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 characteristicsdefining us.
In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in The Lifeof Ivan Denisovich, the concept of identity is conveyed primarily byproviding details about the characters’ mindset and life. As the titleindicates, the novel is set over the course of one day; of which the maincharacter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, provides a detailed account. The storytakes place within the Gulag system during Stalin’s reign.
The purpose of theselabor camps was to increase the USSR’s economic power by forcing people intobuilding infrastructure and working in factories. However, in the eyes of theauthorities, the prisoners had no value, and could be easily replaced by anyother incoming prisoner. The extremely high death rates due to long workinghours, harsh climatic and working conditions, inadequate food, and executions,create a very tense and difficult climate around the story. Solzhenitsynexplores the concept of retained identity in spite of forced conformity throughhis characterization of Shukhov, Alyosha, and Fetyukov.Firstof all, Shukhov’s characterization demonstrates his singularity within the campby providing details about his habits and his attitude.
The first elementabout Ivan Denisovich mentioned is that “he always got up at once, for the nextninety minutes, until they assembled for work, belonged to him, not theauthorities, 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 servesto emphasize the importance of each individual part. The blocks: “belonged tohim” 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 thisperiod of time thus relies on the fact that it is his free time, during which heis not systematically intimidated and bullied by the guards. As it is the onlytime where he has some freedom, he might only actually feel human at this time,and thus have an identity. Another of Shukov’s unique personality traits is that when eating, “he removes his hat from his clean-shavenhead – however cold it might be, he can never bring himself to eat with hishat on” (16). Despite being in the camp for all those years, Ivan still refusesto keep his hat on, as it would be considered as disrespect in a “normal”situation. The repetition of male pronouns (he, his, himself) emphasizesthe opposition with the other inmates, and shows his uniqueness within thecrowd.
Shukhov distinguishes himself from the very start, creating barrierbetween himself and the authorities, and later, himself and the other inmates.He is shown as being unique, which therefore conveys the idea that identity canremain even in an oppressive environment like the Gulag. In thesecond place, Fetyukov is presented as a character in opposition with Shukhov,conveying the idea that the inmates can retain their individuality, as well askeeps building Shukov’s identity. Fetyukov’s nickname is “the Scrounger”, whichconveys his attitude and the way people see him within the squad. Throughoutthe novel, Shukhov points out little things that bother him about Fetyukov, aswell as makes remarks about his beggar-like attitude. The word “scrounger” hadan extremely negative connotation, which shows that Ivan Denisovich looks downon Fetyukov because of his manners.
Shukhov’s disapprobation is later showed bythe comment about how “Fetyukov was the sort who when he was looking aftersomeone else’s bowl took the potatoes from it” (16) (when he gives Shukhov hisbowl of food at breakfast after keeping it for him). The fact that Shukhovlooks down on Fetyukov implies that he still has a sense of self worth, whichcontributes to building a sense of identity. Indeed, while Fetyukov is alwaysbegging for food in a pathetic way, Ivan tries to improve his living conditionsby doing services to the members of the squad as well as the authorities. Moreover, while “everyonein the squad looks the same – their numbered black coats are identical”, therestill are “great distinctions” “within the squad” (15).
The use of the intensifier”great” to qualify the distinctions emphasizes the idea that the inmates opposeto the will of the system to standardize their appearance and behavior. Thefact that “everyone had his grade” (15) shows that they have a system of hierarchywithin the squad. This is significant because, even though the system wants toremove every sense of identity from the inmates, the prisoners stilldistinguish themselves from each other by having a hierarchy within the squad.It is even more powerful, knowing that the Stalinist system is opposed to theconcept of hierarchy, and shows that it is possible to go against the system,and thus to retain one’s identity. Throughout the novel, Fetyukov andShukhov are contrasted regarding their personalities and the way they deal withthe everyday life. Their differences demonstrate how the inmates’ personalitiescan be divergent, and thus builds the idea of a retained identity within thecamp. Additionally,Alyosha’s apparent tranquility throughout the novel, and specifically towardsthe 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 mostof his thoughts to religion. Toward the end, when talking with Shukhov, heexplains that they “must pray about things of the spirit – that the Lord Jesusshould remove the scum of anger from their hearts” (162). By using the word “scum” to describe theanger every person might feel in the camp, the author emphasizes Alyosha’sspirituality and kindness, as even the reader would see this hatred asjustified. By praying “about things of the spirit”, it is understood thatAlysha’s faith permits him to have an outside view on his condition, and todistance himself form the hardship, which would ultimately help support thepain and the rough conditions in the Gulag. He is a good person and thanks tohis faith, he remained one, despite all the hatred he might experience. Alyoshais described as being very kind and genuine.
However, Ivan Denisovich pointsout that he doesn’t know how to trade his services like the other inmatesbecause he only “makes himself nice to everyone” (166) because his religiontaught 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 Ivandoes at the end), showing how his faith can be to the detriment of his own wellbeing. This element further explores the differences between Alyosha and therest of the squad and camp, and shows how the Gulag isn’t a place wherereligion has its place. Furthermore, while the sign of the cross is one of themost basic acts that Christians perform daily, the inmates “have forgottenwhich hand to cross themselves with” (15).
This demonstrates how Alyosha still being devoted to religion is veryuncommon 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 acontext like the Gulag, which is far from being an environment promoting thesebeliefs.Inconclusion, Alexander Solzhenitsyn provides details about the characters thathelp construct their identity, as well as showing in what ways they stand out. Thethree mentioned characters all demonstrate how an identity can be retained inspite of forced conformity within the Gulag.
While Shukov’s identity isconveyed through his characterization, Fetyukov’s is demonstrated bycontrasting his personality to Shukhov’s. Alyosha is a character that standsout in a lot of way, but the primary aspect of his identity conveyed through thenovel is his retained faith. All of which implicitly convey the idea of a retainedidentity throughout the novel.
However, while this concept is displayed, theidea of lost identity is way more prevalent, which is understandable knowingthe historical background to this novel.