Darkness at Noon

Darkness at Noon  
1st US edition
Author(s) Arthur Koestler
Original title Sonnenfinsternis
Country United Kingdom
Language German
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Macmillan
Publication date 1940
Published in
Pages 254 pp (Danube edition)
ISBN 0-553-26595-4
OCLC Number 21947763
Preceded by The Gladiators
Followed by Arrival and Departure

Darkness at Noon (German: Sonnenfinsternis) is a novel by the Hungarian-born British novelist Arthur Koestler, first published in 1940. His best known work, it tells the tale of Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik and October Revolutionary who is cast out, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the very Soviet Union he once helped to create.

The novel is set in 1938 during the Stalinist purges and Moscow show trials. It reflects the author's personal disillusionment with Communism; Koestler knew some of the defendants at the Moscow trials. Although the characters have Russian names, neither Russia nor the Soviet Union are actually mentioned by name as the location of the book. Joseph Stalin is described as "Number One", a barely seen, menacing dictator.

The novel was originally written in German and translated into English by Daphne Hardy, while living with Koestler in Paris in early 1940. Koestler and Hardy fled Paris in May 1940 just ahead of the German army. Koestler attempted suicide in Bordeaux after hearing a false report that the ship taking Hardy to England (along with the only manuscript) had been torpedoed and all hands lost. Koestler described the episode in Scum of the Earth, his autobiography of that period. On reaching England, Hardy arranged to have the manuscript published and chose the title "Darkness at Noon".

Since the original German text has been lost, German versions, published under the title Sonnenfinsternis (literally "solar eclipse") are back translations from English. Darkness at Noon is actually the second part of a trilogy, the first volume being The Gladiators about the subversion of the Spartacus revolt, and the third Arrival and Departure about a refugee in World War II. The Gladiators was originally written in Hungarian and Arrival and Departure in English. Of these two, only The Gladiators has had much success.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Darkness at Noon eighth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century



According to George Orwell, "Rubashov might be called Trotsky, Bukharin, Rakovsky or some other relatively civilised figure among the Old Bolsheviks".[1]

Koestler drew on his own experience of being imprisoned by Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War described in his memoir Dialog with Death. Like Rubashov, he was in solitary confinement, expected to be executed, paced his cell constantly, was permitted to walk in the courtyard in the company of other prisoners, and was not beaten himself but knew that others were beaten.

Plot summary

Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, a man in his fifties, had been one of the leading figures in the Bolshevik revolution, and has been active in supporting Communist parties in other countries. As such, he was revered amongst Communist officials. During a purge of the Communist Party, however, Rubashov is roused in the middle of the night and arrested. This brings back memories of his previous arrest in Germany, when he was tortured under interrogation. He is taken to a new prison and placed in a cell.

Despite efforts to keep the prisoners isolated from each other, the men communicate through tapping on the pipes between the cells. He makes contact with another prisoner, identified throughout as No. 402, a counter-revolutionary who supported the reign of the Czar. After initial unsatisfactory contact with No. 402, the two men form a friendship of sorts, with No. 402 keeping Rubashov abreast of developments in the prison and Rubashov entertaining No. 402 with stories of his sexual exploits.

His first interrogation is conducted by an old friend, Ivanov, a man that Rubashov once talked out of suicide. Ivanov tries persuading him to consider signing a false confession — a confession in which he admits to conspiring to assassinate No. 1, the new leader of the regime. In due course, Rubashov becomes aware that he has been implicated in the plot by another prisoner, Hare-Lip, the son of an old friend of Rubashov. (Hare-Lip himself has confessed under torture.) Ivanov implores Rubashov to sign a confession and Rubashov shows willingness to consider his proposition.

However, Ivanov is arrested in the meantime, ostensibly for being "too soft" on Rubashov. He is eventually executed. Rubashov is then ruthlessly interrogated by Gletkin, a brutal man of peasant stock who seemingly resents Rubashov's education and former class privilege. Gletkin, a representative of new Communist party officials, unflinchingly advocates the use of torture to wring confessions from prisoners.

Once Gletkin takes over the interrogation of Rubashov, he resorts to methods like sleep deprivation and making Rubashov sit in front of a glaring lamp for hours on end. Worn down, Rubashov finally capitulates.

As Rubashov confesses to the false charges, he thinks of all of the times he betrayed agents in the past — the young German Richard, Little Loewy, who hangs himself, and Arlova, Rubashov's own secretary-mistress. Rubashov recognises that his treatment is carried out with the same ruthless logic as that which he himself employed. Ultimately, his commitment to following his logic to its last conclusion—and his own lingering dedication to the Party—lead him to confess fully and publicly.

The final section of the novel is headed with a four-line quotation ("Show us not the aim without the way ...") from the German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle. The novel ends with Rubashov's execution.


The novel's French title is Le Zéro et l'Infini ("Zero and Infinity"). Like the English title, "Darkness at Noon", it reflects Koestler's life-long obsession with the meeting of opposites, and dialectics. Le Zéro et l'Infini sold more than 400,000 copies in France.

American screenwriter and Communist Party USA member Dalton Trumbo boasted to the The Worker that party members in the film industry had prevented Darkness at Noon, among other anti-Stalinist books, from being produced into a Hollywood movie.[2]

Darkness at Noon was very influential for George Orwell, who used ideas from it in Nineteen Eighty-Four (especially the segment where Winston Smith is interrogated by O'Brien)[3] and also wrote an essay about it.[4]

In 1954, at the end of a long inquiry and a show trial, Communist Romania sentenced to death former high-ranking Romanian Communist Party member and government official Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu.[5][6] 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.[5][6]


  1. ^ George Orwell, Arthur Koestler. Essay, at www.george-orwell.org
  2. ^ Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, "Hollywood's Missing Movies: Why American Films Have Ignored Life under Communism", in Reason Magazine, June 2000
  3. ^ Arthur Mizener, "Truth Maybe, Not Fiction," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Autumn, 1949): 685.
  4. ^ "Arthur Koestler", by George Orwell (1944).
  5. ^ a b (Romanian) Stelian Tănase, "Belu Zilber. Part III" (fragments of O istorie a comunismului românesc interbelic, "A History of Romanian Interwar Communism"), in Revista 22, Nr.702, August 2003
  6. ^ a b Vladimir Tismăneanu, Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003, ISBN 0-520-23747-1 p.75, 114

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