Summary and Analysis Mopping the Guardroom Floor


Following the Thin Tartar across the frozen prison compound, Ivan discovers that he is being taken to the Commandant's office. He is led to the guardroom, where he is told that he does not have to serve his three-day sentence, and he is given orders to mop the guardroom floor instead, which makes him forget about his aches and pains immediately. On his way to get a bucket of water from the well, Ivan observes some of the gang bosses trying to read the camp thermometer: if it reads lower than 41 degrees below zero, the prisoners don't have to march to work, but it is commonly assumed that the then mometer does not work properly.

The fear of getting his boots wet reminds Ivan of a pair of new boots which he lost because of a petty bureaucrat's whim to change prison regulations, an event which he describes as the most devastating blow in his eight years in the camps.

Meanwhile, he does a very superficial job of mopping the floor, and the guards treat him with contempt and — worse — as if he were sub-human. When his task is completed, Ivan begins to ache again, and he decides to go to the hospital after joining his work gang for breakfast in the mess barracks.

Note that in this section, when Ivan discovers that the real purpose of his punishment is to clean the guardroom floor, he is relieved; significantly, his body stops aching as soon as he is assigned work, even though his attitude to the mopping of the guardroom floor is not on the same level as his attitude to his bricklaying is, later on in the story.

Much of the moral force of One Day is derived from the matter-of-fact way in which Solzhenitsyn describes the inhuman conditions in the camp. There are no adjectives of indignation or protest in his sober statement that the prisoners do not have to work when the temperature sinks below 41 below zero, and the reader should be horrified to hear the narrator describe without commentary that the water in Ivan's bucket was steaming and that he had to hack through a crust of ice to be able to get the bucket into the well.

The guards, addressing Ivan in dehumanizing terms, complain about his careless mopping performance, not realizing that for Ivan "There's work and work. It's like the two ends of a stick. If you're working for human beings, then you do a real job of it, but if you work for dopes, then you just go through the motions." Ivan does not take any pride in his mopping, since he does not, in this instance, work for "human beings"; when he works for his own satisfaction and for the benefit of his whole work gang, as when he later lays bricks, then he will do a "real job." Even so, this work makes him feel better right away, and his aches return only when the mopping is done.

The guards, faceless and nameless lackeys of the system, have one chance to redeem themselves and show some humanity. When they ask Ivan whether he remembers his wife washing the floor, he responds that he has not seen her since 1941 (the novel takes place in January of 1951; ten years have passed), and he says that he does not even remember what she looks like. For any decent human being, this remark might have at least prompted a rough response from the guards about his wife's looks, anything to show a trace of human interest and compassion. But the guards only continue to berate Ivan's work and to belittle him further. Their chance to prove their humaneness has passed.

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