishes his own set of morals, which are designed to help him survive with dignity. Since nobody can give him a logical explanation for his fate, he abandons all attempts at finding such an explanation and structures his life by the premise that there is, in fact, none. This allows him to concentrate on gaining satisfaction from following the standards he has set for himself. He does not have to please anyone about practical matters. This is graphically demonstrated by Ivan, particularly in his sense of self-reliance and in his "grace under pressure" behavior. He is a prototype of what Sartre calls a man "living in good faith," as well as a prototype for the common Russian, in whom Solzhenitsyn puts his hope for a better future.

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