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Darkness at Noon: Rubashov May Deserve Cigarettes, But Not Sympathy


In Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Rubashov, an “old Bolshevik,” struggles between rationalizing the importance of the individual in comparison to the collective when arrested on false charges. While it is important to note that the charges on which Rubashov is convicted may be false, Rubashov is not innocent in his lack of wholeheartedness to the Party’s new direction. Despite the false charges, however, the following paper aims to argue that Rubashov does not deserve our sympathy. Furthermore, the paper will disprove the use of Rubashov’s “innocence” as a cause for sympathy by arguing that while it is possible to empathize with his seemingly unfair situation, his past actions make him undeserving of sympathy.

Rubashov goes to great lengths to protect his country and, above all, his position in the party to the point where he willingly betrays his allies, making it difficult to feel sympathy for Rubashov and his current situation. Rubashov seemingly has no qualms when denouncing his fellow Party members to advance his own political career. When faced with the choice of denouncing others to get ahead, Rubashov does not hesitate to denounce Richard when he sees that Richard has been altering Party-issued pamphlets by taking out lies and replacing them with what he believed to be the truth. Richard and Rubashov differ on a fundamental level in that Richard believes in using his own ideas to advance the Party agenda, while Rubashov has the unchanging stance that the Party is always right regardless of the circumstance. Consequently, sympathy for Rubashov is unnecessary when he places so much trust in the Party. Following the logic that the Party knows best, their decision to execute Rubashov is correct and does not require sympathy. Unlike Rubashov’s (prior) tendency to not question the Party, Little Loewy struggles with the Party’s increasingly contradictory policies. Little Loewy hangs himself after he cannot face himself for participating in the Party’s own denunciation of its prior intentions with the boycott. Just when one thinks Rubashov begins to experience guilt for his actions, he finds ways to make excuses for himself with the idea that “all [his] principles were right, but all  [his] results were wrong.” (1) Rubashov may have the decency to realize that maybe his actions were not ideal, but he ultimately fails to feel true remorse nor believe that his actions were wrong because he tells himself he does things, such as denouncing his fellow Party members, out of necessity. When Rubashov thinks back to his time with his secretary (and lover) Arlova, his questionable moral ground shines through. The way he took advantage of him and Arlova’s power imbalance by using it as an invitation to do whatever he wanted with her is enough to renounce any inklings of sympathy for Rubashov. Rubashov’s lack of participation in Arlova’s trials and his statement during her execution illustrates his self-serving nature, which further justifies any lack of sympathy. When Ivanov mentions Rubashov’s past statement (in addition to his initial silence) that ultimately condemned Arlova to death, Rubashov finds it difficult to rehear because he is well aware of his “unconditional adhesion to both the policy of the party and to the person of No.1”. (2) While Rubashov prioritizes the Party, he definitely does not believe everyone’s lives at the Party share the same priority. He views his own life as significantly more important, so he is comfortable with his desire to live at the expense of his comrades.

However, there is the counterargument that Rubashov deserves sympathy for being tossed aside at the end now that he no longer aligns with the Party’s new brand despite his dedication. Despite his arrest, his conditions are not terrible. He has a steady supply of food, cigarettes, and regular exercise, all of which his denounced comrades would certainly not have had before their brutal executions. Because of his experience in the party and his own involvement in the execution of other previously disgraced Party members, he has a general understanding of how the trial process works, so in addition to decent living conditions, he is emotionally well-prepared for what is about to happen, which is an advantage. Sympathy and empathy are not mutually exclusive. It makes sense to potentially empathize with Rubashov’s feelings of betrayal since the irony behind the party’s original vision (society ruled by the masses) vs. what it becomes (killing the masses) is overwhelming and disillusioning when Rubashov realizes what he was really working towards. Interestingly, Rubashov admits that he has new thoughts about the Party. Although he is about to die, he does not quite understand what exactly he is dying for, which is ironic because he was so passionate about the Party’s mission that he went on a denunciation spree to execute his comrades when he was really the same as them. During his hearing, Rubashov asks Ivanov a powerful question: “Do you really believe this idiocy or do you only pretend to?”(3) Similarly, he feels lost because he “no longer [believes] in [his own] infallibility.” (4) Rubashov’s disillusionment stems from the fact that he became convicted for the same crimes that he accused others of, as well as his inability to cope with the changing political landscape that leads him to feel confused about what he thought he always believed in and what he continues to believe in up until his death. Ultimately, Rubashov does not deserve sympathy because even though he is being disposed of ruthlessly, he is just as ruthless to the people he betrayed. His recurring toothache may represent his guilt, but it also represents his feelings toward his fellow Party members. They were merely toothaches for him rather than human lives, and he does not feel genuine guilt. Furthermore, teeth represent the sacrifices that Rubashov believes he was forced to make; sometimes, one has to sacrifice a few teeth for the greater good, but in the end, these sacrifices are just a tiny part of the big picture.

Moreover, Rubashov’s ultimate decision to confess to the false charges is critical. He confesses to portray himself as a martyr, or almost as a Christ figure, sacrificing himself for the sins of others, or in this case, the collective good. He rationalizes his decision by establishing his confession as the ultimate display of commitment to the party. However, the amount of hypocrisy in his decision makes it difficult to sympathize with his final attempt for valor. The primary reason for his inability to evoke sympathy is his reasoning for denouncing his comrades because he has them executed on the grounds that “[each wrong idea] is a crime committed against future generations,” so as a result, wrong ideas must be punished “as others punish crimes: with death”. (5) Thus, Rubashov deserves his sentence because he also doubted the Party when executing others as a defense mechanism as he prioritized his safety. His unreasonable sense of self-importance, especially apparent when he unabashedly admitted that his well-being was more important than Arlova’s life, does not make him a sympathetic character at all. As Rubashov established earlier, the party determines an individual’s value by how much he can contribute to the group’s cause, which could be used as justification for getting rid of the old Bolsheviks since it is possible that a lot of them no longer resonate with this new Party’s agenda. Rubashov’s current situation is inseparable from his past actions, and as a result, he is ineligible for sympathy on the grounds of his hypocritical sacrifices and martyr complex when he is finally (rightfully) punished.


1 Koestler, 51.

2 Koestler, 77.

3 Koestler, 79.

4 Koestler, 90.

5 Koestler, 89.


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