Literature Study GuidesDarkness At NoonThe Grammatical Fiction 1 3 Summary

Darkness at Noon | Study Guide

Arthur Koestler

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Darkness at Noon | The Grammatical Fiction: 1–3 | Summary



The Grammatical Fiction: 1

The epigraph is by Ferdinand Lasalle (1825‑64), a German socialist and Marxist who was a fervent supporter of the right of workers to govern themselves by becoming subjects—not merely objects—in the economic system. In this quote Lasalle acknowledges how ends and means are intertwined and how changing one changes the other. The quote is a critique of the Party's ideology that the ends always justify the means.

Wassilij's daughter, Vera, is reading him the newspaper account of Rubashov's public trial. Wassilij lies on the bed listening without comment. The report reveals that Rubashov made no complaint about the investigation and confessed "of his own free will, in sincere repentance of his counter-revolutionary crimes." As his daughter reads, Wassilij reaches into the hole in his mattress where his Bible had been hidden. It's not there because Vera threw it away, as it's against Party rules to own a Bible. As he listens to her read, Wassilij thinks of a Bible verse (Mark 15:16) about Jesus's arrest and condemnation.

Vera gets to the part of the article where Rubashov makes his confessional statement. He couches his statement as a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of taking even "the slightest deflection" from Party ideology. Rubashov degrades himself, saying he's "covered with shame, trampled in the dust [as a] traitor." Wassilij can hardly bear to listen. The public prosecutor makes Rubashov again admit to his vile self-interest in the matter of Arlova's death. As Vera continues to read, Wassilij recalls the earlier time when Rubashov was hailed as a hero of the Revolution, when the masses cheered him. Vera comments, "He says himself that he is a traitor. If it weren't true, he wouldn't say so himself."

Vera takes out a statement condemning Rubashov that was written at the factory where she works. She wants her father to sign it. Wassilij knows Vera is waiting for him to refuse to sign, to make a mistake that marks him as traitor to the Party. She and her fiancé want Wassilij out of the way so they can take over his apartment. Vera persists in trying to incriminate her father, saying "In the factory they know, of course, that he lived in this house." They want to know "whether you were friends until the end, and whether you had spoken much together." Wassilij quickly signs the statement even though he's clearly appalled at what has happened to Rubashov and what the Party has forced him to say. Then Wassilij thinks of the Bible verse (Matthew 26:34) in which Jesus predicts Peter will deny him three times.

Vera continues, reading Rubashov's submissive statement of his guilt. She reads about the mob shouting "Shoot the mad dogs!" Rubashov's submissiveness makes Vera sick. But Wassilij defends Rubashov, saying "The Party has taught you all to be cunning, and whoever becomes too cunning loses all decency." He quotes Jesus's words in the Bible: "Let your communication be, Yea [or] Nay; for whatever is more than these cometh of evil." After this outburst Wassilij lies down, wondering if he's gone too far in angering his daughter and inciting her revenge.

Vera reads the final statement of the prosecutor, who "demanded the death sentence" for both accused. She reads about Hare-lip's plea for mercy, which is denied. She reads about how Rubashov looked for one sign of sympathy in the mob but found none. Rubashov then says, "I ask myself today, 'For what am I dying?' I am confronted by absolute nothingness." Rubashov then says he will not ask for mercy, for that would be "derision. I have nothing more to say."

The Grammatical Fiction: 2

Rubashov is back in his cell thinking about his impending execution. Not only is he unafraid, but he feels a "blessed quietness" of spirit that signals he'd "burnt out the last vestiges of egotism and vanity from his consciousness." The feeling began when he gave up the need to explain himself in front of everyone at the trial. Rubashov had thought of Georges Danton (1759–94), the French revolutionary who had defended himself with a stirring speech at his trial. But Rubashov stifled the temptation to speak, understanding it was "too late."

