Darkness at Noon

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Darkness at Noon

Arthur Koestler

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon (1940, France) is one of the twentieth century's most famous "political novels," or fictional accounts of a historical reality. Written by a former member of the Communist Party, it is a unique glimpse into the volatile political situation under the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the late 1930s. Its main character Rubashov combines characteristics of key Soviet politicians and intellectual leaders from the Bolshevik Revolution, and the story of his imprisonment and confession explains and develops the topical political themes of totalitarianism, socialism, communism, and individualism.

Part of the reason for the novel's wide success is the fact that Koestler, who was influenced by Sigmund Freud, was able to weave his political and philosophical themes into a compelling psychological narrative. With the use of rationalistic argument and religious symbolism, Koestler is able to consider politics together with psychology and individualism. Despite the loss of the original German text, Daphne Hardy's English translation of the novel, published in London in 1940, has become an international classic and has profoundly affected how history remembers the Moscow Show Trials.

Author Biography

Koestler was born September 5, 1905, in Budapest, Hungary. His father owned a textile business, until it failed during World War I, at which time Koestler and his family moved to Vienna, Austria. While studying physics and engineering at the University of Vienna, Koestler became interested in the Zionist movement, which stresses that Jews should rule Palestine (modern day Israel). He moved to a Jewish settlement in Palestine in 1926 and began a career in journalism, but after three years he lost his faith in Zionism and transferred to Paris and then to Berlin, where he became a member of the Communist Party in 1932.

In 1932 and 1933, while working for a newspaper, Koestler traveled through the USSR, where he witnessed extreme poverty and met famous politicians Karl Radek and Nicolai Bukharin. These former intellectuals of the Bolshevik Revolution, who were later executed by the Soviet government, made a deep impression on Koestler and formed the basis for the main character of his 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, his most famous book. In 1936 Koestler traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish civil war, during which time he was arrested as a spy and sentenced to death until British officials successfully lobbied for his release. In England, Koestler wrote The Spanish Testament (1937), and after Bukharin and Radek were executed (in 1938 and 1939, respectively), Koestler resigned from the Communist Party.

Koestler was briefly imprisoned during the German occupation of France, but was released in 1940 and eventually made his way to Britain. After the war he began to be celebrated as a novelist, and he revived his interest in Zionism, campaigning for the creation of a Jewish state. He also was involved with the opposition to the Communist Party and campaigned against the death penalty.

Koestler continued to write political novels and journalism, as well as to participate in European and American leftist intellectual debate, until the mid-1950s, when his interests turned to science and spiritualism. He wrote and spoke about the social and physical sciences during the 1960s and 1970s, although he was increasingly influenced by theological ideas, and published popular books such as The Act of Creation (1962), which is a study of the creative process. In 1977 Koestler was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and he and his third wife committed joint suicide March 3, 1983, in London.

Plot Summary

The First Hearing

Darkness at Noon begins with its main character Rubashov being locked in his solitary prison cell, "No. 404," where he falls asleep, dreaming of his arrest, until the seven A.M. bugle call. When he wakes, Rubashov meditates on whether he will be shot, saying to himself, "the old guard is dead.… We are the last" and rubbing his "pince-nez" (eye-glasses that stay on the nose with a spring). After a "big man in uniform," later revealed to be examiner Gletkin, tells him he gets no breakfast because he has a toothache, Rubashov begins a conversation with the occupant of cell 402 by tapping out the letters of the alphabet to him.

Rubashov then has a flashback to one of his foreign missions to southern Germany, where the satellite communist group aided by the USSR Communist Party was falling apart. Since Richard, the leader of the group, had questioned and altered the party's propaganda, Rubashov told him he was no longer a member of the party and left him to his (very bleak) fate.

Looking out the window of his cell, Rubashov notices a man with a thin upper lip staring at him from the prison grounds, and finds out from No. 402 that this man was tortured yesterday. Rubashov then has a flashback to another of his foreign missions, when he met a long-standing party member named Little Loewy in a Belgian seaport. He had to tell Little Loewy and the dock workers to break the strike they have loyally followed for many years and allow Russian-made weapons into fascist Italy.

The next day Rubashov is taken to the examining magistrate, who turns out to be Rubashov's old friend Ivanov, whom Rubashov convinced not to commit suicide during the civil war (the Bolshevik Revolution). Ivanov develops a logical argument about Rubashov's involvement in the oppositional movement and states that he has evidence Rubashov planned an attempt on No. 1's life. Rubashov is scornful of the "idiocy" of the charges, but Ivanov gives him two weeks to consider partially confessing, which will get him out of prison in five years.

The Second Hearing

This section begins with an extract from Rubashov's diary discussing moral objectivity, followed by a scene between Ivanov and Gletkin, his more brutal subordinate. Gletkin is an officer of the "new type," and advocates keeping prisoners without sleep in order to obtain their confessions, but Ivanov orders that Rubashov be left in peace.

Rubashov passes his time trying to follow his thoughts to their logical conclusion in the old party habit, but he finds for the first time that his individuality, which he calls the "silent partner" of his thoughts or the "grammatical fiction," has begun to appear, often coinciding with a daydream or an ache in his tooth. He daydreams on the seventh day of his imprisonment, for example, about his secretary during his job at the Trade Delegation and his relationship with her.

Soon cell number 406 is occupied by an old peasant who continually taps the Biblical phrase "Arise ye wretched of the earth," misspelling the first word. Rubashov meets this old communist on his walks through the prison grounds, but their only communication is when the old foreigner draws a picture of Russia with the Soviet flag in its center and explains that he must not have arrived in this country.

The last night of Rubashov's two weeks of contemplation, Gletkin arranges for him to witness one of his close friends, Bogrov, led to execution. Ivanov explains the next morning that this was not his choice, and he continues his logical argument for Rubashov to follow the plan of partial confession in order for him to stay in the party and follow his lifelong convictions. By the time Ivanov leaves, Rubashov admits to himself that he has "half-surrendered."

The Third Hearing

The diary entry that begins that third section of the novel contains Rubashov's ideas about the "relative maturity of the masses," a theory he considers pursuing after his capitulation to the authorities. After he hands the warden a letter of partial surrender and tells No. 402 that he is giving in, Rubashov is confused that he is not immediately taken to see Ivanov. Finally, after two days, at two in the morning, Rubashov is taken from his bed by guards and brought before Gletkin, who says he will be the commissar in Ivanov's absence. As Gletkin later reveals, Ivanov has been arrested and executed as a traitor.

Gletkin begins a series of inquiries that blend for Rubashov into a single nightmare. Since he is not allowed to sleep, he cannot distinguish between episodes or remember much about the specific questions Gletkin asks him. Rubashov begins by firmly denying the criminal charges against him, confessing only to a "counterrevolutionary" attitude, but Gletkin tells him that he will not get off so easily. From here begin a series of arguments that eventually convince Rubashov he is a criminal, since the actions of which he is accused follow directly from his thoughts.

Media Adaptations

Darkness at Noon was produced on Broadway in 1951, with a stage adaptation by Sidney Kingsley.

Confronting him with "Hare-lip," who turns out to be the son of Rubashov's old friend Professor Kieffer (himself executed as a traitor), Gletkin coaches the witness into describing how he made an attempt on No. 1's life, on Rubashov's orders. Although Rubashov, at most, vaguely suggested something related to the idea of assassination, he signs a statement of admission to the charges and returns to his cell. He also admits to having counterrevolutionary motives and to working for a foreign power; the only charge he denies, and which is dropped, is that he sabotaged the aluminum trust. After signing the necessary statements, Rubashov is finally allowed to sleep.

The Grammatical Fiction

Koestler presents Rubashov's trial—in which Rubashov pleads guilty and is sentenced to death—in the form of a newspaper account that the daughter of Rubashov's former porter Wassilij reads to her father. Wassilij is bitter and cynical upon hearing it, but is afraid he will be sent to jail and signs a petition against "traitors" like Rubashov.

It is while waiting to be executed that Rubashov begins to have some of his most serious doubts about the party and its objective morality. Rubashov feels more strongly than ever before the presence of the "grammatical fiction" that represents his individuality, and he ponders whether there is any purpose in life, failing just before he dies to see any paradise in sight for the USSR. After he watches Hare-lip walk to his execution and listens to No. 402 console him by tapping his farewell, Rubashov is led down the spiral staircase and executed.



A "heavy, shapely" woman with a sleepy voice, Arlova is Rubashov's secretary during his job at the Trade Delegation. They have an affair, and Arlova tells Rubashov, "You will always be able to do what you like with me" before the Stalinist purges begin, and she receives a warning in her new post as librarian to restock the books of opposition leaders. Shortly afterwards, Rubashov stops his little jokes with her, and she stops going to his room. Soon she is condemned as a traitor and sentenced to death.

