Summary and Analysis The Midday Meal Caper


The gang suddenly realizes that they have been so preoccupied with their work and talk that they will be late in the food line for the midday meal. Half the day has gone by, and they have not even begun their assigned work. Pavlo, Ivan, and Gopchik secure bowls for the rest of the gang, and Ivan manages to swindle two extra portions of oat mush (a delicacy, compared to the usual magara weed they are served). Although Ivan is responsible for the extra portions, he must wait for Pavlo's decision. (Tyurin never eats with the rest of the gang, a sign of his privileged position.)

Pavlo finally gives Ivan one of his extra portions (every gang boss gets double portions), and he asks Ivan to take one of the extra portions to Caesar Markovich, who has bribed himself into an office job and thinks it beneath him to eat with the rest of the gang. Captain Buynovsky — ten days of solitary confinement ahead of him — is given the other extra portion.

In this episode, the author also gives us an exact account of the food portions served to the prisoners. There are exactly two pounds of groats — crushed oats for each gang, which makes each man's portion miniscule. However, this amount is reduced by cuts for the cook, for the mess hall orderlies, and for the "sanitary" inspector, a double portion for the gang boss, and extra cuts for the bowl washers and for the friends of the cook. And the groats are considered a delicacy; frequently, they are replaced by magara, a Chinese grass substitute. The author does not bother to state what the actual size of a prisoner's portion is after these reductions.

Once again, this episode concentrates on the daily fight for food and on the power which the gang boss has over his crew. Ivan, who has managed to cheat the cook out of two extra portions, does not even think about keeping one for himself. Instead, he hands both to Pavlo, who makes him wait for his reward until he has finished his regular portion. In the meantime, Solzhenitsyn shows us the Captain, who has been in the camp for only a short time, slowly changing — from being a loudmouthed naval officer, used to commanding — into a cagey and cunning camp inmate. The change, however, is probably too late, in view of his impending punishment. In spite of all the impersonal ritual he has to perform, Pavlo, the assistant gang boss, shows that there is still a trace of humanity left in him when he assigns the other portion of the groats to Captain Buynovsky.

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