Darkness at Noon | Study Guide

Arthur Koestler

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Darkness at Noon | Themes


Ideology and Hypocrisy

Theoretically, communist ideology states that power and decision-making reside in the people, particularly the working classes. Ideally a communist government exists as a temporary custodian of the government until the collective proletariat is ready to assume control. In the USSR, however, the need to eradicate opposition to communism led to the rise of an ideology of repressive dictatorship. In this novel Party ideology became whatever No. 1 said it was. The Party unquestioningly adopts and implements his ideas and policies. Thus Soviet ideology shifts unpredictably to align with No. 1's whims and real or imagined threats to his power.

Party hypocrisy is exemplified by the brutalization and execution of workers. Although Soviet Communist Party duty should have been to support the workers, its ideology became focused solely on its own survival. Rubashov is told that his testimony at trial must ensure the Party "does not perish." In the novel the Party insists it's improving the lives of all its citizens when, in fact, it has created a society of fear and lies. Although the Communist collective is made up of workers and citizens, in the novel, as in the USSR of that time, the individual within that collective is denied independent existence, even independent thought. For the Party the individual is not seen as a respected part of the collective but as an illusion, as a "mathematical unit" or material object to be used and sacrificed for the good of the Party, not the good of the collective. Because the Party denies the existence of the individual, any betrayal, cruelty, or atrocity committed against individuals is acceptable.

In the novel the Old Guard are revolutionaries who tried to create a state modeled on the original communist ideology. They believed in the collective but also in the individual, who has emotions, morals, thoughts, and rights. The Party under No. 1, which projects an image of pure impartial logic, sustains itself by twisting logic into illogical and unrecognizable knots. For example, Rubashov is accused of the crime of the attempted assassination of No. 1 not because he actually planned to do that but because assassination is the logical consequence of his oppositional thoughts. The new Party operatives, such as Gletkin, are creatures of this illogic, of the inhumane Party ideology that denies the individual.

Power, Logic, and Morality

Power resides in No. 1 and the Party, which carries out his orders. This power extends to the beliefs, thoughts, doubts, and actions (committed or not committed) of all citizens. State power is pervasive but invisible. It is maintained by fear of denunciation and by the sacrifice of the individual ostensibly for the collective but in actuality for the furtherance of Party power. State power is enforced by arbitrary brutality against suspect individuals, who often become suspect based on the whim of No. 1.

Party logic allows it to maintain power, by stating that there are no individuals, only material objects. People are packets of material whose individuality is lost within the collective. Human material can and should be used to further state power but must be liquidated if seen to oppose it. The Party's logic is illogical because it is deformed to uphold the rightness only of the Party and its ideology. Thus the only value Party logic acknowledges, aside from its own continuance, is that of the subjugated collective, not of the individuals who comprise it. Party logic states all oppositional thoughts or deeds should be followed to their projected final consequences. Thus a person's doubt about the rightness of No. 1 is extended to its final consequence, which is the person's plan to assassinate No. 1. The Party deems this to be the case even if no such plan exists.

The Party's dedication to a form of logic that supports only itself and denies the individual eliminates moral values from consideration. For the Party morality and conscience are counter-revolutionary, sentimental relics anathema to Party logic. Rubashov's earlier doubts and independent thoughts—for example, his opposition to the excesses of No. 1—arise from his moral sense and his conscience. But morality has no place in the Party because it involves the individual, an illusion that must be destroyed. Conscience, too, is unthinkable because it may lead an individual to thoughts and acts that question and threaten Party ideology and power.

Individual versus Collective

As an Old Guard functionary, Rubashov believed in the primacy of the collective. He viewed the individual as a real but unimportant cog in the glorious progress of the revolution. However once he's in prison, Rubashov begins to notice in himself what he had thought of as the "grammatical fiction," or the first-person singular, "I." Formerly, and in his interrogations, Rubashov is pushed toward accepting the importance of the collective over that of the illusory individual. Yet his contacts with other prisoners and his guilty memories of his past betrayals help Rubashov realize that many within the collective are singled out for liquidation as scapegoats or when they don't hew to the Party line. In the new Party ideology the individual is a meaningless entity who is easily sacrificed for the benefit of the Party.

The Party is supposed to work for the benefit of the collective. But Rubashov understands current Party ideology defines the collective as the Party, not the workers. The Party is therefore willing to sacrifice the collective for its own benefit or survival. It is dismissive of the immense suffering of vast numbers of people under Soviet control. The Party talks a good line about working for the benefit of the collective but its actions prove otherwise.

As the novel progresses Rubashov becomes more attuned to his own individuality, the "I" within himself. He discovers his conscience and his outraged morality at Party atrocities. During his interrogations Rubashov tries to reconcile the individual with the collective, but tangled Party logic makes such reconciliation impossible. Yet by the end of the novel Rubashov has immersed himself in his "grammatical fiction" to the point where his individuality has merged with a universal, oceanic oneness.

Righteousness and Complicity, Suffering and Guilt

Rubashov fell back on his loyalty to the Party to convince himself of the righteousness of his actions when he was a Party functionary. At that time he acted under the premier Party principle that "the ends justify the means." But he acknowledges that "I destroyed people whom I was fond of, and gave power to others I did not like." In other words he was complicit in furthering Party power and ideology, which he was beginning to question, by his loyal but immoral actions. He used Party logic to justify these actions, to retain his self-image as a righteous man and revolutionary.

Rubashov feels intense guilt at his complicity while serving the Party. He repeatedly thinks of how he betrayed Little Loewy and Richard, betrayals that led to their deaths in the name of a Party Rubashov was beginning to doubt. When he sees the condition Bogrov is in as he's dragged away to be executed, Rubashov for the first time thinks about what Arlova might have suffered after he betrayed her. His complicity in what might have been her torture and execution torments him. He had never before considered the suffering of the individual who is denounced and given up to the Party. In prison he also contemplates the enormous suffering of millions of people in the USSR who were condemned by the Party and its policies to mass starvation or exile in prison camps. He was complicit in this suffering and feels guilty about it because he knew it was happening but chose to ignore it to keep his Party job.

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