Darkness at Noon
First US edition
Published in English
|Pages||254 pp (Danube edition)|
|Preceded by||The Gladiators|
|Followed by||Arrival and Departure|
Darkness at Noon (German: Sonnenfinsternis) is a novel by Hungarian-born British novelist Arthur Koestler, first published in 1940. His best known work, it is the tale of Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the government that he had helped to create.
The novel is set in 1938 during the Stalinist Great Purge and Moscow show trials. Despite being based on real events, the novel does not name either Russia or the USSR, and tends to use generic terms to describe people and organizations: for example the Soviet government is referred to as "the Party" and Nazi Germany is referred to as "the Dictatorship". Joseph Stalin is represented by "Number One", a menacing dictator. The novel expresses the author's disillusionment with the Soviet Union's version of Communism at the outset of World War II.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Darkness at Noon number eight on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
Koestler wrote Darkness at Noon as the second part of a trilogy: the first volume was The Gladiators (1939), first published in Hungarian. It was a novel about the subversion of the Spartacus revolt. The third novel was Arrival and Departure (1943), about a refugee during World War II. Koestler, who was by then living in London, wrote that novel in English.
Darkness at Noon was written in German while Koestler was living in Paris. Its title may be a quotation from Victor Hugo, in his book Napoleon le Petit: "il fait nuit en plein midi" (it is dark in full noon), which, in turn, is an allusion to the unnatural darkness that occurred at midday in the story of Christ's crucifixion. Koestler's companion, the sculptor Daphne Hardy, translated it into English during early 1940 while she was living in Paris with him. For decades the German text was thought to have been lost during the escape of Koestler and Hardy from Paris in May 1940, just before the German occupation of France. However, a copy had been sent to Swiss publisher Emil Oprecht. Rupert Hart-Davis, Koestler's editor at Jonathan Cape had misgivings about the English text but agreed to publish it when a request to Oprecht for his copy went unanswered. At Hart-Davis' prompting, Hardy changed the title from Rubaschow (the main character's name) to Darkness at Noon. In August 2015, Oprecht's copy was identified in a Zurich library by a doctoral candidate of the University of Kassel. The original German manuscript was published as Sonnenfinsternis in May 2018 by Elsinor Verlag.
Koestler joined the French Foreign Legion, deserted it in North Africa, and eventually made his way to Portugal. Waiting in Lisbon for passage to Great Britain, Koestler heard a false report that the ship taking Hardy to England had been torpedoed and all persons lost (along with his only manuscript); he attempted suicide. (He wrote about this incident in Scum of the Earth (1941), his memoir of that period.) Koestler finally arrived in London, and the book was published there in early 1941.
Darkness at Noon is an allegory set in the USSR (not named) during the 1938 purges, as Stalin consolidated his dictatorship by eliminating potential rivals within the Communist Party: the military, and the professionals. None of this is identified explicitly in the book. Most of the novel occurs within an unnamed prison and in the recollections of the main character, Rubashov.
Koestler drew on the experience of being imprisoned by Francisco Franco's officials during the Spanish Civil War, which he described in his memoir, Dialogue with Death. He was kept in solitary confinement and expected to be executed. He was permitted to walk in the courtyard in the company of other prisoners. Though he was not beaten, he believed that other prisoners were.
The main character is Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, a man in his fifties whose character is based on "a number of men who were the victims of the so-called Moscow trials," several of whom "were personally known to the author". Rubashov is a stand-in for the Old Bolsheviks as a group, and Koestler uses him to explore their actions at the 1938 Moscow Show Trials.
Secondary characters include some fellow prisoners:
- No. 402 is a Czarist army officer and veteran inmate.
- "Rip Van Winkle", an old revolutionary demoralised and apparently driven to madness by 20 years of solitary confinement and further imprisonment.
- Hare-Lip, he "sends his greetings" to Rubashov, but insists on keeping his name secret.