Michael Bogrov

Bogrov is Rubashov's old friend. Rubashov befriended Bogrov when Bogrov taught him to read while they were roommates in exile. As Rubashov taps to his prison-cell neighbor, Bogrov was a "former sailor on Battleship Potemkin, Commander of the eastern fleet, and bearer of the First Revolutionary Order," which signifies Bogrov was a prominent member of the "old guard," since the Potemkin was the site of the first rebellion against the tsarist regime. Rubashov is forced to watch as Bogrov is led to execution. Bogrov is executed because of his advocacy of long-range submarines to pursue the worldwide revolution, which goes against the Stalinist policy.

Elder Official

The older of the two officials who originally arrest Rubashov is slightly kinder than his younger counterpart, and more sympathetic and respectful to Rubashov than his counterpart.


Rubashov's examining magistrate after Ivanov is arrested, Gletkin embodies the new generation of Soviet officials. A civil war veteran with "expressionless eyes" and a shaven head with a large scar, he forces Rubashov to stay awake under blinding lights and ceaseless antagonism until, days later, the prisoner confesses to the specific charges against him. Gletkin has much to gain by "bringing down" Rubashov, and it is clear that party members with Gletkin's convictions and ruthless methods will be promoted and rewarded by No. 1.

The one time Gletkin reveals anything about his personal life coincides with Rubashov's one triumph during his examination—the withdrawal of industrial sabotage charges. Gletkin describes the first time he was posted to watch over the peasantry, using it as an example of the necessity of force to get the Soviet industrial economy in functional order. As Rubashov recognizes, Gletkin and other "Neanderthalers" have no humanity because they have lived entirely under a system that eradicates individuality. Rubashov comes to believe that this is the logical extension of the basic Bolshevik principles of the party, and that the "Gletkins" are the inevitable result of the Rubashovs.


Rubashov's old friend and his examining magistrate for the first two hearings, Ivanov is a former battalion commander with a wooden leg and, like Rubashov, a thinker of the old guard. Rubashov was present when Ivanov's leg was amputated during the war, at which time Rubashov argued with him for an entire afternoon, finally convincing him not to commit suicide. In the prison, Ivanov engages in two long arguments with his friend about rationality and usefulness to the party in order to convince him to partially confess. Recognizing that Rubashov will capitulate if allowed to follow his thoughts to their logical conclusion, Ivanov allows Rubashov two weeks for reflection. Although Rubashov does confess to a general oppositional tendency when his two weeks expire, it is because of Ivanov's handling of Rubashov's case that Ivanov is arrested and promptly executed.

Hare-lip Kieffer

Hare-lip is revealed to be the son of Rubashov's old friend Professor Kieffer, who had been previously condemned as a traitor and executed. Hare-lip is seemingly the party's only evidence of the specific charges against Rubashov. Gletkin tortured Hare-lip to obtain the false confession that Rubashov incited him to assassinate No. 1, and Rubashov admits to this act despite the fact that he and Hare-lip never met to plan an assassination. In his exhausted state, Rubashov finds himself guilty because he had a dissenting political conversation with Professor Kieffer that Hare-lip overheard.

Having undergone severe torture, Hare-lip is a "human-wreck" with a chalky white and yellow face, and he continually looks to Rubashov for sympathy or salvation. Rubashov ignores him, however, and Hare-lip goes to his execution without having spoken to his supposed collaborator.

Little Loewy

Little Loewy is Rubashov's contact for his mission for the party in a Belgian seaport. Born in southern Germany with a deformed shoulder, Little Loewy learned to be a carpenter and was involved lecturing to his revolutionary youth club until a daring mission stealing weapons for the Communist Party made it necessary for him to leave his town. The party abandoned him at this point, and left him wandering and in prison between Belgium and France for many years, in desperate circumstances, until he finally met an ex-wrestler named Paul who helped reinstate him in a section of the Belgian Party dominated by dock-workers. Rubashov's demand that the dockworkers allow Russian-made weapons into Italy, however, finally breaks Little Loewy, and after he refuses to follow orders, he is denounced by the party and hangs himself out of disgrace and disillusionment.

No. 1

The fictional representation of USSR leader Joseph Stalin, No. 1 plays an important role in the novel although he is entirely behind the scenes. He is the successor to the grand old leader, Vladimir Lenin, and he has eliminated all opposition to his reign. The dictator of the new, totalitarian party, No. 1 is immensely powerful, yet his alternate name implies that he is imprisoned like the other former leaders, perhaps by his own brutal policy that allows no deviation from the party's goals.

No. 402

Rubashov's neighbor in prison with whom he taps conversations through the wall, No. 402 is a "conformist" loyal to the tsar and a veteran of the civil war. He has eighteen years of his sentence left to complete, and although he briefly resents Rubashov for his communist beliefs, No. 402 is more interested in stories about women and sex. Rubashov finds No. 402 quite important to his time in prison; he envisions a variety of ways that No. 402 might look based on his personality traits, and he tells No. 402 just before he dies that their friendship helped him a lot. The individual human connection of their friendship, which is not based in politics, also gives No. 402 an important role as a representation of the novel's theme of individuality.

No. 406

Also called Rip Van Winkle, No. 406 is an old peasant who walks next to Rubashov during his outings in the prison gardens. After fighting for the communists in one of the small-scale civil wars that broke out across Europe during the Russian Revolution, he was arrested and imprisoned for twenty years. When he was finally released, he made his way to the USSR, the country of the revolution, only to be arrested by the Soviets fourteen days after his arrival. Rubashov speculates that he might have mentioned one of former Bolshevik heroes, having no idea that these "heroes" were now branded as "traitors."

While walking next to Rubashov, No. 406 draws two pictures of the USSR, one without looking, and tells Rubashov that he must have been sent to the wrong country. In this way, Koestler uses No. 406 to emphasize the disparity between the government of the 1930s and the original goals of the Revolution.

Reactionary Peasant

The unnamed peasant who walks next to Rubashov at the beginning of the novel's "The Third Hearing" section refused, like many peasants, to comply with government regulations for mass immunization. He and his family burned government supplies because of superstition and traditional values, and a month later they were arrested as "reactionaries."


The leader of a communist group in southern Germany, Richard has a nervous stutter, deep concerns about his pregnant wife's imprisonment, and has been disillusioned about the support of communist leaders in Moscow. After Rubashov informs Richard that he is no longer a member of the party, Richard begs him not to "throw me to the wolves, c-comrade," referring to the Nazi Secret Police.

Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov

Ex-Commissar of the People, Rubashov is the principal character in the novel and the person through whose mind almost all of the story unfolds. Arrested on charges of conspiracy to assassinate No. 1, industrial sabotage, espionage, and general oppositional tendencies, Rubashov is examined by two magistrates and denied sleep by the second until he confesses to the specific charges. He goes to public trial, and is executed by being shot twice in the back of the head.

Rubashov is an intelligent and important thinker who for all of his life has held a conviction in rationality and a belief in communist ideology. He was a military and intellectual hero of the Bolshevik Revolution, worked abroad for many years to sponsor international communist goals, and remained loyal to the party while being tortured in foreign prisons. He worked closely with No. 1, was paraded and championed upon his return to Russia after his major imprisonment (although he immediately left on another mission abroad despite a leg injury), and held a high position in the Soviet Trade Delegation.

A combination of major personalities of the Moscow Show Trials, Rubashov's personal appearance has been likened to Leon Trotsky, whom Stalin and others drove out of the party and into exile until one of Stalin's henchmen eventually murdered him abroad. Rubashov's political and personal history is perhaps closest to that of Nicolai Bukharin, the former head of the Comintern (the international organization intended to spread the communist revolution) who was tried and executed in 1938. However, Rubashov's admission of specific conspiratorial charges is closer to that of the former Bolshevik heroes like the head of Soviet propaganda, Karl Radek. In any case, Rubashov is intended to generally represent the dying "old guard."

As becomes immediately clear in the novel, however, Rubashov is a unique and psychologically profound character whose outlook develops a great deal through the course of his imprisonment and trial. He is quite shaken just after his imprisonment, but comes to the rational conclusions of the Ivanovs and many of the intellectuals on whom his character is based. In the course of his sleepless examination by Gletkin, however, Rubashov descends into a unique sort of irrational logic, a paradox of thinking that causes him to admit to specific charges because of his belief he is guilty of oppositional thinking and the fact that a confession to "blacken the Wrong" is a service to the party. But by the end of the novel Rubashov has questioned the fundamental assumptions of this thinking and discredited the philosophy that the "ends justify the means."


Rubashov's thin old porter before the arrest, Vassilij has a large neck scar from the civil war, in which he fought in Rubashov's partisan regiment. Vassilij reappears in the novel's "The Grammatical Fiction" section to hear his daughter read the newspaper account of Rubashov's trial, although his name is here changed to "Wassilij." He is a religious man, although his daughter has taken away his Bible, and he fondly remembers Rubashov's eloquent ability to speak in phrases that seem to him divine. Worried that he is too old to go to prison, however, he signs a petition condemning traitors and allows his daughter to throw away Rubashov's portrait.


See Vassilij

Young Official

The younger of the officials who arrest Rubashov is an impetuous and aggressive soldier of the new type.


