Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The prisoners’ lives show how the Soviet regime makes private events public in order to exercise control over individuals. The inmates have no space to call their own, and their every move is monitored. At one point, the commander decrees that even a walk to the latrine cannot be made alone; even this has become a public event. The camp has replaced prisoners’ names, which represent their private identities, with letters and numbers. Prisoners are no longer private individuals, but rather symbols in a public system. The state’s elimination of privacy is not totally successful, however. The prisoners cling to their private worlds at all costs: Alyoshka latches on to his faith; Tsezar to his care packages; and Shukhov to his precious spoon. In an official and dehumanizing environment, each manages to keep one foot in his own private world, thereby preserving his humanity.
In the novel, the cold is a physical manifestation of the coldness with which the managers of the labor camp treat the prisoners. Body searches that would be humiliating in the best of climates are physically torturous in temperatures of forty degrees below zero. Wearing ratty prison clothes would be degrading enough for the inmates even in summer, but wearing them in the biting Siberian winter makes constant suffering a part of their prison sentence. Not only does Shukhov have to concentrate on avoiding punishment at the hands of the enforcers of the camp’s often absurd regulations, but he also has to protect himself from the cold.
Solzhenitsyn’s constant emphasis on the biting cold reminds us that Shukhov is not only a political prisoner but a prisoner of nature as well. No one ever considers trying to escape from the camp, for the obvious reason that the intense weather would cause a quick death. The combination of the hard camp life and the forbidding weather creates the sense that the whole universe is against Shukhov and his fellow inmates—their lives are hindered by both humans and nature. This sense of oppression highlights the anguish of the human condition. The world is inhospitable, and yet it is the fate of humans to carry on, one day at a time.
Although the labor camp is designed to discourage frienship and camaraderie, many of the inmates form a bond that sustains them in the face of adversity. Making friends would seem to be next to impossible in the camp: the prisoners come from different countries, social classes, and educational backgrounds, and they are encouraged to spy on one another, presumably for hefty rewards. Creating a friendless existence is no doubt part of the Soviet plan for the camps: being deprived of the glorious camaraderie enjoyed by free Soviet citizens is a punishment in itself. Nevertheless, there is a deep trust among many of the prisoners, despite the gruesome punishments that could ensue if that trust were ever broken. For example, although Shukhov knows that the Estonians and Alyoshka have seen him sew his bread into his mattress, he is not worried that they will report him. Part of the miracle of survival that Solzhenitsyn represents in this novel is that a feeling so noble as solidarity with one’s fellow men can persist even in subhuman conditions.