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The major theme of the novel echoes Darwinís theory of the manís struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. In the novel, Solzhenitsyn shows how all of the prisoners struggle daily to make it through another day in the miserable conditions of the Siberian labor camp. Those who are clever, determined, positive, and resourceful fair better than the more placid prisoners. Ivan is one of the ones who does well, for he refuses to become bitter and tries his best to make life in the camp tolerable.
Closely related to the major theme is the theme of manís cruelty to his fellow man. Throughout the book, Solzhenitsyn describes cruelty after cruelty that the prisoners must endure. Most of the prisoners living in the labor camp are helpless victims who should not even be imprisoned; they have been unjustly punished by the Soviet authorities, for they provide free labor. At the camp, many of the officials delight in treating the prisoners with excessive cruelty. The Captain is sentenced to ten days of solitary confinement because he has worn an unauthorized jersey under his uniform in order to stay warm. The guards also take pleasure in making the prisoners stand outside in the miserable cold with their coats unbuttoned. They also think nothing of stealing part of the meager rations of the prisoners so that they can have more to eat themselves. The prisoners cannot receive adequate medical care, for the rule of the hospital is to admit only two prisoners a day, no matter how many may be sick. The prisoners are also deprived of adequate clothing to stay warm in the sub-freezing Siberian weather. It is not surprising that Ivan feels fortunate that his one day has had few cruelties and included some added blessings.
The major mood of the novel is grim, for it traces the unbelievably hard life of a prisoner in a Siberian labor camp. Ivan, the protagonist of the novel, struggles throughout the book to overcome his physical weakness, the harsh environment, and hostile adversaries in order survive. Ivan, however, tries to disperse the grimness by having a positive attitude and making the best out of a bad situation. His basic goodness, as well as the goodness of Alyosha, Tyurin, and some of the others, lifts the book from total gloom and despair.
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