The efforts of the prisoners, and most of all those of Shukhov, to retain elements of human dignity is among the most important themes in the novel. Despite the barbaric living conditions in the Stalinist labor camp in which they are imprisoned, those living there manage to treat each other with respect and even kindness. The stark contrast between the inhumane circumstances in which they find themselves living on 200 grams of bread and sleeping on bare mattresses with holes rather than sheets highlights the ability of human beings to overcome terrible obstacles in the struggle for dignity and recognition. While the camp officials insist upon calling prisoners by number, which is why Shukhov is referred to as #854, the prisoners themselves do not simply repeat this bureaucratic and dehumanizing convention, but rather seek to build alliances and to appreciate individual differences. This is clear in Shukhov’s ability to construct things, whether walls, knives, spoons, or friendships. He maintains his dignity not by openly rebelling against the system that confines him, but rather by living in a civilized manner despite it. He always removes his cap before eating, and forces himself never to hurry through a meal. Unlike Fetyukov, he never begs, instead consistently demonstrating by his own example that it is possible to retain one’s dignity even under the most inhumane and undignified of circumstances.
Most of the characters in the novel are prisoners not because they are criminals, but rather because of unjust political conditions which punish activities that do not strike the reader as wrong. For example, Shukhov was accused of being a spy after being captured by the Germans, but this charge does not appear to be true nor does his punishment seem warranted. Similarly, Gopchik is just a child who provided milk to rebels hiding in the woods near his home out of a sense of sympathy and solidarity, surely not an action meriting imprisonment. And Tyurin, whose father was of a wealthier social class, is in prison because of his origins and not his actions at all. The Soviet prison system seems to enforce unfair laws and to subject prisoners to the harsh Siberian temperatures and hard labor out of a sense of revenge rather than justice.
Another recurring theme in the novel is that of faith. Shukhov grows from one who says he believes in God but in practice seems to prioritize his bodily needs over those of his soul, to a happier though possibly hungrier individual who feeds his spirit first. While the novel spans one day in his life as prisoner, through flashbacks and anecdotes it is clear that Shukhov is industrious, a talented but humble worker who hopes for little more than his daily bread, and maybe an extra ration to save for later. His fellow prisoner, Alyoshka the Baptist, is at first presented rather neutrally, without it being clear whether his habit of reading the Bible is sheer foolishness or to be admired. But over the course of the novel, Shukhov seems to absorb an important life lesson from his religious bunkmate, and after his demonstration of faith by sharing one of his two hard-earned cookies with Alyoshka, he rests quite happily, suggesting his faith will help him survive. Even though faith seems not to have enabled Alyoshka to scrounge any extra crumbs, he and Shukhov are happier than they would otherwise be because they are able to nourish the soul as well as the flesh. Living in the Cold
It is no coincidence that the labor camp is located in Siberia, known for its freezing temperatures and harsh natural climate. Solzhenitsyn uses temperature to indicate mood, and the theme of overcoming cold is prominent in this work. At the beginning of the novel, inch-thick ice covers the window panes as reveille is sounded, and at its conclusion the second night check drives slipper-less Shukhov into the freezing night air. From the references to shivering men at work on the compound to the fact all the prisoners sleep in their pants due to the cold, it is clear throughout the novel that nature, at least the Siberian winter, is a major force to be reckoned with and overcome. Far from providing the men solace or peace, the cruel temperatures make their work harder, and even a question of life or death.
Although the novel follows a single protagonist seemingly distant from family or close friends, Shukhov does reach out to fellow prisoners to build alliances and friendships despite the many factors discouraging such bonds. Tyurin, the boss of Gang 104, is a figure more respected than anything, and Shukhov’s relationship with Caesar is similarly based on an unequal power dynamic. He looks down upon Fetyukov, but reaches out in a friendly way to both Alyoshka the Baptist and to his fellow hard worker Kilgas, as well as turning a warm eye towards Gopchik. Although the prison officials have removed most incentives for the men to build alliances, Shukhov clearly derives pleasure from his close relationships and over the course of the novel comes to recognize their importance in his life.