Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Darkness at Noon

Go To

Darkness at Noon is a 1940 novel by Arthur Koestler. The story is set in the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin's Great Purge in the 1930s. None of this is identified explicitly; the country is only referred as "the Country of the Revolution", the Communist Party as "The Party" and Stalin as "Number One". Koestler, who used to be a Communist, expressed his disillusionment with the movement through the novel. Darkness at Noon is considered to be one of the most influential anti-Soviet books ever written.

The protagonist is Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, a veteran of the Revolution. He was one of the delegates to the first congress of the Party, captured in a photograph that used to hang on many walls. Of the bearded heads numbered in that photograph, only "No. 1" and his belated predecessor still remain in the Party's favor; the rest are being liquidated one by one. Rubashov had been in jail many times before, and even dreamed of being woken up and arrested in the middle of the night, but he did not dream that it would be the People's Commissariat of the Interior who would be arresting him.

In prison, Rubashov is interrogated by two men: Ivanov, a cynical old friend from Revolutionary days, and Gletkin, a fanatical young Party member. Rubashov is offered the choice of an administrative trial or public trial. This means either die in silence, or confess in a show trial to criminal activities which he did not commit. As he ponders which course of action is more honorable, he reflects on his past life, which he had dedicated to the service of the Party and thinks about the immoral things he has done in the name of a better future.

Sidney Kingsley adapted the novel into a Broadway play in 1951 starring Claude Rains, who won a Tony Award for playing Rubashov opposite a young Jack Palance as Gletkin.

This novel provides examples of:

  • As the Good Book Says...: Wassilij, the porter of the house Rubashov lived in, and a veteran of his regiment in the Civil War keeps a Bible hidden in a hole in his mattress until his daughter finds it and throws it away. He can still quote passages from it by heart. The newspaper account of Rubashov's trial reminds him of the mockery of Jesus by the Roman soldiers - and himself signing a resolution condemning traitors like Rubashov reminds him of Peter denying Jesus.
  • Break Them by Talking: Other prisoners are tortured, but not Rubashov. Ivanov and Gletkin manage to convince him to plead guilty just by arguments.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: No. 406, nicknamed "Rip Van Winkle", has apparently spent so much time in different prisons that his grip on reality has weakened. When he and Rubashov have a brief moment of interaction in the prison yard, it becomes obvious he doesn't even know he is in the Country of the Revolution, believing that he was put on the wrong train and ended up somewhere else.
  • Composite Character: Rubashov. According to Koestler, his life is "a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials. Several of them were personally known to this author."
  • Crapsack World: Rubashov describes the Country of the Revolution as this:
    "In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national Institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture."
  • Curious Qualms of Conscience: Ivanov berates Rubashov for being weak enough to suffer pangs of conscience, which he charges have caused the downfall of every revolution.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The Party refuses to accept honest mistakes, and considers every failure to be sabotage. The country's leading agriculturist was executed as a saboteur for advocating nitrate artificial manure over potash. Rubashov mentions that in the aluminum trust he managed, "workers were shot as saboteurs because of some trifling negligence caused by over-tiredness. If a man is two minutes late at clocking-in, he is fired, and a stamp is put in his identity-papers which makes it impossible for him to find work elsewhere."
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Averted strongly. Rubashov is not and has never been a hero; he has actually done things just as bad or worse than what is being done to him to others when the party demanded it. He has no code of morality to which he can truly appeal beyond the will of the party, and the party now demands that he die for crimes he didn't commit, so this is what he does. This sets him apart from the officer in the neighboring cell, who belongs to a pre-revolutionary code.
    No. 402: Honor is to live and die for one's beliefs.
    Rubashov: Honor is to be useful without vanity.
  • Dumb Is Good: According to Wassilij: "It's come to this in the world now that cleverness and decency are at loggerheads, and whoever sides with one must do without the other. It’s not good for a man to work things out too much."
  • Every Scar Has a Story: Gletkin has a scar on his skull from the time he was tortured (see Torture Always Works).
  • Foregone Conclusion: Rubashov is going to be shot, and he knows it. The question is what he will (or will not) say before his execution, and to whom.
  • From a Certain Point of View: From a certain point of view, the charges brought up against Rubashov were true; for instance he did talk about plans of removing Number One by violence, or handing over a strategic territory to an enemy country. But nothing would have ever came of it, because the old generation was too tired, too worn out to actually do anything: "the whole activity of the so-called opposition had been senile chatter". But Rubashov can't explain this to Gletkin. However, when he's accused of something that isn't true from any point of view - committing sabotage in the aluminum trust he led - he manages to convince Gletkin to drop the charge.
  • Grand Inquisitor Scene: Rubashov's will is broken down by two scenes of this type, one with his old friend, Ivanov, the other with Gletkin.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Another theme in the novel: the old society was unjust and repressive, but in fighting against it the Party became even worse monsters than the old rulers. The old society demanded obedience, but the new one demands absolute dedication to their cause: obeying them is not enough - they want you to think like they do.
  • Kangaroo Court: Rubashov's trial is just for show; his fate was decided long before.
  • Long List: Rubashov gives Ivanov a list of things that are actually worse since the revolution. The list does nothing to shake Ivanov's dogmatic opinion.
  • The Lost Lenore: Arlova, Rubashov's former secretary and lover. Rubashov recalls her in a sisterly light, but the scent of her body lingers with him, as does the curve of her neck, which may have been where she was shot after he made her take the heat for him.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Ivanov uses this as an excuse for the Reign of Terror:
    "Every year several million people are killed quite pointlessly by epidemics and other natural catastrophes. And we should shrink from sacrificing a few hundred thousand for the most promising experiment in history? Not to mention the legions of those who die of undernourishment and tuberculosis in coal and quicksilver mines, rice-fields and cotton plantations. No one takes any notice of them; nobody asks why or what for; but if here we shoot a few thousand objectively harmful people, the humanitarians all over the world foam at the mouth."
  • Motive Decay: The Revolution as a whole.
  • Nazi Germany: Never explicitly called that, but the country is referred to several times throughout the novel. The year 1933 is frequently mentioned in conjunction with it; 1933 was the year Hitler became Chancellor. Rubashov goes to Germany in a flashback to excommunicate a party member who isn't using the party's literature but instead substituting his own.
  • No Name Given: No. 402, the man in the cell next to Rubashov's, is only known by his cell number; he refuses to give his name when Rubashov asks. The real name of No. 406, whom No. 402 calls "Rip Van Winkle," is also never divulged.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Ivanov tells Rubashov that their positions could easily have been reversed, and Rubashov admits to himself that, because they shared the same philosophy, if he had been interrogating Ivanov he would have brought the same arguments against him. This is one likely reason why Ivanov is also arrested and shot before Rubashov.
  • The Old Convict: While Rubashov has been in other prisons before, and No. 406 had spent twenty years in another prison, No. 402 has known this particular prison for years.
  • Old Cop, Young Cop: Rubashov's chillingly pragmatic old friend Ivanov and the young zealot Gletkin are a Well-Intentioned Extremist Secret Police version who embody the old and new generations of Soviets as they try to make Rubashov confess to crimes that he is sometimes only guilty of From a Certain Point of View.
  • Plea Bargain: Some prisoners are made to confess through torture, or to save their own lives or those of their relatives. Rubashov, however, is promised no reward for willingly denouncing himself as a traitor.
  • The Purge: Rubashov is just the latest victim in a series of purges within the Party.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Rubashov ironically recalls having advocated civil war and other extreme measures as the only way to win the Revolution, and that as a Full-Circle Revolution its only consistency with past ideology is its denial of decency. Rubashov sees his nemesis Gletkin, who received none of his education in pre-revolutionary times, not as a betrayer of the Revolution but as its logical product, and calls him a "Neanderthal."
  • The Scapegoat: Gletkin explains that, since the necessity of scapegoats has been accepted throughout human history, it is only natural that the failures of the Party be explained away by having men like Rubashov denounce themselves as saboteurs.
  • Silent Scapegoat: The Party expects Rubashov to confess crimes he never committed for the sake of the country. He eventually decides to do so.
  • Start X to Stop X: According to Ivanov, the Party must "become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering", has to "sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered" and to "whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped".
  • Thought Crime: Obviously, any dissent from the Party line is considered a crime. And there is nobody Who Watches the Watchmen?. And yes, quite a few Party members sincerely believe they are doing Brainwashing for the Greater Good.
  • Torture Always Works: Gletkin is a firm believer in this, stating "Human beings able to resist any amount of physical pressure do not exist." Ivanov brings up that during the Civil War, Gletkin was captured by the enemy, and they tied a lighted candlewick on to his shaven skull, but he didn't confess. Gletkin counters that this was only because they didn't have enough time to torture him, as he was rescued a few hours later. Averted in the case of Rubashov, who confesses under non-violent interrogation without being tortured.
  • Totalitarian Utilitarian: The philosophy of the revolution in a nutshell. Ivanov at one point notes that countless people die pointlessly and meaninglessly of starvation or disease every year, so he sees no reason why the party should shed any tears over the need to exterminate a few million 'objectively harmful' people if it helps create a better world for those who survive.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: The main theme of the novel. Rubashov, along with the rest of the Party, used to believe this; but late in his life, he started doubting himself, seeing the results.
    • And yet, in the end he accepts his own execution as a logical consequence of With Us or Against Us (see below).
  • Villain Protagonist: While "villain" may be a stretch, Rubashov is certainly no hero; over the course of the book it's revealed that he sold out various party members to enemy governments because the party wished him to.
  • The Voice: No. 402 is a version. Rubashov communicates with him by knocking on the wall, but they never meet in person.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The book has a flashback to Rubashov excommunicating a Party member (which means death for him since the Party is no longer protecting him) for suggesting that revolutionaries should make common cause with more moderate opponents of a tyrannical regime (which is clearly Nazi Germany, though it's never called by its name).
  • Withholding Their Name: No. 402 refuses to give his name when Rubashov asks. No, we don't know their name, either.
  • With Us or Against Us: Rubashov recalls having enforced the principle that not to be absolutely with the Party was to be against the Revolution, and realizes he is doomed by that same principle now that the Party has decided to destroy him.