Political Philosophy

Darkness at Noon is concerned with the some of the most important controversies in twentieth-century political thought. In addition to a topical exploration of the political theory behind the Communist Party in Moscow, the novel engages in a wider debate on morality, justice, and philosophy in modern political systems. It considers the fundamental elements of revolutionary ideology and social morality, using a particular political atrocity to evaluate the set of values at its core.

The values under question are not, principally, Marxism or socialism, although Koestler is interested in questions of social justice, the distribution of resources, and how to adapt a socialist political theory to the demands of an actual society. Rubashov's philosophical crisis is better understood in terms of the debate on the basic tenets of revolution and the justification behind an authoritative totalitarian regime (a state of which the head is a dictator that forcefully suppresses dissenters), or, as Rubashov puts it, whether the "ends justify the means." Rubashov's conflict is whether an ultimate utopian goal such as a socialist state justifies brutal and totalitarian methods.

As becomes clear in the novel, Communist Party theory is only concerned with the objective. Morality is determined by the ultimate result of logic and rationality; intent, psychology, and individual desire are unimportant and merely serve to distract from what is important. One of Koestler's most successful efforts in his novel is to follow this very same method of rational thinking to the absurd result of Rubashov's confession. Koestler throws into question the philosophical basis for Stalinist policy and attacks the fundamental assumptions of a totalitarian government, skeptical that authoritative means can or ever will be justified.

By the end of the novel, Koestler is at his most doubtful about the end—"wherever [Rubashov's] eye looked, he saw nothing but desert and the darkness of night"—and he has highlighted the bleakest possible means. Under Koestler's analysis, it appears unlikely that an authoritative revolutionary model for a totalitarian system can result in a just state, and this statement is all the more poignant coming from an author who understands communist philosophy so thoroughly and presents it so convincingly.

Topics For Further Study

  1. Rubashov has been compared to Soviet political leaders Karl Radek, Nicolai Bukharin, and Christian Rakovsky, as well as to Koestler himself. Research the lives of these figures and determine which of them you believe influenced Rubashov's character, and how. Is Rubashov a fair representation of the leaders tried from 1936 to 1938? Did he have the same motivation for confessing?
  2. Koestler was an active Zionist (a believer that Jews should have a homeland in Palestine) during his youth, he supported the creation of an Israeli state after World War II, and later in his life he became very interested in spirituality. What are the religious undertones in Darkness at Noon? What is the nature of Koestler's allusions to Christianity and Judaism? How does the political ideology in the novel deal with religion?
  3. Discuss the treatment of women in Darkness at Noon. Could the novel be considered sexist? Research the treatment of women in the USSR during the 1930s, and compare it to the treatment of women in the United States during the same time period.
  4. Read a biography of Joseph Stalin such as Edvard Radzinsky's 1997 study. Was Stalin solely responsible for the Moscow Show Trials, or do you think they reflect the inevitable tendency of the Bolsheviks? How did the trials fit into Stalin's career and dictatorship? Did Koestler's novel affect Stalin's growing reputation as a tyrant? If so, how?


Rubashov is a lifelong supporter of the Communist Party; he believes individualism is a "petty bourgeois" notion and a "grammatical fiction" that is insignificant compared to the well-being of the masses. He views himself as an instrument of the party and, like many communists, is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the country. Yet he undergoes a profound change during the course of the novel, and by the last chapter, the grammatical fiction is a prominent part of his character.

The most revealing sign of Rubashov's developing individuality is his relationship with No. 402, the neighbor with whom he communicates by tapping out ideas in a primitive fashion. No. 402's preoccupation with anecdotes, jokes, and stories about sex instead of political matters signals his connection to individualism. Also, No. 402's importance to Rubashov's developing individuality is emphasized by the fact that No. 402 is a conformist from an earlier ideological era, that their first words to each other are "WHO," and that their friendship, which becomes very important to each of them, has nothing to do with ideology but solely with human connection.

Individualism is not confined to Rubashov's sense of self; it invades his philosophizing and becomes vital to the political analysis of the novel. Just before he is taken to be executed, Rubashov's vision of a potential political future is dominated by what he calls the "oceanic feeling" and what psychologists would call an expression of the limitless sense of self associated with individuality. This political vision, with its religious cult of followers in "monks' cowls," is probably not posed as a viable alternative to communism, however. In fact, it appears to be an irony on the glorification of individualism that would be the opposite of the communist position and suggests that Koestler is by no means advocating any kind of unbounded individualism in politics. Nevertheless, the book refutes the idea that individualism should always be repressed and highlights a case where its repression has a dreadful result.

Psychological Limits

Along with political explorations of a totalitarian and authoritarian state, Koestler provides a focused portrait of a character undergoing a kind of psychological tyranny. The novel examines the results of the complete mental exhaustion of a character extremely firm in his rationality and accustomed to all kinds of physical torture. In what Gletkin calls "a matter of constitution," Rubashov is denied any sleep or mental rest, and is brought through a nightmare of questioning and humiliation until he arrives at what is, in a perverse way, the extreme conclusion of his rational thoughts. This study of the human capacity to be an instrument of logic without comfort or individuality is an important theme of the text and is one of the defining distinctions between what Rubashov considers the "old guard" and the "Neanderthal" new type of communist.


Rational Arguments

In order to convincingly evaluate the communist emphasis on the furthest extent of rationality and the objective compulsion to action, Koestler employs the stylistic device of extremely thorough rational thinking. In other words, he uses the party's own game in order to attack its policy. Rubashov is such an effective voice for the argument of the novel because he follows rationality to its extreme, finds it to be absurd, and is left only with the irrational "grammatical fiction."

In this way, the first two hearings can be understood as an exhaustion of the calm and composed rational process with results, in the form of Rubashov's confession, that seem to make sense. But, as Gletkin and his methods reveal, Rubashov has not gone far enough. Rational thinking leads him directly into the next hearing, which becomes increasingly absurd in its conclusions but nevertheless perfectly in line with the previous logical argumentative style. Ultimately, Koestler's insistence on rationality in prose arrives at a point where rational argument itself is not a sufficient moral "ballast," a point that is only clear after such an impressive argumentative chain.

Religious Symbolism

Rubashov is an atheist and the Communist Party is forcefully secular, but there is religious symbolism throughout the text that serves to underscore Koestler's political and psychological themes. Rubashov's patronymic, or name derived from his father's, is the Jewish "Salmanovitch," and Judaic identity seems to become important before his execution, when he makes two references to Moses and the "Promised Land." But the most consistent symbolism throughout the book is Christian, and Rubashov is often identified with Christ. Rubashov remembers a Christian phrase as he is being arrested; his habit of rubbing his glasses on his sleeve is similar (according to Koestler) to praying with a rosary; the image of the outstretched hands of the Pietà dominates his dreams and ponderings; No. 406 insists on tapping Christian verse to him each morning; and in the sense that the accused is innocent of specific crimes but guilty of general opposition, Rubashov's trial and execution have an affinity with the trial and martyrdom of Christ.

These elements combine to place Rubashov in the position of a savior, but one without faith in his own religion. As Rubashov ponders shortly before his death, "But when he asked himself, For what are you actually dying? he found no answer." Koestler may be using religious symbolism as an ironic device to attack party policy, he may be emphasizing that Stalinism is very much like a religion, or both.

Historical Context

Leninism and the Bolsheviks

Between the first unsuccessful Russian Revolution of 1905 to 1907 and the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik faction gradually cut their ties with the Menshevik faction of the Communist Party. While the Mensheviks tended to support gradual reform and democracy, the Bolsheviks under Lenin favored revolution in order to achieve the goals of Marxism. In 1921, after the Bolsheviks had won the revolution, Lenin emerged as dictator of the party.

Before his first stroke in 1922, Lenin tried to support the extension of the communist revolution to other countries, and stressed that Marxist goals were to be achieved after a transitional period. Russia was in the midst of a severe economic crisis, however, and Lenin altered his policy to allow some forms of capitalism to coexist with communism until, he wrote, the country could grow into a purely socialist state. Meanwhile, he had eliminated opposition to the Bolshevik faction of the party, established dictatorial control, and set the precedent for an authoritarian regime, which Stalin would take to an extreme.

Stalin's Great Terror

After Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph Stalin earnestly began his quest for power, and within ten years he had all but eliminated the organized opposition to his dictatorship. In the early 1930s Stalin rapidly drove the USSR to a state of industrialization, but the immediate result of collectivization, which required farmers to live and work in government communes, was severe supply shortages and the deaths of many millions of peasants. Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of peasants who failed or refused to comply with Stalin's five-year plans were either murdered or sent to labor camps in Siberia.

The 1930s are also notorious for being a time of brutal oppression of suspected traitors and political undesirables in the USSR. After the murder of Stalin's underling Sergei Kirov in 1934 (which, historians have argued, Stalin may even have orchestrated himself), the political purges known as the "Great Terror" began. In the five years that followed, over a million suspected traitors, including most of the key intellectual leaders of the Russian Revolution, were arrested, imprisoned, sent to labor camps, or executed.

