Literature Study GuidesDarkness At NoonThe Third Hearing 1 3 Summary

Darkness at Noon | Study Guide

Arthur Koestler

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Darkness at Noon | The Third Hearing: 1–3 | Summary



The Third Hearing: 1

The Third Hearing begins with two epigraphs. The first, from Machiavelli, underscores how important it is for a leader to hide the truth so that no one is aware of it. If the secrecy is revealed, ready excuses must be available to justify or obscure it. This applies directly to Rubashov's interrogation, where the truth is not only hidden but denied, or a non-truth is manufactured—where hidden information that's uncovered is argued away. The second epigraph, from the Gospel of Matthew, likely serves as a guide or warning to Rubashov not to say things that will destroy him. Rubashov must not only avoid lying, he must refrain from telling the truth because it will be twisted and used against him. Jesus's advice to say nothing more than "yea" or "nay" would serve Rubashov well if he followed it.

Rubashov is writing a sort of treatise on political philosophy in his diary. Rubashov begins by using the French Revolution (1787–99) as an example of the pendulum of history, which rises to a summit after a revolution but inevitably falls back again into tyranny. This is a historical "law of motion ... swinging from absolutism to democracy, from democracy back to absolute dictatorship." In defense of Party logic Rubashov writes, "The public disavowal of one's conviction ... is obviously more honorable than ... carrying on a hopeless struggle."

Rubashov correlates the swinging of the historical pendulum with the maturity of the masses. He also correlates the maturity of the masses with the rapidity and extent of social, technological, and economic change. He explains that "every jump of technical progress leaves ... the masses a step behind," which in turn causes a decline in political maturity. When the consciousness of the masses "catches up with the objective state of affairs," the people are ready for democracy. But when continual social change constantly leaves the masses behind, society needs the steadying hand of a dictator, of "absolute leadership." Because technology and the economy are always in flux, it is rare for the masses to catch up with social change. Socialist theory, which states that the masses are on a constant upward trajectory, is therefore incorrect. Even as the masses mature they are almost always behind the times, or immature. Only when the masses are able to maintain a level of maturity that can keep up with change will there no longer be a need for a dictator.

In these circumstances those who oppose the dictator must either remove him in a coup d'état or give in—that is, suppress their personal opposition to the dictator and their moral outrage. They do this for the greater good of the masses, or the collective. Rubashov writes that in his society where the greatest good is "social utility," it is incumbent on those in opposition to give up their personal feelings and embrace the Party and its leader. If they do not they should be "cut off root and branch."

The Third Hearing: 2

Rubashov notices that his handwriting is becoming bolder, perhaps indicating a growing confidence in his ideas. He also notes he hasn't heard anything from Rip Van Winkle's cell, 406, for some time. 406 has not tapped out his usual message on the wall, and Rubashov wonders if he has been taken away.

When he goes out to the yard Rubashov has a new companion, a peasant wearing decrepit bast (bark) shoes. The peasant tries to strike up a conversation, but Rubashov hesitates to speak with him. When Rubashov admits he's a political prisoner, the peasant says he was arrested because he's a reactionary. The peasant was taken away after he refused to have his children vaccinated. Rubashov then ignores the peasant and thinks of his writing.

Back in his cell Rubashov is awakened by 402's tapping. Rubashov interrupts the message to tap "I AM CAPITULATING," to which 402 replies, "HAVE YOU NO SPARK OF HONOR LEFT?" When Rubashov rather smugly asks about his conception of honor, 402 taps "HONOR IS TO LIVE AND DIE FOR ONE'S BELIEF." Rubashov immediately responds "HONOR IS TO BE USEFUL WITHOUT VANITY." The two men debate what honor and decency are. 402 taps that decency is "SOMETHING YOUR KIND WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND." Rubashov arrogantly replies, "WE HAVE REPLACED DECENCY BY REASON," and 402 refuses to engage further.

Rubashov rereads the final draft of his treatise, a "Theory of Relative Maturity." He will give it to the warder to have it delivered to the Public Prosecutor of the Republic. The last paragraph of the treatise is a statement that Rubashov has decided "utterly to renounce his oppositional attitude and to denounce publicly his errors."

