Present Provoking Past “Analyze a characters’ response to the past as a source of meaning in a work” ” . . . the past, no matter what it was like, never becomes a matter of indifference to the present. ” Alexander Tvardovsky In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn portrays one normal day in the life of Shukhov Ivan Denisovich, a Russian peasant unfairly confined in one of Stalin’s forced labor camps for political prisoners. Throughout the novel, Solzhenitsyn depicts how Shukhov has adapted to his surroundings and has been able to survive with a dignity other prisoners have lost throughout their confinement.Order now
It is exactly the way Shukhov has been able to live and survive in prison, that reveals how he has responded to his past, even when all the author reveals to the reader is the characters’ immediate present. Shukhov responded to his past by clinging to aspects of his “previous life” which allowed him to maintain his humanity, and thus survive, and by letting go of those which didn’t. Many critics argue that imprisonment robs individuals of their humanity for, in order to survive, they grow accustomed to their harsh life and loose basic human responses.
Solzhenitsyn however, proves through Shukhov, that even within confinement, where prisoners are robbed of every kind of possession, freedom and humanity can still exist within. What aspects then, does Shukhov hold on to, and which ones does he let go of in order to survive? First of all, it is very important to clarify that survival in the novel is very relative. Surviving for some of the prisoners is merely enduring life, no matter the cost, such as for Fetiukov who stoops even to collecting other prisoners’ left over cigarette buds, even though he puts himself in danger of catching a syphilitic lip.
For Shukhov however, surviving goes far beyond making it alive. Shukhov shares Kuziomin’s same belief that those who lick other men”s leftovers, those who count on the doctors to pull them through, and those who squeal on their buddies don’t make it, for it’s at the expense of not just other people’s blood, but at the expense of loss of self-value, of self-worth. Thus, for Shukhov, surviving is going on living, while maintaining his freedom and humanity, even in an environment which has total control over him.
As consequence, the most important thing that Shukhov holds on to is his intrinsic code of values and morals. Throughout the novel, Shukhov’s actions are guided by a sense of right and wrong. For example, during the war, his jaw was smashed and he had the opportunity to stay in the hospital on the banks of the River Lovat for five days. Instead, he decided to do what was right, and volunteered, like an idiot, to go back to the front, where he was later wrongfully accused of treason.
Another example of how he held on to his values is when he explains that he didn’t want to turn into a carpet painter after he got out of prison. He points out that that type of a man needed to be free and easy with people, to be brash, to know how to grease a palm or two, that although he had trodden the earth for forty years, he”d never either given or taken a bribe, neither had he learned to do so in camp, nor intended to begin to do so, after surviving even camp without deeming it necessary.
He believed in earning money based on his hard work; to him, easy money weights light in the hand. It doesn’t give you the feeling you’ve earned it, nor the satisfaction that comes along with it And he clarifies this to the point where he specifies that only if he were deprived of his civil rights and he couldn’t be taken on anywhere, would he turn to carpets for a spell. The second thing Shukhov holds on to is his value for self-respect and dignity. The novel basically unravels itself around this premise.
Simple acts, such as removing his hat before eating, despite the cold weather, obtain great significance for the amount of self-respect it provides him. Acts such as this one, as well as something as simple as crossing one self, obtain a greater value and meaning than they would in normal circumstances because they transform from a simple gesture of respect or reverence, to a defiance to the system which attempts to diminish their value as men and as human beings.
Other examples of this premise, are that Shukhov was content when he reached the breakfast hall and there was no line; not only because he would not have to wait to eat, but also because it would keep him from the temptation, which he would have to resist, of liking another man’s bowl. Also, he would retain himself from not eating fish eyes that where floating in the soup, for that would have been to lower himself, even though it may be the only solid food in the soup.
Other simple but significant actions, such as not looking at a smoking man’s mouth while he is smoking, also enable Shukhov to maintain a sense of self-value and thus of self-respect and humanity. In contrast, in order to survive with a sense of freedom and humanity, Shukhov is also forced to let go of a lot. For example, he describes how, at first, he counts the days spent in prison, and the days he still has left, and how, after a while, he is forced to desist, for he has no control over neither how much time he would be imprisoned, nor if he would be let out or not; or even if he would be later exiled.
In other words, he has no control over his future and realizes he can only truly possess and have an effect on his present. In order to be able to make the best of the only thing he has for sure, his present, Shukhov is forced to let go of his past. This is why when he is asked if he has never seen his wife clean the floors, he answers that he does not even remember her; He is forced to let go of his past, to the point of forgetting his wife and loved ones, in order to be able to take as much advantage as he could of one of the few things he has left to possess, his present.
In addition to the present, his sense of self-respect and dignity, and his inherent code of values, Shukhov clings to objects, which aid him in obtaining a sense of self-worth, for they give him a sense of self-importance and purpose. Examples of these objects are the trowel, which facilitated his work, and, most importantly, his spoon, which also gave him a sense of dignity by preventing him from needing his hands to eat, as well as reminding him he was self-reliable, for he made the spoon with his own two hands.
Shukhov responds to his past by letting go of it, in order to be able to not only survive, but do so with dignity and humanity. This response to his past, his letting go, can be interpreted as a submission to circumstance. Would Solzhenitsyn however, convey to readers the message that in order to survive with dignity and humanity one must adopt a passive behavior, and accept and conform to circumstance? Yes. To denounce the Stalinist regime.
Solzhenitsyn wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, with the purpose of making a social criticism of Stalin’s regime, which suppressed the Russians. His story and the message, that in order to come out triumphant one must conform, adapt, and accept, are created for the sole purpose of provoking in the reader a feeling of indignity towards the hopeless reality that befell Russia and a desire to find solutions for the problems of his society.