Places Discussed

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Prison. Soviet detention center in which Rubashov is being held. With its dark corridors, closed off from the outside world and operating under its own logic, the suffocating prison is a physical manifestation of the communist dystopia and a metaphor for the communist rationale. Outside the prison, seasons change from cold, dismal winter to early spring. Inside its grim multistoried brick structure, prisoners are confined in cells behind thick doors with spy-holes. Barred windows overlook a snow-packed courtyard, where prisoners exercise. Armed guards patrol the ramparts. Down a dimly lit corridor is a barber shop and an unsanitary infirmary that reeks of carbolic and tobacco. The doctor’s desk is cluttered with bandages, swabs, and instruments. Beneath the prison is a room where beatings and near-boiling steam baths are used to force prisoners to confess to imaginary crimes against the state. Those found guilty are taken down a spiral staircase, stunned by blows to the head, and shot behind the ears with pistols.

Rubashov’s own cell, number 404, has a basin, a cot, and a bucket for his bodily wastes. At first, he hears only muffled sounds and echoes in the prison building. Later, neighboring prisoners communicate by tapping messages on the walls in a simple code. From the window, Rubashov observes other prisoners exercising in the courtyard. Through the spy-hole, guards observe him writing in a diary or lying on a straw mattress. Rubashov gets a limited view of the corridor and cells across the gallery. He observes Bogrov, a naval hero, being dragged down the corridor toward his execution. Prisoners drum the death march on the walls.

Rubashov is interrogated in the office of Warden Ivanov. Ivanov and his assistant, Gletkin, wear military uniforms with pistols in leather holsters; the desks are cluttered with files and reports. A photograph of party officials before Joseph Stalin became head of the Soviet Union is missing from the wall. During Rubashov’s seven-day interrogation, he sits on a hard-backed chair while Gletkin shines a spotlight into his red-rimmed eyes.

Art museum

Art museum. German museum in which Rubashov remembers being arrested by Gestapo officers while meeting with a fellow Communist Party leader to plan a reorganization of the German branch of the party, which the Nazi government has forced to go underground. They are surrounded by paintings of voluptuous nudes. These paintings, which represent worldly indulgence, contrast with a pen-and-ink drawing of the Madonna’s hands outstretched toward the needy of the world. After Rubashov was arrested, he was tortured. However, after Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact in 1939, Rubashov returned home to Russia a hero.

Belgian port city

Belgian port city. In another of Rubashov’s recollections, he meets with Belgian party members in a port city, where he noticed distinctive harbor smells, a town clock, and narrow streets where prostitutes hung out their laundry. The room in which the party met had walls covered with election posters and notices; its windows were smeared with paint, and planks on trestles served as tables for propaganda leaflets. Overhead, a naked light bulb and a strip of fly paper dangled. Five Russian ships, laden with supplies bound for Germany, lay at anchor in the harbor. When Rubashov ordered union members to unload the ships, the communist workers refused, and Rubashov had them expelled them from the party.

Rubashov’s apartment

Rubashov’s apartment. Shabby Moscow residence of Rubashov, into which armed Soviet soldiers burst when they arrested him. The building’s porter, Vassilij, watched silently as they escorted Rubashov to the creaky elevator. An American-made automobile then took them over littered and unpaved streets...

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to the prison. After Rubashov’s execution, Vassilij and his daughter live in the apartment. The old man hides a picture of Comrade Rubashov, his hero, in his mattress and secretly reads the forbidden Bible.

Historical Context

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Leninism and the Bolsheviks
Between the first unsuccessful Russian Revolution of 1905 to 1907 and the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik faction gradually cut their ties with the Menshevik faction of the Communist Party. While the Mensheviks tended to support gradual reform and democracy, the Bolsheviks under Lenin favored revolution in order to achieve the goals of Marxism. In 1921, after the Bolsheviks had won the Revolution, Lenin emerged as dictator of the party.

Before his first stroke in 1922 Lenin tried to support the extension of the Communist Revolution to other countries, and stressed that Marxist goals were to be achieved after a transitional period. Russia was in the midst of a severe economic crisis, however, and Lenin altered his policy to allow some forms of capitalism to coexist with Communism until, he wrote, the country could grow into a purely socialist state. Meanwhile, he had eliminated opposition to the Bolshevik faction of the party, established dictatorial control, and set the precedent for an authoritarian regime, which Stalin would take to an extreme.

Stalin’s Great Terror
After Lenin’s death in 1924 Joseph Stalin earnestly began his quest for power, and within ten years he had all but eliminated the organized opposition to his dictatorship. In the early 1930s, Stalin rapidly drove the USSR to a state of industrialization, but the immediate result of collectivization, which required farmers to live and work in government communes, was severe supply shortages and the deaths of many millions of peasants. Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of peasants who failed or refused to comply with Stalin’s Five-Year Plans were either murdered or sent to labor camps in Siberia.

