What happens in Darkness at Noon?

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.

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The First Hearing

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...

(The entire section is 3,965 words.)