Critical Essays Style and Narrative Perspective in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


The choice of a protagonist created a problem of narration for Solzhenitsyn. Ivan is certainly not unintelligent, but his educational background is not suited for narrating a lengthy story. On the other hand, it would not have been suitable to have a highly educated narrator tell us about Ivan, because the educational and emotional distance between the two would have been too great. First-person narration by Ivan and third-person omniscient narration were therefore not possible. Solzhenitsyn uses a form of narration in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which is an ingenious variation of a traditional Russian narrative form, the skaz. This technique, employed widely in Russian folk tales, establishes an anonymous narrator who is on the same educational and social level as the protagonist and is able to transmit the main character's actions and thoughts, using the third-person singular, and sometimes the first-person plural, but giving the impression to the reader that the story is being told in first person by the protagonist. Indeed, in One Day, the reader has the impression that Ivan is the narrator, and only a closer look reveals that most of the story is told in third person. The reader sees through Ivan's eyes, although Ivan is not the narrator.

In addition to the skaz narrator, Solzhenitsyn employs another narrator who could be an educated fellow prisoner — the persona of the author — who is used only when the story has to deal with concepts which are clearly beyond the intellectual and linguistic grasp of both Ivan and the anonymous skaz narrator.

In yet other instances, this anonymous alter ego of Ivan's is present, but unable to penetrate into Ivan's mind. In these cases, we are told Ivan's thoughts in the third person, but in Ivan's own words; this perspective is mainly used for Ivan's daydreams.

We can thus discern three different narrative perspectives in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich:

  1. a prisoner (skaz) narrator who is on Ivan's intellectual level, but who has a greater gift for narration; he uses mainly third person, but will fall into first-person plural (we, us) when he wants to stress communality between Ivan, the other prisoners, and himself.
  2. an omniscient, educated narrator, who is more or less the mouthpiece for the author's philosophical views.
  3. Ivan himself, though using third person, mainly describing flashbacks and daydreams.

Once the reader is aware of these differences in point-of-view, it becomes easy to differentiate between the narrators.

"Some fellows always thought the grass was greener on the other side of the fence. Let them envy other people if they wanted to, but Ivan knew what life was about."

This is clearly the skaz narrator speaking, characterized by the informal language and the choice of words.

"With the same swift movements, Shukhov hung his overcoat on a crossbeam, and from under the mattress he pulled out his mittens, a pair of thin foot-cloths, a bit of rope, and a piece of rag with two tapes."

This is obviously the educated, omniscient third-person narrator.

"What was the point of telling them what gang you worked in and what your boss was like? Now you had more in common with that Latvian Kilgas than with your own family."

This is Ivan marching along to the worksite in the morning, thinking about the letter which he will probably not write to his wife.

The most important function of this separation of points-of-view and the reason why So1zhenitsyn did not want to present the events in first person, through Ivan's eyes, is his intention of giving an "objective" picture of this day in Ivan's life, a goal that would have been diminished by the use of the highly subjective first-person point-of-view. Had Ivan told his own story, the reader might dismiss much of what is stated as opinion, lack of insight, or outright bias. Solzhenitsyn's method allows us to see Ivan objectively from the outside through the eyes of two anonymous fellow prisoners — one educated, the other on Ivan's peasant level — but still sharing the inner thoughts and feelings of the protagonist.

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