Darkness at Noon

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The Individual, or the “Grammatical Fiction, vs. the Collective Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Ideology and Contradiction Theme Icon
The Individual, or the “Grammatical Fiction, vs. the Collective Theme Icon
Logical Reasoning and Bureaucracy Theme Icon
Change and the Laws of History Theme Icon
Truth, Confession, and Performance Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Darkness at Noon, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Individual, or the “Grammatical Fiction, vs. the Collective Theme Icon

While Communist thought proposes that society’s masses are not subject to any one person’s power, the truth of this idea is challenged by, among other things, the cult around the leader “No. 1.” His photograph adorns every room, even though those in charge insist that they and No. 1 are only working in the interests of the collective. Only gradually, over the course of the novel, does Rubashov come to question the validity of these assertions. At the beginning of the novel, Rubashov, steeped in Communist ideology, considers the collective to be inherently superior to the individual: in fact, the individual is no more than what he calls a “grammatical fiction,” a reference to his idea that the grammatical “first-person singular” represents a notion of individuality that does not (and should not) exist in the world. Rubashov’s conviction that the individual is irrelevant allows him to pursue Party goals with little thought of the destruction or suffering that the Party might cause along the way.

However, as Rubashov ruminates on his own past while locked inside his cell, he begins to wonder how much of a fiction the “grammatical fiction” truly is. He thinks back on the personal relationships he’s had with unique, idiosyncratic individuals, including an affair with his secretary Arlova. His thoughts about Arlova, including his memories about his willingness (despite her innocence) to have her executed “for the cause,” begin to make Rubashov wonder if the promotion of an abstract ideal is worth the suffering of real people. The Party member named Richard (presumably part of the German Communist Party) whom Rubashov refused to protect while abroad is another example of Rubashov’s initially unwavering commitment to the collective over the individual. This man may be a loyal member of the party, but his insistence on printing his own flyers rather than using those put out by the central committee was enough to make Rubashov consider him to be a traitor.

As Rubashov returns to these memories, the tension between the individual and the collective becomes increasingly clear to him. Ivanov is well aware of this tension himself: he deals with it ironically while interrogating Rubashov, suggesting that it doesn’t matter what really goes on at the level of the individual, as long as the wishes of the Party are fulfilled on a superficial level. But Ivanov’s ironic distance proves fatal, as he’s executed and replaced with Gletkin, who seems to believe far more earnestly that the individual is nothing in the face of the collective. But even as Rubashov himself loses faith in the philosophy of collectivism, he never replaces his ideology with staunch individualism or any other guiding attitude. Ultimately, the novel indicates that the individual and the collective cannot in fact be reconciled in Party ideology, in Rubashov’s own mind, or in the narrative he puts forward about his own life.

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The Individual, or the “Grammatical Fiction, vs. the Collective Quotes in Darkness at Noon

Below you will find the important quotes in Darkness at Noon related to the theme of The Individual, or the “Grammatical Fiction, vs. the Collective.
The First Hearing: 6 Quotes

The horror which No. 1 emanated, above all consisted in the possibility that he was in the right, and that all those whom he killed had to admit, even with the bullet in the back of their necks, that he conceivably might be in the right. There was no certainty; only the appeal to that mocking oracle they called History, who gave her sentence only when the jaws of the appealer had long since fallen to dust.

Related Characters: No. 1
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Rubashov ruminates here on the power and allure—both impressive and fear-inspiring—of No. 1, whose portrait watches over nearly every room in the unnamed country. It is not simply, though, that No. 1 exerts a tyrannical power over everyone else through brute force and cruelty. There’s also a powerful ideology behind his power. This ideology is bolstered by careful logical and intellectual reasoning that seeks to justify any actions taken by No. 1 or enacted in his name. As a result, anyone in opposition to the state cannot simply claim moral righteousness as a justification for their beliefs or actions. In addition, the all-encompassing ideology of totalitarianism makes it impossible not to question what counts as true and how history will portray the players involved. Even more chillingly, Rubashov recognizes here that he will either be judged or absolved long after his death: in the span of an individual life, in this framework, no one can tell what is right and wrong, true and false.

