One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Understatement in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Harsh climatic conditions, no food and hard work; all of these aspects symbolize the daily life of a prisoner inside the Gulag. The horrifying treatment of the prisoners is very well documented in many prison novels. However, the way that the conditions are described can vary from novel to novel, depending upon the author’s purpose. Some authors prefer to exaggerate the horrors faced by the prisoners to spark outrage from the reader, while others prefer to depict the horrors in a more subtle way to achieve a similar objective. Alexander Solzhenitsyn evokes emotions through the use of understatement. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn utilizes the literary technique of understatement to highlight the extent to which dehumanization is present in the Gulag. From the beginning of the novel until the very end, the physical setting of the Gulag and its harsh climatic implications are understated. The first description of the weather appears when the prisoners can barely hear the morning reveille as it couldn’t “penetrate the windowpanes on which the frost lay two fingers thick.” The frost on the windowpanes represents the true cold the zeks face daily. The author’s casual mention of the frost being two fingers thick, could be a symbolic representation of how the prisoners in the Gulag are accustomed to this kind of weather. The full extent of the cold could be felt when Shukhov goes to the steppe, where “bare white snow stretched to the horizon, to the left, to the right, and not a single tree could be seen on the whole expanse of the steppe.” (pg. 39) The barren land indicates the desolate and inescapable environment in which the zeks live. The understatement present in this example indicates the harsh reality of the situation.Due to the harsh climatic conditions, the prisoners need a form of distraction to survive, which comes in the form of work. In fact, “most depend on the work report than on the work itself,” as it gives the zeks extra food (pg. 59) . The importance of the work is understated in this section, because the six ounces of bread that the prisoners receive would not be considered substantial outside the gulag, yet it still holds significance for the prisoners. However, to them, the extra ounces could mean their survival. The amount of work accomplished by the prisoners for the insignificant amount of food depicts the dehumanization present in the novel. While the amount of food may be less than normal, it is the force that drives the prisoners to accomplish more. For example, when the prisoners receive one bowl of soup, they regard it as, “dearer than freedom, dearer than life itself, past, present, and future” (126). This highlights the number of atrocities that the prisoners go through, as the narrator compares food, including the deprivation of food, to that of freedom. It gives them a reason to work, something to fight for, and the ability to survive. This use of understatement creates the sense that a measly bowl of soup becomes the only thing that matters in the eyes of the Zeks. This extent to which the prisoners have been dehumanized brings them to the point that little can mean so much in relation to their survival. Many of the men in the Gulag are innocent of committing any real crimes, yet the Gulag dehumanizes them to the point that the innocent cannot be distinguished from the guilty. Men who already struggle to understand why they are in the Gulag, must adapt to being treated the same way that even a real criminal would find inhumane. Buinovsky criticises the guards by saying that they are“not behaving like Soviet people…… not behaving like communists” (pg 34). To Buinovksy, the prison guards are going against the Communist code, and mistreating the prisoners completely through their absurd rules and regulations. His criticism of the prison guards as “bad” communists creates understatement as well as a sense of irony. Buinovsky expresses the way communists ought to behave, even though communists sentence him to the Gulag in the first place. To criticise the guards as bad communists is an understatement as they should really be criticised for a lack of moral code and for being unjust. When describing the experience that one of the members of Shukhov’s squad faces, Solzhenitsyn simply states that “he was captured; he escaped, and then he was recaptured,”(pg 49). The zeks are dehumanized even though many of them do not belong in the Gulag since they have been arrested for trivial reasons. Solzhenitsyn attempts to understate the dehumanization present by dismissing the capture as if it was not important, and showcases it almost as if it was a consistent occurrence. The innocent men that are trapped in the Gulag are there due to no fault of their own, making it seem as though constant fear of imprisonment is a norm in this society. The ending of the novel gives the reader an idea of the true value of understatement in the novel. After the day goes by, and Shukhov reminisces over what has happened during the one day, he realizes that “today was almost a happy day.”