Darkness at Noon | Study Guide

Arthur Koestler

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Darkness at Noon | Plot Summary

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Summary

The First Hearing

Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov was a former communist revolutionary and Commissar of the People in Soviet Russia. When the novel opens Rubashov is awakened from a nightmare of arrest to find he's really being arrested. During his arrest his apartment house porter, Wassilij (spelled Vassilij in the first part of the book), looks on in fear of what might happen to Rubashov. Once he's taken to prison and locked in his cell, Rubashov complains of a toothache, so he's denied food for a few days. He looks at the portrait of No. 1 hanging on his cell wall and thinks about his past as a functionary for the Party. Rubashov realizes he's under almost constant surveillance through the spy-hole in his cell door.

The occupant of the cell next door, number 402, taps on the wall to communicate with Rubashov. But when Rubashov identifies himself, 402 becomes rather hostile. Clearly 402 recognizes Rubashov's name and his work for the Party. 402 refuses to help Rubashov; for example, he declines to help him get tobacco.

Days go by without Rubashov being interrogated. He thinks about incidents from his life as a Party official. He remembers how and why he denounced Richard, the young leader of a communist cell in Europe. He recalls how he deceived the dockworkers in Belgium and then denounced their leader, Little Loewy, for disagreeing with a Party decision. Rubashov begins to feel somewhat guilty about his role in these deaths but tries to excuse himself with the thought that he was acting for the Party. Then he thinks about members of the Old Guard, the original revolutionaries, who'd been his colleagues. He contemplates the reason that the Party has since executed most of these former leaders.

At the end of this section Rubashov is taken from his cell to be interrogated by Ivanov, someone of his own generation but still a Party operative and loyalist. Ivanov tells Rubashov that he needs to confess to oppositional activity against the Party. Ivanov uses twisted Party logic to convince Rubashov to confess his guilt. Instead, Rubashov criticizes those aspects of Party policy he disagrees with, accusing the Party of seeking only self-preservation, not the betterment of the masses. Ivanov says that it's suspect that Rubashov spent so much time as an official in Europe. He reminds Rubashov of his betrayal of his lover, Arlova. Ivanov demands a confession from Rubashov in which he also swears total loyalty and support of the Party, as well as pleading guilty to organizing a plot to assassinate No. 1, the Party leader, or dictator. Rubashov says he won't confess to treachery, murder, and other things he hasn't done.

The Second Hearing

Ivanov has approved giving Rubashov pencil and paper, so Rubashov writes a treatise on "The Theory of Relative Maturity" about the historical maturity of the masses. Yet as he writes that his doubts about the Party grow.

Ivanov and Gletkin are eating in the prison cafeteria. Clearly Ivanov thinks that taking a soft approach to Rubashov's interrogation will make the prisoner confess sooner and more completely. His understanding of Rubashov's mind shows that Ivanov is of the Old Guard, which recognized individual conscience. Gletkin is of the new generation. He is cold, brutal, and logical. He is immersed in the new Party logic that denies the existence of the individual. Only the Party, and perhaps the collective, is important. Gletkin is frustrated with Ivanov's approach and hopes to use tougher methods on Rubashov to force a confession out of him.

In prison Rubashov is becoming increasingly aware of his "first-person singular" identity, his "I." He recognizes that it is his individuality that contains his morality and conscience. Its emerging dominance makes him feel guilty about Little Loewy and Richard. It also leads him to recall his secretary and lover, Arlova. When she was arrested on a trumped-up charge, Rubashov could have either supported her and thus probably lost his job or proclaimed her guilt and thus saved his position. He chose to save himself by proclaiming her guilt even though he knew she was innocent. His feelings of guilt about Arlova haunt him. The prison barber sneaks a note to Rubashov. The note, which reads "Die in silence," urges Rubashov not to give in to Party demands for a confession.

Rubashov taps his cell wall when 406 is put in the next cell. 406 is a true believer in the Communist Revolution. His ideological purity had landed him in jail for decades in Europe, and he was thrown in jail again as soon as he returned to the USSR. Rubashov walks with 406 in the prison yard, but 406 seems slightly crazy, though it's likely he's been imprisoned on false charges.

When Rubashov sees the once-renowned official, Bogrov, dragged through the prison corridor to the cellar where he'll be executed, he's shaken to his core. Bogrov was certainly tortured, and this causes Rubashov to think about Arlova and his other victims. Were they tortured and made to suffer so much before they were executed? The sight and sound of Bogrov makes Rubashov sick and turns him against the Party.

