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Monday, October 19, 2009

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Walk Through the Gulag

The main criticism I get from teaching this book is that it deals too closely with action-related scenes, and not enough with what the literature of the oppressed really is about. Almost one third of the book is spent learning how to lay brick and mortar. I personally love the book, but it would be a disservice not to point out what others (my students) think is a wave of mundane details that deliver a pat rather than a literary punch. I am most interested in reading deeply into the existential structure of the novel. While there are very few passages to point out as support for an existential interpretation, the few that I found on this re-reading might go far to prove my point. One thing that I find fascinating about the novel is that despite the title "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," most of the time the protagonist is highlighted the narrator uses his last name, Shukhov. That in itself began my inclination to interpret this as an existential novel. What is it about the last name that promises more intimacy than the first/middle name featured in the title? Dehumanization? I rather think that the last name, being the element of trace into the past, genealogy, ancestry, etc., would be more self defining. I don't want to bog down with interpretative stretches, only these passages made me think of anti-Sartre commentary in some inordinate way: "If you suffer, it must not be for murder, theft, or sorcery, nor for infringing the rights of others. But if anyone suffers as a Christian, he should feel no disgrace, but confess that name to the honor of God." This passage comes across as masochistic if one reads it with the intention of proving that religion explains away one's suffering and gives meaning to our suffering itself. These workers are doing hard labor in -22 degrees cold weather, with only basic clothing. I would have to promote the idea that that suffering really has very little to do with God and the church doctrine. By breaking the law--either that of the state or the church--man puts himself in a sphere all of his own. What Nietzsche declared as taking one's destiny in one's own hands, leading to Ubermensch, (or in Dostoyevsky's view: I kill because I can.) is nothing more than another morality which can be as addictive and as damaging as the metaphysical embrace of the suffering. Another passage that recalls existential theory is that of Shukhov being patted down before they take the squad out to work that morning, "Shukhov was in regulation dress. Come on, paw me as hard as you like. There's nothing but my soul in my chest." This passage is reminiscent of Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning," when he says something to the effect of "We had nothing to lose but our ridiculous naked selves," as they were entering the Nazi Concentration Camp.

This is a stretch, and you must forgive me for making it, but "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is very much in structure like Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" film. The tension builds and builds and builds, and then the story resolves itself in a split second twist of violence and self-made justice (read, own moral standard). The only reason I am making this point here is that in teaching this book for over 10 years, I always heard my students say something to the effect that the book drags and then all of a sudden, it ends. It's about 50-50 when it comes to whether they enjoyed reading it or not. Thankfully, it's a quick read... young people today do not have time for painful stories of suffering and despair. Little do they know.

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At 9:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the book is full of detailed actions and words, my father recommended me the book, he thought that the book can teach about personality and persistence.

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