The important and lasting public demonstrations of the Great Terror were the "Moscow Show Trials" of 1936, and 1937 to 1938. Separate from the private hearings that internally disposed of political dissidents, the Show Trials were a forum for publicizing the confessions of prominent Soviet politicians in order to gain public support for the government. Although evidence suggests that most of the confessions were obtained by torture and intimidation (such as threatening the family of the accused), much of the Russian public and some members of the international press believed they were genuine. Koestler, himself a widely influential commentator on the trials, presents his own version of the circumstances of the confessions in Darkness at Noon.

The first of the Show Trials focused on three key Bolshevik leaders who pleaded guilty, with the exception of Ivan Smirnov, to conspiracy with the famous exile Leon Trotsky to assassinate Stalin. Smirnov pleaded guilty to charges of general opposition but refused to admit to specific charges, and the prosecution spent some time ridiculing his claim to have plotted but not acted. Convicted nevertheless, Smirnov was executed with his counterparts.

During the second trial, several more famous politicians were accused of plotting with Trotsky to sabotage the economy and spy for Germany and Japan. Among the accused was Karl Radek, the former head of propaganda for the USSR, whom Koestler had met during his tour of the country four years earlier. Again, the former leaders confessed, were given the death sentence, and received no pardon.

Finally, in 1938 the last of the trials convicted Bolshevik heroes such as Nicolai Bukharin on similar charges. Bukharin, perhaps the main model for Koestler's Rubashov along with Karl Radek, was a member of Lenin's original circle of power and had briefly led the USSR alongside Stalin. Despite the fact that he had a wife and small child under threat, during the trial Bukharin recanted his confession to specific crimes and maintained that he was innocent of them until, like the other former leaders, he was shot.

The Great Terror had lasting consequences for the regime of the USSR. It set a precedent for dictatorial and oppressive totalitarianism that, although later Soviet leaders did not approach the extremes of the late 1930s, failed to die with Stalin in 1953. In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev and other leaders accused Stalin of a reign of terror, but most of them had been active participants, and the Stalinist infrastructure of secret police to stifle opposition remained in place.

The Comintern

In 1919 Communist Party leaders met in Moscow during the Bolshevik Revolution to form the "Communist International" or the "Comintern," a branch of the party with a mission to extend and foster a worldwide communist revolution. Funded and directed by the Soviet government, the Comintern soon became a method for the USSR to control the Communist Party in other countries, and leaders in Moscow actively pursued a worldwide agenda through most of the 1920s.

Under Stalin's control, however, the Comintern became less committed to sponsoring foreign revolutions, and the withdrawal of financial and advisory support to countries such as Germany and Spain led to severe consequences for party members in those countries. Nicolai Bukharin was the chairman of the Comintern from 1919 to 1929, but he abandoned this agenda by the 1930s as Stalin's priorities shifted to isolationism.

Critical Overview

George Orwell was the most influential initial critic of Darkness at Noon, which he called a "masterpiece" and explained in the New Statesman: "Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of prison literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow 'confessions' by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods." Orwell wrote that the book was not received well, but Koestler's biographers note that the book was indeed favorably reviewed. As David Cesarani writes in his biography Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind: "Praise for the novel flowed in from all quarters." Iain Hamilton points out in Koestler: A Biography: "Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, did a great deal to promote Darkness at Noon which he described (correctly) as 'One of the few books written in this epoch which will survive it.'"

Compare & Contrast

  1. 1930s: The USSR is the first communist state in the world, in the precursory stages to a half-century of Cold War with the United States.

    Today: Russia is now a capitalist democracy with a freely elected Federal Assembly. The Berlin Wall dividing communist East Germany from capitalist West Germany fell in 1989, and the USSR officially collapsed in 1991.

  2. 1930s: The Russian economy has failed to recover from the revolution. There are shortages of almost every type of product, and widespread suffering.

    Today: In decline since the fall of communism, the Russian economy suffers from organized crime and the severe devaluation of the ruble.

  3. 1930s: Famous political figures from the Bolshevik Revolution are tried and executed for industrial sabotage, among other conspiracy charges.

    Today: The Russian government is in the process of prosecuting a number of rich and powerful tycoons, all of whom tend to have political ambitions, for tax evasion and fraud.

  4. 1930s: At one point during his purges, Stalin requires each of his generals to send him a list of a third of their officers to be promoted, a third to be sent to Siberia, and a third to be executed. Seventy percent of the army officer corps is arrested during the period.

    Today: The Russian military is underfunded and taxed by the war against rebels in Chechnya, but Russia has the second-most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world.

Since its original reception the novel has become widely famous and influential, especially as a political tool during the Cold War. Cesarani writes: "The novel was regarded as a potent anti-Communist weapon from the 1940s to the 1970s when, alongside Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, it was a set text in schools in the USA and Britain." It has been variously debated and attacked as a coherent philosophical work, believed and contested as a historical account of the Moscow Show Trials, and hated and loved by socialists and former socialists. Commentary on the novel, particularly on its influence over the debate about Communism, continues to be written.


Scott Trudell

Trudell is a freelance writer with a bachelor's degree in English literature. In the following essay, Trudell argues that Darkness at Noon advocates a socialist political philosophy similar to that of the Menshevik thinkers before the Russian Revolution.

Most of the criticism of Darkness at Noon has concentrated on its convincing and insightful case against Stalin's totalitarian regime. Because he is so familiar with Party thinking, and because he is able to portray so compellingly the psychology of a former Communist hero losing his faith, Koestler has been uniquely influential in the twentieth-century debate about Soviet politics. His novel has been set as a classroom text in the United States and Britain and generally understood as a rebuttal of Communism or even as a vindication of capitalism. While it is true, however, that Koestler attacks Stalinist ideology at its roots, the political argument of his novel retains basic socialist beliefs.

This is not to say that Koestler confines his criticism to Stalin's dictatorship. Darkness at Noon is a thorough rebuttal of Bolshevik philosophy, which had always stressed the ends over the means and condoned violence in the name of the ultimate utopian goal. In his 1944 essay "Arthur Koestler," George Orwell paraphrases Koestler's argument: "all efforts to regenerate society by violent means lead to the cellars of the OGPU [the Soviet secret police], Lenin leads to Stalin, and would have come to resemble Stalin if he had happened to survive." Immoral and brutal totalitarianism is the necessary result of the Bolshevik doctrine that violent revolution, not gradual reform, is the way to achieve a Marxist economic system.

Koestler thoroughly establishes this point by connecting Rubashov's absurd final confessions to his Bolshevik beliefs. The third hearing and Rubashov's admission of specific crimes, which represent the furthest totalitarian extension of the original idea that he is guilty of "oppositional views," are obtained by Rubashov's own rationalistic logic, the same logic that justified his involvement in the civil war. In Koestler's analysis, Gletkin is merely a tool to help Rubashov think out everything to its logical conclusion, and Rubashov's physical exhaustion is an expression of the limits of human rationality, the inability for humans to actually see the final picture. This is why, in his final thoughts, Koestler emphasizes Rubashov's inability to see anything but "desert and the darkness of night," and this is why, with humans unable to see the end, the ends cannot possibly justify the means.

It is important to remember here that this is Koestler's unique view on the trials of the late 1930s; historians have come to the consensus that it does not reflect the reasoning behind the confessions on which the novel was based. As Stephen Cohen writes in his biography of Nicolai Bukharin, perhaps the principal influence on Rubashov's character:

Owing to Koestler's powerful art, this image of Bukharin-Rubashov as repentant Bolshevik and morally bankrupt intellectual prevailed for two generations. In fact, however, as some understood at the time and others eventually came to see, Bukharin did not really confess to criminal charges at all.

Instead, Bukharin withdrew his confession (which was most likely given in hopes of saving his wife and child) and admitted only to general opposition to Stalin's regime. Although he may have believed that Rubashov's reasoning was a common cause of confession, Koestler was less interested in providing a historically accurate piece of political fiction than he was in emphasizing that the old Bolsheviks were responsible for the totalitarian trend of the USSR. He clearly sympathizes with the Rubashovs and Bukharins (having been a Party member himself), but his novel argues that socialists have been led astray ever since Lenin abandoned the idea of gradual reform and turned to violent revolutionary tactics.

It is at precisely this point in history, therefore, that Koestler aims his argument; Rubashov's logic stretches back to the break between Bolshevism and Menshevism. Lenin had always been in favor of actively, forcefully if necessary, guiding the population towards a Marxist society, but it was after the first major congress of Russian Marxists in 1903 that advocates of social democracy and institutional reform split to form a Menshevik ("smaller") faction. Meanwhile, Lenin led the Bolshevik ("larger") faction with increasing emphasis on a revolutionary program, and between the first Revolution of 1905 and the Revolution of 1917, he gradually separated from Menshevik leaders until the Bolsheviks were an independent party.

After the Revolution, Menshevik thinkers were isolated from the massive influence of the newly created Communist state and faded from influence. Appalled and dismayed by the results of the Bolshevik philosophy, however, Koestler subtly rehabilitates its alternative, which by Rubashov's logic would not have led to Stalinism. Darkness at Noon identifies that the key problem in Bolshevik thought is its inevitable tendency towards a dictatorship that ignores the will of the people, whereas this would not occur in the "Social-Democracy" of Menshevism. As Solomon M. Schwarz writes in his book The Russian Revolution of 1905: The Workers' Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism, "Bolshevism logically developed dictatorial conceptions and practices; Menshevism remained thoroughly democratic."