Ivanov conducts his next interrogation in Rubashov's cell. Ivanov uses twisted Party logic in an attempt to get Rubashov to confess. But after seeing Bogrov, Rubashov is immovable. He too uses logic and reason to make his case against Ivanov and the Party. Rubashov cites numerous examples of the Party's cruelty and indifference to human suffering as a primary reason he will not pledge loyalty to it. He no longer believes in the Party and reviles its actions. Ivanov tries to convince Rubashov of the meaninglessness of the individual, who can and should be sacrificed for the Party and the collective. For the Party, individuals are illusions, mathematical units, to be used as the Party wishes. Rubashov disagrees fiercely but logically. He categorically condemns Party ideology that states that "the ends justify the means." Ivanov counters that anything is justified because the Party is creating a new era of history. During his last meeting with Ivanov, Rubashov does sign a letter "renounce[ing] his oppositional attitude and ... denounce[ing] publicly his errors." However he does not make the full confession Ivanov seeks. Rubashov naively believes that this letter may lead to his release or to his being granted more freedom, such as the freedom to write, while in prison. He is deceiving himself.

The Third Hearing

Rather than getting more privileges, Rubashov is rudely taken from his cell to begin the first of a series of interrogations by Gletkin. Gletkin interrogates Rubashov numerous times. Rubashov learns that Ivanov has been executed for being too easy on him and not getting a confession. Gletkin is cold, emotionless, and almost inhuman and without affect. He has no concept of history because he's never been taught about it. For him, the current ideology of the Party is all there is. Gletkin, too, uses twisted Party logic on Rubashov to convince him to confess. Although Rubashov will confess to things he's done, such as betraying Arlova, he will not confess to trying to assassinate No. 1. The logic behind this charge is that Rubashov opposed the Party and the "logical consequence" of such opposition is to plot to kill the Party leader. Rubashov is innocent, but for the Party that is beside the point.

Gletkin uses sleep deprivation to break down Rubashov's resistance. At first Rubashov forces himself to argue against every accusation Gletkin brings up. Gletkin twists the truth until Rubashov no longer has the strength to argue logically against it. Gletkin brings in the prisoner Hare-lip to testify against Rubashov. It's clear this prisoner has been tortured into testifying against Rubashov about their conversations that supposedly plotted No. 1's assassination.

The interrogations with Gletkin continue. As sleep deprivation takes an ever greater toll on Rubashov, he feels that he can no longer resist. When his own written words, "honor is to serve (the Party) ... unto the last consequence" are read back to him, Rubashov feels the trap closing on him. He must be sacrificed for the good of the Party because that is the "last consequence" of his life and former activities. Finally, sick of the game Gletkin is playing Rubashov signs a full confession and admits to plotting the death of No. 1.

The Grammatical Fiction

This section describes parts of Rubashov's trial, conviction, and execution. Yet throughout Rubashov is concerned with the "grammatical fiction" of his individuality, of his "silent partner," or the "I" that is his inner self. Rubashov's "I" is the individual human part of him, and it's where his morality and his conscience reside. While outwardly at his trial Rubashov admits to everything the Party wants him to admit, inside he's freeing himself from the Party that denies the individual.

The Party refuses to acknowledge the existence of the individual "I," which makes it easy for the Party to sacrifice as many individuals as it wants in the name of its own preservation. Since the "first-person singular" does not exist for the Party, the suffering of those individuals sacrificed for the Party is irrelevant. The Party has no pity for the individual and denies the existence of individual morality. It is therefore capable of any atrocity. Rubashov understands this. At his trial he says, "For what am I dying? I am confronted by absolute nothingness." He is to be sacrificed for the empty illogic of the Party, for a "political masquerade" that has no meaning.

Finally, as he awaits his execution, Rubashov has a profound experience of his own boundless "I." The deep connection to his true inner self seems to liberate Rubashov's spirit from the prison the Party has made of his world.

Darkness at Noon Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Rubashov is arrested and taken to prison.

Rising Action

2 Ivanov uses logic to try to get Rubashov to confess.

3 Gletkin repeatedly interrogates sleep-deprived Rubashov.

4 Rubashov admits to the logical consequence of his thoughts.

5 Rubashov is tried for opposition and anti-Party crimes.

6 Convicted, Rubashov is sentenced to death.

Climax

7 Rubashov realizes he is dying for nothing.

Falling Action

8 Rubashov feels ecstatic oneness with the universe.

Resolution

9 Rubashov dies with despair but not fear.

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