(pg. 167) This statement has a lasting effect on the way the novel can be interpreted, because the day starts off poorly when Shukhov is punished for staying in bed, resulting in him moping the guardhouse floors, then he and his squad go to a site to work in the fierce cold. At this point, the single day would seem like anything but a good day; as a result of the use of understatement to emphasize the hardships the zeks face. However, Solzhenitsyn’s final use of understatement has the same effect on a larger scale. It exhibits the notion that these prisoners have experienced such constant hardships and injustices, that a day in which they survive can be considered good, Shukhov manages to do his work well, which gives him a sense of dignity in a society where most individual characteristics are stripped, and he also feels more spiritually connected after his conversation with Alyoshka. This also interplays with the role of time in the novel, which is understated as Shukhov finishes by stating how many days remain in his sentence. He makes this statement so bluntly, that it sounds bearable, yet in reality it is nearly impossible to survive considering that a ‘good’ day is one in which he receives a slight amount of additional food. Shukhov’s sense of time is almost distorted from reality, due to the inhumane conditions he has been living for years. Work seems to be the leading factor to determine the way the day has shaped his reaction. It is the effect of work that causes the day to pass by so quickly. The understated and ambiguous ending, enhances the irony and understatement of the situation. After waking up sick, Shukhov is punished for not getting out of bed on time, and was treated poorly. Combine those situations with the constant hard work and harsh climatic conditions, and this evokes a feeling of the terrible day that Shukhov is experiencing. However, Shukhov’s insistence that this was a good day evokes the speculation of what a bad day would be like. His mistreatment at the hands of the Gulag prison guards depicts an image of a suffering man, who has no method of escape. However, the word “almost” changes the definition of the statement. Shukhov’s “almost” could vary from horrid to acceptable, a notable difference. Solzhenitsyn’s use of “almost” leaves the interpretation to the reader’s mind regarding whether the mood ends on an optimistic or pessimistic note. The use of understatement contributes to the sub-text of this novel as it deals with the subtle dehumanization of the zeks. Solzhenitsyn attempts to combine and enhance all of the harsh effects of the Gulag through his use of understatement. Understatement is a technique that Solzhenitsyn uses to imply how commonplace the mistreatment and utter brutality the men face becomes during Stalin’s reign. It evokes shock as the reader feels completely appalled by the subhuman living conditions and treatment, of prisoners which the narrator expresses as “normal.” This highlights how much the prisoners were mistreated on a regular basis, and that a simple day in which a prisoner receives a few extra rations and avoids punishment could be considered a good one. As a result, the role of understatement in the novel, One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich provides the reader with a clear and concise image of what the prisoners truly suffered.
An Analysis of Ivan’s role as an Existential Character in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
In his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn illustrates the struggle for survival zeks faced within the GULAG. He elucidates this effectively through the portrayal of a day’s experiences in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a working-class prisoner in a Stalinist labor camp. Having had first-hand experiences with this communist regime himself, Solzhenitsyn establishes Ivan and his routine to typify that of an ordinary citizen within the Russian society; just as he once was too. He vividly presents Ivan’s character through the use of various techniques in order to portray Ivan’s existential approach to his imprisonment and survival within a brutal system of injustice. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn develops Ivan as an existential character to juxtapose and contrast the gruelling environment propagated by the GULAG authority through the exemplification of Ivan’s behavioral code, and his seamless transition into the absurd setting of the GULAG, in turn producing symbols which serve to compliment Ivan’s existential characteristics.
Solzhenitsyn expands on Ivan’s existential nature through one of Ivan’s most significant traits; the behavioral code by which he lives. Existential notions, according to the philosopher Sartre, frequently emphasize the idea of choice; “Individuals are condemned, because they are free, to choose what they are going to be through their daily actions”. In other words, in order to distinguish himself, Ivan must remain in control of his own actions by choosing to act rather than simply following instructions. Solzhenitsyn emphasizes this through the depiction of the code of living that Ivan upholds entirely on his own. From the beginning of the novel in which reveille has been called, Solzhenitsyn suggests that the aspect of choice not only defines the day, but allows Ivan to maintain his self worth in spite of the strict disciplines of the camp. For instance, Solzhenitsyn reveals that “[Ivan] never overslept reveille… for the next ninety minutes… belonged to him, not the authorities..”. In addition, Ivan always remembered the words of his first squad leader, who told him that self-sufficiency was key to survival ‒words that Ivan utilizes to maintain his individuality. Through this, Solzhenitsyn exemplifies Ivan’s insistence on retaining his freedom of choice through his refusal to devote his time to the authorities. Ivan’s attitude towards food and the way in which he chooses to eat is directly related to this as well, for Ivan firmly believes in his own strict approach towards how food should be properly viewed and consumed within the camp; “you had to eat with all your mind on the food” (Solzhenitsyn 43), because when “[it is] gulped down [it] is… wasted” (Solzhenitsyn 25). The camp authorities are determined to strip the prisoners of their humanity by tampering with one of the most basic human needs ‒ food. However, Ivan’s ability to differentiate when and how he eats puts him ‒instead of the prison guards‒ in command of his own actions, and therefore his choices maintain his existentialism.