The Third Hearing: 3

Rubashov wonders why he's not heard from Ivanov in two days. He thinks maybe the higher-ups are considering his treatise. Rubashov smiles at how they probably view it, which "represented the wildest heresy," even treating "No. 1's sacrosanct person ... objectively." Rubashov recalls how the Old Guard used to make decisions in open discussions with highly educated experts. Now, with the Old Guard gone, decisions are the sole province of No. 1, who decides in secret. He even set traps for those he wants to execute, as when he demanded a report stating Western economies were in a depression. When the report was completed, No. 1 made a statement that American "business is normal again," the writers of the report were executed. Rubashov thinks the incident "a grotesque comedy" but also a "means to consolidate the dictatorship ... [a] historical necessity."

Rubashov fantasizes about spending the next two years doing more research on his treatise. He waits for Ivanov to visit his cell so they can discuss it. After three nights with no word from Ivanov, Rubashov becomes impatient. He can't sleep, so he taps the wall to start a conversation with 402, but 402 ignores him. Rubashov is lying on his bunk staring at the ceiling when two guards enter his cell and march him away.

Rubashov is taken before Gletkin for interrogation. He asks after Ivanov but gets no clear reason why Ivanov is no longer there. Gletkin's approach is cold and brutal. When he speaks he seems only to parrot the Party line. Rubashov sits before Gletkin's desk with a blinding light shining in his eyes. Rubashov says he'll "do everything which may serve the Party" and asks Gletkin to read the accusations in detail. A stenographer takes down every word. As Gletkin reads, Rubashov thinks he's a "consequential brute in the uniform we created—barbarian of the new age."

Rubashov thinks he has some leverage here, that his confession is "an absurd yet necessary comedy." After all, how could Gletkin really believe Rubashov tried to "undo the Revolution?" Rubashov is charged with sabotage during his time as head of the aluminum trust. The final charge accuses Rubashov of attempting to assassinate No. 1 by poisoning. Rubashov pleads guilty to all the charges except the last one. He denounces his "humanitarian weakness" and his "oppositional attitude," but denies "the absurd criminal charges." Gletkin says the confession of guilt Rubashov just made "is mere eye-wash," and he won't stand for it. Rubashov must plead guilty to "the logical consequence" of his oppositional attitude—his plan to kill No. 1. Rubashov insists the confession he's making now is sincere, unlike the confessions he'd made years ago. Gletkin forces Rubashov to admit his denunciation of Arlova was a lie. He knew she was innocent but denounced her to save his own head. Gletkin challenges Rubashov by asking why he should believe his sincerity now when he was a liar before.

Rubashov insists he can't plead guilty to criminal acts he never committed. He just wants "to prove [his] devotion to the Party." But first, Gletkin says, he must demonstrate "in your own person, the consequences to which opposition to the Party policy inevitably leads." Rubashov then becomes aware of a third person in the room. It's Hare-lip, who shows signs of having been tortured. Rubashov says he recognizes Hare-lip from the prison yard, but he can't remember where he might have seen him before, outside the prison. Hare-lip fills in the blank, stating he'd met Rubashov years ago with his father at a meeting of the Trade Delegation in Europe. Rubashov is astonished to learn Hare-lip is actually Michael, the son of an old friend of his named Professor Kieffer (since killed). Hare-lip describes a meeting with his father and Rubashov at which Rubashov said, "The important thing [is] to hold out the longest and wait for the hour to strike" against No. 1. Because No. 1 would never resign and holds all the power in the Party, he "could only be removed by violence."

Gletkin speaks threateningly to Hare-lip to force him to reveal when the "direct instigation of the deed" occurred. A terrified Hare-lip says he'd met Rubashov the next morning and that's when the assassination was plotted. It seems that after his father's execution, Hare-lip got a job that would enable him to poison No. 1's daily cold snack. Rubashov feels "the entire confession had been artificially pumped into [Hare-lip]." Gletkin tells Hare-lip to leave, then gets Rubashov to admit what Hare-lip had said was correct on "the essential points." Rubashov knows now his fate is sealed. But Rubashov makes one more point: The violence he spoke of was political violence, such as civil war or mass action, "not individual terrorism."