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The First Hearing: 8 Quotes

The old disease, thought Rubashov. Revolutionaries should not think through other people’s minds.
Or, perhaps they should? Or even ought to?
How can one change the world if one identifies oneself with everybody?
How else can one change it?

Related Characters: Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov (speaker)
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Rubashov is wondering what’s going on in other people’s minds, an activity in which he often engages and at which he is more or less talented. This skill has presumably served him well as a diplomat, when he was responsible for managing political affairs strategically and manipulating people abroad. At the same time, however, Rubashov regards this ability to imagine the situation of another person as a weakness, the “old disease” to which he is susceptible but thinks he must overcome. It’s a disease, within the Party ideology, because imagining another person’s thoughts puts an emphasis on an individual’s particularity and inner life rather than denying the individual in order to focus on the collective.

Nevertheless, Rubashov begins to show some stirrings of uncertainty regarding whether or not it really is better to forget about the interiors of other people’s minds. As a member of the Party leadership, Rubashov knows that he has power and responsibility that require him to distinguish himself from others, and, in particular, to often forget about the possibility that he might cause their suffering in return for a higher cause. At the same time, he wonders if there’s an insoluble contradiction at play here: if the only way the Party can enact the changes it wants might be precisely to focus on individual thoughts and desires.

The First Hearing: 11 Quotes

“Yet I would do it again,” he said to himself. “It was necessary and right. But do I perhaps owe you the fare all the same? Must one also pay for deeds which were right and necessary?”

Related Characters: Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov (speaker), Richard, No. 402
Page Number: 56-57
Explanation and Analysis:

Rubashov has been thinking of how he sacrificed Richard, and about the taxi driver who seemed loyal to Communism (but whose friendly offering Rubashov dismissed in order to stay discreet). These memories are also interspersed with Rubashov’s conversation with No. 402, whom he asks for tobacco. Initially No. 402 says no, and Rubashov, irritated, decides that 402 owes him nothing. Then 402 does send Rubashov tobacco from the warder. Suddenly Rubashov is forced to question how easily he scorns and dismisses others who seem unable to serve his own needs.

This, in turn, causes Rubashov to reflect on how he acted with Richard. He doesn’t, at this point, think that he had another option: he believes that the needs of the Party should come before any individual cause. At the same time, Rubashov starts to wonder if he still “owes the fare” to Richard—that is, if he is indebted to him in any way, or indebted in the broader (even theological) sense of the term, on a cosmic scale. This is a related question to the one Rubashov has asked about the laws of history; he won’t know whether he must pay for wrongs, or even if he wronged anyone at all, until it’s too late.

The First Hearing: 12 Quotes

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 even 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.

Related Characters: Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov (speaker)
Related Symbols: Christian Symbolism
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

Rubashov is feeling desperate for a cigarette and, in his desperation, he begins to be overwhelmed by thoughts of the Party and of his own interrelationship with it. Indeed, even as Rubashov now begins to question his own role in asserting the dominance of communist ideology, he realizes that there’s no way to separate himself out from any evils of the ideology, as his entire life has been tied up with Communism.

At this moment in particular, Rubashov uses a remarkable metaphor to think about the morally compromised nature of the Party. First of all, he compares it to a living body, which echoes the “social body” to which many political leaders often refer when they seek to get across the importance of collective interests and actions. But Rubashov also uses religious and, in particular, Christian imagery: the stigmata were originally the wounds on Jesus’s body from being crucified, and it is said in Christianity that when a person begins to show similar wounds or wound-like marks, it’s a sign that the person is a saint. Rubsahov links this notion to the idea of individual sacrifice for collective use—a central Party tenet—but he also suggests that such sacrifice has been deformed grotesquely, turned away from its proper purposes.

The First Hearing: 13 Quotes

For the movement was without scruples; she rolled towards her goal unconcernedly and deposed the corpses of the drowned in the windings of her course. Her course had many twists and windings; such was the law of her being. And whosoever could not follow her crooked course was washed on to the bank, for such was her law. The motives of the individual did not matter to her. His conscience did not matter to her, neither did she care what went on in his head and his heart. The Party knew only one crime: to swerve from the course laid out; and only one punishment: death.

