Darkness at Noon Critical Essays

  • Darkness at Noon is a political allegory, and Arthur Koestler based the character of Number 1 on Joseph Stalin, the notorious dictator of the Soviet Union.
  • The Communist Party members in the novel ascribe to the dictum that the ends justify the means. This philosophy allows them to justify atrocities as "for the good of the Party."
  • The novel places particular focus on the brutal "show trials" conducted by Communist Party leaders, which frequently involved torture. Koestler wanted to point out the dangers of relying solely on logic, which often dehumanizes people and leads to human rights violations.

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Critical Evaluation

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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 one hand sheds light on Rubashov’s conviction in the ultimate rightness of all the Communist Party’s actions and on the other shows his cynicism about the economic and political realities of the time. Koestler describes Rubashov’s sad mistreatment in the prison and then demonstrates with flashbacks that the high-ranking Communist is no innocent. Previously he has thrown people to the wolves for political reasons and once merely to save himself. Ultimately Koestler seems to suggest that Rubashov confesses because of exhaustion and his reasoned conviction that in doing so he will render the Party one last service. Rubashov had previously resisted torture successfully in a fascist prison. While in the service of the Communist Party, he had shown great moral and physical courage.

Koestler’s theme is means and ends. To Rubashov, the push to an honorable and humanitarian goal justifies unsavory actions to achieve that goal. In this case the goal is a utopian Communist society in which no one wants economically, in which the upper class withers away, and in which people rule themselves spontaneously and fairly. The means to this end are best determined by the utterly ruthless “militant philosophers”—the leaders of the Communist Party. Koestler also wrote on this theme in his first novel, The Gladiators (1939), concerning a revolution by slaves against the Roman Empire. The hero, Spartacus, has great success at first, but his unwillingness...

(This entire section contains 944 words.)

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to quell disorder among his own troops and followers causes his downfall. Spartacus’s revolution failed whereas the Russian Revolution succeeded. Koestler implies that the difference was that the Communist leaders stopped at nothing to achieve their ends. In so doing they negated their highest aspirations and, in a sense, therefore also failed in their revolution to bring a classless perfect world. All through the book Rubashov wrestles with this problem of means and ends. Rubashov hopes, faintly, that the Communist Party will be proven right by history. He abases himself publicly to this end, gambling his only remaining card, his logic, that the Party will ultimately be proven to be on the true path.

Except for remembered incidents, the novel takes place almost entirely inside a prison. It could be argued that Koestler loses some breadth of vision with this setting. Some critics have pointed out that the novel has no middle ground, no ordinary lives lived by Russians who are not in prison and who are not members of the Communist Party. This observation misses the point of Koestler’s writing the book, which is to examine and expose the Communist Party’s mentality. The suffocating prison, with its dark corridors, closed off from the outside world and operating under its own logic, is a concretization of the Communist dystopia and a metaphor for the Communist rationale. Darkness at Noon has a place as one of the great political novels of the twentieth century and puts Koestler in the forefront of political writers such as George Orwell and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. On its publication in France after World War II, Darkness at Noon influenced public opinion against the Communist Party and possibly prevented it from gaining power. With the end of the Cold War in the 1980’s, the historical events it depicts became less relevant but, as an allegory of the fallacy of using pure logic as a guide to human affairs and of the dangers of justifying immoral behavior with political expediency, it remains as potent as ever.