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 characteristics
defining us. In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in The Life
of Ivan Denisovich, the concept of identity is conveyed primarily by
providing details about the characters’ mindset and life. As the title
indicates, the novel is set over the course of one day; of which the main
character, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, provides a detailed account. The story
takes place within the Gulag system during Stalin’s reign. The purpose of these
labor camps was to increase the USSR’s economic power by forcing people into
building infrastructure and working in factories. However, in the eyes of the
authorities, the prisoners had no value, and could be easily replaced by any
other incoming prisoner. The extremely high death rates due to long working
hours, harsh climatic and working conditions, inadequate food, and executions,
create a very tense and difficult climate around the story. Solzhenitsyn
explores the concept of retained identity in spite of forced conformity through
his characterization of Shukhov, Alyosha, and Fetyukov.

First
of all, Shukhov’s characterization demonstrates his singularity within the camp
by providing details about his habits and his attitude. The first element
about Ivan Denisovich mentioned is that “he always got up at once, for the next
ninety minutes, until they assembled for work, belonged to him, not the
authorities, 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 serves
to emphasize the importance of each individual part. The blocks: “belonged to
him” 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 this
period of time thus relies on the fact that it is his free time, during which he
is not systematically intimidated and bullied by the guards. As it is the only
time 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-shaven
head – however cold it might be, he can never bring himself to eat with his
hat on” (16). Despite being in the camp for all those years, Ivan still refuses
to keep his hat on, as it would be considered as disrespect in a “normal”
situation. The repetition of male pronouns (he, his, himself) emphasizes
the opposition with the other inmates, and shows his uniqueness within the
crowd. Shukhov distinguishes himself from the very start, creating barrier
between himself and the authorities, and later, himself and the other inmates.

He is shown as being unique, which therefore conveys the idea that identity can
remain even in an oppressive environment like the Gulag.

In the
second place, Fetyukov is presented as a character in opposition with Shukhov,
conveying the idea that the inmates can retain their individuality, as well as
keeps building Shukov’s identity. Fetyukov’s nickname is “the Scrounger”, which
conveys his attitude and the way people see him within the squad. Throughout
the novel, Shukhov points out little things that bother him about Fetyukov, as
well as makes remarks about his beggar-like attitude. The word “scrounger” had
an extremely negative connotation, which shows that Ivan Denisovich looks down
on Fetyukov because of his manners. Shukhov’s disapprobation is later showed by
the comment about how “Fetyukov was the sort who when he was looking after
someone else’s bowl took the potatoes from it” (16) (when he gives Shukhov his
bowl of food at breakfast after keeping it for him). The fact that Shukhov
looks down on Fetyukov implies that he still has a sense of self worth, which
contributes to building a sense of identity. Indeed, while Fetyukov is always
begging for food in a pathetic way, Ivan tries to improve his living conditions
by doing services to the members of the squad as well as the authorities. Moreover, while “everyone
in the squad looks the same – their numbered black coats are identical”, there
still are “great distinctions” “within the squad” (15). The use of the intensifier
“great” to qualify the distinctions emphasizes the idea that the inmates oppose
to the will of the system to standardize their appearance and behavior. The
fact that “everyone had his grade” (15) shows that they have a system of hierarchy
within the squad. This is significant because, even though the system wants to
remove every sense of identity from the inmates, the prisoners still
distinguish themselves from each other by having a hierarchy within the squad.

It is even more powerful, knowing that the Stalinist system is opposed to the
concept of hierarchy, and shows that it is possible to go against the system,
and thus to retain one’s identity. Throughout the novel, Fetyukov and
Shukhov are contrasted regarding their personalities and the way they deal with
the everyday life. Their differences demonstrate how the inmates’ personalities
can be divergent, and thus builds the idea of a retained identity within the
camp.

Additionally,
Alyosha’s apparent tranquility throughout the novel, and specifically towards
the 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 most
of his thoughts to religion. Toward the end, when talking with Shukhov, he
explains that they “must pray about things of the spirit – that the Lord Jesus
should remove the scum of anger from their hearts” (162).  By using the word “scum” to describe the
anger every person might feel in the camp, the author emphasizes Alyosha’s
spirituality and kindness, as even the reader would see this hatred as
justified. By praying “about things of the spirit”, it is understood that
Alysha’s faith permits him to have an outside view on his condition, and to
distance himself form the hardship, which would ultimately help support the
pain and the rough conditions in the Gulag. He is a good person and thanks to
his faith, he remained one, despite all the hatred he might experience. Alyosha
is described as being very kind and genuine. However, Ivan Denisovich points
out that he doesn’t know how to trade his services like the other inmates
because he only “makes himself nice to everyone” (166) because his religion
taught 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 Ivan
does at the end), showing how his faith can be to the detriment of his own well
being. This element further explores the differences between Alyosha and the
rest of the squad and camp, and shows how the Gulag isn’t a place where
religion has its place. Furthermore, while the sign of the cross is one of the
most basic acts that Christians perform daily, the inmates “have forgotten
which hand to cross themselves with” (15). 
This demonstrates how Alyosha still being devoted to religion is very
uncommon 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 a
context like the Gulag, which is far from being an environment promoting these
beliefs.

In
conclusion, Alexander Solzhenitsyn provides details about the characters that
help construct their identity, as well as showing in what ways they stand out. The
three mentioned characters all demonstrate how an identity can be retained in
spite of forced conformity within the Gulag. While Shukov’s identity is
conveyed through his characterization, Fetyukov’s is demonstrated by
contrasting his personality to Shukhov’s. Alyosha is a character that stands
out in a lot of way, but the primary aspect of his identity conveyed through the
novel is his retained faith. All of which implicitly convey the idea of a retained
identity throughout the novel. However, while this concept is displayed, the
idea of lost identity is way more prevalent, which is understandable knowing
the historical background to this novel.