Two other secondary characters never make a direct appearance but are mentioned frequently:
- No. 1, representing Joseph Stalin, dictator of the USSR. He is depicted in a widely disseminated photograph, a "well-known color print that hung over every bed or sideboard in the country and stared at people with its frozen eyes."
- Old Bolsheviks. They are represented by an image in his "mind's eye, a big photograph in a wooden frame: the delegates to the first congress of the Party", in which they sat "at a long wooden table, some with their elbows propped on it, others with their hands on their knees, bearded and earnest."
Rubashov has two interrogators:
Darkness at Noon is divided into four parts: The First Hearing, the Second Hearing, the Third Hearing, and the Grammatical Fiction.
The First Hearing
The novel begins with Rubashov's arrest in the middle of the night by two men from the secret police (in the USSR, it was called the NKVD). When they came for Rubashov, they woke him from a dream in which he was being arrested by the Gestapo. One of the men is about Rubashov's age, the other is somewhat younger. The older man is formal and courteous, the younger is brutal. The difference between them introduces the first major theme of Darkness at Noon: the passing of the older, civilised generation, and the barbarism of their successors.
Imprisoned, Rubashov is at first relieved to be finished with the anxiety of dread during mass arrests. He is expecting to be kept in solitary confinement until he is shot. He begins to communicate with No. 402, the man in the adjacent cell, by using a tap code. Rubashov quickly realises that they don't have much to discuss. Unlike Rubashov, No. 402 is not an intellectual, but rather a Tsarist army officer; their relationship begins on a sour note as No. 402 expresses delight at Rubashov's misfortunes due to his hatred for Communists, but the two will grow closer over time and exchange information about the prison and its inmates.
He thinks of the Old Bolsheviks, No. 1, and the Marxist interpretation of history. Throughout the novel Rubashov, Ivanov, and Gletkin speculate about historical processes and how individuals and groups are affected by them. Each hopes that, no matter how vile his actions may seem to their contemporaries, history will eventually absolve them. This is the faith that makes the abuses of the regime tolerable as the men consider the suffering of a few thousand, or a few million people against the happiness of future generations. They believe that gaining the socialist utopia, which they believe is possible, will cause the imposed suffering to be forgiven.
Rubashov meditates on his life: since joining the Party as a teenager, Rubashov has officered soldiers in the field, won a commendation for "fearlessness", repeatedly volunteered for hazardous assignments, endured torture, betrayed other communists who deviated from the Party line, and proven that he is loyal to its policies and goals. Recently he has had doubts. Despite 20 years of power, in which the government caused the deliberate deaths and executions of millions, the Party does not seem to be any closer to achieving the goal of a socialist utopia. That vision seems to be receding. Rubashov is at a quandary, between a lifetime of devotion to the Party, and his conscience and the increasing evidence of his own experience on the other.
From this point, the narrative switches back and forth between his current life as a political prisoner and his past life as one of the Party elite. He recalls his first visit to Berlin about 1933, after Hitler gained power. Rubashov was to purge and reorganise the German Communists. He met with Richard, a young German Communist cell leader who had distributed material contrary to the Party line. In a museum, underneath a picture of the Pieta, Rubashov explains to Richard that he has violated Party discipline, become "objectively harmful", and must be expelled from the Party. A Gestapo man hovers in the background with his girlfriend on his arm. Too late, Richard realises that Rubashov has betrayed him to the secret police. He begs Rubashov not to "throw him to the wolves", but Rubashov leaves him quickly. Getting into a taxicab, he realises that the taxicab driver is also a communist. The taxicab driver offers to give him free fare, but Rubashov pays the fare. As he travels by train, he dreams that Richard and the taxicab driver are trying to run him over with a train.
This scene introduces the second and third major themes of Darkness at Noon. The second, suggested repeatedly by the Pieta and other Christian imagery, is the contrast between the brutality and modernity of Communism on the one hand, and the gentleness, simplicity, and tradition of Christianity. Although Koestler is not suggesting a return to Christian faith, he implies that Communism is the worse of the two alternatives.
