"Darkness at Noon" by Arthur Koestler: Summary and Review

Updated on February 1, 2018
Arthur Koestler at work
Arthur Koestler at work | Source

Arthur Koestler – Darkness at Noon

Darkness at Noon is a novel that really sucks the reader into what it would be like to be a political prisoner in Russia during Joseph Stalin’s time in power. The main character Rubashov is an older revolutionary, a member of the old army as he calls himself, which is imprisoned and accused of crimes that he did not commit. Throughout his time in prison Rubashov looks back on his life and what he has done for the party, and also what the party has done for him. He is continuously tortured in an attempt to have him confess to crimes that never happened. Rubashov’s life and dedication to the party seems to come full circle in his time in prison.

Rubashov is imprisoned at the opening of the novel so we never get to see what his life outside of prison was like, with the exception of his flashbacks and recalls of past missions the party had sent him on. He is locked into cell number 404 where he spends much of his time pacing “six and a half steps, up and down”(Koestler) within the small amount of space which he has been confined too. After a bit, Rubashov strikes up a conversation with the person in the cell next to him, Number 402. They communicate through a tapping code on the wall that divides their cells. This code is developed due to the constant imprisonment of party members during the purges of Stalin.

As the conversation with the man in room 402 goes on Rubashov has a flashback to a mission the party sent him on to deal with a man by the name of Richard who had failed to put out pamphlets sent to him by the party, and instead fabricated his own which did not agree with everything that the party believed. Rubashov is sent to deal with this problem, and during their conversation he says something very interesting, “The Party can never be mistaken. You and I can make a mistake. Not the Party.” This goes along with the views that Lev Koplev wrote about, and the idea that everything the individual did was for the greater goal of the party. Even if it was something immoral and unethical, the end still justified the means. Rubashov goes on to inform Richard that he is no longer a member of the party, and it would be best for him not to return to where he had been staying.

Later on in the day Rubashov has another daydream in which he remembers a man by the name of Little Loewy. Rubashov is sent to a Belgian port to inform Loewy and the dock workers that they needed to break the strike they had been engaged in, because it is best for the party. The party needs money and supplies so it is going to allow foreign ships to dock and trade. The dock workers are furious at this news, but have little power to do anything about it. The transaction goes as planned.


A day later, Rubashov is taken to find out his charges and is introduced to the man whom he will be dealing with, a man who happens to be an old Civil War friend. Ivanov, served with Rubashov in the Russian Civil War and Rubashov had convinced him at one point to not commit suicide. After the initial shock of the man on the other side of the table, Rubashov finds out why he has been arrested. The party feels that he has been conspiring against them and has become a threat to the success of their revolution. Rubashov firmly denies any of the charges and feels like they have been twisted to make him look guilty, and knows there is not much he can do about it. It should be said that Rubashov and Ivanov are both very logical men. Rubashov is very well versed in Marxism and Freudian psychology. He thinks out everything thoroughly until he cannot contemplate any further. Ivanov tells Rubashov that he has evidence to support the claims, and that Rubashov has two weeks to write a confession. Rubashov initially denies any form of confession and is taken back to his cell.

Ivanov and his colleague Gletkin, while having some drinks after dinner, begin to discuss the curious Rubashov. Ivanov believes that Rubashov’s logical mind will eventually have a way of bring out a confession, once he sees that there are really no other alternatives. He believes that leaving Rubashov alone in his cell and allowing him cigarettes and meals will speed up the process of the confession. Gletkin does not buy into this theory and thinks the only way to get a confession is to torture Rubashov both mentally and physically, depriving him of sleep, blinding him with bright lights, and relentlessly interrogating him on the charges against him. It is here that we can see a large difference in the mindset of the “old guard” and the “Neanderthals” as Rubashov referred to them. The old guard was much more logical and manipulative using mind games without physical torture, while the younger generation is more physical and willing to torture to get what they want.

