When Arthur Koestler began writing Darkness at Noon in 1938, much of Europe squirmed under the heel of totalitarian forces. The threat of fascism was very apparent to many intellectuals, but that of communism not nearly so much. Many naïve and prominent figures looked to the Soviet Union for leadership in the long march to a distant utopia. Koestler, a Communist Party activist for most of the 1930’s, knew the reality at first hand. He had seen countless numbers of friends censored and executed by the Communist Party. He had traveled extensively in the Soviet Union and seen its economic backwardness and widespread famine. Against this historical background, Darkness at Noon may be viewed first of all as a factually accurate account that uses the techniques of fiction. Koestler writes in a spare, straightforward fashion without stylistic flights. The understatement of the horrors and madness of the prison conveys its sordidness without adornment. The characters are not the anguished superhumans of Greek tragedy but small gray figures in a bureaucratic nightmare. They ride along in a train of destiny over which they not only have no control but also have no understanding.
Koestler focuses on the show trials as the particular manifestation of the Communist suppression. These trials took place throughout the 1930’s and represented the bloodthirsty, paranoid effort of Joseph Stalin (who is represented as Number 1 in the novel) to consolidate his position as dictator by liquidating all opposition, including his own former comrades in the Russian Revolution. The protagonist of the novel, Rubashov, is fictional, but he represents many Communist Party leaders who did exist and met their deaths through trumped-up charges brought against them by the Soviet police. Much of the narrative takes place inside the mind of Rubashov and presents a brilliant psychology study. Rubashov is a man trying to reconcile his present dilemma with the beliefs and actions of his earlier years. More specifically, Koestler addresses an issue that puzzled political analysts of his day: Why did those accused in the show trials plead guilty in open court to crimes that they did not commit? In answering this question, Koestler leads the reader through many dark labyrinths of Rubashov’s logical mind. The book on...
(The entire section is 944 words.)