One of the ways Koestler supports a Menshevik form of democracy is by introducing Rubashov's own ideas on the "relative maturity of the masses," which, as Rubashov writes in his diary, "lies in the capacity to recognize their own interests." Rubashov goes on to write that the masses are at a point of immaturity, unable to recognize what is good for them in economic terms, and he tries to justify a dictatorship until they advance. But Rubashov fails to recognize until after he has been condemned that a dictatorship is no more mature or ethical than the masses. Totalitarian dictators merely lead the population into "desert and the darkness of night," and the population's "immature" idea of self-interest is the only moral assurance available.

Koestler reinforces this idea at the end of the novel, when Rubashov realizes, "We have thrown overboard all conventions.… Perhaps it did not suit mankind to sail without [ethical] ballast." Despite their immaturity, the masses know what is good for them in the sense that they choose leaders to uphold the social conventions of morality, such as religion. Christian or Judaic morality fundamentally stress the means over the ends, and it is far better to follow these "immature" ethics than it is to be subjugated to a violent dictatorship that eradicates individuality. Koestler is thus able to imply that, if its leaders were democratically elected, the Communist Party might have been focused on the means rather than the ends enough to avoid the brutality of Stalin's purge trials.

"It is at precisely this point in history, therefore, that Koestler aims his argument; Rubashov's logic stretches back to the break between Bolshevism and Menshevism."

Notice, however, that Koestler does not in any way connect capitalism to his democratic implications. Darkness at Noon denounces totalitarianism, but it provides no condemnation of a socialist economic system, and Koeslter seems to envision a democratic republic with a set socialist economic system. Again, examine Rubashov's idea of the maturity of the masses; Rubashov eventually discovers that the masses are able to recognize their own interests as far as the "ethical ballast" of conventional morality is concerned, but there is no hint that they can freely elect leaders that will make the correct economic decisions for their well being. This idea is underscored when, directly after his thoughts on the maturity of the masses, Rubashov meets a "reactionary" peasant who out of superstition has refused to have his family vaccinated, and who burned the government-supplied threshing machine. This is a classic example of the Marxist theory that the peasantry is a reactionary class, and it highlights Koestler's continued sympathy with socialist goals.

This sympathy is apparent throughout the novel; perhaps one of the most moving episodes is Rubashov's other encounter with a peasant on the prison grounds. Rip Van Winkle, the occupant of cell 406, is apparently a devout Christian since he taps out Biblical verse every morning. But along with this moral convention, he is so firm a socialist that he can draw a map of Russia with his eyes closed, despite the fact that he has been imprisoned for twenty years by the same Party for which he fought. Koestler uses Rip Van Winkle as a flashback to the noble form of socialism compatible with conventional morality, with which he deeply sympathizes.

Perhaps the most convincing example of Koestler's socialist tendencies, however, is his continued logical rebuttal of Stalinism and Bolshevism in the form of Gletkin's questioning. It is no coincidence that the one charge of which Rubashov is cleared, his one "triumph" with Gletkin, is the withdrawal of the charges of industrial sabotage. As Rubashov maintains to Gletkin's persistent questioning, the problem with the Russian economy is not socialism at all:

"If you hold sabotage for a mere fiction, what, in your opinion, are the real causes of the unsatisfactory state of our industries?"

"Too low piece-work tariffs, slave-driving and barbaric disciplinary measures," said Rubashov.

Indeed, Koestler seems to agree with Rubashov on this point; socialism has not been refuted. Rubashov's other crimes all stem back to the fundamentals of Bolshevik dictatorial violence, and he admits to them despite their technical absurdities because, as far as Koestler is concerned, he is indeed guilty by rational extension. Espionage and assassination are the necessary results of Bolshevism, and this is why Stalin, as "No. 1," is attributed the first prison cell; he is also guilty of the Bolshevik ideology that leads to his dictatorship, and he is a prisoner of his own Party philosophy. But socialism, in the form of a socialist democracy that had been advocated by the Mensheviks since 1903, remains for Koestler an ethical, worthwhile, and functional system.

What Do I Read Next?

  1. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 principally for his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), which describes in stark and innovative language one man's experience in a Soviet "gulag" (labor camp) towards the end of Stalin's rule. The novel is based on Solzhenitsyn's own experience.
  2. George Orwell's 1984 (1949) is a striking and insightful glimpse of a possible totalitarian future. Orwell was Koestler's friend and a prominent critic. The novel has a powerful political argument and its vision of the future makes a number of predictions that have, even in modern democracies like the United States and Britain, come true.
  3. Koestler's The Gladiators (1939) is a retelling of Spartacus and the Roman slave revolt. As in Darkness at Noon, Koestler uses themes of revolution and "ends versus means" to discuss political ethics.
  4. Edvard Radzinsky's Stalin: The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives (1997) stresses the extent of Stalin's brutality.
  5. One of the best and most readable histories of the Soviet Union is Robert Service's A History of Twentieth Century Russia (1997).


Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on Darkness at Noon, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2004.

David Lewis Schaefer

In the following essay, Schaefer examines Koestler's criticism of Marxism in Darkness at Noon and defends Koestler's use of the novel form for the story.

Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler's novel of the Soviet purge trials, does not make good bedtime reading. Considered as a historical novel, moreover, it may be contended (as Irving Howe has done) that the book is "crucially flawed" both historically and artistically: Koestler's account of his protagonist's "gradual surrender to Stalinism" as the product of a purely "dialectical process within his own thought" seems "manifestly untrue to our sense of human behavior" and reduces "an enormously difficult and complex problem" to "abstract and ultimatistic moral terms." Despite these possible flaws, the book has been recognized, in the words of a recent interpreter, "both at the time of its original publication in 1941 and ever since, as one of the truly powerful works of twentieth-century political literature." It will be argued here that a great deal of the work's power is due to Koeslier's recognition not only that the evils of Stalinism are traceable to difficulties inherent in Marxism, but also that the latter in turn reflect the problematic orientation of modern political philosophy as a whole. It is for this reason, I believe, that Darkness at Noon still retains what Howe regards as its chief virtue: its immediate relevance to "the problems that most concern intelligent men." At the same time, I shall suggest, the novelistic form of the book is essential, not only rhetorically but intellectually, to the accomplishment of its author's purpose. The fundamental criticism Koestler wishes to make of Marxism and of modern political philosophy can best be brought home by embodying it in the workings of an individual psyche whose possessor faces the type of personal-political crisis that the novel depicts. It may be that criticisms of the book as history and as fiction are misdirected, inasmuch as they overlook the fundamental necessity for an author with Koestler's intention to construct the work as he has done. It is precisely the party-induced refusal to face the real meaning of man's mortality that Koestler will represent as the ultimate cause of the evils of twentieth-century totalitarianism.

In a 1973 postscript to the novel, Koestler emphasizes that even though it grew out of his own experiences as a member of and gradual defector from the Communist party during the 1930s, his central concern in writing it transcended the issue of communism itself:

Darkness at Noon is the second novel of a trilogy which revolves around the central theme of revolutionary ethics, and of political ethics in general: the problem whether, or to what extent, a noble end justifies ignoble means, and the related conflict between morality and expediency. This may sound like an abstract conundrum, yet every politician is confronted with it at some stage of his career; and for the leaders of a revolutionary movement, from the slave revolt in the first century b.c. to the Old Bolsheviks of the nineteen-thirties and the radical New Left of the nineteen-seventies, the problem assumes a stark reality, which is both immediate and timeless. It was the realization of this timeless aspect of Stalin's regime of terror which made me write Darkness at Noon in the form of a parable—albeit thinly disguised—without explicitly naming persons or countries; and which made Orwell, in writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, adopt a similar technique.

The plot of Darkness at Noon, such as it is, concerns the imprisonment, interrogation, and execution of an erstwhile revolutionary leader whose efforts to institute a truly humane form of government bore fruit in the establishment of the terroristic, totalitarian regime by which he now stands condemned. As Koestler notes in the above quotation, despite his choice of fictional names for his characters and his avoidance of naming the country in which the events take place, the resemblance to real events in the Soviet Union is unmistakable. In the foreword to the novel, Koestler explicitly states that the life of its protagonist, N. S. Rubashov, "is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trial," several of whom "were personally known to the author"; the book is dedicated to their memory. More specifically, we learn from a volume of Koestler's autobiography, Rubashov's "manner of thinking" was modeled on that of Nikolai Bukharin, an Old Bolshevik leader whom Lenin had described as "the darling of the entire party" and as "a most distinguished Party theoretician," albeit somewhat "scholastic" rather than "fully Marxist" in his thinking, and whose 1938 trial and execution constituted a culmination of the Soviet purges. Rubashov's "personality and physical appearance" ("short, stocky, with a pointed goatee" and a pince-nez) were "a synthesis of Leon Trotsky and Karl Radek." Rubashov's final speech at his trial as Koestler constructs it paraphrases parts of Bukharin's final statement at his trial.