The third theme is the contrast between the trust of the rank and file communists, and the ruthlessness of the Party elite. The rank and file trust and admire men like Rubashov, but the elite betrays and uses them with little thought. As Rubashov confronts the immorality of his actions as a party chief, his abscessed tooth begins to bother him, sometimes reducing him to immobility.
Rubashov recalls being arrested soon after by the Gestapo and imprisoned for two years. Although repeatedly tortured, he never breaks down. After the Nazis finally release him, he returns to his country to receive a hero's welcome. No. 1's increasing power makes him uncomfortable but he does not act in opposition; he requests a foreign assignment. No. 1 is suspicious but grants the request. Rubashov is sent to Belgium to enforce Party discipline among the dock workers. After the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the League of Nations and the Party condemned Italy and imposed an international embargo on strategic resources, especially oil, which the Italians needed. The Belgian dock workers are determined not to allow any shipments for Italy to pass through their port. As his government intends to supply the Italians with oil and other resources secretly, Rubashov must convince the dock workers that, despite the official policy, as Communists they must unload the materials and send them to the Italians.
Their cell leader, a German communist immigrant nicknamed Little Loewy, tells Rubashov his life's story. He is a communist who has sacrificed much for the Party, but is still completely dedicated. When all the workers have gathered, Rubashov explains the situation. They react with disgust and refuse his instructions. Several days later, Party publications denounce the entire cell by name, virtually guaranteeing arrest by the Belgian authorities, who were trying to suppress Communism. Little Loewy hangs himself. Rubashov then begins a new assignment.
In the novel, after about a week in prison, he is brought in for the first examination or hearing, which is conducted by Ivanov, an old friend. Also a veteran of the Civil War, he is an Old Bolshevik who shares Rubashov's opinion of the Revolution. Rubashov had then convinced Ivanov not to commit suicide after his leg was amputated due to war wounds. Ivanov says that if he can persuade Rubashov to confess to the charges, he will have repaid his debt. With confession, Rubashov can lessen his sentence, to five or 10 years in a labour camp, instead of execution. He simply has to co-operate. The charges are hardly discussed, as both men understand they are not relevant. Rubashov says that he is "tired" and doesn't "want to play this kind of game anymore." Ivanov sends him back to his cell, asking him to think about it. Ivanov implies that Rubashov can perhaps live to see the socialist utopia they've both worked so hard to create.
The Second Hearing
The next section of the book begins with an entry in Rubashov's diary; he struggles to find his place and that of the other Old Bolsheviks, within the Marxist interpretation of history.
Ivanov and a junior examiner, Gletkin, discuss Rubashov's fate in the prison canteen. Gletkin urges using harsh, physical methods to demoralise the prisoner and force his confession, while Ivanov insists that Rubashov will confess after realising it is the only "logical" thing to do, given his situation. Gletkin recalls that, during the collectivisation of the peasants, they could not be persuaded to surrender their individual crops until they were tortured (and killed). Since that helped enable the ultimate goal of a socialist utopia, it was both the logical and the virtuous thing to do. Ivanov is disgusted but cannot refute Gletkin's reasoning. Ivanov believes in taking harsh actions to achieve the goal, but he is troubled by the suffering he causes. Gletkin says the older man must not believe in the coming utopia. He characterises Ivanov as a cynic and claims to be an idealist.
Their conversation continues the theme of the new generation taking power over the old: Ivanov is portrayed as intellectual, ironical, and at bottom humane, while Gletkin is unsophisticated, straightforward, and unconcerned with others' suffering. Being also a civil war veteran, Gletkin has his own experience of withstanding torture, yet still advocates its use. Ivanov has not been convinced by the younger man's arguments. Rubashov continues in solitary.
The Third Hearing and The Grammatical Fiction
Taking over the interrogation of Rubashov, Gletkin uses physical abuses, such as sleep deprivation and forcing Rubashov to sit under a glaring lamp for hours on end, to wear him down. He also learns that Ivanov has been killed. Rubashov finally capitulates.
