Darkness at Noon.

Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (#8 on the Modern Library 100) is Koestler’s confessional after he visited the Stalin-era Soviet Union and became disillusioned with communism. It’s powerful both as a political statement and a literary work, but the narrative starts to come apart in the third chapter (of four) and I found myself losing interest.

Darkness tells the story of Rubashov, one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution who is arrested in the opening pages and charged with plotting the demise of the Soviet government, which was a capital offense and a pretense used to execute hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens during the 1930s. Rubashov knows this is coming and there’s a slightly cathartic aspect to his arrest. The book then drifts into several key anecdotes from his career as an agent of the revolution, which come to his mind as he’s encouraged and then coerced into confessing to the trumped-up charges that will lead to his death.

As a political statement – it’s not even an allegory due to its intense realism – it’s potent. The ease with which the prison officials discharge their duties is stomach-churning. Rubashov’s own role in sending several loyal Communists to their deaths, whether in service to the party or to save his own skin, is hardly more palatable. And the relentless subjugation of the individual in the service of the masses comes off as incredibly wrong-headed to anyone raised to believe in the sanctity of life.

Koestler makes use of multiple literary symbols to enhance his arguments both about the empty promises of Marxism and about Rubashov’s own guilt and struggles with his conscience, notably through the recurring toothache that appears during periods of extreme guilt over a Party member he betrayed or simply his betrayal of the Party’s original goals. The metaphor of the empty space on the wall where the portrait of the Revolution’s fallen leaders was also clever.

But Darkness didn’t pass the interest test for me. The book is divided into three “hearings” plus a short fourth chapter describing Rubashov’s public “trial” and execution. (I’m not spoiling anything there – you know from the start that he’s going to be shot.) During the third hearing, Rubashov, previously a strong man with complete conviction in the rightness of his actions, sees those convictions weaken and devolves into a rambling, irrelevant ex-revolutionary – exactly what the Party wants him to become. It undermines the book’s essential conflict between Rubashov (the ideologically pure Communist) and the Party (the Stalinist regime, enforcing its will on the people at any cost), and it also meant that there was no admirable or sympathetic character in the story – his prosecutors may have been evil, but Rubashov was weak, and there’s no sympathy in seeing a man hoisted on a petard he helped construct.

There’s no avoiding a comparison of Darkness to the other two classic anti-communist novels of the 20th century, 1984 and Brave New World. Darkness has an insurmountable advantage of realism, both because Koestler went to Russia during the Great Purge, and because his setting is contemporary and characters very realistically drawn. But the other two books were, for my money, better reads, perhaps because their authors took one step back from reality and created environments in which they could control the action. Koestler created a scenario with an inevitable conclusion, and I imagine to a large degree that once he began writing he found the characters moved of their own accord, which created a predictable narrative that, for me, reached the “just shoot him already” stage with fifty pages to go.


  1. The other two are the greater works because neither is so small as to be merely ‘anti-communist’. 1984 and BNW are great because they cast their nets much, much wider.

  2. Keith, have you read “The Gulag Archipelago” by Alexsandr I. Solzhenitsyn?

  3. I really enjoyed this book, and the work of Koestler (though this is mostly due to his ties to Camus). The “reversal” of Rubashov is very important, as this entire book is a history of the Soviet party with different names. Rubashov has many strong elements of Zinoviev and Kamenev. These two men aligned with Stalin against Trotsky once Lenin became sick. There was later a break with Zinoviev/Kamenev and Stalin. Stalin later had them arrested. They were put on trial and found guilty. They were then put on trail again (this time well rehearsed) in a public setting. The second trial (with many more defendants) ended with Zinoviev and Kamenev confessing to all sorts of crimes they did not commit. This was also the first time that the “old school” Bolsheviks were put on trial and executed (Rubashov personally knew the character who represents Lenin). While it might seem like a weak story for such a strong character to break down and become weak, this really did happen.

  4. I agree with WCW on the greatness of 1984 and Brave New World. Those works are more concerned with totalitarianism in general, of both the leftist and rightist persuasions. Totalitarianism has never been monopolized by either side. After all, Orwell was a leftist in the European mold.

  5. Keith, I would respectfully disagree with you on Darkness At Noon. I found it every bit as compelling as 1984 and We, two dystopian novels i’d read prior to it. Koestler’s use of language and his sentence construction was of the highest regard. The arguments of ‘one versus state’ are as well-reasoned as anywhere else.
    It believe it to a beautifully wrought work, and one of my favorite novels.