One of the points for which Darkness at Noon has been widely criticized is that, by representing Rubashov's confession as primarily the result of his own reasoning process, rather than of torture or threats against his family, it distorts the real causes of the confessions at the Moscow trials. In his autobiography Koestler argues that while many of the confessors "were merely trying to save their necks, like Radek; … were mentally broken like Zinoviev; or trying to shield their families like Kameniev … there still remained a hard core of men like Bukharin … and at least a score of others" with a long "revolutionary past" and a history of enduring "Czarist prisons and Siberian exile, whose total and gleeful self-abasement" at the trials "remained inexplicable." Rubashov, he explains, was intended to represent "this 'hard-core.'" In support of his interpretation of these men's motivation, he cites an account of the trials given by General Walter Krivitsky, the head of Soviet Military Intelligence for Western Europe prior to his defection in 1937, which he reports not having read until several years after completing Darkness at Noon: Krivitsky's account of why some revolutionary leaders confessed to the phony accusations against them is strikingly similar to what Koestler represents as the motivation of Rubashov's confession. At the same time Koestler emphasizes that "of the three prisoners that appear in the novel, Rubashov alone confesses in self-sacrificing devotion to the Party"; the confessions of the other two result respectively from torture and ignorant obedience to authority, while allusion is made elsewhere in the novel to "physical fear" or the hope of self-preservation as the cause of other confessions.

"The lack of serious reflection in the previous life of this party leader belies the claim of the revolutionary elite to be 'militant philosophers,' who bridged the gap between theory and practice by putting the 'dreams' of theory into practice: dreamers they may have been; philosophers they were not."

In the case of Bukharin, at least, it appears from more recently published sources that Koestler's explanation was incorrect; the chief reason Bukharin succumbed to Stalin's demand for a public confession (albeit while arguing against specific charges), it is now believed, was his concern to save the lives of his exiled wife and son. But in the light of Koestler's purpose in writing the novel, as described in the 1973 postscript, I suggest that this issue is largely beside the point. The true subject of Darkness at Noon is not the historical issue of why some victims of the purge trials confessed, but the politico-philosophic question of why a movement dedicated to the regeneration of mankind should issue in its enslavement, and of why such a movement, long after its failure has been made manifest, should retain its appeal for many thinking men. The persistent popularity of Marxism as a doctrine among well-intentioned Western intellectuals—who will bend logic in all directions to demonstrate that the flaws of Communist regimes result from accidental distortions of the doctrine, rather than flowing directly (as Koestler teaches) from the doctrine itself—indicates that we continue to stand in need of enlightenment in this regard. For this purpose it was a brilliant stroke on Koestler's part to present the protagonist-victim of his novel as one who still believes in Marxist doctrine at the time of his arrest, despite his recognition of the flaws of the existing regime; who argues mightily to convince himself that the evils he has witnessed and experienced do not refute the doctrine in the name of which they are justified; and who is only gradually forced—against his will, as it were—to perceive "through a glass darkly" what is wrong with the doctrine itself. It is striking that in a work that has been denounced by neo-Marxist critics for exhibiting the "irrational emotionalism" of the ex-Communist, the bulk of the explicit theoretical argument constitutes a case for Marxism, one no less plausible than many authentically Marxist writings. As one critic reports, some readers of Darkness at Noon come away "with the feeling that, in the end," the arguments Koestler presents on behalf of Marxism "are so irrefutable that Koestler has acted a kind of devil's advocate who has succeeded in making the bad cause appear the good." That such a reaction to the book is at least comprehensible would seem to contradict Howe's claim that, despite Koestler's counterideological intention, his writing "is suffused with ideology." It suggests that—despite the contrary claims of Marxist critics—Koestler was able to resist the temptation, which he himself acknowledged, for an ex-Communist "to go over to the opposite political extreme" and become a simplistic anti-Communist zealot. Koestler attributed his ability to maintain his "intellectual and emotional balance" in the period just after his emotionally traumatic break with the party, when he began working on Darkness at Noon, to his discovery that writing could be "a purpose in itself" for him. The fundamental "mission" of the novelist as Koestler understands it "is not to solve but to expose"; his accomplishment of this aim requires that he maintain "a totally open window" towards the world, rather than covering it with ideological shades. Let us consider how Koestler achieves this mission in Darkness at Noon.

The English title of Darkness at Noon may be understood in several ways. Koeslier attributes the idea for it to his translator, to whom it was suggested by a phrase uttered by the imprisoned Samson in Milton's Samson Agonistes: "O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, / Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse / Without all hope of day!" Literally, Samson's words accurately describe the situation of Rubashov, for whom there is no escape from the darkness of prison but the deeper night of death. At the same time, those words describe the situation of Rubashov's fellow citizens: at the moment that was to constitute their "noon"—their liberation from enslavement under the old regime and their elevation under a government ostensibly dedicated to their welfare—they find themselves the inhabitants of a mass prison, ruled by a most ruthless dictator, with no evident ground for hope of an improvement in their condition. (Hence, in the moment before his death, Rubashov compares his people's plight to that of the Jews wandering for forty years in the desert, but sees no sign of "the Promised Land"; "wherever his eye looked, he saw nothing but desert and the darkness of night.") On the other hand, the ultimate success of Samson in destroying his Philistine captors (albeit at the cost of his own life) suggests that from Koestler's point of view, if not from Rubashov's, there remains hope for the liberation of the people from their enslavement.

Beyond its Miltonian connotations, Koestler's title must also be taken as a reference to the hour of the Crucifixion. As such, it is one of many allusions in the novel by which Rubashov is represented as a latter-day Christ: a "scapegoat" or sacrificial lamb executed to atone for the sins of mankind. From the party's point of view, such scapegoats are a useful means for absolving the party itself of guilt in the eyes of the common people; from the point of view to which Rubashov ultimately ascends, their necessity reflects a fundamental aspect of the human condition, the neglect of which is the root of the party's decay.

Structurally, Darkness at Noon is fairly simple. The titles of the first three chapters—"The First Hearing," "The Second Hearing," "The Third Hearing"—refer to the successive interrogations of Rubashov: the first two by his erstwhile friend and revolutionary compatriot Ivanov; the last by Ivanov's more brutal successor Gletkin, who may be taken to represent the reality of the heralded "new Soviet man." The greater part of the first two chapters, however, consists of Rubashov's own self-reflections, during the days of solitude in his cell, by which he reconsiders the meaning of the cause to which he has heretofore dedicated his life, in the light of his imprisonment. The course of his reflections is further stimulated by exchanges with several other prisoners and by the recollection of his previous official dealings with three subordinate members of the party. The final chapter, entitled "The Grammatical Fiction," opens with a summary account of Rubashov-Bukharin's confession at his trial, read from the newspaper by a woman as her father mumbles Biblical passages describing the Crucifixion; the remainder of the chapter records Rubashov's ultimate recognition of the significance of his life, up to the actual moment of his execution.

By locating the novel in a solitary cell and the interrogation room of a prison, Koestler obviously forecloses the possibility of significant action (except in the form of flashbacks). The resultant focus of the novel on thought rather than action is integral to Koestler's intention, inasmuch as he represents Rubashov's former life as one in which fundamental questions that ought to have been squarely faced at the outset were set aside in favor of action grounded in blind faith that its effects would be salutary for mankind. The lack of serious reflection in the previous life of this party leader belies the claim of the revolutionary elite to be "militant philosophers," who bridged the gap between theory and practice by putting the "dreams" of theory into practice: dreamers they may have been; philosophers they were not. Not only the fact of his imprisonment but, more importantly, the suddenly imminent prospect of his own death wonderfully concentrates—as the well-known Johnsonian aphorism puts it—Rubashov's mind. It is precisely the party-induced refusal to face the real meaning of man's mortality that Koestler will represent as the ultimate cause of the evils of twentieth-century totalitarianism.

As was indicated by the previously quoted passage from Koestler's 1973 postscript, the central theme of Darkness at Noon concerns the extent to which "ignoble means" may be justified by "a noble end," as well as the connected issue of the relation between morality and expediency. The former issue is brought to the fore almost at the beginning of the novel, where Rubashov is awakened in his apartment from a recurrent dream in which he recalls his arrest by "the Praetorian guards of the German Dictatorship," only to be arrested in the present by the police of his own country's dictatorship. The means practiced by the latter and its putative ideological opponent are formally identical, so that at the moment of his second arrest, Rubashov suspects "that this awakening was the real dream." Only by the difference in the ends for which they arbitrarily arrest their subjects, if at all, can the two tyrannies be distinguished. But can ends and means so neatly be separated?