Despite Ivan’s ability to conduct himself with dignity through his code, the GULAG remains a setting of chaos and absurdity, deepening the link between Ivan and existentialism. The idea of absurdism in the existential world is present when “the world is not thus explicable, but it exists without apparent justification, foundation or purpose” (“What Is Existentialism?”). Ivan readily accepts his condemnation and seamlessly takes on the role of a prisoner, despite existing in a world “without apparent justification”. A world where men frequently freeze to death and die of starvation. The GULAG itself is founded upon absurdity, a camp in which most of its prisoners are innocent men who die condemned; a place where even bribery is dismissed as something of habitude and corruption is the basis on which the whole regime is built. However, Ivan does not spend his time pondering the reason behind his reality, because after all, it was he himself who pleaded guilty in the first place. Instead, he accepts the consequences of it because it is his reality, which is another quality of an existentialist; “ [he ] realised what [his] situation is, and who [has], within that situation, chosen to engage [himself] responsibly in the world around [him] so as to affirm [his] liberty” (“What Is Existentialism?”). Ivan conducts himself in a way that is necessary despite his circumstances, and in some ways the understatement of his chaotic environment only emphasizes the chaos which is present. Solzhenitsyn further utilizes specific literary devices to demonstrate Ivan’s approach to living within the GULAG, namely symbolic objects, which are produced through his establishment of the absurd. Existential philosophy suggests one of its defining characteristics to be an emphasis on personal freedom, and as adapted from Sartre, “To be free is to recognise one’s complete independence; to make one’s own life through one’s own initiative” (“What Is Existentialism?”). Ivan’s handcrafted spoon, of which he is tremendously proud and even refers to as “his little baby”, is Ivan’s way of retaining his “own initiative,” allowing him to separate himself from the absurd behavior in which the environment of the GULAG promotes (Solzhenitsyn 84). This gives him independence, which in turn makes him stand out among the majority of the prisoners. The spoon itself becomes a medium in which Ivan can freely express himself as an individual of his own free will, further isolating himself from the GULAG and allowing him not only to focus on survival, but to survive with decency.
In a way, Ivan himself becomes a symbol, namely one of independence. This ties into the existential philosophy of alienation as adapted from Kierkegaard, in which “the task of the self is the overcoming of alienation through self-becoming” (“What Is Existentialism?”). This concept is present within the GULAG where “a zek’s worst enemy is another zek”, further emphasizing the true isolation Ivan experiences, even from his fellow prisoners (Solzhenitsyn 90). However, Ivan’s ability to overcome this alienation through his focus on his own existence is what not only further defines him as an agent of existentialism, but what enables him to ultimately overcome other zeks, and, more importantly, the GULAG authority. While simultaneously opposing Soviet ideology, these concepts mirror existential philosophies. Solzhenitsyn uses this philosophy to oppose Stalin’s regime, where unity branded as conformity, as opposed to independence, is expected. He does so by revealing the control and empowerment Ivan creates through his own free will in spite of the pressures and constant commands from the system to do the opposite. Thus, through the use of symbolism specific to Ivan, Solzhenitsyn establishes Ivan as an existential agent as a means of contrasting the GULAG power.At the end of the novel, Ivan reflects on his day by calling it “almost a happy day” because “he hadn’t fallen ill” or been imprisoned (Solzhenitsyn 139). This mirrors the existential quality of facticity as addressed by Sartre and de Beauvoir. These notions suggest that one’s reality is fixed and unchangeable, however, this cannot necessarily define the individual, meaning that one’s facticity does not limit his or her free will (“What Is Existentialism?”). Furthermore, Ivan’s individual-focused mindset is elucidated in the following scene in which Ivan “now… complained about nothing: neither about the length of his stretch, nor about the length of the day, nor about their swiping another Sunday. This was all he thought about now: we’ll survive. We’ll stick it out, God willing, till it’s over” (Solzhenitsyn 77). In this way, Ivan does not work or live to please anyone but himself, and especially not the leaders of the GULAG. This ties in again with the existential quality of the absurd as explained by Sartre, a notion that suggests there is no purpose to life beyond that which an individual gives it (“What Is Existentialism?”). In that, Solzhenitsyn’s establishment of Ivan as an existentialist is a testament to the philosophy that anyone can find meaning or purpose in life, regardless of their circumstances.
Solzhenitsyn’s establishment of Ivan as an existential figure contrasts the GULAG authority to illustrate the negative aspects of the Stalinist era. Solzhenitsyn’s inclusion of Ivan’s code, the seamless transition Ivan makes into the absurdity of the GULAG, and his purposeful use of symbolism explore the role that existential values play within oppressive and adverse circumstances. Solzhenitsyn’s use of existentialism within the novel serves to ultimately enrich the theme of how humans deal with times of struggle and provide a deeper comprehension of the historical context in which the novel was first published. Solzhenitsyn suggests that an existential perspective may be key to survival within the GULAG. Furthermore, this ideology, when examined in regards to Solzhenitsyn’s intention of establishing the GULAG as a microcosm for the Soviet Union at the time, which focused on the creation of a perfect collective, indicates not only the way of thinking he considers to best oppose the regime, but also brings to light in the broader sense, the struggle humans experience on their quest for finding purpose and meaning in life. In other words, individuality. Solzhenitsyn applies this idea to the historical context of the novel, resulting in an emphasis on the contrast between the intentions of the Soviet regime: collectivism, and what they actually teach: strength in individuality.
