by Clement Dossin
external image 200px-Darkness_at_Noon_cover-1.jpg
"How can one change the world if one identifies oneself with everybody?" (11)
"Darkness at Noon" by Arthur Koestler (p 25)

"Darkness at Noon", through its denunciation of Stalinism, reflects on issues such as individualism, political and rational thinking and asks the reader this fundamental question: does the most just and respectable end justify horrible means?

1 Author Background
2 Plot Summary
3 Historical Context
4 Themes and Symbols
5 Debate and Reception
6 Personal Analysis
7 References


Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler
-Arthur Koestler was born in Hungary in 1905 in a family of Ashkenazi Jews.
-He was the president of a Zionist fraternity in the University of Vienna.
-In 1931, when he was 26 years old, he joined the communist Party of Germany and went to Russia. He joined the communist Party because he “felt irresistibly attracted by the utopian promise of a classless society” (7).
-He was captured and sentenced to death in 1937 by Francoists during the Spanish Civil War while he was in Spain working for a British newspaper. He was exchanged and sent to the UK and was therefore saved.
-He started to become disillusioned by the Party when the Great Purges started in 1935.
-The Moscow trials of 1938 and his experience during the Spanish civil war turned him into an anti-communist.
-The Stalinist purges and the Moscow trials are his main inspirations for "Darkness at noon": the trial of the “Anti-Soviet Bloc Rightists and Trotskyites” was the last straw for Koestler (7). This trial reached a new level of horror and absurdity. One of the people accused was Nikolai Bukharin (see Historical Context). During the trial, the defendants were tortured and forced to confess to totally absurd crimes that they had not committed.
-He then moved to France and wrote "Darkness at noon" there in 1940.
-Reflecting upon his decision to join the communist Party, he wrote: "in the 1930s, conversion to the communist faith was not a fashion or a craze - it was a sincere and spontaneous expression of an optimism born of despair" The New Statesman.
-According to a critique (Hans Rudnick), Koestler was "one of the very best chronicles of the twentieth century”. He told “the world of the threat to the individual by fascism and communism” (9).


Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov is a Bolshevik and Commissar of the People under communist Russia in the 1930’s. He suddenly gets arrested for plotting against the State and attempting to kill Number one, a crime he has not committed. While he is in his cell waiting for the interrogations and the trial, he thinks about the persons whose lives he has ruined for the sake of the Party and he now realizes that the system he was part of and fought for has trapped him and made him one of its victims. One of these people is Arlova, his former secretary and lover whom he denounced to protect himself and has been executed. Rubashov’s two interrogators are Ivanov, an old friend of his with whom he studied, and Gletkin a young and ruthless man, strongly devoted to the State. Ivanov does not think that Rubashov is guilty but he asks him to confess as a last service for the Party. Gletkin is part of the new generation that was born after the revolution and has known nothing else but communist Russia: he is “in complete isolation both from the outside world and the past” (6). Gletkin therefore thinks that Rubashov must be proved guilty because the Party says he is. Warning: if you want to read the book stop here. In the middle of his captivity, Rubashov learns that Ivanov was taken away and executed because his treatment of the prisoners was too mild. After endless and harsh interrogatories, Rubashov finally confesses to the false charges. He is then executed.


Darkness at Noon" is a criticism of Stalinism and the methods used by the Communist Party in USSR.
-"Number One" represents Joseph Stalin.
-The Great Purges and the Moscow trial (1936-1938), during which Stalin and his police arrested all the dissidents and executed them, are the main focus of the book.

In his essay about Koestler's novels (Essay: "Arthur Koestler"), Orwell says that Rubashov can be seen as a reference to both Trotsky and Bukharin. As you can see below, their fate was really similar to Rubashov's...

Nikolai Bukharin
Nikolai Bukharin

Bukharin was a Bolshevik revolutionary who was one of the main framers of the Soviet Constitution of 1936. He was accused of trying to overthrow the state (exact same charges as Rubashov) and was therefore arrested in 1937. He was executed in 1938. Before his death he wrote this following note to Stalin (“Koba” for the Party officials): “Koba, why do you need me to die?” This note reveals the total arbitrary and unjust aspect of the Great Purges which were nothing more than the result of Stalin’s ruthlessness, paranoia and megalomania.

Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky

Trotsky was a Bolshevik revolutionary and one of the leaders of the October Revolution of 1917. He served high functions such as the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. He was also the founder of the Red Army. He was opposed to Stalin’s ideology mostly because he wanted to have an international revolution and spread Communism around the world while Stalin was more concerned about Communism applied to the USSR only. His opposition to Stalin’s policies caused him to be expelled from the Communist Party. He then went in exile to Mexico where he kept on denouncing the abuses of Stalin’s bureaucracy. He was killed in 1940, in Mexico, by a soviet agent named Ramon Mercader.