The 1930s are also notorious for being a time of brutal oppression of suspected traitors and political undesirables in the USSR. After the murder of Stalin’s underling Sergei Kirov in 1934 (which, historians have argued, Stalin may even have orchestrated himself), the political purges known as the “Great Terror” began. In the five years that followed, over a million suspected traitors, including most of the key intellectual leaders of the Russian Revolution, were arrested, imprisoned, sent to labor camps, or executed.

The important and lasting public demonstrations of the Great Terror were the “Moscow Show Trials” of 1936, and 1937 to 1938. Separate from the private hearings that internally disposed of political dissidents, the Show Trials were a forum for publicizing the confessions of prominent Soviet politicians in order to gain public support for the government. Although evidence suggests that most of the confessions were obtained by torture and intimidation (such as threatening the family of the accused), much of the Russian public and some members of the international press believed they were genuine. Koestler, himself a widely influential commentator on the trials, presents his own version of the circumstances of the confessions in Darkness at Noon.

The first of the Show Trials focused on three key Bolshevik leaders who pleaded guilty, with the exception of Ivan Smirnov, to conspiracy with the famous exile Leon Trotsky to assassinate Stalin. Smirnov pleaded guilty to charges of general opposition but refused to admit to specific charges, and the prosecution spent some time ridiculing his claim to have plotted but not acted. Convicted nevertheless, Smirnov was executed with his counterparts.

During the second trial, several more famous politicians were accused of plotting with Trotsky to sabotage the economy and spy for Germany and Japan. Among the accused was Karl Radek, the former head of propaganda for the USSR, whom Koestler had met during his tour of the country four years earlier. Again, the former leaders confessed, were given the death sentence, and received no pardon.

Finally in 1938, the last of the trials convicted Bolshevik heroes such as Nicolai Bukharin on similar charges. Bukharin, perhaps the main model for Koestler’s Rubashov along with Karl Radek, was a member of Lenin’s original circle of power and had briefly led the USSR alongside Stalin. Despite the fact that he had a wife and small child under threat, during the trial Bukharin recanted his confession to specific crimes and maintained that he was innocent of them until, like the other former leaders, he was shot.

The Great Terror had lasting consequences for the regime of the USSR. It set a precedent for dictatorial and oppressive totalitarianism that, although later Soviet leaders did not approach the extremes of the late 1930s, failed to die with Stalin in 1953. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev and other leaders accused Stalin of a reign of terror, but most of them had been active participants, and the Stalinist infrastructure of secret police to stifle opposition remained in place.

The Comintern
In 1919, Communist Party leaders met in Moscow during the Bolshevik Revolution to form the “Communist International” or the “Comintern,” a branch of the party with a mission to extend and foster a worldwide communist revolution. Funded and directed by the Soviet government, the Comintern soon became a method for the USSR to control the Communist Party in other countries, and leaders in Moscow actively pursued a worldwide agenda through most of the 1920s.

Under Stalin’s control, however, the Comintern became less committed to sponsoring foreign revolutions, and the withdrawal of financial and advisory support to countries such as Germany and Spain led to severe consequences for Party members in those countries. Nicolai Bukharin was the chairman of the Comintern from 1919 to 1929, but he abandoned this agenda by the 1930s as Stalin’s priorities shifted to isolationism.

Literary Style

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Rational Arguments
In order to convincingly evaluate the Communist emphasis on the furthest extent of rationality and the objective compulsion to action, Koestler employs the stylistic device of extremely thorough rational thinking. In other words, he uses the Party’s own game in order to attack its policy. Rubashov is such an effective voice for the argument of the novel because he follows rationality to its extreme, finds it to be absurd, and is left only with the irrational “grammatical fiction.”

In this way, the first two hearings can be understood as an exhaustion of the calm and composed rational process with results, in the form of Rubashov’s confession, that seem to make sense. But as Gletkin and his methods reveal, Rubashov has not gone far enough. Rational thinking leads him directly into the next hearing, which becomes increasingly absurd in its conclusions but nevertheless perfectly in line with the previous logical argumentative style. Ultimately, Koestler’s insistence on rationality in prose arrives at a point where rational argument itself is not a sufficient moral “ballast,” a point that is only clear after such an impressive argumentative chain.