The Identity of Shukhov: Persistence and Dignity in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”
A sense of identity is what defines the human being, what sets each person apart from the next, is the constitution of an individual. In the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the author uses information from personal experiences in Soviet prison camps, or gulags, to create a story explaining the identity of a fictional character named Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. As the reader imbibes passages delineating the life of this character, one can see how his environment strips him of his identity, how he preserves his individuality with dignity and etiquette, and how he has established bonds with those around him. The novel portrays one day in Shukhov’s life, but it also describes exactly what and how his identity has become.
The environment of the gulag is harsh to the highest degree. Filled with political prisoners who had in some way opposed Stalin’s regime, the prisoners feared not so much each other as the harsh guards, the fearsomely cold weather, and starvation. The gulag seems to try to strip Shukhov’s identity from him, replacing his name with a sound and a number. “Shcha-854, the Tartar read out from the white patch on the the back of the black jacket” (Solzhenitsyn 7). As well as the functionalism of not having to know each prisoner’s name, it allows the guards to tear away at the prisoner’s identity, telling him that he is no more than a number, a part of their scheme, not a person anymore. The gulag’s prescripts also remove a person’s individuality by removing their privacy. “…Ivan Denisovich heard a rumble of protest: They’re taking our undershirts off us” (Solzhenitsyn 32). The prisoners were searched each day on entry and exit of the camp, and the more clothing they had to remove, the more a zek felt they were being exposed, the more of a zek belonged to the camp rather than to themselves.
Through this unjust divestment of identity Shukhov passes stolidly, holding tightly only to his dignity. He takes a passive rebellion against the regime, unlike Buynovski, who often shouts complaints to the guards and is punished for doing so. Shukhov stays strong by following personal routines, like his etiquette for eating. “Next, he removed his cap from his shaven head – however cold it was, he wouldn’t let himself eat with his cap on….if the roof burst into flames he still wouldn’t hurry” (Solzhenitsyn 17). Shukhov always follows a routine, removing his hat, checking the contents of his bowl, and eating slowly. By performing his personal set of motions, he reminds himself that he is an individual who can still do things his own way in these few moments of his own time. The routine also helps him ensure that nothing harmful is in his food, and that the meal is more filling than if he just swallowed it down quickly. Shukhov also distinguishes himself with his personal spoon. “Shukhov withdrew his spoon from his boot. That spoon was precious, it had traveled all over the north with him. He’d cast it himself from aluminum wire in a sand mold and scratched on it: Ust-Izhma, 1944” (Solzhenitsyn 16). One of the few zeks to own his own spoon, Shukhov attaches more meaning to his spoon than to his secret handmade knife. Although the knife has more uses and is more of a prized tool by the average inmate, Shukhov prefers a tool that nurtures him than a tool that destroys.
The final way in which Ivan Denisovich conserves his identity is by bonding with his fellow zeks. For each person who knows him and understands his identity, it is that much stronger. He forms bonds with those around him, an internally conflicted group who join in a combined effort against the guards. “…hid his half-ration amid the sawdust. Then he tugged off his cap and unsheathed a threaded needle – also well hidden” (Solzhenitsyn 26). Although his bunk-mate Alyoshka the Baptist sees him hiding something in his bed and using a needle, both things forbidden by the camp rules, Shukhov has no concern of being ratted on because he can trust Alyoshka. Shukhov is also willing to do favors for people around him because it puts them in debt to him and allows him to call on them for favors in the future. “Denisovich! Lend us your ten-day gadget” (Denisovich 163). This “ten-day gadget” was a knife that Shukhov kept hidden in his mattress. It is in his personality to lend favors in exchange for other favors. Some people know him as the zek who has the knife, or the zek who always repays debts. That is part of Shukhov’s identity, part of how he is perceived by the group. By making himself known to other zeks in a particular manner, Shukhov can keep that identity and not become a nobody.
Unjustly imprisoned for a political crime he did not commit, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov became opposed to the Stalinist movements of incarcerating anybody whose beliefs or actions were in contrast with communism. His silent rebellion against communism is enacted through his maintenance of an individual identity. Shukhov prevents himself from being owned by the Communist state, keeps his identity; even as the gulag tries to tear his being apart, he preserves his dignity and becomes known to others as something other than a number. What Solzhenitsyn shows in this 180-page day is that the human being, the human soul, is held together by an identity, and that keeping one’s identity is the most important thing one can do.
Twentieth Century Turmoil Reflections in Literature
During the twentieth century, life in Europe changed drastically, due to the multitude of events and changes that crowded this century. From the wars to the effects of the Industrial revolution, the lives of Europeans were constantly changing, with the priorities and views of society as a whole changing with the occurrences of the time. However, the eras such as World War I, World War II, and the roaring twenties all resulted in an increased demand for production, and therefore assembly lines and factories. This results in the increased detachment of the workers since there is no longer a sense of completeness and skill associated with the job. Instead, workers solely work on one aspect for hours a day. The mistreatment of the workers also add to this sense of alienation since at the time, abuse and taking advantage of the lower class was rampant in the world, especially in the Western world. Alienation is also profound during this era due to the effect war has on soldiers and on countries in general. The experiences and decisions of people in times of war often result in alienation which was extensive in this century. Literature in certain areas usually reflect the views of the people, and this is shown in works such as Metamorphosis, The Stranger, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Twentieth Century literature deploys methods of alienation to demonstrate the state of people’s lives in society during this century. Although there are noticeable differences between books from different years, the use of alienation is present in most, showing Europe as a whole was experiencing the tragedy of alienation.
