The efforts of the prisoners, including Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, to keep elements of their human dignity is among the most important themes in the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The labor camp where Shukhov was imprisoned is designed to destroy their prisoners’ physical and spiritual dignity.
Living conditions are physically intolerable. They include prisoners eating only two hundred grams of bread per meal, mattresses not having sheets, and guards forcing prisoners to undress for body searches at temperatures of negative forty degrees. The inhumane circumstances highlight the ability of human beings to overcome terrible obstacles in the struggle for dignity and recognition. These prisoners have now lost their sense of family and personal relationships. “Writing now was like dropping stones in some deep, bottomless pool. They drop; they sink?–but there is no answer” (Solzhenitsyn 33). Nevertheless, and despite the harsh living conditions of the labor camp in which they were imprisoned, those living there managed to treat each other with respect and even kindness.
The labor camp also degrades its prisoners spiritually. The camp replaces prisoners’ names with combinations of letters and numbers and erase all traces of individuality. While the guards insist upon calling prisoners by their number, the prisoners themselves do not simply repeat this dehumanizing name, but rather seek to build alliances and to appreciate individual differences. For example, the camp guards refer to Shukhov as “Shcha-854.” However, Ivan does not submissively accept the attempt to dehumanize him. He shows that the way to maintain his human dignity is not through outward rebellion but through developing a personal doctrine. For example, at meal time, no matter how hungry he is, Ivan insists on removing his cap before eating. “Then he removed his hat from his clean-shaven head?–however cold it might be, he could never bring himself to eat with his hat on?–and stirred the cold stew, taking a quick look to see what kind of helping they’d given him” (Solzhenitsyn 14). This action comes as a reminder of his childhood and gives him a sense that he is behaving in a polite manner. Ivan may be treated like an animal by the Soviet camp system, but he slightly fights back and refuses to submit.
Through the character of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov and his actions, Solzhenitsyn demonstrates that humanity can survive even the harshest and toughest conditions. Though the prison camp system seeks to destroy expression of feeling and actions based on morals and ethics, Shukhov and his fellow prisoners maintain their humanity through small acts and rituals. Ivan must work hard to preserve his capability for self-respect and dignity, but throughout his experience, he does so despite the enormous odds.