Religious Symbolism
Rubashov is an atheist and the Communist Party is forcefully secular, but there is religious symbolism throughout the text that serves to underscore Koestler’s political and psychological themes. Rubashov’s patronymic, or name derived from his father’s, is the Jewish “Salmanovitch,” and Judaic identity seems to become important before his execution, when he makes two references to Moses and the “Promised Land.” But the most consistent symbolism throughout the book is Christian, and Rubashov is often identified with Christ. Rubashov remembers a Christian phrase as he is being arrested; his habit of rubbing his glasses on his sleeve is similar (according to Koestler) to praying with a rosary; the image of the outstretched hands of the Pietà dominates his dreams and ponderings; No. 406 insists on tapping Christian verse to him each morning; and in the sense that the accused is innocent of specific crimes but guilty of general opposition, Rubashov’s trial and execution have an affinity with the trial and martyrdom of Christ.

These elements combine to place Rubashov in the position of a savior, but one without faith in his own religion. As Rubashov ponders shortly before his death, “But when he asked himself, For what are you actually dying? he found no answer.” Koestler may be using religious symbolism as an ironic device to attack party policy, he may be emphasizing that Stalinism is very much like a religion, or both.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1930s: The USSR is the first Communist state in the world, in the precursory stages to a half-century of Cold War with the United States.

    Today: Russia is now a capitalist democracy with a freely elected Federal Assembly. The Berlin Wall dividing communist East Germany from capitalist West Germany fell in 1989, and the USSR officially collapsed in 1991.

  • 1930s: The Russian economy has failed to recover from the Revolution. There are shortages of almost every type of product, and widespread suffering.

    Today: In decline since the fall of Communism, the Russian economy suffers from organized crime and the severe devaluation of the ruble.

  • 1930s: Famous political figures from the Bolshevik Revolution are tried and executed for industrial sabotage among other conspiracy charges.

    Today: The Russian government is in the process of prosecuting a number of rich and powerful tycoons, all of whom tend to have political ambitions, for tax evasion and fraud.

  • 1930s: At one point during his purges, Stalin requires each of his generals to send him a list of a third of their officers to be promoted, a third to be sent to Siberia, and a third to be executed. Seventy percent of the Army Officer Corps is arrested during the period.

    Today: The Russian military is underfunded and taxed by the war against rebels in Chechnya, but Russia has the second most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world.

Media Adaptations

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Darkness at Noon was produced on Broadway in 1951, with a stage adaptation by Sidney Kingsley.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Cesarani, David. Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind. William Heinemann, 1998.

Cohen, Stephen. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography 1888–1938. Wildwood House, 1974, pp. 372–80.

Hamilton, Iain. Koestler: A Biography. Martin Secker & Warburg, 1982, pp. 68–71.

Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon, translated by Daphne Hardy, 1940; reprint, 1965.

Orwell, George. “Arthur Koestler,” in Arthur Koestler: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Murray A. Sperber. Prentice-Hall, 1977, pp. 13–24; originally published in 1944.

———. Review of Darkness at Noon, in Koestler: A Biography, edited by Iain Hamilton. Martin Secker & Warburg, 1982, p. 69; originally published in New Statesman.

Schwarz, Solomon M. The Russian Revolution of 1905: The Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism. University of Chicago Press, 1967, p. 29.

Further Reading
Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Origin of Russian Communism, translated by R. M. French. Robert Maclehose, 1937. Berdyaev explains the beginnings of the Communist Party and the background to Stalin’s dictatorship.

Calder, Jenni. Chronicles of Conscience: A Study of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968. Calder compares two of the most influential twentieth-century writers on totalitarianism.

Levene, Mark. Arthur Koestler. Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1984. Levene’s literary biography of Koestler places Darkness at Noon in the context of the author’s life and the political climate at the time.

Pearson, Sidney A. Aruthur Koestler. G. K. Hall, 1978. Chapter four of Pearson’s book provides a concise and helpful breakdown of the major themes and structural elements of Koestler’s novel.

Tucker, Robert C., and Stephen F. Cohen, eds. The Great Purge Trial. Grosset & Dunlap, 1965. Based on the transcript of the Moscow Show Trials, this book is a valuable resource for determining what actually went on during the 1938 trial.


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Koestler, Arthur. The Invisible Writing: The Second Volume of an Autobiography, 1932-1940. London: Hutchinson, 1969. Koestler discusses his activism in the Communist Party, his travels to the Soviet Union, his imprisonment in fascist Spain, and his denunciation of communism in Darkness at Noon.

Levene, Mark. Arthur Koestler. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. Overview of Koestler’s political writing, including a chapter on Darkness at Noon.

Pearson, Sidney A. Arthur Koestler. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Includes a chapter on Darkness at Noon.

Rothkopf, Carol Z. “Darkness at Noon”: A Critical Commentary. New York: American R.D.M., 1963. Scholarly, complete, and well-written discussion.

Sperber, Murray A. ed. Arthur Koestler: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977. Includes essays by George Orwell and Saul Bellow. With an intellectually tortuous attack on Darkness at Noon by a French Marxist.


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