One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Enhance reading comprehension with a with a guide that presents a brief overview of the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, followed by teaching ideas to be used before, during, and after reading the literary work.
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Teaching Strategies:
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Questions for Deeper Understanding
The following can be used as essay topics, reading journal topics, class discussion starters, the basis for oral reports, etc.

1. How does the structure of the novel (no chapters) reflect the plotline?
2. Why is the novel entitled One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich instead of One Day in the Life of Shukhov?
3. Draw a map of the layout of the camp and work site. Be sure to mark every spot Shukhov visited.
4. How does the author's style reflect the bitter cold in the novel?
5. Draw an organizational chart showing the chain of power in the camp.
6. Why does the author use a "good" day as the subject of the novel?
7. What effect does the last paragraph of the novel have on the reader?

8. Make a list of Shukhov's rules for survival in the camp. What do they tell you about his character?
9. Write the one letter Shukhov sent to his wife.
10. Shukhov generalizes people by their ethnic heritage. What are some of the generalizations that he makes?
11. Using a map of the Commonwealth of Independent States, identify the ethnic regions of as many characters as possible (i.e. Stakhan - Estonia, Tsezar - Moscow).
12. What accounts for the stratification in the camp? How is this ironic in light of the "crimes" that placed many of the prisoners in the camp?
13. Who will and will not survive the camp and why?
14. Which of his fellow zeks does Shukhov trust? Why?
15. Why does Shukhov take such pride in his work? What are the rewards of this ethic and who shares it with him?
16. What qualities makes Tiurin such a good leader? Give specific examples of his leadership skills.
17. The 104th squad has a reputation for spirit. Shukhov tells us what does not cause this spirit. What does cause it?
18. Which of the zeks would you choose to be in your squad? Why?
19. Compare and contrast Shukhov's and Fetiukov's drive to survive.

20. Make a visual representation of all things that try to keep Shukhov down (i.e. people, rules, conditions, personal expectations, etc.). Show how he is able to keep his independent spirit.
21. Make a survival guide for new prisoners at the camp.
22. Compare Gopchik and Buinovsky's ability to adapt to the conditions in the camp.
23. Which of the prisoners would have developed friendships outside of the camp? What would have been the basis for these friendships?
24. Chart each squad members' position of importance in the squad. What accounts for that placement? Who ultimately decides each member's position? How can individuals change their positions within the squad?
25. How is personal pride or dignity linked to material wealth within the camp? Is material wealth the only means of preserving personal pride or dignity? Why or why not? Explain how those prisoners who have maintained their personal pride or dignity have accomplished this.
26. Shukhov believes that personal pride or dignity is necessary for long term survival. Give specific examples that defend or refute his belief.
27. Identify the prejudices Shukhov has about other ethnic groups. How does this affect his working relationships with them? How do his prejudices correspond with prejudices in your world?
28. Under what circumstances do the ethnic differences in the novel seem to disappear?
29. The communist government in the former Soviet Union came to power under the banner of equality. What does Shukhov's imprisonment (and the entire gulag system) say about the fate of the movement?
30. Identify and discuss the prisoners who were corrupted by power given to them by the institution.


The themes, settings, writing styles, character types, and relationships in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are also explored in other works frequently taught in high school curricula. The following suggestions highlight similarities found between Ivan and:

John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Viking, 1937.

  • Characterization - styles of characterization, especially that of Tiurin with Slim, Shukhov with George, and Fetiukov with Curley.
  • Writing Style - similarities in sentence structure, language patterns, and use of humor.
  • Themes - the survival of the human spirit through different types of hope, the importance of group dynamics, the necessity of personal pride.

Thornton Wilder's Our Town, French, 1938.

  • Structure - the exploration of life's significance through the events of everyday life.

Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War, Dell, 1974.

  • Characterization - leadership qualities as developed in Tiurin versus Archie Costello, Pavlo versus Obie, Fetiukov versus Janza.
  • Themes - the survival of the human spirit despite adversity, preservation of personal pride or dignity, the power of group dynamics, and evil created by institutions.

Jack London's "To Build a Fire," Best Short Stories of Jack London, Doubleday, 1945, and Robb White's Deathwatch, Doubleday, 1972.

  • Conflicts - man versus nature.

Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Dramatists, 1952.

  • Characterization - Shukhov's code of honor versus that of John Proctor, Rebecca Nurse versus Aloysha the Baptist.
  • Themes - evil created by institutions; personal pride or dignity.

Related Works for Individual Reading
The following works appeal to adolescent readers and contain related themes, characterization, plot line, language, etc.:
Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea - Steven Callahan, Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Bering Bridge: The Soviet-American Expedition from Siberia to Alaska - Paul Schurke, Pfeifer-Hamilton, 1989.
The Bridge over the River Kwai
- Pierre Boulle, Vanguard, 1956.
Dark Harvest: Migrant Farm Workers in America - Brent Ashabranner, Dodd, Mead, 1985.
Distant Fires - Scott Anderson, Pfeifer-Hamilton, 1990.
Dogsong - Gary Paulsen, Bradbury Press, 1985.
Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage - Alfred Lansing, Carroll and Graf, 1986.
Hatchet - Gary Paulsen, Bradbury Press, 1987.
Island of the Blue Dolphins - Scott O'Dell, Dell/Yearling Books, 1960.
King Rat - James Clavell, Little/Brown, 1962.
Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition - John Roskelley, Avon Books, 1988.
Out of the Shadows of Night: The Struggle for International Human Rights - Marvin E. Frankel with Ellen Saideman, Delacorte Press, 1989.
Shadow of the Wall - Christa Laird, Greenwill Books, 1990.
Spirit of Survival - Gail Sheehy, William Morrow, 1986.
Talking in Whispers - James Watson, Ballantine Books/Fawcett Juniper, 1983.
The Crossing - Gary Paulsen, Orchard Books, 1987.
The Honorable Prison - Lyll Becerra de Jenkins, Lodestar Books, 1988.
Z for Zachariah - Robert C. O'Brien, Macmillan/Collier Books, 1974.

Additional Follow-Up Activities
In addition to the above questions and connections with other literature, students might further their understanding of the novel by engaging in some of the following activities:
1. Design a new cover for the book.
2. Make up Shukhov's "ideal" parcel from home.
3. Design a "camp" menu and prepare one of the meals from it.
4. Select one of the characters and create a motto and a coat of arms reflecting that character's personality and/or philosophy.
5. Write a day in the life of Ivan after he has been released from the camp.

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