Professor Abbott20th. Century Europe
Darkness at Noon centers on Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, a political prisoner accused of betraying his own Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the 1920s. Rubashov helped build up the party and maintain it, yet now stands accused of treason against it. Although communist philosophy is deeply ingrained in his mind, he doesn’t like the turns the party is taking under No. 1 and fears for the disastrous results of the course of action the party is on.
Throughout his prison experience his mindset shifts as he begins to think more critically and his thought process changes constantly. Virtually with every new experience and interaction his sense of morality changes. Darkness at Noon also gives insight into the thought processes of those personally and directly oppressing him. He is tortured at the hands of two interrogators, Gletkin and Ivanov. There is a generational gap between them and their own thought processes form through its influence.
He comes to the realization that everybody thinks they are doing right, no matter how much others may adamantly disagree with their actions. The Stalinist World View places the party over the individuals making it up. Loyalty to the party over all else is first and foremost according to this lens and all members must have full faith in the party. This lens shapes Rubashov, Ivanov, and Gletkin’s mindsets and actions, for better or for worse, whether they promote it or oppose it. All three don’t fully grasp the gravity of it and its implications on their lives, but slowly gain a better awareness of it.
The ideology of the party under No. 1 is “the end justifies the means” and anything and everything needed to uphold the party’s reign is justified, up to and including torture and even murder. As Rubashov puts it “‘The Party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history. History knows no scruples and no hesitation. Inert and unerring, she flows towards her goal. At every bend in her course she leaves the mud which she carries and the corpses of the drowned.”‘ (Darkness at Noon pg.43) when describing the party. In addition, according to the Stalinist World View the party is always righteous and will go down in the history books as a progressive force. Rubashov says it best when describing this sentiment, the party holds “‘The Party can never be mistaken,’… ‘You and I can make a mistake. Not the party. The Party, comrade, is more than you and I and a thousand others like you and I…. History knows her way. She makes no mistakes. He who has not absolute faith in History does not belong in the Party’s ranks.'” (Darkness at Noon pg.44). Betraying this ideology is a death sentence and Rubashov would end up paying this ultimate price.
Throughout Rubashov’s prison experience, and leading up to it, he embarks on a long soul searching journey where he becomes more and more enlightened about the stark contrast between the ideal representation the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is portraying and the reality of his experience and conscious. There is a battle between Communism, largely representing collectivity, and individualism running deep to the point of internal conflict for Rubashov.
During Rubashov’s prison stay he relives the horrific acts at the hands of the Party he once blindly respected. He also thinks of the agonizing mental torture is currently experiencing at the Party’s orders and the torture he witnesses other political prisoners suffer. With this in mind, he questions the moral righteousness the party declares itself to live up to, “The Party’s warm, breathing body appeared to him to be covered with sores- festering sores, bleeding stigmata. When and where in history had there ever been such defective saints? Whenever had a good cause been worse represented? If the party embodied the will of history, then history itself was defective.” (Darkness at Noon pg.58).
Rubashov expresses his belief the people within the party and those it rules over follows the orders of No. 1, blindly like sheep. He compares it to “‘algebra…(being)…the science for lazy people- one does not work out X, but operates with it as if one knew it.'” (Darkness at Noon pg.85). The analogy to the societal crisis at hand is “‘x stands for the anonymous masses, the people. Politics mean operating with this x without worrying about its actual nature. Making history is to recognize x for what it stands for in the equation.'” (Darkness at Noon pg.85). The sentiment Rubashov is making is destiny is not set in stone, individuals can change the course of history and have an obligation to do so.
The key is to express a deeper awareness and personal sense of morality from within. Rubashov has long broken free from this “collective thinking” and gradually thinks for himself more and more. He does not wonder what is going on in other’s minds. There is no need for that. It could only jeopardize the independence of his thinking and evaluation of the situation, “Revolutionaries should not think through other people’s minds…. How can one change the world if one identifies oneself with everybody?” (Darkness at Noon pg. 23). Just as he doesn’t care what the party is thinking, although he is certainly aware of it, he knows the party feels similar towards his thinking behind his actions. Rubashov knows “They will shoot (him)… (His) motives will be of no interest to them.” (Darkness at Noon pg. 23). With this sense of individualism on the forefront of his mind, he forms an unbiased take on the party, it’s leaders, and (if possible) even himself. He judges the party, its leaders, and even himself of violence against humanity, although he doesn’t exactly put it in those terms. He feels tremendous guilt set in for the violence he himself has inflicted during all those years ago when he was a soldier in the Civil War fighting for the party’s leadership.
