Darkness at Noon
In his essay, The God That Failed, Arthur Koestler opens by saying that “a faith is not acquired by reasoning” (The God That Failed, 15). When creating his protagonist for Darkness at Noon, Koestler did not need to look far beyond his own experience. He became a member of the Communist Party in Germany in 1931. The country was going through a tumultuous period both economically and politically. The climate was ripe for Koestler who described it as “…a disintegrating society thirsting for faith” (The God That Failed, 17). Koestler quenched his own thirst as part of the Communist Party, even spending time in the Soviet Union. However, he did not find the proletarian utopia for which he hoped. Instead Koestler found apathy, slums, and starvation (The God That Failed, 61). The propaganda that helped to recruit Koestler, he discovered to be a lie. A “necessary lie” that kept the populous satiated. It explained away the elimination of “oppositional groups and hostile classes” (The God That Failed, 61). The lies became a malleable tool for the Party leadership, and it was used to create a new order when necessary. Koestler cited the 1934 Congress that set forth new policies that completely negated earlier ones, again the proletariat was satisfied. Koestler tried to leave the Party but found that it was not an easy proposition. After seven years in the Party, Koestler found himself among “…Trotskyites, critical sympathizers…and so on…” (The God That Failed, 74).
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Nicholas Rubashov–the protagonist of Darkness at Noon–was also at a crossroads. Disillusioned with a Party that replaced intelligentsia with “necessary lies” and a leadership that abandoned the Proletarian Revolution. Most of Darkness at Noon takes place in an unnamed prison, in an unnamed country. The novel begins with Rubashov inspecting the prison cell where he was brought. Everything was as he expected it to be and it is evident that this was not the first time, he had been a prisoner. At the time of his latest arrest Rubashov had been dreaming. He dreamt vividly about an earlier arrest in Germany. The officers who arrested him wore the “…costume of Praetorian guards of the German dictatorship” (3); and bore the insignia of an “…aggressively barbed cross…” (3) The dream was so vivid that the reality of the men from the “…Commissariat of the Interior…” (6) seemed an extension of his trance.
The cell in which Rubashov was placed, was an isolation cell removed from the general population of the prison. Here Rubashov would be left in silence, presumably to ponder his fate. Quickly Rubashov makes a prediction, “so I shall be shot…” (12). Regardless of his innocence or guilt, Rubashov knows that there is only one destiny ahead of him–to be shot. It was the same fate that met other party officials–the Chairman of the International, the Prime Minister of the Revolutionary State. In his cell Rubashov knew that “the old guard is dead” (13), their destinies laid at the whim of Number One.
In the mid-1930s Joseph Stalin began a series of “purges” or “show trials” that were aimed at eliminating his political opponents. Stalin’s rise to power in the Soviet Union was not without controversy. Vladimir Lenin had died a decade earlier without naming a successor, and prior to his death appeared to lean ideologically closer to Leon Trotsky than to Stalin. However, Stalin was able to make the most of his opportunity and consigned his pragmatic stamp upon the revolution. The intellectuals, like Trotsky, were unceremoniously erased from Soviet history and disposed through exile or execution (Britannica, 2013).
Arthur Koestler had intended Rubashov to be an amalgam of several members of the “old revolutionary guard.” Each of them had suffered some punishment during Stalin’s purges. Compatriots of Lenin (and Stalin) like Nikolai Bukharin and Trotsky were charged with sabotaging “…the cause of the workers and collective farmers…” (Modern History Sourcebook). These are the same reasons that Rubashov–a former compatriot of Number One (Stalin)– is arrested and imprisoned.
Koestler does not give many details of Rubashov’s physical appearance. He is described as “…small, bearded, arrogant…” (22), wearing a pince-nez. Rubashov compulsively removes the spectacles and rubs them on his sleeve. He does it to either clear the vision of his future or his past. Rubashov also suffered a toothache, which was aggravated each time he recalled the unpleasant duties he carried out on behalf of the Party. In Germany he excommunicated a comrade, Richard, who made the mistake of inviting “moderates” into the diminished ranks (45). The toothache would occasionally “torment” (49) Rubashov as he examined the crimes for which he had been imprisoned. He was aware of how he left others to feel “…cheated and betrayed by him” (53), and he knew that he would pay for his actions.
