Darkness at Noon is the second novel of a trilogy, which revolves around the central theme of revolutionary ethics, and of political ethics in general: the problem whether, or to what extent, a noble ends justifies ignoble means, and the related conflict between morality and expediency. The theme of the novel relates to the ever-present predicament faced by the leaders of any political party or revolutionary movement, from the slave revolt in the first century to the Old Bolsheviks of the nineteen thirties.
Revolutionary ethics or the issues faced in revolutionary movements are timeless, and as an incentive to writing his novel, Arthur Koestler was troubled by this theory, and also by the regime of terror that was governed by Stalin this century. This issue of whether a noble end justifies ignoble means is the revolutionary predicament that Koestler refers to, and was the question that he aspired to resolve.
From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land.
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which means, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Darkness at Noon is a fictional account of the truth behind the Stalinist State at the close of the infamous Moscow Show Trials in 1938, where forty-eight of the fifty-four on the executive of the Communist Party were dead. All members of the party knew that Lenin and Trotsky had been the real leaders of the Revolution and consequently they did not accept Stalin as the successor to Lenin.
So accordingly, as Stalin was aware of the aspirations against him, as he consolidated power it became more dangerous to have known Lenin. The result of this was that over 70% of the Seventeenth Party Congress, which was held in 1934, had been arrested and executed; in Stalins opinion, these people had outlived their usefulness. Through the thoughts and actions of the main character, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik, the Soviet politics between 1917 and the Stalin era were outlined. The partys transformation disturbed Rubashov, as a member of the party, but he did not wish to be expelled, so he continued to work with the Party against his conscious.
Rubashov did everything that was asked of him, and therefore in essence he was a loyal Party member. The fault of Rubashov, however was that he attempted to modify his convictions to fit with the tasks that were required for him. Rubashovs problem was that he was a part of the old guard, whose past ensured that they could not exist in the transformed Stalinist Party. Rubashov now imprisoned as a scapegoat for the party faces an intellectual dilemma; while looking at his selfish and immoral actions of the past he feels that he deserves to pay regardless of his false persecution.
So through Rubashovs intellectual dilemma, Koestler expresses the feelings that he too felt during his time as a party member. In the chapter entitled The Grammatical Fiction, Rubashov contemplates this question of his guilt, and decides that he, and all of the Old Guard are guilty, although not of those deeds of which they accused themselves. (p. 205).
They are responsible for the manipulation of the truth, and deception of their followers in expediency to the Party). Rubashov, as a loyal follower of Marx and Lenin, realized that his utopia could no longer exist, and that the Party no longer represented the interests of the Revolution or the masses. Now, as Rubashov understands his fate and the fate of the party, he is haunted by guilt. However this guilt does not correspond with his accusation, as he is accused of counter-revolutionary agitation on behalf of foreign power and of participating in a conspiracy to murder No.1 (Stalin).
Rubashov, being forced to confess to his false crimes, does so as duty to the revolution but moreover as he feels that he has done wrong and deserves to pay. His accusers have no proof but insist that the acts of conspiracy against Stalin are the only logical consequence of Rubashovs opinions. Rubashov is therefore forced to confess, as innocent as he may be he confesses nonetheless. Gletkin, who was the main interrogator to Rubashov, uses sleep deprivation and a glaring light to obtain the confession. However Gletkin does not resort to cruder methods of torture, rather to convince Rubashov, with his loyalty to the party, that it is his duty to confess; as his confession is for the will of the revolution, or expediency to the cause. Rubashov had threatened Party unity and in doing so endangered the Revolution. So hence Rubashov must condemn himself to send a message to the people: that any form of deviation from the Party is a criminal act. This however does not represent the reasoning behind Rubashovs motives; to Rubashov, confession was his only means of redemption. Rubashov, only half convinced of Gletkins reasoning, now had a desire to be punished for his acts against conventional ethics. He feels that he is guilty for putting his own personal goals against morality, the way that he was dishonest to himself by putting self preservation above humanity.
To whichever standard Rubashov holds himself (it is unclear generally), he felt that he had failed, and consequently he must pay with his life and his reputation. Rubashov realized that it was not possible to put expediency above morality and conform to conventional ethics. Rubashov and accordingly Koestler concluded with his opinion that on the broader scale and also with the Stalinist State that noble ends is not justified by ignoble means. Koestler tackled the theme of revolutionary ethics, and decided that ethics in revolutionary movements do not comply with conventional ethics.