Rubashov's silence does not come from fear of death. His is the silence of the soul freed from logic, of the man "who had lost his shadow, released from every bond." Rubashov dares to tap the code for the word "I" on the wall between his and 406's cells. But the cell is empty; 406 is no longer there. As he taps out his grammatical fiction, Rubashov wonders about the meaning of suffering. He reflects on the difference between natural suffering that's an inevitable part of life and the suffering that has a "social origin [and] was accidental, hence pointless and senseless." He cannot square the revolution's purpose as "the abolition of senseless suffering" with the "enormous increase" in social suffering it inflicts on people. How could such deliberate suffering be justified? Perhaps only if a person is reduced to an object in service to the Party can it be justified.

Rubashov asks his grammatical fiction about suffering but gets no answer. He recalls seeing the Pietà, and other experiences that sent him into a type of ecstasy such as the saints may have had. This ecstasy is a mystical expansion of his soul, which becomes part of an "oceanic sense" in which it dissolves. He feels as if he's become one with infinity. The sight of blue sky through his prison window sends Rubashov into this sublime state of consciousness. But the Party disapproves of such exalted states, calling them "petit-bourgeois [middle-class] mysticism." Thus "the 'oceanic sense' was counter-revolutionary."

Rubashov contemplates the Party's ideological hypocrisy: The Party denies free will yet asks the masses to willingly sacrifice themselves for the Party. The Party punishes people who choose yet demands they choose the Party line. The Party forbids people to distinguish good and evil yet demands they applaud what the Party defines as good and revile what it condemns as evil. For the Party an individual "was a multitude of one million divided by one million." Rubashov now understands the correct formula should be: "the joining of a million individuals to form a new entity ... with its 'oceanic feeling' increased a million-fold."

Rubashov thinks about the Party's mistakes in terms of other historical errors, such as the collapse of the Roman Empire. Perhaps the Party is forcing change too quickly. Rubashov concludes that the Party doctrine that "the ends justify the means" is the evil that is poisoning both it and the USSR. While Rubashov is ruminating in this way he hears the sound of drumming along the prison corridor.

The Grammatical Fiction: 3

Rubashov hears the prisoners starting to drum on their doors. Hare-lip is being taken away for execution. Rubashov joins the drumming. With his eye at the spy-hole Rubashov can see Hare-lip trembling as he's escorted down the corridor. After Hare-lip is gone 402 taps to Rubashov that Hare-lip "BEHAVED QUITE WELL." Then he asks Rubashov how he's doing since he has only about 10 minutes before they come to take him away. Rubashov answers "I WISH IT WERE OVER ALREADY." 402 says he'll tap to tell Rubashov when they're coming for him. 402 then advises Rubashov to "empty his bladder" before they come to avoid that humiliation during his execution. 402 also tells Rubashov he'll be in prison for another 18 years, so clearly 402 is not slated for execution. 402 says he envies Rubashov the finality of a death sentence. In their last communication Rubashov taps "YOU HELPED ME A LOT. THANKS" to which 402 replies "I ENVY YOU, FAREWELL."

The drumming starts again as the prison guards open Rubashov's door, handcuff him, and march him down the corridor. One guard asks Rubashov if he has another wish, but Rubashov says no. On his way down the stairs to the cellar Rubashov's pince-nez falls off and shatters at the bottom of the staircase. Now almost blind, Rubashov makes his way carefully down the spiral staircase. Rubashov thinks of Moses, who was at least allowed to see the Promised Land, whereas he sees nothing for the future except darkness.

"A dull blow struck the back of his head," and Rubashov sinks down but feels nothing. It all seems so theatrical to him. As he lies crumpled on the floor memories flood through his mind. He remembers his dream of arrest. Rubashov senses a figure bending over him, holding a revolver. A second bullet is shot through Rubashov's head, and "then all became quiet" except for the sound of the sea. Before he dies Rubashov feels a "wave slowly [lift] him up" and carry him away into an indifferent eternity.


