One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and the Power of Untainted Faith

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Identity can be defined as being a reflection of who we are, the way we think about the world and ourselves, as well as the characteristics defining us. In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich, the concept of identity is conveyed primarily by providing details about the characters' mindset and life. As the title indicates, the novel is set over the course of one day; of which the main character, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, provides a detailed account. The story takes place within the Gulag system during Stalin’s reign. The purpose of these labor camps was to increase the USSR’s economic power by forcing people into building infrastructure and working in factories. However, in the eyes of the authorities, the prisoners had no value, and could be easily replaced by any other incoming prisoner. The extremely high death rates due to long working hours, harsh climatic and working conditions, inadequate food, and executions, create a very tense and difficult climate around the story. Solzhenitsyn explores the concept of retained identity in spite of forced conformity through his characterization of Shukhov, Alyosha, and Fetyukov. First of all, Shukhov’s characterization demonstrates his singularity within the camp by providing details about his habits and his attitude. The first element about Ivan Denisovich mentioned is that “he always got up at once, for the next ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, belonged to him, not the authorities, and any old-timer could earn a bit […] offering to be of service” (3-4). The sentence’s punctuation splits it in smaller blocks of words, which serves to emphasize the importance of each individual part. The blocks: “belonged to him” and “not the authorities” are not only emphasized by the use of commas, but are also contrasted as they are next to each other. The importance of this period of time thus relies on the fact that it is his free time, during which he is not systematically intimidated and bullied by the guards. As it is the only time where he has some freedom, he might only actually feel human at this time, and thus have an identity.

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Another of Shukov’s unique personality traits is that when eating, “he removes his hat from his clean-shaven head – however cold it might be, he [can] never bring himself to eat with his hat on” (16). Despite being in the camp for all those years, Ivan still refuses to keep his hat on, as it would be considered as disrespect in a “normal” situation. The repetition of male pronouns (he, his, himself) emphasizes the opposition with the other inmates, and shows his uniqueness within the crowd. Shukhov distinguishes himself from the very start, creating barrier between himself and the authorities, and later, himself and the other inmates. He is shown as being unique, which therefore conveys the idea that identity can remain even in an oppressive environment like the Gulag. In the second place, Fetyukov is presented as a character in opposition with Shukhov, conveying the idea that the inmates can retain their individuality, as well as keeps building Shukov’s identity. Fetyukov’s nickname is “the Scrounger”, which conveys his attitude and the way people see him within the squad. Throughout the novel, Shukhov points out little things that bother him about Fetyukov, as well as makes remarks about his beggar-like attitude. The word “scrounger” had an extremely negative connotation, which shows that Ivan Denisovich looks down on Fetyukov because of his manners. Shukhov’s disapprobation is later showed by the comment about how “Fetyukov was the sort who when he was looking after someone else’s bowl took the potatoes from it” (16) (when he gives Shukhov his bowl of food at breakfast after keeping it for him). The fact that Shukhov looks down on Fetyukov implies that he still has a sense of self worth, which contributes to building a sense of identity. Indeed, while Fetyukov is always begging for food in a pathetic way, Ivan tries to improve his living conditions by doing services to the members of the squad as well as the authorities. Moreover, while “everyone in the squad look[s] the same – their numbered black coats [are] identical”, there still are “great distinctions” “within the squad” (15). The use of the intensifier “great” to qualify the distinctions emphasizes the idea that the inmates oppose to the will of the system to standardize their appearance and behavior.

The fact that “everyone had his grade” (15) shows that they have a system of hierarchy within the squad. This is significant because, even though the system wants to remove every sense of identity from the inmates, the prisoners still distinguish themselves from each other by having a hierarchy within the squad. It is even more powerful, knowing that the Stalinist system is opposed to the concept of hierarchy, and shows that it is possible to go against the system, and thus to retain one’s identity. Throughout the novel, Fetyukov and Shukhov are contrasted regarding their personalities and the way they deal with the everyday life. Their differences demonstrate how the inmates’ personalities can be divergent, and thus builds the idea of a retained identity within the camp. Additionally, Alyosha’s apparent tranquility throughout the novel, and specifically towards the end, expresses the worth of maintaining faith in an oppressive system. Indeed, while the government repressed religious affiliations and activities, it is shown that Alyosha, “the Baptist”, devotes his free time as well as most of his thoughts to religion. Toward the end, when talking with Shukhov, he explains that they “must pray about things of the spirit – that the Lord Jesus should remove the scum of anger from [their] hearts” (162). By using the word “scum” to describe the anger every person might feel in the camp, the author emphasizes Alyosha’s spirituality and kindness, as even the reader would see this hatred as justified.

By praying “about things of the spirit”, it is understood that Alysha’s faith permits him to have an outside view on his condition, and to distance himself form the hardship, which would ultimately help support the pain and the rough conditions in the Gulag. He is a good person and thanks to his faith, he remained one, despite all the hatred he might experience. Alyosha is described as being very kind and genuine. However, Ivan Denisovich points out that he doesn’t know how to trade his services like the other inmates because he only “makes himself nice to everyone” (166) because his religion taught him not to beg or expect anything in return when doing something good. He appears very innocent and someone that needs to be taken care of (like Ivan does at the end), showing how his faith can be to the detriment of his own well being. This element further explores the differences between Alyosha and the rest of the squad and camp, and shows how the Gulag isn’t a place where religion has its place. Furthermore, while the sign of the cross is one of the most basic acts that Christians perform daily, the inmates “[have] forgotten which hand to cross themselves with” (15). This demonstrates how Alyosha still being devoted to religion is very uncommon within the camp as they are all usually stripped of their faith.

Alyosha is a character that stands out due to his uncommon retained faith in a context like the Gulag, which is far from being an environment promoting these beliefs. In conclusion, Alexander Solzhenitsyn provides details about the characters that help construct their identity, as well as showing in what ways they stand out. The three mentioned characters all demonstrate how an identity can be retained in spite of forced conformity within the Gulag. While Shukov’s identity is conveyed through his characterization, Fetyukov’s is demonstrated by contrasting his personality to Shukhov’s. Alyosha is a character that stands out in a lot of way, but the primary aspect of his identity conveyed through the novel is his retained faith. All of which implicitly convey the idea of a retained identity throughout the novel. However, while this concept is displayed, the idea of lost identity is way more prevalent, which is understandable knowing the historical background to this novel.

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