Leaving a former member of the Communist party alone in the German dictatorship was not the only time Rubashov had betrayed a comrade. In an unnamed country he spoke to a loyal group of dock workers who held their harbor closed in observance of a boycott. Except that the Party was continuing to do business with the boycotted nation, contrary to their public position. The head of the dock workers realized the duplicity with which the Party operated. When he protested the hypocrisy, he was denounced and expelled from the Party. Three days later he hanged himself (75). When Rubashov thought back upon these events, his toothache would return.
If not the toothache, then the familiar scent of perfume from his former secretary and lover. Arlova had been Rubashov’s loyal servant, in and out of their office. Perhaps he loved her. He certainly felt at ease enough to make off-hand remarks, even about Number One. Arlova cautioned him, but mostly remained silent to Rubashov’s rantings (118). As change happened, Arlova became his only constant, and then she was gone. The Party re-assigned her to a library position and Rubashov could not protest. Then the suspicions began. Speeches by Number One were outnumbered by “oppositional works” (120) in the library and Arlova was reprimanded. Rubashov remained silent, but the toothache returned. The activities of Arlova’s family members “over there” (121) came into question, and she was dismissed from her position for being politically untrustworthy. Then one day her name was no longer spoken aloud (122). Rubashov knew her fate without ever having it confirmed.
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The shadow of Stalin’s purges hung over Rubashov’s recollections. Imagined crimes, minor infractions, all that was left unsaid. Richard had dared to allow moderates into the Party. While he hoped to keep the crusade alive, Number One saw it as a sullying of the puritans. little Loewy questioned the reason for breaking a strike on the docks, but Number One saw his authority being undermined. The whims of the Party served to regulate the straying sheep and gave Rubashov the feeling that they were being manipulated in “…a queer and ceremonious marionette-play…each saying the set piece” (118). The interrogations that followed were mere formalities. The verdict of guilt or innocence had already been decided, and it was evident to everyone around Rubashov. His block mates knew. The prison barber knew. When Rubashov had been taken for a shave the barber slipped a note under Rubashov’s collar. The note read, “die in silence” (127). However, Rubashov thought he might somehow best his interrogator.
Rubashov did not anticipate his examiner to be an old friend. If Rubashov could be so glib in his dictation to Arlova, he would undoubtedly be open with his former battalion commander, Ivanov. Regardless of his tone and line of questioning, Ivanov tried to assuage Rubashov’s fears. “I do not want you to be shot” (82), Ivanov said. Yet, Rubashov wore a brave-face and answered, “why actually do you people intend to have me shot?” (82). The accusations against Rubashov were quickly laid out. Ivanov surmised that Rubashov was unhappy because the Party, State, and masses had stopped representing the principles of the Revolution (83). The interrogation may not have ended as either side planned, but the examinations would continue. In a private meeting Ivanov met with another official, Gletkin. Gletkin felt that Ivanov was too easy in his interview with Rubashov. Gletkin represented the new order of the Party, one that quickly dispatched those who questioned the system. However, Ivanov recalled Rubashov’s “past merits” and gave his old friend time to consider his fate (107). When Ivanov’s plan failed, Gletkin was brought in to interrogate Rubashov. The young officer proved to be far less accommodating. Prolonged questioning, sleep deprivation, and Ivanov’s arrest brought Rubashov’s confession. He signed a statement admitting that he committed counter-revolutionary crimes in the service of a foreign power (224-245). Following a public trial, Rubashov was sentenced to “…death by shooting” (256).
As a forward to the novel Koestler describes Rubashov as the singular combination of several victims of the “Moscow Trails.” He might have also included himself in the amalgam. Those convicted in Stalin’s Purges were described as counterrevolutionaries who planned to “…murder leaders of the Communist Party” (Modern History Sourcebook). Among those convicted was Leon Trotsky–referred to as Judas. Koestler–though not convicted of a crime–found himself with the Trotskyites, and Rubashov confessed to counter-revolutionary crimes. Koestler wrote that a member of the intelligentsia could not be a proletariat (The God That Failed, 49), and Rubashov wrote that “…vision by logical deduction…” had been replaced (101). While Stalin moved the Communist Party away from “ideological sentiment” (Britannica, 2013).
Nicholas Rubashov was arrested, interrogated, and executed because he no longer served the needs of the revolution.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Stalinism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Oct. 2013, www.britannica.com/topic/Stalinism.
- Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon. Scribner, 2006.
- Koestler, Arthur. The God That Failed. www.chinhnghia.com/the-god-that-failed.pdf.
- “Modern History Sourcebook: Stalin’s Purges, 1935.” Internet History Sourcebooks, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1936purges.asp.