Rubashov gives voice to strict Party ideology in his abject confession at trial, warning the masses against "the slightest deflection" from the Party line. In this statement Rubashov is emphasizing the total diminishment, even to nonexistence, of the individual. He warns that individuals should not think because thoughts may diverge even minutely (and thus treasonously) from Party ideology. Rubashov's utter humiliation sickens Vera and infuriates the mob—as the Party intended it should. When Rubashov asks "For what am I dying? I am confronted by absolute nothingness," he may be speaking from his compromised sense of morality and his recognition of the Party's inhumanity. For Orwell Rubashov's question arises from his "complete inner emptiness" by the end of the trial. When Rubashov says his death would be meaningless had he not repented before the Party, it's just part of the script he's reciting for the Party's benefit.

After Rubashov confesses to his "monstrous crime," the prosecutor derides him for being "quite without any moral sense." Rubashov smiles because the accusation is so absurd. Rubashov has sacrificed his morality for the Party, which is revealed to have no morality. Rubashov finds no morality underlying his sacrifice, no "ethical ballast" to balance the evil of the Party and to guide it on a humane, moral course. The Party's evil, he understands, is its commitment to the cruel and immoral dictum that "the ends justify the means." Yet Rubashov, 402, and the other prisoners reveal their individual and collective morality in the compassion they show to the men marched off to be executed. Rubashov expresses gratitude to 402, who in turn wishes him well. The drumming itself is a sign of individuals expressing their moral outrage and compassion through their solidarity.

Vera is a Party ideologue, and like the Party she uses ideology for self-preservation. In a way the Party's immorality is reflected in the self-interested evil Vera wants to inflict on her father. She's an atheist who has thrown out her father's Bible. She tries to lure him into a counter-revolutionary action to achieve her goal. In short, Vera wants to entrap her father, to set him up for arrest and probable execution. Although Wassilij supports Rubashov in his heart, he's too clever to destroy himself by refusing to sign the statement. In the Soviet Union of that era an individual's morality had to be kept hidden.

Rubashov experiences a silence that is an individual ecstasy; it takes him beyond his individuality, as his "personality dissolved as a grain of salt in the ... infinite sea." Critic Harold Strauss sees this as Rubashov's "gradual ... apprehension of the humanitarian considerations that lie at the root of his opposition to Stalin (No. 1)." Rubashov's experience may resemble those of the Christian saints. In some way Rubashov might be likened to saints or to Christ, both in his ecstatic dissolving into oneness and in his execution. Rubashov's mystical experiences begin "where logical thought ended." Thus Rubashov rejects "the [Party's] rules of logical calculation" and especially its principle that every thought be followed to its logical conclusion or consequence. He thinks his life in the Party has run "amok of pure reason," and he vows no longer to be a slave to it.

Christianity and the Bible represent the old spirituality of the Russian people and the reality of the individual, or "grammatical fiction." That Wassilij can't find the discarded Bible symbolizes the Party's eradication of Christianity, spirituality, and many individual believers. Yet Wassilij holds Christianity in his heart. When Rubashov confesses, Wassilij mumbles verses from the Gospel of Matthew about the arrest and humiliation of Jesus. Wassilij seems to be comparing Rubashov with Christ in his terrible and unjust death. When Rubashov's sentence is pronounced, Wassilij accepts it as Christ taught his followers to accept, with the words "Thy will be done. Amen." It is through his hidden Christian belief that Wassilij safeguards his individual soul.

Rubashov's toothache pains him when he's confessing at trial to the counter-revolutionary crimes he did not commit. His toothache represents the conflict within Rubashov when he's forced to act against his own nature in support of Party ideology, so it follows that his tooth hurts him while he confesses to imaginary, ideological crimes. Rubashov's toothache disappears when he finally achieves his oceanic peace. Even when he's about to be killed his toothache is gone because he is no longer conflicted. He has found his true inner self and no longer has to compromise himself to please the Party. He dies willingly and at seemingly peace, but he sees nothing but darkness in the future.

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