Summary and Analysis
The Risky Search
Just before he is to be searched prior to his entry back into camp, Ivan discovers the piece of steel in one of his pockets, the piece of steel that he picked up at the worksite in the morning. If the guards find it on him, it will mean ten days in solitary confinement. He is undecided whether or not to throw the incriminating potential weapon into the snow or to try and smuggle it through the search and, later, turn it into a small, valuable tool. His practical sense conquers his fear, and he hides the piece of steel in one of his mittens. He is lucky enough to have the guard miss it when he is frisked.
This is the third time that Ivan has exposed himself to the potential anger of the authorities. First, he was lucky not to be punished more severely for sleeping in late; then he took a chance in taking too long to finish his brick wall, and he made the guards wait for him. Now, he risks severe punishment by smuggling in a piece of steel, which could be defined as a weapon. Interestingly, this is the only time that we see Ivan pray to God. Later, he ungratefully expresses doubt in the efficacy of prayer. In any case, however, his prayer is answered, and he passes the inspection. The potential gain in his fight for survival — that is, he will be able to use the piece of steel to make extra money by using it as a knife or a tool — outweighs the risk of being caught.
At first, the importance of all three of these episodes might seem trivial: staying in bed a few moments too long, leaving work late, and accidentally pocketing a small piece of steel. These are hardly earthshaking events in the world of the average reader, but, for Ivan, they are events which could be the difference between life and death. He is indeed lucky to escape all three incidents unscathed. The Moldavian, who fell asleep in the repair shop, and the Captain who voiced a rash but justified protest, were not so lucky. They may not survive the consequences of ten days in solitary confinement with reduced rations.