Rubashov back in his cell notices an improvement in his standard of living in prison. He is allowed to eat, and given money to trade for cigarettes and other items. He has another flashback soon after and remembers his secretary Arlova, who we soon learn was more than his secretary. Rubashov remembers how Arlova never said much and just sat diligently bent over her notebook. He asks her to go out with him one night and they are intimate afterwards. Arlova tells Rubashov, “You will always be able to do what you like with me.”(Koestler) After this meeting, Rubashov notices that her behavior has not changed at all. A few days later, Arlova was relieved of her position as secretary because of ties to possible treasonable connections. Rubashov felt guilty for imprisonment, and is now questioning his loyalties to the party and the knowledge of No.1 or Stalin.

The day before Rubashov’s set time to confess would have expired, he witnessed a prisoner being dragged down the hall and taken to his death. This prisoner was Michael Bogrov, a roommate of Rubashov in 1905. Rubashov taught him how to read, write, and how to understand history. They had kept in touch ever since. After Bogrov was out of Rubashov’s field of vision from within the cell, he heard him call out twice “Ru-ba-shov.”(Koestler) This deeply affected Rubashov and made him begin to wonder what they had done to this man, to make him whimper and cry out like that. Death was now a real thing to Rubashov and not only an abstract idea, he began to wonder if Arlova had whimpered in a similar manner.

The next day Ivanov visits Rubashov in his cell, which Rubashov is not too fond of from the beginning. He believes that Ivanov is responsible for the intentional dragging of Bogrov in front of his cell to play mind games. Ivanov informs Rubashov that it was Gletkin’s idea and not his own, that Bogrov was told of Rubashov’s presence in the prison and dragged in front of his cell. The two men converse for some time about Rubashov’s confession and their ideologies.

When Rubashov is taken to the magistrate the next time, it is not Ivanov but Gletkin who is there now. Rubashov realizes that Ivanov has either been imprisoned or killed for some reason, and he also realizes that he has to deal with Gletkin and his methods of bring forth a confession. This was my favorite point in the novel, because Rubashov realizes that the “old guard” and others like him is almost an extinct breed, now Gletkin and his kind were going to be Stalin’s puppets.

After many sessions with Gletkin, Rubashov has been deprived sleep, deprived again of his cigarettes, not allowed to see daylight only the bright light that shines in his face on Gletkin’s desk. It also turn out that hare-lip, a man whom Rubashov has been watching in the courtyard through his window, has come forward claiming that he is a witness to some of Rubashov’s accused crimes. He even admits to conspiring with Rubashov in some of them. Eventually Rubashov signs a confession, he believes it is his one last duty to the party, and is liquidated


I believe that Rubashov was a victim in this novel, but so were Arlova, Ivanov, Richard, and the others who fell prey to this communist machine. I do not think that he was innocent however; he did what he had to do to keep himself in good standing with the party early on in his career. This included his involvements in the deaths or imprisonments of Arlova and Richard. It was only after his imprisonment that he began to change his thoughts on communism and of Stalin. Rubashov’s life can be looked at to see the true nature of communism in Russia at this time, and the way that these members were so sure that whatever they were told to do was for the best of the party. They were only helping to create a better society down the road, the party can never be wrong because then it could begin to cause questions to come up about other things the party did that could have been wrong. For Stalin to keep total control he has to have uncontested loyalty from his followers.

The phrase “the end justifies the means” was not just significant in this novel, but throughout Stalin's Russia. All the flashbacks that Rubashov had were tied in to that phrase, because each one of those flashbacks had people who were getting hurt or wronged, yet he was ok with that because he believed the party was ultimately benefiting from it. The final chapter of the novel showed the effect that public trials had on the society of Russia. Stalin wanted them to know who was being killed and why, this would act as a warning in a sense that if anyone is caught doing these things, this is what will happen to you. This book really helped me understand just how willing these men were to back stab and throw each other under the bus, to keep themselves in good standings with the party. Also how psychological torture can effect even the most logical and intelligent people, when they reach their breaking point they can be convinced to believe pretty much anything.

This novel does expect that you have at least some prior knowledge of the inner workings of the communist government during Stalin's reign. It is often used in high level history classes in college or even graduate classes due to the sheer amount of relevant information within it. I see this novel as an excellent addition to any high level class that focuses on communist Russia or even Stalin himself.

© 2011 thebeast02


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