1.Totalitarianism and its methods
Even though "Darkness at Noon" refers to a single totalitarian regime (Stalinism), I think that the Stalin's methods and abuses described in the book are pretty much similar to the ones of any totalitarian regime because totalitarianism needs very careful and specific methods to operate. In the book, Rubashov is kept awake for endless hours with a bright light shining straight in his face and is forced to confess in these conditions. Gletkin thinks that by inflicting a psychological tyranny on the prisoner, the prisoner has no choice but to confess to any charge because this is "a matter of constitution" (11): human nature cannot withhold such a pressure and must therefore accept anything that will release the individual from his pain and exhaustion. These tortures and false accusations are used by the totalitarians to maintain their power and brainwash the people. With their methods, they can wipe out any political dissident and therefore terrorize the people to completely control them. By applying this total censorship, only the totalitarian's point of view is available, people are therefore brainwashed and progressively become sheep following and executing what the shepherd (Party) says.

2. Bolshevism
The ideology depicted in the novel is the one that was ruling USSR at the time: Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks are the people who seized power after the October Revolution of 1917. For Koestler, the problem with Bolshevism is in the fact that Bolsheviks think that the only way they can get to the socialist ideal is through a quick and violent revolution. They then establish a dictatorship in which they are the truth givers, crush any opposition and totally ignore the will of the people. In the book, Rubashov explains that the Bolsheviks only believe in a violent revolution because the masses do not know what is good for them: they therefore need leaders to take actions and decisions for them. That is where, for Koestler, they make a terrible mistake because they ignore the needs of each person individually, which leads us to the next theme.

3. Individualism vs. Collectivism
A significant part of the book explores the effects of Stalinism on the individual. The Party requires that the individuals renounce any self-interest, individual and personal thoughts or attitudes. Everything must be aimed towards the common good and the individual is therefore suppressed to reach this goal. Rubashov even mentions the fact that between Party members they are told not to say "I" but "we". Uniqueness is lost to conformity and melting of the individual into the population. However, Rubashov notices, during his time in jail, that the suppression of the individual leads to "the grammatical fiction" (11) where the "I" re-emerges and along with it, the whole consciousness and notion of self. I will discuss "the grammatical fiction" more in depth in my analysis.

4. Extreme rational thinking
The Party members, Rubashov included, apply extreme rational thinking to politics. They use a deeply logical and scientific thinking. That is why morality is twisted and individual desires are suppressed: because they are unimportant and dangerous obstacle to the ultimate goal, they must logically cease to exist (this also applies to the dissidents who are arrested and executed). This extreme rationalism is eventually proved to be against human nature when the "I" and the notion of individuality re-emerges into Rubashov's mind. Rationalism is also proved to be totally absurd by the arrests of Old Bolsheviks like Rubashov. Indeed, according to Koestler, the Old Bolsheviks confessed, not because of torture, but because they were defending “an ideology running amuck” (7). The logic of their ideology led to their own accusation. The sense of duty and the notion of self sacrifice for the masses that they defended has trapped them and they can therefore do nothing but to confess. Extreme rationalism is absurd if applied to political or philosophical thinking.

5. The ethics of violence
As described in the paragraph above, the Party's way of functioning can be summarized as the following logical and scientific statement: the goal of the regime must be achieved no matter what and anything that goes against this goal or is in its way must be got rid of. This process sets up the biggest dilemma of the book: “whether, or to what extent, a noble end justifies ignoble means” (7). This fundamental question is what torments Rubashov: are all these unjust crimes justified in the context of reaching the utopian socialist ideal? Once again I do not want to discuss this issue too much here because it will be largely debated in my analysis.


Overall, "Darkness at Noon" was publically acclaimed. Critiques deeply appreciated the book for the issues that it reached but also for the style and power of Koestler’s writing: “hallucinating scenes leave the reader with vivid impressions” (4). French critique Yves Gandon said that “Darkness at Noon” was “without question, a work of exceptional merit” (4). However in the context of the Cold War, people with an extreme left political opinion viewed the book as a strategy to weaken the USSR in its fight against the West. They also saw the book as a total exaggeration.

