Darkness at Noon Summary

Based on the events of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, Darkness at Noon tells the story of Nicolas Rubashov, a once-important figure in the Communist Party who is arrested and imprisoned for treason.

  • Rubashov is interrogated by his old friend Ivanov. He is accused of being a member of the "opposition" and plotting to assassinate the Party leader. In exchange for his confession, Ivanov promises a twenty-year sentence instead of the death penalty.
  • Alone in his cell, Rubashov recalls people from his past whom he betrayed and reflects upon the ruthlessness of the new generation.
  • Ivanov is executed and replaced by Gletkin, who elicits a confession by torturing Rubashov. Rubashov is executed.

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2005

The First Hearing

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Darkness at Noon begins with the arrest of ex-Commissar of the People Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov. After being taken from his apartment by two officers in the middle of the night, Rubashov becomes the inmate of prison cell No. 404, where he expects to remain in solitary confinement until he is executed as an enemy of the Party. Rubashov is a member of the “old guard,” the Communist intellectuals who led the Russian Revolution under Vladimir Lenin and are now being “liquidated” at the command of their former comrade, No. 1 (Joseph Stalin), now leader of the USSR.

Rubashov begins to communicate with his neighbor in cell No. 402 through the “quadratic alphabet,” a system in which prisoners use combinations of knocks or taps representing letters to spell out words on their cell walls. Although a Czarist and therefore politically at odds with Rubashov, former soldier No. 402 is eager to converse with his neighbor. Later, Rubashov remembers an assignment he carried out for the Party in 1933. In a town in Germany, Rubashov met with a young man named Richard, the leader of the local revolutionary cell, and expelled him from the Party for distributing his own pamphlets instead of official propaganda. Rubashov himself was arrested by German officials a week later, and he now finds himself haunted by the memory of Richard’s pleas for Rubashov not to denounce him.

Once a day, some of the prisoners are allowed to walk around the prison yard in pairs. Rubashov notices that an emaciated man with a harelip stares up at his window every day. No. 402 tells Rubashov that “Hare-lip,” who is his neighbor in No. 400 and was recently tortured, sends Rubashov his greetings.

Tormented by an ache in the root of a tooth that was knocked out during his torture in Germany, Rubashov continues to ruminate on his past. Rubashov was celebrated upon his return from Germany to the USSR, but when he discovered No. 1 was beginning to eliminate members of the old guard whom he considered a threat, Rubashov asked for a mission abroad. No. 1 sent him to a Belgian port where he met with a Party member called Little Loewy, a leader among the city’s dockworkers. Rubashov’s assignment was to convince the local Party cell to defy an official boycott and aid in the covert transport of goods from “Over There” (the USSR) to the “aggressor” (Italy). The leaders of the cell reluctantly agreed after Rubashov explained that they must prioritize the industrial development of the “Country of the Revolution” over “sentimentality.” Those same leaders were expelled from the Party a few days later, and Little Loewy hanged himself after being denounced. Like Richard, Little Loewy now haunts Rubashov’s memory.

A few days later, Rubashov is brought to an administrative office to be interrogated. The magistrate in charge of his case turns out to be his old friend and former battalion commander, Ivanov. Although aware that criticizing the Party will only increase his chances of being executed, Rubashov tells his old friend that the Party has failed: it no longer understands or represents the masses and now makes politics rather than history. Ivanov reminds Rubashov of how suspicious it looked when he went abroad immediately after returning from Germany to find that his old friends were being arrested. He also reminds Rubashov that, after he took a job with the Trade Delegation, his secretary, Arlova, was accused of counter-revolutionary activities. Although Arlova counted on Rubashov for her defense—and the Party expected Rubashov to immediately denounce her—Rubashov waited until he was himself accused to proclaim his loyalty to the Party, and Arlova was executed.

When Rubashov continues to deny membership in an oppositional group, Ivanov informs him that they already have a confession from a man who claims Rubashov arranged for him to assassinate No. 1. Ivanov advises Rubashov to confess to being a member of the opposition but to deny having plotted against No. 1’s life (a charge Ivanov himself knows is false). If Rubashov gives a partial confession, he will most likely be given a public trial, which Ivanov himself will handle; if he denies everything, his case will be classed as “administrative,” meaning he will be removed from Ivanov’s authority and tried in secret before being executed. Ivanov believes that, with a public trial, he can have Rubashov’s sentence reduced to twenty years imprisonment. Rubashov refuses, and Ivanov gives him two weeks to change his mind.

The Second Hearing

Rubashov begins a diary in which he writes that he and his fellow revolutionaries originally acted on the basis of logic and reason but that No. 1 and the Party now act solely on faith in their own rightness. Rubashov, however, has lost his faith and believes it is up to history to decide who has acted rightly and who wrongly. He has also become aware for the first time of an illogical part of his mind that asserts itself through daydreams, memories, and toothache. Identifying it with his individuality and thus with the first person singular, Rubashov calls this “silent partner” in his thoughts the “grammatical fiction.”

Meanwhile, Ivanov and his younger subordinate, Gletkin, debate Rubashov’s case. Ivanov believes his old friend will confess once he accepts that it is the logical thing to do, but Gletkin believes that harder tactics like sleep deprivation are the only way to make a prisoner capitulate. Unconvinced, Ivanov orders Gletkin to leave Rubashov alone. Meanwhile, Rubashov is treated much better than before and spends most of his time reflecting on his past. He is particularly tormented by guilt over the fact that he never came to the aid of the innocent Arlova, who was not only his secretary but his lover.