Related Characters: Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

The narration steps back here from Rubashov’s particular experience in order to make a broader and, in many ways, poetic comment on the workings of a totalitarian government, specifically in the post-revolutionary Russian context. The “movement” is described here just as History has been described earlier, as a powerful but impersonal force, unconcerned with the suffering of individuals and acting according to broad, collective laws. Then, the “movement” is equated to the “Party,” in a slippage that suggests just how much the idealism of collective action has become an authoritarian regime of certain individuals. There’s no room for subtlety in this framework, either—there’s a foreshadowing here of Rubashov’s ultimate fate, even though, at this point in the novel, it still seems as though he might be able to be saved by a confession.

The Second Hearing: 3 Quotes

Its existence was limited to a grammatical abstraction called the “first person singular.” Direct questions and logical meditations did not induce it to speak; its utterances occurred without visible cause and, strangely enough, always accompanied by a sharp attack of toothache. Its mental sphere seemed to be composed of such various and disconnected parts as the folded hands of the Pietà, Little Loewy’s cats, the tune of the song with the refrain of “come to dust,” or a particular sentence which Arlova had once spoken on an occasion.

Related Characters: Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov (speaker)
Page Number: 111-112
Explanation and Analysis:

Rubashov is once again trying to think through the implications of his interrogation, and here he is wondering to what extent Ivanov really wants to save him and whether or not his interrogator is as sincere (or cynical) as Rubashov had been with Richard or Little Loewy. This monologue takes place within Rubashov’s own mind, but he’s also aware of a “silent partner” that makes the monologue a kind of internal conversation—even if that partner is only rarely stirred.

Rubashov characterizes the silent partner as the “first person singular,” that is, the individual with all his or her desires, fears, memories, idiosyncrasies, and capacity to love or suffer. Rubashov, having been schooled in the triumph of the collective and the dismissal of the individual, has no way to think about his own self other than as a question of grammar: the “I” that is part of language but has no life of its own. At the same time, Rubashov does, on some level, sense the vitality of such a “grammatical abstraction.” Indeed, the “first person singular” is actually opposed to other kinds of abstraction in that it arises in such particular circumstances: when Rubashov thinks of particular memories of his own life, and when he thinks about certain personalities he’s known in the past. Multi-sensory memories tend to accompany the intrusion of the “grammatical fiction,” from smell to sight to touch. The list that Rubashov makes up will come to be a kind of refrain of individual characteristics for the rest of the novel.

The Second Hearing: 4 Quotes

He had sacrificed Arlova because his own existence was more valuable to the Revolution. That was the decisive argument his friends had used to convince him; the duty to keep oneself in reserve for later on was more important than the commandments of petty bourgeois morality. For those who had changed the face of history, there was no other duty than to stay here and be ready. “You can do what you like with me,” Arlova had said, and so he had done. Why should he treat himself with more consideration?

Related Characters: Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov (speaker), Arlova
Page Number: 128-129
Explanation and Analysis:

Rubashov continues to muse about the relationship between the status of individual people and the collective goals of the revolutionary society. He’s beginning to sense, even if only implicitly, a contradiction in the Party’s espousal of using any means necessary to achieve collective ends: these ends always include the safety and security of those individuals who happen to be in power. Arlova was not, then, just sacrificed on behalf of something greater than herself, but on behalf of one other person, Rubashov. The Party doesn’t seem to have an answer to this contradiction, other than to continue to insist that the Party leadership perfectly embodies the goals of the collective. Now, though, Rubashov is beginning to see that even this logic must ultimately apply to himself if he continues to insist on being consistent and intellectually rigorous. He too, perhaps, will have to face the laws of history and be judged according to them, even if those laws of history end up having particular faces, like that of No. 1.

The Second Hearing: 6 Quotes

Up till now, he had never imagined Arlova’s death in such detail. It had always been for him an abstract occurrence; it had left him with a feeling of strong uneasiness, but he had never doubted the logical rightness of his behavior. Now, in the nausea which turned his stomach and drove the wet perspiration from his forehead, his past mode of thought seemed lunacy. The whimpering of Bogrov unbalanced the logical equation.