From the outset of his imprisonment, Rubashov's reflections on the meaning of that event vacillate between two poles: the individual and the ideological. Upon awakening on his first morning in jail, recognizing the inevitability of his execution, he indulges in "a warm wave of sympathy for his own body, for which usually he had no liking," and experiences "that peculiar state of excitement familiar to him from former experiences of the nearness of death," despite recognizing "that this condition was reprehensible and, from a certain point of view, impermissible." As the last surviving member of the "old guard" of revolutionary leaders, he briefly recollects the personal traits of a couple of his previously executed colleagues and doubts that "history" can be trusted to "rehabilitate" them (the revolutionary equivalent of Resurrection), because history is indifferent to the characteristics of individuals. Nonetheless, Rubashov "could not bring himself to hate No. 1 [the present dictator] as he ought," in view of the horrifying "possibility that he was in the right," when judged in terms of the ultimate historical consequences of his actions. "There was no certainty; only the appeal to that mocking oracle they called History, who gave her sentence only when the jaws of the appealer had long since fallen to dust." But at this stage of his life Rubashov still looks forward to the possibility that an enhanced knowledge of the workings of the human brain could someday transform historical explanation from oracle to science and thus make polities itself truly scientific.

The critical counterpoint to Rubashov's historical reflections at this moment is supplied not by any sort of argument he can formulate, but by a physical pain and an at first dim recollection, the significance of which will deepen as the book proceeds. The toothache of which Rubashov complains to a guard on the first morning of his imprisonment constitutes precisely the sort of private concern to which the party's doctrine denies significance; more importantly, it will come to represent Rubashov's conscience, a phenomenon to which the party also denies legitimacy, and will reappear and recede throughout the novel according to Rubashov's cognizance of having fulfilled his individual moral obligations. The troubling recollection—first suggested to Rubashov by the sight of another prisoner's bare, thin arms and his "palms … turned upwards, curved in the shape of a bowl" to receive bread—is of a drawing of the Pietà by an unnamed German master, in which "the Madonna's thin hands" were similarly "curved upwards" and "hollowed to the shape of a bowl." Rubashov had seen a part of that drawing six years earlier in the art museum of a south German town, while conversing with an innocent and idealistic young party member, Richard, whom he proceeded to expel from the party—and, apparently, caused to be denounced to the German authorities who arrested him—for deviating from party directives. In the course of expelling Richard, Rubashov had remarked that the party's strength depended on its "unbroken will" and consequently required the renunciation of anyone who "goes soft and weak," whatever his motives. Rubashov's position hinged on the claim that the party, as "the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history," could "never be mistaken"; to serve her required that one have "absolute faith in History" and be free from any scruples about obeying the directives of her spokesmen, the leaders of the party hierarchy. As he spoke to Richard, the latter's head partly hid the Pietà from Rubashov's view; he forgot to look at it before leaving the room. Rubashov's failure to examine the drawing—and his disturbing recollection of it when in prison—indicate what has been lacking in his thought up to the time of his imprisonment, as is also suggested by a quotation from Dostoyevsky with which Koestler prefaces the novel: "Man, man, one cannot live quite without pity." It is significant that Koestler represents pity in its Christian form of pietà (and by the figure of the Madonna); thus he recalls the original link between pity and piety. He thereby appears to suggest the inadequacy or insubstantiality of the "secularized" pity of which various ideologies of the contemporary Left claim to be the embodiment: pity for man cannot be adequately or reliably grounded unless the individual human being is seen as linked to a truth that is both supra-individual and supra-historical. Contrariwise, the ultimate test of a theoretical or theological doctrine of human benefaction is whether it inspires its adherents to concrete acts of compassion and beneficence towards their fellow men. The party, while taking over from the Catholic Church the principle of the infallibility of its leaders (the revolutionary founder, Lenin, "was revered as Godthe-Father, and No. 1 as the Son") and the demand for "absolute faith" and obedience towards the leader on the part of the masses, and while claiming to be the people's true benefactor, has liberated its functionaries from any operative sense of duty towards other human beings grounded in a recognition of their essential dignity as individuals. Thus, it has discarded the invaluable core of truth in the Biblical teaching.

A second incident recollected by Rubashov in the first chapter makes it clear how the claim of the party leadership to represent the sole authentic will of "history" and its consequent self-liberation from any fixed set of moral principles gives rise to consequences indistinguishable from hypocrisy. In a second mission abroad, Rubashov was called upon to demand that longshoremen belonging to the party assist in delivering petrol from the homeland of the Revolution to a "hungry dictatorship in the south of Europe" (Mussolini's Italy) for use in its "war of plunder and conquest in Africa." The refusal of the longshoremen to carry out this demand, given its direct contradiction of the principle of workingmen's solidarity against fascist aggression, led Rubashov to order the expulsion of their union leader, Little Loewy, from the party and thence to the latter's suicide. Reflecting on this incident, Rubashov observes that despite the putative rightness of the party's principles, "our results were wrong," inasmuch as they made the party "odious and detested" by the people, who should have had cause to love it; while Little Loewy, despite his deviation from party discipline, "was not odious and detestable." The contrast between the theoretical beauty of the party's principles and the ugliness of their results inspires in Rubashov the thought that "if the Party embodied the will of history, then history itself was defective." But it does not yet induce him consciously to seek a nonhistorical standard for judging political action. While increasingly burdened by a sense of personal guilt towards those he betrayed in the service of the party's "higher" morality—he repeatedly cites the need to pay his "fare" to Richard and Little Loewy, i.e., atone with his own life—Rubashov remains unable to bridge the gap between individual and political ethics. It is Rubashov's inability, at this point, to transcend the "historical" standard of political morality that renders him vulnerable to the arguments of his interrogator Ivanov at the conclusion of the first chapter—and that will ultimately prepare him to grant the authorities the confession to spurious "crimes" that they demand. Initially Rubashov challenges Ivanov by charging that the people's disaffection with the party undermines its claim to represent their will: "Other usurpers in Europe pretend the same thing with as much right as you …" Ivanov sidesteps this issue, but nonetheless begins to sap Rubashov's resistance by reviewing Rubashov's career, reminding him of how many individuals the latter had previously sacrificed in order, presumably, "to continue your work for your own ideas," and suggesting that under the circumstances it would be mere "petty bourgeois romanticism" for Rubashov now to refuse to confess and, thus, to bring an end to his career as well as his life, rather than cooperating with Ivanov so as to secure the chance that the latter promises (whether or not disingenuously) to achieve his freedom in "two or three years" and a consequent opportunity subsequently to "be back in the ring again." Although Rubashov's immediate response is to reject Ivanov's proposition, Ivanov foresees that their conversation will have a delayed effect and grants the prisoner a fortnight for reflection.

The tension which we have already noted between the ideological and the personal poles of Rubashov's reflections becomes manifest, from this point on, in the contrast between the diary which he now begins to keep and the less "logically" expressible thoughts to which he continues to be driven by his recollections and by his encounters with other prisoners. The diary is intended to reconcile Rubashov's Marxist belief with his awareness of the present evils of his country's regime by reformulating Marxist doctrine in a way that remains faithful to its overall spirit. In an excerpt from the diary at the beginning of the second chapter of the novel, Rubashov focuses attention directly on the problem of the relation of ends and means, and emphasizes the "Machiavellian" foundation of the party's view of this problem. The party's doctrine teaches that while "the nineteenth century's liberal ethics of 'fair play'" may be practicable in the relatively tranquil "breathing spaces of history," at the "critical turning points" of history "there is no other rule possible than the old one, that the end justifies the means." While the party's "neo-Machiavellian" policies have indeed been "clumsily imitated" by "the counter-revolutionary dictatorships," the distinguishing "greatness" of the former consists in their serving the ends of "universal reason" rather than "national romanticism," and consequently justifying their practitioners' hope of being "absolved by history" in the end. Prior to the end of history, however, the party is "thinking and acting on credit" in the sense that it must claim, without being able strictly to prove, that its actions will have the ultimately redemptive outcome it claims. To judge the legitimacy of policies purely in terms of their ultimate outcome or "consequent logic" (i.e., the logic of consequences) means, moreover, that the party must disregard issues of "the subjective good faith" of a man's actions: assuming that No. 1 is right in his judgment of the best kind of agricultural fertilizer, he is entirely justified in having those who maintained a contrary opinion executed, regardless of the beneficence of their intentions. From the perspective of history, "virtue does not matter" and errors are far more significant than crimes. But since it cannot be proved that the party's reading of future history is correct, political leadership ultimately depends on "faith … axiomatic faith in the rightness of one's own reasoning." It is for no longer believing in his own infallibility that Rubashov now regards himself as "lost."

The specific consequences and the rationale of the party's understanding of history are worked out more extensively in the second and third chapters by Ivanov and his assistant Gletkin. In a conversation between them immediately following the excerpt from Rubashov's diary cited above, Gletkin exhibits the degree to which that view of history enables its exponents to employ a utopian view of the future as the justification for an unmitigated brutality in the present. For Gletkin the "patriarchal mental paralysis" of the peasantry prevents them from listening to reason (e.g., by going along with the policy of collectivizing agriculture) and consequently necessitates the widespread use of torture against them to prevent the Revolution from "foundering." At the same time he promises that the present crushing of the "criminal's" mind and body will pave the way, a hundred years hence, for the reign of reason and mercy: the "abolition of punishment and of retaliation for crime; sanatoriums with flower gardens for the a-social elements." Gletkin still retains the "faith" in "the logical necessity" of the party's policies that Rubashov has lost; it is this that distinguishes him, he thinks, from a "cynic."