In The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Kafka first alienates the reader by creating an unusual environment in which the reader is unable to relate to. The first line of the book states that the character is transformed into some kind of vermin. By doing this, Kafka is able to make Gregor Samsa foreign and completely unrelatable, especially after his response to his peculiar situation. Instead of a rational response of panicking or even questioning what occurred, Samsa instead ignores the problem, waving it off as a sickness so that he could focus on work. However, when he begins to go into why work is constantly on his mind, the reader is able to sympathize more with the character. After failing to get to the office in time and even missing the second train, it is revealed that Samsa has to work, even though he dreads and dislikes his job, because he has to pay off the family debt. It is also later revealed that the whole family’s well being depended on Samsa because no other family member worked. We even learn that it is the sister’s dream to go to a music school for the violin and that Samsa was planning on working to the point where he could pay for her to attend. Although the reader may think that Samsa is completely unrelatable and unrealistic, Kafka is able to open up the reader and allows for sympathy through explaining the background of the protagonist.
The life of Gregor Samsa relates to the time in which Kafka wrote the Metamorphosis, which was during World War I. During this time, the Allies were still in need of fighting forces and soldiers were still deployed in the thousands. With war comes a cost, a cost that soldiers typically have to take. During 1915, there would have been a multitude of injured veterans and innocent soldiers. Society would have changed drastically since able bodied men were deployed and those who came back were no longer ‘able.’ To be sent off of the battle field would have mean an injury so severe that the soldier could no longer fight, which would often mean the inability to work as well. This would make them feel alienated from society since overnight, their lives, bodies, and minds were changed drastically. Even those who were not physically hurt still had to live with the memories of war and the remorse of their actions. They would have watched their comrades die and may have participated in killing themselves. All of this accumulates to a problem that veterans still have today, which is the feeling of alienation. Kafka is able to demonstrate both the external alienation that veterans may feel by portraying the main character, Gregor, as a bug.
The book the Stranger by Albert Camus is another work from twentieth century Europe that follows the trend of alienating the protagonist. The protagonist, Meursault, first seems completely unlikable even though he is presented in the middle of a tragedy. The story begins at Meursault’s mother’s funeral, which would typically draw sympathy from readers. However, our introduction to this character does the opposite. Instead of feeling bad for the character, we think that the character is rude and disrespectful. This is because instead of paying his respects inside of the funeral and seeing his mother’s body one last time, he stands outside to smoke and drink coffee. A possible explanation for this would be he is so overcome with grief that he can not go see him mother, but this is not supported. Instead, the opposite is shown since no emotion is described. Instead, he only describes the people at the funeral walking in and out. Not only does this make Meursault seem disrespectful, but it also portrays him as a cold and unforgiving character. This makes impossible for the readers to sympathize with the him.
Although the time period in which the Stranger was written was different than that of the Metamorphosis, the circumstances of the era were similar since it was the middle of World War II. However, the alienation that the Stranger focuses on differs from that of Metamorphosis since the emphasis is not on the relationship between soldiers and their surroundings but within the soldiers themselves. The conflict that is constantly recurring is Meursault’s inability to feel and react to different events in his life. Not only does that make him harder to sympathize with, but it also highlights the problems with complete belief in facticity and bad faith. Throughout the book, Meursault accepts everything as a fact and does not believe that he could influence and cause change in any way. This is similar to how many of the axis powers saw France when the country surrendered to Hitler in the year of 1940. Although at the time, the outlook for the Allies powers was not positive, many people believed that France should have fought instead of surrendering to avoid more bloodshed. The leaders of France, including the Prime Minister Daladier, believed that if they could not fight against Nazism, which can be seen as bad faith. Camus captures the belief of facticity and the internal alienation that plagued France at the time in the Stranger.
A third twentieth century european work that also has a similar effect on the readers is One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This book describes the daily routine of Ivan Denisovich, who is in a prison camp in Siberia. A short description like one stated may make the book seem like it is something that is extremely easy to empathize with. A prisoner in Siberia is someone that should pull on heartstrings since what most people know about Siberia is only that is is cold and it was where Russia used to send its prisoners to die. This is similar to how Australia began since its original colonists were prisoners of Great Britain. However, although the readers expect to read about and empathize with an innocent and helpless victim in a Siberian prison camp, we later learn about his actual personality. Typically, when authors want readers to feel sorry for the protagonist, they make the main character helpless and innocent. Essentially, the perfect character is made. However, in the case of this story, the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich, is the opposite of a typical, perfect main character. Instead of honest, the first thing we hear about him is how he tried to fake a fever to get on the sick list. Then, when he is punished and told to mop the floors, he does not completely fulfill the task. Although the reader wants to empathize with the protagonist, it is not possible unless the reader can admit to being a cheater and being lazy him or herself.