Gletkin hands Rubashov a pen, and he signs the full confession. Rubashov feels relief, though he understands he'll face Gletkin's interrogation again. He's taken back to his cell where he falls into a deep sleep.


Rubashov's treatise is an exercise in self-delusion. It is either conscious contradiction or subconscious denial that permits Rubashov to think high-ranking Party officials will read his treatise and take it seriously. He's delusional in thinking his ideas might be celebrated and thus reverse the death sentence he knows awaits him. Incredibly, he even imagines spending the next two years of his life being allowed to do further research into his new political philosophy.

In his treatise Rubashov tries to argue his way toward acceptance of Party logic. He presents a rationale for dictatorship as a logical historical necessity in the maturation of the masses. He also tries to use his own tortured logic to get himself in the Party's good graces. But Rubashov's logic is delusional if he thinks it will save him. When he tells 402 that he's replaced "decency by reason," Rubashov condemns honor as "a certain form of convention ... [from] another epoch." Rubashov will instead adopt the Party's definition of honor which is "to serve without vanity and unto the last consequence." Here, Rubashov is foreshadowing his upcoming interrogation, which uses the same logical sophistry to condemn him.

Gletkin's interrogation further reveals Rubashov's self-delusion as well as Gletkin's total identification with the Party. Rubashov demands several conditions be met before he signs his confession. He thinks he has "as much power over ... Gletkin as the latter [has] over him"; he's sure the interrogation is "an absurd yet necessary comedy," and so on. Either Rubashov is acting out of false confidence or he's truly deluded into thinking he has even a modicum of power in this situation. Rubashov cannot or will not understand that what Gletkin believes is irrelevant, even to Gletkin. Gletkin is not an individual; he speaks and acts for the Party and according to Party logic. For George Orwell "Gletkin's strength lies in [his] complete severance from the past." This "leaves him not only without pity but without imagination or inconvenient knowledge." Even after Rubashov knows all is lost, after Hare-lip's testimony, he continues to try to bargain with Gletkin about a detail in his confession. Gletkin brushes the demand aside, and Rubashov signs the confession as the Party wrote it. As Rubashov leaves he notes Gletkin's "look of strangely understanding irony," of confidence in his absolute power and the accused's laughable attempts to challenge it—an expression frequently noted in the portrait of No. 1.

Party logic undoes Rubashov, particularly as he's been writing a treatise that supports this illogical logic. Rubashov had written in support of Party logic, which says a person should "serve [the Party] unto the last consequence." During his interrogation this bit of logic will be thrown back in his face to force him to confess to plotting the death of No. 1. His earlier words of opposition are used as proof that he plotted treason because assassination would be the logical "last consequence" for anyone in opposition to No. 1. As Hitchens noted, "If you once accept a certain logic of history, how can you exempt yourself from it?" Gletkin says, "You admit your 'oppositional attitude,' but deny the acts which are the logical consequence of it." No confession of past counter-revolutionary thought or activity can save Rubashov now. Even when Rubashov actually proves he could not have plotted murder with Hare-lip, his argument is ignored because it's not in Gletkin's condemnatory script.

Hare-lip's testimony contains kernels of truth, especially regarding the actual meeting between him, his father, and Rubashov. But truth is deformed to yield a false accusation against Rubashov. The Party has no qualms about torturing Hare-lip to coerce his lie about conspiring to assassinate No. 1. It's likely Hare-lip is imprisoned and probably slated for execution (especially now that his lies have accomplished Rubashov's ruin) only because his father was a member of the Old Guard. There is no evidence Hare-lip himself engaged in any counter-revolutionary or oppositional activity. The Party, lacking morality or conscience, sacrifices this individual to achieve a predetermined result: the condemnation and liquidation of Rubashov, of the opposition. The Party pretends to sacrifice individuals to protect the collective, yet it's obvious that, since the masses are made up of individuals, the masses are persecuted and killed in the name of Party ideology. Party logic justifies this as historical necessity.

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