Summary and Analysis
Ivan joins his gang in the mess hall, remarking on the routine surrounding the daily meals. Fetyukov, the scrounger, is guarding Ivan's breakfast and is clearly disappointed when the latter shows up to claim it. For the next ten minutes, Ivan concentrates only on his food, even though it has gone cold while he has been away. He eats slowly and carefully, since the time spent eating — ten minutes at breakfast, five minutes at lunch, and another five minutes at supper — is the only time which the prisoners have to themselves. When he has finished his poor meal — cottage gruel, boiled fish bones, and mush (made of "Chinese" oatmeal) — he goes to the hospital block.
Note in this episode that as Ivan pushes his way into the mess hall to claim his breakfast, he comments on the fact that it is sometimes necessary to use physical force to push other prisoners out of the way. As we can see in other episodes, Ivan is capable of aggressive or even rude behavior, even though he is basically a gentle and nonviolent man. Yet there are clearly times when physical force is necessary for him to assert himself in his fight for survival. These acts are not committed maliciously or even with premeditation; they are instinctive actions performed either for self-preservation, or else because they are part of the camp ritual.
On his way to a table, Ivan observes a young man crossing himself before eating his meal, and briefly he ponders the loss of religious customs in Soviet Russia. Solzhenitsyn repeatedly calls this suppression of religion in Soviet Russia one of the worst offenses of the Soviet regime and believes that a revival of traditional Russian religiosity and the eventual overthrow of the regime will go hand in hand. It is interesting to see Ivan, himself not a man of traditional Christian faith, comment somewhat sadly on the decline of religion in Russia.
In this episode, the reader becomes acquainted with Ivan Denisovich's personal code of behavior, which is a mixture of sound advice from experienced prisoners, his personal adaptation to the work ethic, and certain guidelines derived from his background as a superstitious Russian peasant. He accepts without comment the camp code that allows fishbones to be spit onto the table, wiped off, and then ground into the floor, but forbids the prisoners to spit the fishbones directly onto the floor. He eats slowly and carefully, even when he is very hungry or when the food is not very good, and he eats the eyes of the fish in his soup, but only when they are still in place, not when they are loosely floating around in the soup. He has also come to the realization that all prisoners, despite their uniform outer appearance, are different individuals, with different roles and talents; he accepts without misgivings the fact that he himself does not count for very much in his work gang, but he is proud of the fact that there arc jobs which are even beneath him and which the other members of his gang will not ask him to do.