Prison has been and continues to be used as a setting in literature because, by the very nature of a prison, it calls to mind certain issues for the audience to deal with. There is the fact that a prison houses inmates who are guilty of crimes against their will, as well as the social institutions that are unique to prison life. There is also the idea of injustice, since the prisoners are there because of the justice system which sometimes wrongfully convicts innocent people. But prisoners must find a way to maintain their dignity and a sense of self, or suffer the consequences of being destroyed as a human being. While there are numerous issues to discuss when dealing with a prison atmosphere, some of these issues are dealt with in two stories about imprisonment: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Shawshank Redemption. While these two stories deal with similar issues, there are distinct differences, not only in the way they address certain issues, but also in the style, characters, setting and time frame, as well as the human reaction of the main characters. The similarities and differences between the stories indicate the divergence between people and how they deal with adversity. While one story accepts imprisonment and attempts to take the situation one day at a time, the other refuses imprisonment and uses the system to escape.
The first story discussed in this paper is the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which tells the story of a day in the life of a prisoner in the Soviet gulag system. It is set in a Stalinist labor camp in the winter of 1951, and describes what happens to a prisoner from the time he wakes up in the morning to the time he goes to sleep at night. The story is narrated by an unknown third party in the past tense, closely expressing the main character, Shukhov's, feelings, perceptions, and experiences to the audience. Called "free indirect discourse," this technique allows the narrator to be aware of things that only he knows about the characters, and makes it difficult to distinguish between the narrator's thoughts and the main character's thoughts.
For instance, when Shukhov visit's the infirmary and finds Kolya writing, Shukhov describes what he witnesses as "Kolya writing lines of exactly the same length, leaving a margin and starting each one with a capital letter exactly below the beginning of the last." (p. 20) But the narrator later informs the audience that what Kolya was writing was a side project, "but nothing that Shukhov would have comprehended. He was copying out his long new poem." (p. 22) Shukhov is obviously uneducated and unable to understand something as sophisticated as poetry, but the narrator does.
The main character is Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a poor, uneducated peasant who has a family, but does not seem to care about them anymore and does not maintain any contact. Like many of the prisoners, Shukhov was wrongfully convicted, but has accepted his situation and his inability to do anything about it, except survive. His type of survival includes working diligently, and controlling the things that he can in an uncontrollable environment.
One of the main themes of the story is injustice. Many of the prisoners were wrongfully convicted or received punishments which most would consider to be extreme. And the camp is one large system of injustices, beginning with the frigid climate they are forced to live in, to the lack of privacy, proper food and the "Three days in the hole" Shukhov receives because he "didn't get up at the signal." (pp. 7-8) The prisoners are forced to endure a life of complete injustice. But in this world of injustice there is always the theme of faith, and how it can effect people in dire circumstances. While Shukhov is not a man of faith, he prays for favors from God. But he is still confined in a system that he has little control over and thus a larger sense of faith is also a theme in the story. Alyoshka, the devout Baptist, and represents the faith that religion that can bring to a person. Faith represents the innate ability of humans to keep going in the face of overwhelming adversity, the strength to continue when all else has failed. Shukhov uses faith as a way to pray for more food, putting his faith in bodily survival, not spiritual survival. Alyoshka chastises Shukhov for his faith in worldly things stating "we shouldn't pray for somebody to send us a parcel, or for an extra portion of skilly [rations]…we must pray for spiritual things, asking God to remove the scum of evil from our hearts." (p. 176)
But the most important theme in the story is that of hope in the face of oppression. The camp is designed to de-humanize the prisoners, even officially removing their names and using simple letters and numbers for identification. The camp is located in Siberia, a frozen wasteland that is so rugged and isolated that there is really no chance of the prisoners escaping. Food is scarce and the prisoners are forced to labor under conditions that bring them to the point of starvation. Despite these problems, Shukhov refuses to lose hope in himself and his humanity. When building a brick wall, Shukhov begins to feel the "glow that makes you wet under jacket, jerkin, overshirt, and undershirt," (the "glow" being a symbol of pride in one's work that inspires one to achieve more). (P. 101) While he could stoop to the level of a pathetic beggar, like Fetyukov, Shukhov retains his dignity by performing diligent work and receiving what he needs to survive in exchange.
Throughout One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich the author used several literary techniques in order to convey his artistic impression to the reader. First of all there is the over-arching threat of unfairness and punishment. This is used to create a sense of foreshadowing, or dread, for the reader to experience; like the prisoners feel everyday. And while the system attempts to destroy the prisoner's individuality and identity, mostly through the use of numbers instead of names, there are certain symbolic expressions of identity. For instance, when the author has Shukhov interact with other prisoners, his personal name, "Ivan," is used to symbolize the identity which remains within the prisoners. But when dealing with the system, when interacting with guards or other prison personnel, the term "Shcha-854" is used for Shukhov, in order to remove his sense of identity and self-worth. However, the fact that the other prisoners call each other by their real names is an indication of how they retain their sense of identity among themselves.
The author uses many other literary symbols in the story including the spoon that Shukhov makes which represents his desire to retain his identity and gives him the necessary hope to continue to survive. Tsezar's parcel is another symbol, but of the greed and avarice associated with worldly things. He uses the items he receives to bribe the guards for special privileges, symbolizing the corruption of the system (something that seems to be present in many prison stories). Food is used as another form of symbolism; mostly to demonstrate the prisoner's need for sustenance, both physical and spiritual. Food is what is necessary for physical survival, but it is also used as a symbol of spiritual enlightenment. When Alyoshka tells Shukhov " the Lord's behest was that we should pray for no earthly or transient thing except our daily bread," (p. 176) he is trying to make him understand how while it is important to survive, it is more important to be sustained spiritually.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich takes place in a single day, and this is an important symbolic technique used by the author. Shukhov is a character who takes life one day at a time, simply trying to stay alive in a system that is difficult to survive. This is why Shukhov's tale is told in a single day, to impart to the reader a sense that there is only the "now," that survival is what is first and foremost on the mind of Shukhov. The only reference to the future in the whole story is the last lines where the author states that this day was "just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence." (p. 182) This gives the reader the sense of timelessness that one feels in a system that cruel, dehumanizing, and one day is exactly like the next.
On the other hand is a 1994 drama written by Frank Darabont, but based on a story by Stephen King, called The Shawshank Redemption. The story takes place at roughly the same time as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich but in America, at the Shawshank prison in Maine. But instead of…