One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Study Guide

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Study Guide

Original title:
Один день Ивана Денисовича

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a painfully accurate depiction of the day of Soviet labor camp prisoner. Ivan Denisovich is an intelligent and strong-willed man, whose main task is not only survival but preserving his morals and identity intact. Unfortunately, the camp is specifically designed to strip the prisoners of their free will, any hopes and desires and turn them into the perfectly obedient pawns.

The resources in the camp are deliberately kept scarce to make people fight and betray each other to have some more food or warm clothes. The work is incredibly hard and meaningless. We see that people gradually stop thinking about freedom, they are afraid to even think about next month. All their plans and wishes are focused on the present and all the goals are short-term. The prisoners make their choice every day: to succumb into despair and turn into what the guards want them to be - mindless slaves, to discard any morals and humanity and try to claw their place higher in the food chain, robbing the weaker prisoners and collaborating with the guards, or go the hardest way and keep fighting quietly for their identity. Ivan Denisovich chooses the third way. We see him entering the quasi-family of a work gang and soon becoming a father figure there, responsible, caring and devoted. He strictly follows the rituals that may seem weird or mundane to us, like table rules, but in the labor camp this is all about humanity.

Ivan Denisovich doesn’t dare to hope like any other prisoner, but he takes everything he can from each minute: learning new skills on his job, making some items for himself, like his own handcrafted spoon to eat. It is strange and unsettling to think how much our humanity can depend on such tiny things like your own spoon or taking off the hat before eating. We take our morals for granted, but after reading this book we have to ask ourselves whether we could survive as humans in such dire conditions or the labor camp would eat us alive.

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