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, 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 No. 854, the prisoners themselves do not simply repeat this bureaucratic and dehumanizing convention, but rather seek to build alliances and to appreciate individual differences.
Like most things in the camp, perseverance is downscaled to surviving the cold, the hard labour, and the lack of food. Triumphing over adversity basically amounts to still breathing and moving. Perseverance is largely a mental thing in the prison camp. Having the will to survive, maintaining a sense of self and a sense of pride, refusing to let go of the past entirely, and refusing to give up hope are all key elements to successfully persevering. Like Rocky, the zeks are all about "going the distance". There is no way to truly "win" in the camps, so surviving for the long haul is the only victory the zeks can really have.
Life in the prison camps is all about survival of the fittest at its most brutal. It is the law of the jungle and for the people in the camps, competition for resources is ruthless. Prisoners have to compete for everything -- food, warmth, decent work assignments, rewards, etc. They even compete for cigarette butts. In order to survive and to maintain a competitive edge against others, a zek has to be constantly alert. Shukhov is especially aware of this need. If he could have a motivational poster by his bunk, it would probably feature Mad-Eye Moody yelling "Constant Vigilance!" Since the stakes of competition in the camp are literally life and death, no relationship is sacred and prisoners often screw over their "friends" in an effort to keep themselves alive.
7. Memory and the Past
The past really seems to fly out the window in the alien world of the prison camp. Everyone is a prisoner, and a prison sentence is a sort of great social equalizer, impacting rich and poor, young and old. But what people were in the outside world definitely effects the type of prisoners they become, as well as their chances for survival. The ex-captain Buynovsky is used to giving orders and can't adjust to taking them in the camp; the ex-carpenter Shukhov carves out a niche for himself as a skilled labourer. In fact, the past might dictate a person's future in the camps more than it ordinarily would in the outside world. For a prisoner, the present is sort of frozen in the camps, and the future is put indefinitely on hold. The camp disconnects people from their past to a large extent.
8. Dreams, Hopes, and Plans
There is a huge genre of prison films and stories. These films reveal that prisoners in jail harbor hopes for the future -- namely, getting the heck out of jail. Nearly all of these films involve an exciting escape, or an attempted escape at the very least. But no one bothers to escape during "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". At it seems that most past escape attempts ended in prisoners getting shot. The hope of getting out of the gulag is described as pretty much hopeless. So hope, like everything in the camp, is downsized. Prisoners here have hope for something like an extra portion of food. The hope for freedom is practically a pipe-dream. In the camp, the future is measured more in minutes than in years, and the long-term future seems doomed for most prisoners.
Family is turned on its head in the prison camp. All the zeks are separated from their families in the real world, some for decades. In fact, there is so much time and space between families that they almost cease to operate as such. Shukhov's relationship with his wife and his children seems almost meaningless in the camps; he's largely disconnected from them. Shukhov can scarcely understand their experiences since he has been away, and they probably can't understand his life either. Other zeks have completely lost their families, like Tyurin, or have been abandoned by their families, like Fetyukov. In the camp, new families form and the work gangs start operating as a type of family, albeit a cutthroat mafia family.
10. The Importance of Faith
Although Shukhov does not think or talk about religion for the bulk of the novel, his final conversation with Alyoshka, a devout Baptist, reveals that faith can be a means of survival in the oppressive camp system. Shukhov's interest in Alyoshka's discussion of God, faith, and prayers marks Shukhov's expansion beyond his usual thoughts of work, warmth, food, and sleep. Alyoshka's urging of Shukhov to pursue things of the spirit rather than things of the flesh renders Shukhov speechless, as if he is deeply reflecting on this philosophy. More important, he actually follows this advice in giving Alyoshka one of his biscuits, voluntarily sacrificing a worldly good. Shukhov's sense of inner peace in the novel's last paragraph, which resembles Alyoshka's sense of inner peace throughout the novel, demonstrates the religious faith offers strength in the face of adversity.