Monday, March 23, 2009

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


• Since survival is one of the most important issues of camp life, food is very special throughout the story.
• They cherish every bit of bread and meat.
• The men in the prison camp would trade, steal, or even kill for food.
• Shukhov thinks of meal times as sacred moments.
• Throughout using his spoon, he takes control of the meal, making it some way his own.
• Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says he agrees with the biblical quotation, “Men do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” - men need bread to physically survive, but they also need a sustaining spiritual vision.

• The book depicts a life of beating, food deprivation, and harsh weathers.
• Volkovoi can make irrational demands (Eg. strip men in the freezing cold)
• No matter how horrible camp life is, their dignity has not been lost.
• Even though he starves, Shukhov still balks at eating fisheyes and men still clean the fish bones from their table as an act of politeness.
• Shukhov finds joy in a job well done.
• They share with those who have less.
• Alyoshka still prays.
• The living conditions are nearly intolerable: mattresses don’t have sheets, they only get 200g of bread per meal, guards force them to undress in the cold (-40°)
• Camp also degrades them spiritually by replacing their names with letters and numbers (Eg. Shukhov = Shcha-854)

• A zek’s main enemy is another zek.
• The author depicts the way in which competition and conflict between prisoners can worsen a prisoner's life.
• A hierarchy that exists between prisoners who work inside and those who work outside the camp prisoners with power (cook, building foreman) abuse that power by taking from and/or punishing other prisoners.
• Prisoners turn against each other to survive.

• Authorities control the prisoners’ entire day.
• They’re not given any choice in what work he does and isn’t paid (but Shukhov takes pride in his work).

• They get convicted of activities that don’t seem criminal to us (Gopchik took milk to freedom fighters hiding in the woods, Shukhov was captured by Germans and then was accused by the Russians of being a spy, and Tyurin was the son of a rich peasant father).
• Shukhov gets into trouble and is threatened with 3 days in the hole for being ill.
• Buynovsky receives 10 days in the hole for trying to bundle up against the cold with a flannel vest.
• The camp treats both as deep violations of the law, worthy of severe punishment.

• Alyoshka reveals that faith can be a means of survival in the camp.
• Shukhov’s interest in Alyoshka’s discussion of God, faith, and prayer marks Shukhov’s expansion beyond his usual thoughts of work, warmth, food, and sleep.
• Shukhov’s sense of inner peace in the last paragraph demonstrates that religious faith offers strength in the face of adversity.


• The Soviet regime makes private events open to public in order to show their power over the individuals. This makes the inmates of the prison camps have no space to call their own, and every move they make is monitored. It is quoted that even walking to the latrine has become a public event, and cannot be made alone. The fact that the prisoners’ names have been replaced by numbers and letters indicate that they are not an individual, but rather symbols in a public system. However, the elimination of privacy is not totally successful, as the prisoners still have possessions. Examples of this are Shukhov’s spoon, Tzar’s package and Alyoshka’s notebook. In an environment where the state is trying to dehumanize the prisoners, each individual try to preserve their humanity by keeping their own private world.

• In this novel, “cold” is represented in different ways, which the prisoners of the camp have to face with. One is the physical manifestation of the coldness with which the leaders of the labor camp treat the prisoners. The other type is the extreme climate in which the prisoners have to work in, and get their body checked. Shukhov have to concentrate on avoiding the punishment, but at the same time, protect himself from the cold.
• The author continuously emphasizes the significance of the extreme weather , which suggests that Shukhov is not only a political prisoner in the labor camp but also a prisoner of nature as well. The combination of the hard camp life and the forbidding weather creates the sense that the whole universe is against Shukhov and his inmates, and that their lives are hindered by both humans and nature. This sense of oppression highlights the suffering of the human conditions, and the fact that they can not escape from the extreme conditions.

• The labor camp is designed to discourage friendship and camaraderie, but many of the inmates form bonds which helps them survive through the difficulty. Even though the inmates come from different countries, social classes, educational backgrounds and are encouraged to spy on one another, they still create trust within each other.


• The spoon that Shukhov hides in his boot represents individuality. The spoon is not only useful, but it also makes him feel unique because it’s something the other prisoners don’t have.
• The spoon also represents the unjust system of the Gulags that stripped the prisoners of an identity and guiltlessly placed them into forced labor.
• A third representation the spoon makes is Shukhov’s way of surviving without the unrequited help of the guards.
• When Shukhov is cleaning the floor, the narrator makes a special note of the care he takes with his spoon as he removes his boots. “Though he’d made himself ready for the guardhouse in a hurry, he hadn’t forgotten his spoon”. He shows unification between him and the spoon, and protects his spoon just like he would himself because he feels it holds a part of him.

• Bread symbolizes physical and spiritual sustenance. Even though the physical sustenance that bread gives is more important to the prisoners, Alyoshka’s reference to ‘our daily bread’ in the Bible alludes to the spiritual food that bread offers.

• The satisfactory food inside Tsezar’s parcel symbolizes the worldly pleasures in life, because in the camp, hunger controls the prisoners, forcing them to scrounge and beg since those are the only alternatives to starvation.
• The mysterious parcel Tsezar receives from the outside world makes the rest of the camp envy him. Apart from that, Tsezar also gets special privileges from the guards and officers in exchange for a share of his food.
• The name Tsezar is a Russian version of the name Caesar. Alyoshka urges Shukhov to look beyond his life, which is symbolized by Tsezar’s parcel; this is an allusion to the New Testament, where Jesus urged his disciples to “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” – pointing out the difference between worldly riches and spiritual well-being.

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