Monday, April 23, 2012

Narration in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

The narrative style of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich strikes me as different from any other novels we’ve read previously.  It seems to be from the third person omniscient perspective of Ivan Denisovich Shukov, but it contains various second person asides to the reader.  These asides usually describe some aspect of life in the camps. 

For example: “Let your work warm you up, that was your only salvation” (6).
“Anyway, you should never be conspicuous.  The main thing was never to be seen by a campguard on your own, only in a group” (18).
“There is nothing as bitter as this moment when you go out to the morning roll call--in the dark, in the cold, with a hungry belly, to face a whole day of work.  You lose your tongue.  You lose all desire to speak to anyone” (27).

At times it reads like an instructional guide for surviving in the work camps:

“A squad leader needs a lot of salt pork--to take to the planning department, and to satisfy his own belly too. ... No one in the squad who received any lost a moment in taking him some as a gift.  Otherwise you’d never survive” (27).

But sometimes the narrational style is slightly different:
“The 38th, naturally, wouldn’t let any stranger near their stove.  Their own men sat around it, drying their footrags.  Never mind, we’ll sit here in the corner, it’s not so bad” (46).

For me, so far, the power of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes from its ability to take the readers directly into the work camps.  The narrative style accomplishes this by passing off cold, starvation, and the other atrocities the men experience as just another part of everyday life, to be accepted as unavoidable facts.


  1. I agree with your view Shannon. However, I was wondering if Shukhov's perspective of things is the most representative: he is privileged, his superiors seem to like him more than they like others. Is this the best view of the camp? He is objective, most of the time, and he does describe everyday life in a very realistic way, but how would our experience as readers change if the narrator was someone less liked, or, completely on the opposite side, a guardian?

    1. I definitely agree with you that Shukov's perspective is a very privileged one. I just think it's weird that the novel's mostly in Shukov's perspective, but then it has these omniscient "slips" at some places like I pointed out above, suggesting that our narrator might be someone other than Shukov?
      I don't think the distinction's that important, practically, for appreciating the novel, it just stuck out to me as I was reading.

  2. One of the things I noticed about the narrative voice was the way that it seemed to communicate the author's personal experiences in the camps. At these points, it felt like the author was processing his own cold and hunger more so than Shukhov's, and the effect was sort of eerie since the we're reminded that the author himself lived through all of this!

    1. I totally agree with you here, Jenelle. It's definitely eerie.