A new prisoner is placed in the formerly empty cell No. 406. Rubashov tries to communicate with him, but No. 406 always taps out the same misspelled phrase: “ARIE, YE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH.” No. 402 tells Rubashov that his new neighbor is “Rip Van Winkle,” a revolutionary who was sentenced to life imprisonment in his southeastern European home country. After being unexpectedly released after twenty years in solitary confinement, he came to the USSR only to be arrested two weeks later. That same day, Rubashov is taken to the barber, who slips him a note advising him to “die in silence.” In his cell, he ruminates on whether it would be better to preserve his dignity by following the barber’s advice or to preserve his life by accepting Ivanov’s offer.

Rubashov is now allowed to join the other prisoners in walking around the prison yard. He is paired with Rip Van Winkle, who turns out to be a friendly but fragile old man, clearly affected by his twenty years in solitary confinement but not insane as Rubashov had previously imagined. He encourages Rubashov not to give up hope.

On the last night of the period allotted him by Ivanov, Rubashov is informed by No. 402 that prisoner No. 380 is about to be executed. To Rubashov’s grief, No. 380 is revealed to be his old friend and roommate Michael Bogrov. Along with the other prisoners, Rubashov drums on his cell door and watches through the spyhole as Bogrov, whimpering and barely recognizable, is dragged down the hallway. After he is gone, Rubashov realizes Bogrov was calling his name.

Ivanov visits Rubashov’s cell later that night. He explains that Gletkin, against his orders, arranged to have the recently tortured Bogrov told of Rubashov’s presence and then led past Rubashov’s cell on his way to be shot. Ivanov begs Rubashov to listen to logic instead of to his personal feelings and moral quandaries. Rubashov argues that the Party is hypocritical and has, through the numerous atrocities committed in the name of the revolution, created a world completely at odds with its original aims. Ivanov, however, still believes that the end always justifies the means as long as the end is social progress and that the rights of the individual must be sacrificed for the good of the collective. Exhausted, Rubashov promises to think over Ivanov’s offer again. Ivanov tells Gletkin that Rubashov will confess the next day.

The Third Hearing

Rubashov begins to write down his new “theory of the relative political maturity of the masses” and decides to agree to Ivanov’s terms so that he can continue his work. That morning Rip Van Winkle fails to tap out his customary message. When Rubashov doesn’t see him in the prison yard, he concludes that the aged revolutionary has been taken away somewhere. He is now paired with a peasant who unwittingly confirms Rubashov’s belief that the masses do not understand the changes brought about by the revolution. Back in his cell, he tells No. 402 he has decided to capitulate. He argues with No. 402 about the definition of honor; No. 402 believes honor is synonymous with decency and dying for one’s beliefs, while Rubashov says honor is “to be useful without vanity.” He then signs and submits his partial confession.

Two days later, Rubashov still has not heard from Ivanov and is growing anxious. Around midnight, two armed officials arrive to escort him down the cellar stairs to Gletkin’s office. Shining the blinding light of his lamp into Rubashov’s eyes, Gletkin explains that Ivanov has been arrested and that Gletkin has been charged with handling Rubashov’s case.

Gletkin reads Rubashov the accusations against him, which culminate in the attempted poisoning of No. 1. Rubashov confesses to harboring “counter-revolutionary” humanitarian ideals but denies having plotted an assassination. Hare-lip is then brought into the room and, prompted by Gletkin, states that Rubashov convinced him to poison No. 1. Rubashov suddenly recognizes the terrified Hare-lip as the son of his closest friend, the lately liquidated Professor Kieffer. Sleep-deprived and unable to argue with Gletkin’s logic—which states that a plot to assassinate No. 1 is merely the logical conclusion of Rubashov’s oppositional beliefs—Rubashov confesses. His interrogation, however, is not over; for days Rubashov is taken every hour or two to Gletkin’s office, where he debates with the “Neanderthal” officer for hours only to confess to further crimes he did not commit. He also learns that Ivanov has been shot. Finally, Gletkin tells Rubashov that, for the good of his country—the bastion of the revolution, which must be preserved at any cost—he must render one last service to the Party by denouncing the opposition at a public trial. Defeated and wishing only for sleep, Rubashov agrees.

The Grammatical Fiction

Wassilij, the porter in the building where Rubashov lived at the time of his arrest, listens despairingly as his daughter, Vera, reads him the newspaper article about Rubashov’s public trial. The porter fought in Rubashov’s regiment in the Russian Civil War and, until Vera threw it out, had a picture of Rubashov hanging above his bed next to a portrait of No. 1. At his trial, Rubashov confesses to all charges against him, condemns the opposition, and declares he has overcome the temptation to die in silence, submitting instead to the infallible will of the Party. He and Hare-lip are sentenced to death, and in order to avoid being denounced, Wassilij signs a petition demanding the extermination of traitors.

In his cell, Rubashov reflects for the last time on the failure of the revolution. Perhaps, he thinks, the source of this failure lies in the fact that, contrary to Party ideology, the ends might not actually justify the means, and pure reason alone might not be enough to guide humanity in the creation of a better world. He joins the other prisoners in drumming on his cell door for Hare-lip, who is being led to his execution. Knowing Rubashov will be next, No. 402 comforts him, admitting he envies the revolutionary his imminent death, and Rubashov thanks No. 402 for his companionship. An armed guard then leads Rubashov into the cellar, where, disillusioned with the revolution to which he dedicated his life, the former commissar is executed.

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