Literature Study GuidesDarkness At NoonThe First Hearing 7 9 Summary

Darkness at Noon | Study Guide

Arthur Koestler

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Darkness at Noon | The First Hearing: 7–9 | Summary



The First Hearing: 7

Rubashov hears the opening and closing of cell doors as the warder and prison orderlies hand out food. He watches their progress through the judas hole. They've just delivered breakfast to Rubashov's next-door neighbor but then walk past his cell. He bangs on his cell door with his fist and with his shoe, but the warder pretends not to hear. Then Rubashov just stands in the center of his cell waiting for his door to open. He sees an eye staring at him through the spy hole and his cell door opens. An expressionless official enters and asks Rubashov why he hasn't cleaned his cell. Rubashov says he has no mop to clean with, so they throw him a rag. Rubashov says he has no eating bowl either. An official tells Rubashov he's not gotten any breakfast because he'd said he has toothache. As the officials leave Rubashov remembers to shout out a request for paper and a pencil, but they ignore him.

The First Hearing: 8

Rubashov paces in his cell. He tries to see himself as prison officials see him. He imagines them thinking "We did not make the revolution for cranks," which is how Rubashov must seem to them. Rubashov gazes at the bleak, snowy prison yard and chastises himself for trying to see through others' eyes: that is not how to change the world.

Rubashov hears light tapping or knocking coming from cell 402, next door. The tapping uses the universal "quadratic alphabet" in which letters are identified by their place in a grid. Rubashov remembers the system from his time in prison. Prisoner 402 taps out "WHO?" and Rubashov taps back his name. For a while 402 doesn't reply, but then Rubashov gets the message "SERVES YOU RIGHT." In the ensuing tapped dialogue Rubashov learns 402 is a monarchist, a serious crime. But 402 calls Rubashov a "SWINE." When Rubashov says he's been arrested for "POLITICAL DIVERGENCIES," 402 replies, "BRAVO. THE WOLVES DEVOUR EACH OTHER." Then 402 asks Rubashov to describe the last time he had sex with a woman. Rubashov accedes to 402's demands for increasingly graphic descriptions of the woman and the act. 402 begs Rubashov for more details, but Rubashov has had enough. He imagines 402 making an imploring gesture like that in a Pietà.

The First Hearing: 9

The image of the Pietà reminds Rubashov of a Party assignment he had had back in 1933 when he met a fellow revolutionary in a museum gallery in southern Germany. Richard, 19 years old, was then the leader of a revolutionary cell, or Party group, in an unnamed town. At Rubashov's request Richard briefs him on the cell's activities. He tells Rubashov how he's safeguarded the list of cell members. While Richard speaks Rubashov can see part of a painting of the Madonna, which reminds him of the Pietà.

Richard tells Rubashov about the revolutionary pamphlets that his group prints and distributes. Rubashov, as head of the Party's Intelligence and Control Department, knows most of what Richard is telling him because there's a Party informer in Richard's group. Then Rubashov comes to the point: why has Richard's group made its own pamphlets with "phrases which the Party cannot accept"? Richard tries to explain that his group did not distribute Party pamphlets because "the tone of [the Party] propaganda material was wrong." It turned off the public rather than interested them in the Party and its cause. Richard also tries to explain that "the material you sent was full of nonsense" because it contained lies, such as extolling the Party's triumphs even though everyone knew the revolutionaries were losing ground. Richard's pamphlets tell the truth with phrases such as "a catastrophe has befallen the Party."

Rubashov accuses Richard of defeatism, while Richard accuses the Party of propagandistic fabrications. Rubashov retorts that "the decisive factor is our unbroken will. ... The Party can never be mistaken." Rubashov then accuses Richard of compromising with Moderates instead of toeing the Party line. In the end Rubashov expels Richard from the Party. Rubashov leaves the museum determined to denounce Richard. A week later Party officials arrest Richard. Rubashov takes a taxi to the train station, but the driver refuses to take the fare, saying "For people like yourself, sir, it's always free."


Rubashov tries to use a real or faked toothache as a means of exerting his individuality and exemption from prison rules. Rubashov's tone identifies him as Old Guard, as an individual who demands to be treated with respect. He thinks he can still exercise some of his former power, but he's clearly mistaken. His real toothache represents Rubashov's feelings of guilt at the terrible things he's done as a Party official. After denouncing Richard, ensuring the young man will be executed, Rubashov's toothache returns, giving him terrible pain. The toothache persists as Rubashov rides the train back to the USSR, where his report on the "affair with Richard [will be] concluded," that is, where Richard's death sentence will be handed down.

Rubashov is conflicted about the morality of empathy. Rubashov's tendency to see things from others' point of view is, he believes, a means of changing the world, a way to foment revolution. But he also realizes empathy is an "old disease ... Revolutionaries should not think through other people's minds." So Rubashov faces a quandary—one in which his inner feelings of humanity, of morality, exist in opposition to his life as a functionary furthering the Party's revolution.

The tapping dialogue between Rubashov and 402 highlights each man's ideology but also hints at Rubashov's immoral deeds as a Party operative. When Rubashov taps out his name, 402 is silent for a while. Rubashov is vain and delusional enough to think 402 is stunned or afraid at having a famous, high-level Party official in the adjacent cell. Rubashov is amused by and dismissive of what he imagines is 402's likely "wish to prove his innocence ... [as if] guilt or innocence makes a difference." Perhaps unwittingly Rubashov is scorning the dilemma he will soon face regarding his own guilt or innocence. Yet when 402 taps out his anger and hostility, Rubashov refuses to admit what this means: that 402 knows of Rubashov's immoral acts. Rubashov's well-known past actions denouncing and destroying Party opponents make him an enemy of prisoners who are or might have been victims of similar betrayals and denunciations.

The sexually charged dialogue with 402 brings to Rubashov's mind the Pietà, an Italian word meaning "pity" or "compassion," which has been visualized in art to depict Virgin Mary's emotions after the crucifixion of her son. It also reminds him of his meeting with and denunciation of Richard, who was executed. At the time Rubashov felt absolute justification for his action against Richard based on his unquestioning loyalty to the Party. But now, years later, the incident haunts Rubashov, especially through the image of the compassionate Madonna. Rubashov regrets his complicity with the Party. He's starting to feel the first stirrings of guilt for an immoral act that bothers his conscience.

Rubashov's treatment of Richard may not have been a real betrayal. Because the Party had an informant in Richard's cell, it's likely Rubashov was instructed to denounce Richard for not parroting the Party line in his pamphlets. Although technically Rubashov may not have betrayed Richard he still did nothing to try to save this young man. Rubashov is haunted by Richard because he might have done something to save his life, yet he chose unwavering loyalty to the Party and its ideology over his humanitarian instincts.

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