As he confesses to the false charges, Rubashov thinks of the many times he betrayed agents in the past: Richard, the young German; Little Loewy in Belgium, and Arlova, his secretary-mistress. He recognises that he is being treated with the same ruthlessness. His commitment to following his logic to its final conclusion—and his own lingering dedication to the Party—cause him to confess fully and publicly.
The final section of the novel begins with a four-line quotation ("Show us not the aim without the way ...") by the German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle. The novel ends with Rubashov's execution.
Kingsley Martin, reviewing Darkness at Noon, described the novel as "one of the few books written in this epoch which will survive it". The New York Times described Darkness at Noon as " a splendid novel, an effective explanation of the riddle of the Moscow treason trials. . . written with such dramatic power, with such warmth of feeling and with such persuasive simplicity that it is absorbing as melodrama".
Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of brilliant literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow "confessions" by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods. What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened—for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society—but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.
The novel was adapted as a stage play by Sidney Kingsley circa 1950, which was later made into a motion picture.
Writers interested in the political struggles of the time followed Koestler and other Europeans closely. The British author George Orwell wrote, "Rubashov might be called Trotsky, Bukharin, Rakovsky or some other relatively civilised figure among the Old Bolsheviks." In 1944, Orwell thought that the best political writing in English was being done by Europeans and other non-native British. His essay on Koestler discussed Darkness at Noon. In a later review of Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the critic Arthur Mizener said that Orwell drew on his feelings about Koestler's handling of Rubashov's confession when he wrote his extended section of the conversion of Winston Smith.
In 1954, at the end of a long government inquiry and a show trial, Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu, the former high-ranking Romanian Communist Party member and government official, was sentenced to death in Romania. According to his collaborator Belu Zilber, Pătrăşcanu read Darkness at Noon in Paris while envoy to the 1946 Peace Conference, and took the book back to Romania.
Both American and European Communists considered Darkness at Noon to be anti-Stalinist and anti-USSR. In the 1940s, numerous scriptwriters in Hollywood were still Communists, generally having been attracted to the party during the 1930s. According to Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley in an article published in 2000, the Communists considered Koestler's novel important enough to prevent its being adapted for movies; the writer Dalton Trumbo "bragged" about his success in that to the newspaper The Worker.
US Navy admiral James Stockdale used the novel's title as a code to his wife and the US government to fool his North Vietnamese captors' censors when he wrote as a POW during the Vietnam War. He signaled the torture of American POW's by Communist North Vietnam: "One thinks of Vietnam as a tropical country, but in January the rains came, and there was cold and darkness, even at noon." His wife contacted US Naval Intelligence and Stockdale confirmed in code in other letters that they were being tortured.
At the height of the media attention during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, US President Bill Clinton reportedly referred to Koestler's novel, telling an aide, "I feel like a character in the novel Darkness at Noon", and, "I am surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me and I can't get the truth out."
Theory of the masses
Rubashov resigns himself to the reality that people are not capable of self-governance nor even of steering a democratic government to their own benefit. This he asserts is true for a period of time following technological advancements—a period in which people as a group have yet to learn to adapt to and harness, or at least respond to the technological advancements in a way that actually benefits them. Until this period of adaptation runs its course, Rubashov comes to accept that a totalitarian government is perhaps not unjustified as people would only steer society to their own detriment anyway. Having reached this conclusion, Rubashov resigns himself to execution without defending himself against charges of treason.
Every jump of technical progress leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses a step behind, and thus causes a fall in the political-maturity thermometer. It takes sometimes tens of years, sometimes generations, for a people's level of understanding gradually to adapt itself to the changed state of affairs, until it has recovered the same capacity for self-government as it had already possessed at a lower stage of civilization.
― Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
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- Kati Marton, The Great Escape: Nine Jews who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. Simon and Schuster, 2006. ISBN 0743261151 (pp. 139–140).
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