The trend of alienating the readers from the protagonists is common in many twentieth century European works. This can be seen as the effect of the events that happened in Europe during this century as they all resulted in the alienation of Europeans at the time. The three books, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, the Stranger by Albert Camus, and One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, are able to reflect the turmoil of the time through their unconventional narratives.
Issues of Solidarity
“One should never direct people toward happiness, because happiness too is an idol of the market-place. One should direct them towards mutual affection. A beast gnawing at its prey can be happy too, but only human beings can feel affection for each other, and this is the highest achievement they can aspire to.” — Alexander Isayevich SolzhenitsynAlexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich examines a cruel and authoritarian system that attempts to deteriorate the human spirit. Embedded in the milieu of a Siberian labor camp is a movement to destroy its prisoners’ solidarity and endorse primitive behavior for individual survival. In actuality, this effort forces a bond of unity among the prisoners and restores a sense of long-absenced humanity. Through the portrayal of the characters in his novel, Solzenitsyn demonstrates that solidarity and humanity overcome and even intensify during the harshest conditions, despite an environment which attempts to wipe them out.The Soviet authorities that govern this prison camp system depend on the prisoner-workers to be at destructive odds with one another as a means of controlling them. However, this status quo within the camp has the reverse effect upon many of its subjects, strengthening their accord and camaraderie. Such is the case with the two Estonians of the 104th, who “hung onto each other so closely that you’d think one would suffocate unless he breathed the same air as the other” (40). They initially meet in camp and soon become “close as brothers”. “They shared their food, they slept in adjacent bunks in the top row. And when they stood in the column, waiting for work to start, or turned in for the night, they went on talking to each other in their quiet, deliberate manner” (40). Subsequently, in an environment intended to impose a social handicap upon its prisoners through strenuous work and meager provisions, it is from these elements that the basis of the Estonians’ friendship is formed. Further representative of human compassion and understanding is the Estonians’ firm confidence in other prisoners such as Shukhov. In need of a smoke, Shukhov addresses Eino, one of the Estonians, to “lend[him]some [tobacco] for a cigarette till tomorrow”, adding, “You know I won’t let you down” (70). In response, Eino “slowly turn[s] his eyes to his ‘brother'” and “reached for his pink-embroidered pouch” (71). In effect, by trustingly lending Shukhov the tobacco, the two Estonians further defy the self-sufficient techniques issued forth by the camp for survival. Emblematically, human commitment and trust are able to champion a system which impresses rivalry and suspicion upon its subjects. In spite of this disparaging order which advocates the destruction of solidarity transcends a human compassion boasting amity and solidity.”A guard can’t get people to budge even in working hours, but a squad leader can tell his men to get on with the job even during the break, and they’ll do it” (51). Such is the reverence with which the 104th embellishes their squad leader, Tiurin. Regarded as a father figure, he is much respected and endeared by the men whom he calls “boys”. “All the men had crowded near the round iron stove that Shukhov had fixed”, where Shukhov adds, “the light was dim, and the men sat gazing into the fire. Like a big family. It was a family, the squad. They were listening to Tiurin as he talked tothe men by the stove” (69). Thus, despite an exhausting workday intended to converge interests upon work and dissipate bonds among the squad, the workday materializes as a mere obstacle to the period after work: a phase of freedom and unity among the squad members. Furthermore, the metaphor of squad as family is made explicit here, and is further represented in the mutual support among the prisoners for Tiurin in his confrontation with foreman Der. The squad covers the windows with roofing felt for warmth, a criminal act, where Der incriminatingly accuses “This isn’t a matter for the guardhouse. This is a criminal offense, Tiurin. You’ll get a third term for this” (81). Defending their squad leader, “Pavlo lifted his spade. He hadn’t grabbed it for nothing. And Senka, for all his deafness, had understood. He came up, hands on hips. And Senka was built solid” (82). Consequently, the squad members defend their squad leader and champion their solidarity, despite potentially threatening repercussions. Appropriately, this interdependent relationship among the squad members fortifies and endures despite the destructive effects the prison camp has upon the human spirit.One of the greatest representations of an unwavering human spirit and a firm solidarity in the midst of a dehumanizing atmosphere is that which exists between Shukhov and Senka. Although controlled by a system which impresses individual wellbeing for ultimate survival upon its subjects, they choose to resist. Shukhov, although engrossed in the delight of his cigarette as the “sweet dizziness went all through his body” (71), notices Senka watching. Thus, Shukhov approaches Senka, and genuinely proposes: “come on, finish this, you poor slob”, “hand[ing] him the cigarette in his wooden holder” (72). Although Shukhov greatly endears the tobacco, he allows his inner humanity to champion his self-sufficient desires by giving the rest to