Rubashov contemplates where the party went wrong and why. The philosophy of the Party was golden, but the results were futile. It is a troubling time where despite the best intentions of the party, the reception of the public isn’t warm. The public hates them for what they have done. While the Party may pride itself on being the gold standard of a government, it is truly a force of oppression. The party was never about the “we”, the “people”, to begin with. Instead it was about satisfying No. 1 and his wishes at the expense of others. Yet, because of the party’s hold on the society people are either with them or against them and to be against them is to be against yourself in a sense. This is because the party will kill you if you go against them. If they even have the perception somebody is the “enemy”, real or imagined, they will kill them.
Everybody is walking on eggshells, this includes Rubashov’s interrogators, Ivannov and Gletkin. The two men come from different walks of life, but they both act as sheep performing their jobs under the party’s orders. Yet, they also think for themselves and have a sense of individualism to them. They are not just employees of the state, but unique personalities. The two guards have critically different mindsets, based on their life experiences.
Ivannov is an older man, about Rubashov’s age, and personally knows Rubashov from a previous time in their lives. They were both members of the old guard and took part in the Civil War. While Ivannov and Rubashov were friends at the time, they now face each other under deeply different circumstances. Ivannov, feeling he is paying his duty to the Party, keeps Rubashov imprisoned. Yet, he knows in his heart the accusations against Rubashov are false. However, he pushes Rubashov to falsely admit to the bogus allegations. It’s all politics and bureaucracy for Ivannov, not personal. In fact, he and Rubashov think largely the same ways, “they had the same moral standard, the same philosophy, they thought in the same terms. Their positions might just as well have been the other way round.” (Darkness at Noon pg.111). Yet, “The rules of the game were fixed.” (Darkness at Noon pg.111). Ivannov would do everything he could to survive and not end up being accused of treason against the party himself, even if it means throwing his former friend under the bus. He doesn’t want to end up facing the same faith as Rubashov.
On the other hand, Gletkin is a much younger man and doesn’t know the history of the party the way Ivannov does or have a personal connection to Rubashov. He doesn’t conceptualize the background of what is happening in the present. As such, he doesn’t see the problematic nature of torturing somebody at the hands of the party they once helped build up. When interrogating Rubashov he blindly believes the accusations against Rubashov and even pressures Rubashov to believe them himself. The party does not only want a punitive outcome for those betraying them. Yes, they certainly want them to suffer, but on a deeper level they want the “opposition” to validate in a sense the party’s “righteousness” by confessing they are in the wrong, to the public and to themselves. As Gletkin does not have a personal connection to Rubashov and is ignorant of the circumstances, he takes a much harder approach on him than Ivanov and is more of a sheep for the party’s agenda. While he wants Rubashov to take on the views of the party, he himself doesn’t give much thought to what they actually are. Gletkin does not distinguish between actions taken or mindsets when labeling someone “guilty”.
Gletkin would even turn against Ivannov. He sees Ivannov as a traitor now just as he sees Rubashov. As Gletkin puts it to Rubashov in an interrogation, “‘Citizen Ivanov,’… ‘belonged, as you do, to the old intelligentsia; by conversing with him, one could acquire some of that historical knowledge which one missed through insufficient schooling. The difference is that I try to use that knowledge in the service of the Party; but Citizen Ivanov was a cynic.'” (Darkness at Noon pg. 233). By using the word “was” Gletkin implies Ivanov has died for his betrayal.
Gletkin feels he is the future of the party and has a sense of pride and belonging of his association with the party, “Massive and expressionless, he sat there, the brutal embodiment of the State which owed its very existence to the Rubashovs and Ivanovs…. Gletkin and the new Neanderthals were merely completing the work of the generation with the numbered heads.” (Darkness at Noon pg. 233).
As Rubashov is set to die he comes to the realization there is a struggle for survival for all in the society the party reigns over. Rubashov feels when it comes to karma he isn’t facing a death sentence for betraying the party, the party actually betrayed him, Ivanov, and others who helped build it. Instead he is paying the ultimate price for his participation in the horrific acts he took upon on during the Civil War on behalf of the party. Rubashov is up against the death penalty, just as other Old Bolsheviks, for being “too deeply entangled in their own past, caught in the web they had spun themselves, according to the laws of their own twisted ethics and twisted logic; they were all guilty, although not of those deeds of which they accused themselves.” (Darkness at Noon pg.258). He confesses to everything he was ordered to confess on behalf of the party. Rubashov’s road to deeper understanding isn’t complete after all. He is still confused about what to believe when it comes to morality.