Summary and Analysis Small but Important Triumphs


Alyosha the Baptist hears Ivan's mumbled "Thank God" and asks him why he does not pray more often. Ivan answers that he does not believe in the efficacy of prayer. His pragmatic nature does not place much stock in matters of the spirit, and his personal acquaintance with a worldly and corrupt priest of the Russian Orthodox church in his home village have made him cynical about organized religion. He again affirms his belief in God, but he expresses his skepticism about the outer trappings of religion and its complicated, dogmatic points. Religion does not provide him with a satisfactory explanation for his fate. Consequently, he has no use for it.

When the prisoners are called out for a second roll call, Caesar Markovich shows that he has learned his lesson. He gives Ivan cookies, sugar, and some sausage for his help in protecting his package. When they return, Ivan voluntarily shares some of it with Alyosha and thinks about what he will do with the rest. As he falls asleep, he recounts the triumphs of this day:

  1. he has not been put into solitary confinement;
  2. his gang has not been reassigned to a new, harder worksite;
  3. he has managed to get an extra bowl of mush at lunch;
  4. Tyurin has gotten them good work rates;
  5. he has smuggled a valuable piece of metal into camp;
  6. he was given extra food by Caesar in the evening; and
  7. he was able to buy some tobacco.

This has indeed been an extraordinarily happy day, and as Ivan drifts off into sleep, he recalls that there are 3,653 days in his sentence; the extra three are due to leap years.

A contented Ivan explains why he rejects organized religion. He compares prayers to the complaints which the prisoners are allowed to put into boxes set up for this purpose in the camp. Either there is no answer, or they come back marked "Rejected." Alyosha tries to persuade Ivan with dogma, but the pragmatic Ivan is unprepared to accept the symbolism of mountains moved by prayer. His literal mind equates the "daily bread" of the Lords Prayer to the prison rations, and he cannot imagine God moving any mountains in spite of Alyosha's intensive prayers.

When he confronts Alyosha with the cruel facts of worldly, corrupt priests, the young man winces. There is very little he can respond with, except to say that the Baptist church is less corrupt than the Russian Orthodox church. Alyosha's final argument — that his imprisonment is cause for rejoicing because it gives him a chance to contemplate and strengthen his faith — is met with a resigned silence by Ivan. What he wants is an explanation for his being imprisoned. Alyosha can take solace in the fact that he is a martyr for his faith, but Ivan is here, in the prison camp, because Russia was not prepared for World War II in 1941. She sent him to the front lines ill-equipped, to be taken prisoner by superior German forces, and then punished him for that. For Ivan, religion provides no satisfactory answers for such anguished questions as "Why am I here?" and "Was it my fault?"

At some point, Ivan even expresses doubt that he still wants to regain his freedom. First of all, he does not know whether he will really be released at the end of his term. Second, he doubts that he will be allowed to go home and rejoin his family, even if he is released. Third, and most depressing, he does not know any longer where he would be better off.

It is easy to understand that a prisoner, after eight years, would have many doubts concerning whether or not he would be able to readjust to life outside the camp. The stable prison routine, despite all its cruelty, could begin to seem like a safe, comfortable place.

Back to Top