Senka. Shukhov develops a strong bond with Senka and in effect, defies a system which endeavors to accomplish the opposite. Their idealized friendship and solidarity, however, are illustrated most vividly in their squad’s building of the wall. In the process of its construction, the 104th engage themselves in a frenzied race against time, desperately trying to make it before roll call. In response, Shukhov and Senka volunteer to finish off as much as they can, imploring the others to leave. “Left alone now with Senka”, it was simple: he “went on handing blocks to Shukhov” (87) as they frantically built the wall. Reevaluating the potential repercussions for arriving late for roll call, Shukhov gestures to Senka, “Run ahead. I’ll catch up”. But “Senka would never leave anyone in a jam. Pay for it? Then together” (88-89). These series of actions and thoughts imply an unmistakable unity between the two prisoners. Defying the self-sufficient techniques issued forth by the camp for individual survival, Senka refuses to leave without Shukhov because of his intuitive duty to humanity. Metaphorically, the wall for the prison camp system represents a punishment for the prisoners meant to dispel sentiments of cohesion and humanity. However, for Shukhov and Senka, the wall symbolizes a commitment to excellence as humans as well as the extreme root of their formed solidarity. Accordingly, a forced companionship ironically materializes between Shukhov and Senka because of a suppressive environment which attempts to the opposite: obliterate unity and the human accord.Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich probes an authoritarian system which attempts to break down the human spirit. In the setting of a harsh Siberian labor camp surfaces an endeavor to destroy solidarity and endorse self-sufficient tactics for individual survival. In essence, this strengthens the human spirit, forcing a bond of unity among the prisoners. Through the depiction of many characters in his novel, Solzhenitsyn validates the survival of solidarity and humanity even in the harshest conditions, despite an environment which attempts to eliminate them. In effect, the oppressed individuals and their found solidarity become ultimate forms of system defiance, emanating the essence of the triumphant human spirit.
Three Thinkers and the Divine
“What is absurd is the confrontation between the sense of the irrational and the overwhelming desire for clarity which resounds in the depths of man.” -Albert CamusThe human existence is controlled, monitored, and viewed to assume a predictable pattern. The extent to which this occurs, however, can partly be determined by the individual. Albert Camus passionately argues that faith and religious conviction are but pointless measures constructed by man to provide faulty purpose and avoid responsibility. Fidelity to these practices thus serves to create a perceived comforting, sugarcoated structure to lifean effort which Camus strongly regards as futile. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs both examine Camus’ thesis. Using irony and characterization, they challenge organized religion and question the necessity and practicality of faith in society.From The Myth of Sisyphus we find that Camus, although not a nihilist, believes that nothing divine nor absolute exists and that many people use faith in a higher being as a crutch to avoid living and taking responsibility for life. Camus’ world deems divine forces such as God unlikely; therefore, the human’s struggle to make his/her life meaningful in the face of God is absurd and pointless. Instead of concerning one’s self with the ‘unlikely’, Camus scours the realm of the now: “Why prepare and wait when we could live?” (Classic Notes). When one realizes all this, “he knows himself to be the master of his days”. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day… is embedded in the milieu of a harsh Siberian labor campa microcosmic Stalinist Russia where prisoners are stripped of everything which defines them as individuals, including their religious conviction. Answering the Soviet governmental endeavor to suppress the influence of the Orthodox Church and weaken the Christian faith, Solzhenitsyn argues the necessity, and lack thereof, of organized religion through his characters Shukhov and Alyosha.Shukhov, the protagonist of the novel, is wrongfully accused of treason and is sentenced to ten years in prison. Disillusioned, his term in the labor camp becomes a habitual effort to cope with the daily corruption and injustice he faces, causing him to significantly doubt his conception of faith. Although not an advocate of organized religion, Shukhov is a man of sound morals and maintains a strong sense of spirituality. “Glory be to Thee, O Lord. Another day over. Thank You I’m not spending tonight in the cells. Here it’s still bearable” (Solzhenitsyn 134). Occasionally, Shukhov thanks the Lord for all he has given him and prays to be granted freedombut even Shukhov knows this is a futile effort, for as he himself states, “however much you pray it doesn’t shorten your stretch. You’ll sit it out from beginning to end anyhow” (137). Although Shukhov observes this practice of ‘sporadic habit’, he fully recognizes that it has no real net-result; yet ironically, he continues to practice it. Accordingly, Shukhov becomes like Camus: a skeptic of the divine, voluntarily toying with it while outwardly rejecting it.Such cynicism in the merits of faith, however, is only surpassed by Shukhov’s censure of the religious institution. When Alyosha tries to convince him to pray regularly, he argues against any kind of organized religion because of the corruptness of the church. “In Polomnya, our parish, there isn’t a man richer than the priest…He pays alimony to three women in three different towns, and he’s living