In France, the Communists threatened the publishers of the book. When they realized that this method failed, they bought entire stocks of the book and destroyed them which led to a black market where the book was sold at five times its original price. Jean Kanapa, a French communist, said that Koestler’s heroes were “traitors to their people, to the revolution, turncoats among the proletariat” (4). In France, when “Darkness at Noon” was first published, it got sold out immediately. Between 1945 and 1948, 300 000 copies of the book were sold in France only (4).

In the context of the book, Orwell said: “Nowadays, over increasing areas of the earth, one is imprisoned not for what he does but for what one is, or, more exactly, for what one is suspected of being” (6). Orwell analyzes Rubashov's downfall as being similar to the one of the Old Bolsheviks during the Great Purges. The Old Bolsheviks failed because they remained “Europeans at heart” (6): they are more similar to the people and the system they overthrew than to the new totalitarian regime and ruthless people they have created. Like Rubashov, they have been trapped and made victims by their own ideology.

Scott Trudell sees Rubashov as “a former Communist hero losing his faith” (10). Trudell thinks that Koestler used Rubashov to illustrate the failure in the Bolsheviks' ideology. Koestler thinks that the Bolsheviks' atrocities lay in the fact that the Bolsheviks believe in achieving the socialist ideal through a violent revolution and therefore ignoring the will of the masses. Trudell then goes on to contrast Bolshevism with Menshevism. Mensheviks believe that the socialist ideal must be obtained through gradual reforms and "Social-Democracy" (10). Mensheviks therefore think that the will of the people must be the driving factor of politics. For Scott Trudell, Koestler's disillusion with communism resides in the fact that USSR was led by the Bolsheviks and not by the Mensheviks.

In her essay” (3), Marta Feher argues that in "Darkness at Noon" the law process is reversed. In our society when a person is convicted, this person is considered innocent until proven guilty: the crime must be proved and analyzed to find the culprit. In "Darkness at Noon" it is the opposite. We start with an assumption: Rubashov is guilty. Because this assumption is held by the Party, it is then proven that he is guilty: the law is no longer here to investigate on the crime and give justice, now its only purpose is to back up and justify any desire of the Party or any charges rendered by it. The law is now the ultimate tool to secure the totalitarian power. She concludes that in any totalitarian society we see this common trend of inversion in the law and therefore the moral code being reversed as well.

The editor of the "New Statesman" (2) wrote one of his editorials on the effects of global warming on poor countries' populations. He related this issue with "Darkness at Noon" by paraphrasing one of the arguments used by Bolsheviks leaders: why are deaths with a specific purpose unacceptable while millions of people die accidentally and no one cares? The editorial ironically goes on to say that if the Bolsheviks leaders were alive today, their point will be even stronger since now the accidents or environmental catastrophes are the results of the rich (capitalist) nations' industries and activities and mainly people from developing nations suffer from it. This is an interesting and sarcastic way of looking at this classical Bolshevik argument. I will discuss in my analysis why I think that this argument, which is part of the debate of the end justifying the means, can be refuted.

Gilbert Taylor (5) argues that books like "Darkness at Noon" played an important role during the Cold War. "Darkness at Noon" justified the West's cause in the fight with the USSR. However the book has triggered some unjustified hatred towards communism as a whole. Even though the portrayal of Stalinism given in "Darkness at Noon" is entirely true, the reader needs to keep in mind that the book is denouncing Stalinism but not communism as a whole (Stalinism being one of many branches of communism). That is why such books as "Darkness at Noon" can be dangerous if read without historical and political knowledge of communism. If taken out of context, the book leads to unjustified hatred towards any socialist groups and we have seen this occur among the population of the Western Block (Western Europe and the US).


A very interesting contrast in the book is the one between the two officers Ivanov and Gletkin. As I mentioned earlier, Ivanov does not believe that Rubashov is guilty. He just thinks he should confess to the charges because he must fulfill what the Party wants from him. However for Gletkin, the fact that Rubashov is either guilty or innocent is completely irrelevant. All that matters for the young officer is the fact that the Party declared Rubashov guilty and that he must therefore be guilty: the Party shapes reality in the eyes of Gletkin and Gletkin thinks that the only truth possible is delivered by the Party. His isolation from the past makes him a man with no imagination and prior knowledge which is why he cannot think in any other terms and logic than the ones of the Party. Gletkin thinks that anyone disagreeing with Stalin, even on a detail, wants to overthrow him or attempt to kill him. The only criticism he can think of is murder. We therefore see that the acts are accredited to thoughts by an outside force other than the individual: the Party. Indeed, the Party is responsible for connecting thoughts and deeds for the individual and through the use of logical and rational thinking, Rubashov's little disagreement with the Party's policies become an attempt to kill Number one (Stalin). By establishing this absurdly rational connection between thoughts and deeds, the Party has total control over the individuals and can arrest anyone by pretending that a random thought leads to a horrific action.

