Darkness at Noon Summary

Former Commissar Nicholas Rubashov is arrested in the middle of the night and secretly imprisoned in cell 404. Once a powerful figure in the Communist Party, the old Bolshevik has since fallen out of favor and been put in an isolation block for political prisoners. He communicates with his neighbor in cell 402 by use of a "quadratic alphabet," or a series of taps corresponding to letters on a grid.

  • Three days after his arrest, Rubashov is interrogated. Ivanov, an old college friend and former battalion commander, conducts the examination. Rubashov is accused of being a member of the opposition party and plotting to assassinate the Communist Party leader. In exchange for his confession, Ivanov promises a twenty-year sentence instead of the death penalty.
  • Rubashov recalls people from his past. First he thinks of Richard, a German killed by the Gestapo; then of Little Loewy, an advocate for the Belgian ports; and then of his secretary and mistress, Arlova, who begged for his help. Rubashov ruthlessly expelled all of them from the Party. And yet, somehow, he's not ruthless enough for the new generation.
  • Ivanov is arrested and executed for his mishandling of Rubashov's case. A new examiner, Gletkin, takes his place. Gletkin elicits a confession by torturing Rubashov, keeping him awake for days at a time. Despite promises to the contrary, Rubashov is sentenced to the death penalty and executed at the end of the novel.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Nicholas Rubashov, former commissar of the people and once a power in the party, is in prison. Arrested at his lodgings in the middle of the night, he is taken secretly to cell 404, which bears his name on a card just above the spy hole. His cell is located in an isolation block for political suspects.

At seven o’clock in the morning, Rubashov is awakened by a bugle, but he does not get up. Soon he hears sounds in the corridor. He imagines that someone is to be tortured, and he dreads hearing the first screams of pain. When the footsteps reach his own section, he sees through the eye hole that guards are serving breakfast. Rubashov does not receive any breakfast because he reported himself ill. He begins to pace up and down the cell, six and a half steps to the window, six and a half steps back.

Soon he hears a quiet knocking from the wall of the adjoining cell, 402. In communicating with one another, prisoners use the “quadratic alphabet,” a square of twenty-five letters, five horizontal rows of five letters each. The first series of taps represents the number of the row; the second series the number of the letter in the row. Thus, words can be spelled. From the communications Rubashov has with his neighbor, Rubashov pictures him as a military man, one not in sympathy with the methods of the great leader or with the views of Rubashov himself. From his window he sees prisoners walking in the courtyard for exercise. One of these, a man with a harelip, looks repeatedly up at Rubashov’s window. From his neighbor in cell 402, Rubashov learns that Hare-Lip is a political prisoner who was tortured in a steam bath the day before. A little later Hare-Lip, in cell 400, sends Rubashov his greetings, via the inmate of 402, but he will not give his name.

Three days later, Rubashov is brought up for his first examination. The examiner is Ivanov, Rubashov’s old college friend and former battalion commander. During the interview the prisoner learns that he is accused of belonging to the opposition to the party and that he is suspected of an attempt on the party...

(The entire section is 855 words.)


(Novels for Students)

The First Hearing
Darkness at Noon begins with its main character, Rubashov, being locked in his solitary...

(The entire section is 1108 words.)