with a fourth. And he keeps that bishop of his on a hook…Oh yes, he gives his fat hand to the bishop, all right” (135). Under a veil of respectability, this supposed servant of God filches money and leads an immoral life under the authority of the Orthodox Church. Ironically, Shukhov, a man of relatively firm moral uprightness, espouses a kind of spirituality and prays to God for resolution, but is instead compensated with injustice and agony. But to attempt to create meaning of this, in what Camus sees as a meaningless world, is absurd. It is only when one, as Shukhov, assembles the components of his life and examines the significance of his daily actions that he is able to find personal meaning and moral wisdom. Regardless of whether Shukhov reaches this point of inflection or not, however, his practices of faith are uneventful and serve not hing in lessening the plight in his struggle for survival.Contrastingly, Solzhenitsyn provides an opposing outlook on the same issue of organized religion with his character Alyosha. A devout Baptist, Alyosha believes that God placed him in prison to avoid temptation and develop into a more pure Christian. The camp, in this case, serves as an outlet to abandon the physical world and make contact with its spiritual counterpart. In a heightened argument with Shukhov regarding the relevance of prayer, Alyosha states, “…you shouldn’t pray to get parcels of food or extra stew… Things that man puts a high price on are vile in the eyes of Our Lord. We must pray about things of the spiritthat the Lord Jesus should remove the scum of anger from our hearts…”(135). In believing and preaching so, Alyosha has created a system of making sense and consolation of his plight. By accessing this spiritual understanding, Alyosha is able to solace and comfort himself by voluntarily yielding to the hands of a greater force. “In freedom your last grain of faith will be choked with weeds. You should rejoice that you’re in prison. Here you have time to think about your soul”(136). Consistent with Camus’ thesis, Alyosha strives to make his life meaningful in the face of God. This, however, cannot possibly be considered absurd because it depends upon the existence of a God. Until proven or disproven scientifically, the concept of God is an “individual-specific reality”: if one’s reality necessitates the presence of God, He exists. Therefore, creating personal meaning and justifying his condition in the face of God so is perfectly viable. Accordingly, through faith and recognition of the spiritual self, Alyosha is able to overcome his arduous physical surroundings and survive, deeming his observance to organized religion indispensable.Such questioning of organized religion is likewise found in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel The Thief and the Dogs, but in a far more severe light: utter rejection. Mahfouz’s protagonist, Said Mahran, is a thief released from jail in Egypt eager to assert vengeance upon those who have betrayed him. Through these intentions and his ensuing actions, it becomes clear that although Said has an organized religionthe Sufi Islamic faith to ‘belong to’, he dismisses its most significant preachings. “He [Said]…found the Sheikh staring through the window at the sky, smiling. The smile…frightened Said: he wished he could stand at the window… the Sheikh was looking at so he could see what it was that made him smile. But the wish was unfulfilled” (Mahfouz 55). Fully cognizant of the stimuli and responses within his Sufi culture, we find that Said contemplates reaction, but promptly and willingly rejects it. In Sufi society, virtues of the insignificance of time and money and the essentiality for inner faith and spiritualism define the ‘achieved man’. Said romanticizes his role as a thief, a “Robin Hood”, filling this societal cavity for achievement and fulfillment by means of piousness with thievery deserting Sufism. As what society and Said each embrace as significant dispel, it is lucidly clear that Said becomes the epitome of what his society shuns. “Aren’t you going to perform the dawn prayers?Said was so tired he was incapable of giving an answer, and no sooner had the Sheikh begun his prayers than he [Said] dropped off to sleep” (207). The mosque, for Said, becomes a last-resort sanctuarynot a place of worship. This sentiment is reiterated in the words of the Shiekh: “If you had another [place to shelter] you would never have come to me” (55). Thus, for his un-‘Sufi’-like manners and malevolent intentions, Said is ostracized and eradicated by the world in which he lives in; in Camus’ however, he is crowned king. To overcome the absurd, Camus necessitates for the understanding of an ultimate end: Said is tortured by it, referring to himself as a “hunted man” nearing “the end of his days” (55). Unconcerned with the ‘unlikely’, ‘the Camus’ assumes control of his actions to find personal meaning and significance. Said’s intentions to reap vengeance upon his perpetrators, fueled by his awareness of a definitive end, are his personal meaning and significance. Therefore, while in Camus’ eyes, Said is “the master of his days”, rejection of organized religion within his society leads to his bitter downfall.Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs investigate Camus’ thesis by questioning the inner workings of organized religion and by evaluating its societal necessity. Through Shukov and Alyosha, Solzhenitsyn offers two opposing views on the relevance of faith for survival within his labor camps. Through Said’s blatant rejection of organized religion, Mahfouz examines Sufi society’s subsequent excoriation of Said. In doing so, however, the authors are able only to address the issue of the necessity of faith for individuals within specific environments, leaving the larger cosmopolitan question unanswered.