The other side of Gletkin's reflections—how the policies he favors appear from the perspective of those against whom they are applied rather than those who administer them—which Rubashov's recollections of Richard and Little Loewy had forced him to consider in chapter 1, Rubashov is again compelled to face in chapter 2 by the memory of his executed lover Arlova, the significance of which is deepened by an event that takes place in the prison. Remarkably for the sole "love interest" of the protagonist in a novel, Arlova appears to be devoid of any substantive personality or character. Coolly efficient as Rubashov's secretary, she accepts his advances, as he remarks, as if she "were still taking down dictation" and responds, "'You will ways be able to do what you like with me.'" Arlova, it appears, is the perfect raw material to serve as the instrument of the Revolution; she is pure passivity, adaptable—unlike the recalcitrant peasantry—to whatever form her superiors should choose to impose on her. In her case, at least, the party's view of the masses as inherently "formless" and "anonymous" seems to he vindicated. But how can it be maintained that the process of issuing unquestioned orders to individuals like Arlova—and of breaking down the people by Gletkin's methods, so that they will all resemble her—will gradually "wean them from the habit of being ruled," as the party claims?

Despite her passivity, Arlova—owing to her brother's having married a foreigner—ran afoul of the regime; when she called on Rubashov at her trial as the chief witness of her innocence, he disavowed her. Never doubting "the logical rightness" of his behavior in the matter, since it was the only means of preserving his own career and hence advancing the goals of the party, Rubashov was able to avoid suffering pangs of personal guilt by regarding the death of an individual, in accordance with the party's doctrine, as a mere "abstraction." That is, the "individual" perspective is of a lower grade of reality than the intersubjective and hence "objective" course of history: in the "logical equation" of history, Arlova was "a small factor compared to what was at stake." What shakes Rubashov's confidence in that equation, however, is the execution of an erstwhile disciple of his and hero of the Revolution, Michael Bogrov, while Rubashov is imprisoned: by calling out Rubashov's name just before his death, Bogrov makes the previously "unimportant factor" of the individual appear concrete to him and hence "absolute."

Rubashov's confrontation with the reality of death at the time of Bogrov's execution may be regarded—along with his previous recollection of the Pietà—as one of the central "epiphanies" of Darkness at Noon. But just as in the first chapter, he is prevented from following out its implications by his inability to refute the contrary "logic" of Ivanov. What renders Rubashov vulnerable to Ivanov's persuasion, as Ivanov remarks to him, is that the latter's "way of thinking and of arguing" is identical with that to which he himself has subscribed throughout his career; Rubashov is unable to formulate an alternative logic by which to express the reservations arising from the realm of what the party dismisses as "the 'grammatical fiction,'" the individual. Ivanov at least half-persuades Rubashov that the scruples he has been experiencing are themselves a form of moral self-indulgence, a succumbing to the "temptation" of "Salvation Army" ethics. Machiavelli and Marx, rather than Gandhi and Tolstoi, he argues, constitute the true guides towards human benefaction, inasmuch as they squarely face the "amoral" nature of history itself. To follow the ethics of Gandhi and Tolstoi "means to leave everything as it is"; while salving the conscience of the individual, it allows mass suffering to remain the eternal lot of the race. Ivanov insists that there is no mean possible between the "Christian and humane" ethic which "declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units," and the opposite perspective which "starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community—which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb." While a private individual may choose between these two ethics, "whoever is burdened with power and responsibility" cannot: the necessities of political life will inevitably compel him "to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism." The strength of the party's doctrine lies in its self-conscious recognition of this fact and in the consequent opportunity it provides for enlightened rulers to "experiment" with humanity on a historically unrivaled level for the sake of elevating the future condition of the race: slaughtering men "in order to abolish slaughtering" and whipping them "so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped." By this means "we are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one." To argue against this process on behalf of particular individuals is as irrational as to contend "that a battalion commander may not sacrifice a patrolling party to save the regiment" or to oppose the kind of experimentation on animals that spawned the development of serums against cholera, typhoid, and diptheria.

Once again Ivanov's arguments impel Rubashov to work on the theoretical elaboration of the party's doctrine in such a manner as to excuse the party's present crimes and overcome his own reservations. In another excerpt from his diary, at the beginning of chapter 3, Rubashov propounds a "law of relative maturity" of the masses, according to which "the level of mass-consciousness" rises in a series of interrupted stages, like the water in a chain of canal locks, rather than, as "socialist theory" had formerly held, in a constant and steady sequence. According to this law, "the maturity of the masses lies in the capacity to recognize their own interests," which in turn "pre-supposes a certain understanding of the process of production and distribution of goods." Since "every technical improvement creates a new complication to the economic apparatus … which the masses cannot penetrate for a time," each "jump of technical progress leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses a step behind, and this causes a fall in the political-maturity thermometer." It follows that political institutions, instead of following a steady progress, must exhibit "a pendulum movement in history, swinging from absolutism to democracy" and back, depending on whether the masses at a given moment possess the degree of understanding necessary for self-government. In a complete capitulation to Ivanov's reasoning, Rubashov excuses "all the horror, hypocrisy, and degradation" of the present regime as "merely the visible and inevitable expression" of this law; only "the fool and the aesthete" would attach any absolute significance to them. For anyone who opposes the policies of the regime in such a situation where only a demagogue would appeal to the judgment of the immature masses, the sole truly honorable course is "the public disavowal of one's conviction in order to remain in the Party's ranks."

Two encounters with other prisoners immediately following his recording of these meditations give Rubashov the opportunity, respectively, to confirm his newly discovered "law" and to affirm its moral implication regarding his own situation. When taken for exercise in the prison yard, Rubashov converses with a peasant who has been imprisoned for "reactionary" activities: refusing to allow his children to be vaccinated, destroying new farm machinery, and burning up pieces of government propaganda. According to the peasant's understanding, as he later expresses it, the government has punished him "because the old days when we were happy must not come back." To Rubashov, who doubts the accuracy of the peasant's recollection of past happiness, the case is reminiscent of something "he had once read about the natives of New Guinea, who were intellectually on a level with this peasant, yet lived in complete social harmony and possessed surprisingly developed democratic institutions. They had reached the highest level of a lower back basin."

In an exchange of messages tapped through the common wall of their cells, Rubashov communicates his decision to capitulate to his monarchist neighbor, No. 402, who responds, "HAVE YOU NO SPARK OF HONOUR LEFT?" The subsequent exchange summarizes the opposition between "revolutionary" ethics and the moral code of the old aristocracy: No 402: "HONOUR IS TO LIVE AND DIE FOR ONE'S BELIEF;" Rubashov: "HONOUR IS TO BE USEFUL WITHOUT VANITY;" No, 402: "HONOUR IS DECENCY—NOT USEFULNESS;" Rubashov: "WE HAVE REPLACED DECENCY BY REASON."

There will be no going back on Rubashov's decision to capitulate by giving his interrogators the confession they demand. But his subsequent reflections, to be considered in the second installment of this study, will compel him to reconsider this antinomy between reason and honor or decency and thus to call into question the adequacy of the "revolutionary" ethics of utility.


David Lewis Schaefer, "The Limits of Ideology: Koestler's Darkness at Noon," in Modern Age, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall 1985, pp. 319–28.


Cesarani, David, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind, William Heinemann, 1998.

Cohen, Stephen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888–1938, Wildwood House, 1974, pp. 372–80.

Hamilton, Iain, Koestler: A Biography, Martin Secker & Warburg, 1982, pp. 68–71.

Koestler, Arthur, Darkness at Noon, translated by Daphne Hardy, 1940, reprint, 1965.

Orwell, George, "Arthur Koestler," in Arthur Koestler: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Murray A. Sperber, Prentice-Hall, 1977, pp. 13–24; originally published in 1944.

—, Review of Darkness at Noon, in Koestler: A Biography, edited by Iain Hamilton, Martin Secker & Warburg, 1982, p. 69; originally published in New Statesman.

Schwarz, Solomon M., The Russian Revolution of 1905: The Workers' Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism, University of Chicago Press, 1967, p. 29.

Further Reading

Berdyaev, Nicolas, The Origin of Russian Communism, translated by R. M. French, Robert Maclehose, 1937.

Berdyaev explains the beginnings of the Communist Party and the background to Stalin's dictatorship.

Calder, Jenni, Chronicles of Conscience: A Study of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968.

Calder compares two of the most influential twentieth-century writers on totalitarianism.

Levene, Mark, Arthur Koestler, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1984.

Levene's literary biography of Koestler places Darkness at Noon in the context of the author's life and the political climate at the time.

Pearson, Sidney A., Aruthur Koestler, G. K. Hall, 1978.

Chapter four of Pearson's book provides a concise and helpful breakdown of the major themes and structural elements of Koestler's novel.

Tucker, Robert C., and Stephen F. Cohen, eds., The Great Purge Trial, Grosset & Dunlap, 1965.

Based on the transcript of the Moscow Show Trials, this book is a valuable resource for determining what actually went on during the 1938 trial.