Chapter 9 (pages 140-171 , marching in escort–dinner)
Despite the escort’s eagerness to march quickly, now the men are in no hurry and slowly wind their way back to camp, knowing they’ll be the last arrivals and have missed the benefits of an early return. The escort chief unsuccessfully shouts at them to move faster, and each man is lost in his thoughts. Shukhov notes that his pain is pretty much gone and decides to focus on supper instead, and thinks maybe Caesar will have received a new package. As they cross a clearing, another late group is spotted, and suddenly the men are inspired to rush back, running to beat the other 300 hungry and tired men. Shukhov recalls an extra incentive to arrive before the men from the tool works: their frisking takes even longer, since the knives that killed the stool pigeons were smuggled in the previous fall. Before they can enter the camp they are again checked, and those on the edge must throw away their bundles of firewood or pass them to the center, prompting criticism from the middle who fear they’ll all be searched if this tactic is observed. They willingly open their jackets to be frisked now that they are nearly “home,” and Shukhov tells Caesar he’ll save his place in line at the package room. Caesar is mildly surprised, since he may not even have a package, but is agreeable as he has nothing to lose. As they approach the friskers Shukhov’s peace of mind is disturbed by the memory of the piece of steel he’d picked up earlier and forgotten about. It would be a shame to throw it away at this point, but neither does Shukhov want to be punished with 10 days’ solitary for being accused of possessing a knife. He takes his chances with the older frisker, hiding the piece of steel in his mitten and placing the other in front, hoping both won’t be checked. Whether due to luck or his prayer to God to keep him out of the can, the steel is not discovered and Shukhov enters with the other men. The Moldavian is called out for his punishment in the can, and the rest of the cold and hungry men pour in ready to eat.
Shukhov rushes to the package room and Caesar makes his way to the plywood post listing who has a package. Shukhov remembers receiving a few packages back in Ust-Izhma but had told his wife not to send any more since the pay-offs used up most of it anyway, and he’d rather those supplies feed his kids back home. Nevertheless, he suffers a pang of regret when others receive packages, at some level waiting for the day a fellow prisoner runs up to him to say he has a package. Waiting in line, Shukhov listens to the other prisoners and learns that they will be working this Sunday. Caesar joins him and chats with the man next to Shukhov who is reading the newspaper; Shukhov tells him his place in line and offers to bring him his supper, and is pleased by the expected reply that he can eat it himself. Shukhov dashes to the barracks and leaves his mittens with the steel, checking his mattress to assure himself his extra bread is still there. He then runs up the steps hoping his gang has not entered without him, since the orderly Clubfoot requires the men enter two-by-two within their gangs. Luckily he spots Pavlo and joins his group lining up by fives. He kicks someone on the knee to squeeze by, and once inside the mess hall gathers empty trays while Gopchik scouts out a spot to sit. The cook serves and Shukhov watches to see which bowls have the richest gruel; Kilgas brings the bread ration and Shukhov is pleased to receive ten ounces rather than six, since it is measured according to output. Shukhov distributes the bowls, staking his claim to two good ones, and removes his cap and dips in his spoon to check the quality of each bowl. He is delighted to have gotten an extra helping both at lunch and dinner, and the only thing that could improve his mood is to buy some tobacco.
The men show their power by stubbornly refusing to move faster for the escorts until it is in their own best interest to beat the other 300 prisoners back to camp. Their collective action shows the force of numbers, just as they think as a unit in trying to sneak extra wood past the guards to keep everyone warmer. Whereas often each man is thinking just for himself, these moments of group-thinking reveal the ability of human beings to calculate when their own interests are also well-served by looking out for others. Shukhov is simultaneously obsessing about Caesar’s package, thinking of how the other man’s fortune might bear on his own life, and offering to hold a place in line, hoping for a reward. He gets all he wants and more at dinner, and consumes his meal with relish, appreciating his good fortune. His joy at these small but wondrous accomplishments seems out of proportion, given the description of the thin watery soup with an occasional fishbone, but the scene illustrates perfectly Shukhov’s contentment with material pleasures such as a double dinner ration.