At the end Rubashov cannot see anything but “desert and darkness of night” (11): he cannot see or understand the purpose and the aim of the Party, in other words he cannot see the end. In that case, the end cannot justify the means since no means can be possibly justified for getting to a goal that is not understood or an end that is not seen. Koestler's point here is that the means are an including part of the end. A noble cause must be achieved through noble means because the means are a defining part of the end. I think we can see it as a causality problem. The end (the effect) is a direct consequence of the means (the cause). A good end must therefore require good means. In religion, the opposite occurs: the means are stressed over the end. That is why morality is the key in religion. Koestler therefore argues that religions are better for this reason: the means must be just to lead to a just end. For that similar reason, Bolshevism is doomed because it suppressed morality and the just means.

In the novel, Rubashov talks about the “relative maturity of the masses” that “lies in the capacity to recognize their own interest” (11). Bolsheviks think that the masses are immature and cannot know what is good for them politically and economically and that is why a dictatorship must be established: so that the people have someone qualified who can take decisions for them. This process must be led by a violent revolution because the people are not willing to acknowledge that they cannot make the good choices by themselves. However, Rubashov notices that at the end, the Party and its dictatorship are not more mature than the masses. This is why the book is called “Darkness at Noon”: the Party has led the people to total despair and obscurity. Koestler, with the grammatical fiction, seems to argue that justice and righteousness is in the Self, in each individual. If this feeling of being unique and the rejections of any personal thoughts occur (like in Stalin's Russia), the grammatical fiction re-emerges, the "I" takes over the "we" and Rubashov realizes that the notion of justice or righteousness are first achieved on a personal level and then on a collective level and not the other way around. Therefore, the masses have to know what is good for them and it is on this basis that they can build a just society and that is why Bolshevism is doomed to nothing but ruthlessness and failure.

Unlike some critiques who said that Koestler was totally against socialism, I think that Koestler denounces totalitarianism but he does not condemn the socialist economic system. The masses can recognize their own interests when morality is concerned. There is, therefore, a noble form of socialism where morality is maintained and that is what Koestler believes and shows us trough the character of Rip Van Winkle who taps biblical language on the walls and is still a strong socialist: he can draw the map of Russia with his eyes closed. Socialism in the form of a socialist democracy as the Mensheviks were advocating seems entirely fair to Koestler. As discussed in the paragraph above, for Koestler, on the basis of democracy where the individual is not suppressed, the socialist ideal can flourish. This reminded me of "the Communist Manifesto" that I read a while ago. When I finished this rather small book, I was thinking "ok thank you Marx, you have stated how a utopian society could be like but what about how to get there?" Indeed I think that communism is very vague on the means that bring us to the end. This is this lack of procedures to follow to reach the socialist ideal that leads to such disasters as Stalin's ruling of Russia. And this is why "Darkness at Noon" is a perfect dystopia: the Bolsheviks failed to achieve a utopian ideal and their ruthless means led to a dystopian society. What once was a dream has become a nightmare.

Another issue addressed in the novel is the one of guilt. Rubashov is guilty of once believing in Bolshevik thinking. Accusations, acts of treachery and assassinations are the inexorable consequences of this ideology as we discussed above. That is why Rubashov’s spot in his cell was planned ever since he became a Party member. "I have thought and acted as I had to do. If I was right, I have nothing to repent of; if wrong, I shall pay." (11) In other words, Rubashov shall pay because the Party wants him to, as Ivanov said to him: “your testimony at the trial will be the last service you can do the Party” (11). Rubashov pleads guilty because of his loyalty to the Party and because of the extreme rational thinking discussed earlier and with the Party's thinking: the individual is crushed to serve the regime. For a Party member, honor is being "useful without vanity" (11). The grammatical fiction is vanity and being useful can mean dying if the party said so. In this resides the horror of Stalinism and the message of "Darkness at Noon".


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9.Rudnick, Hans H. "Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind." World Literature Today 75.1 Winter 2001: p123. Literature Resource Center. Gale. UIUC. 6 Mar. 2009 http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=LitRC&u=uiuc_uc

10.Trudell, Scott. "Critical Essay on 'Darkness at Noon." Novels for Students Vol. 19. 2004. Literature Resource Center. Gale. UIUC. 6 Mar. 2009 http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=LitRC&u=uiuc_uc

11.Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon. New York: Penguin Modern Classics, 1987.