Related Characters: Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov (speaker), Arlova, Michael Bogrov
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

As Bogrov was led along the corridor on his way to be executed, he shouted out Rubashov’s name. As a result, Rubashov—who is familiar with such executions from his own time as interrogator and dictator—is forced to face the material, physical, and sensory nature of being led to one’s death. The notion of death as an abstract necessity in the interest of a larger, collective cause now gives way to the concrete horror of having to face one’s death or having to face one’s own responsibility for another’s death. The fact that Rubashov does begin to feel responsible for Bogrov, who is one of the people he didn’t actually betray personally, suggests that Rubashov is beginning to have a broader sense of his general role in perpetrating Party violence, even indirectly.

The “logical equation” of actions in pursuit of certain goals has always seemed airtight to Rubashov, but it no longer seems so. The public, performative nature of Bogrov’s death that serves the Party (as a warning to others and example of its own power) also creates a kind of stage on which Rubashov can set his own changing theories.

The Second Hearing: 7 Quotes

“History is a priori amoral; it has no conscience. To want to conduct history according to the maxims of the Sunday school means to leave everything as it is. You know that as well as I do. You know the stakes in this game, and here you come talking about Bogrov’s whimpering….”

Related Characters: Ivanov (speaker), Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, Michael Bogrov
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

Ivanov and Rubashov continue their interrogation-cum-intellectual conversation. While Rubashov has kept the details of his concerns about the “grammatical fiction” to himself until now, at this point he’s just told Ivanov that Ivanov, having failed to hear Bogrov’s cry, can’t possibly understand that there may be limits to the Party’s logical reasoning. Ivanov, here, sounds quite a bit like Rubashov himself at earlier moments: he once again underlines the shared intellectual heritage with which they both began their time as members of the Party leadership. Referring to Sunday school, Ivanov again brings up Christianity as an alternative moral system, one that the Party claims to have quashed entirely—though it’s still present enough for the interrogator to have to point to it as a continuing danger, a weakness against which diligent Party members must militate. Indeed, Ivanov seems to chide Rubashov, reminding him that Ivanov is not saying anything Rubashov doesn’t already know. For Ivanov, Rubashov’s newfound humanitarian conscience is not the beginning of an alternately imagined society, but a passé weakness that he must conquer in order to remember what is most important, that is, the power of the revolutionary society (or at least its leaders).

“We all thought one could treat history like one experiments in physics. The difference is that in physics one can repeat the experiment a thousand times, but in history only once.”

Related Characters: Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov (speaker), Ivanov
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

In an earlier section of the book, Rubashov himself employed the language of science and experimentation in order to discuss how he, a loyal and powerful member of the Party leadership, ended up imprisoned. Now he shares with Ivanov some of the results of his theorizing: he’s come to see that it’s not necessarily that the Party’s ideology and logic were ultimately correct but simply misapplied or mistakenly dealt with vis-à-vis Rubashov, but rather that there is a flaw within the ideological assumptions themselves. Rubashov has also previously taken pride in the impeccable logical reasoning that has enabled the Party to succeed in a communist revolution like no place else. Yet now he realizes that what the Party thinks of as the laws of history don’t work just like the laws of physics: first, because history can’t be repeated, and second, because human beings are involved. Of course, history can be treated like a physics experiment—and it has been, Rubashov argues—but the result is that individuals are manipulated or destroyed.

The Third Hearing: 3 Quotes

If history were a matter of calculation, how much did the sum of two thousand nightmares weigh, the pressure of a two-thousandfold helpless craving? Now he really felt the sisterly scent of Arlova; his body under the woolen blanket was covered with sweat….

Related Characters: Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov (speaker), Arlova
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

Rubashov’s thoughts return to Arlova as he continues to grapple with the incommensurable ways of measuring individual suffering and collective striving. He himself has argued that history is a matter of calculation, a kind of science experiment, though he has also more recently challenged Ivanov’s espousal of that very concept of history. Now he almost ironically tries to imagine what it would look like to think of history not as abstract cause and effect, not as a physics experiment with “x” and “y” variables, but as an actual calculation of human suffering and desire. This is what makes him think back to Arlova and the individual idiosyncrasies of her body and his memories from the affair he had with her before he betrayed her. Again, it is through senses like smell and touch that Rubashov is convinced that abstract reasoning can be dangerously incomplete.

The Grammatical Fiction: 1 Quotes

“…After a short deliberation, the President read the sentence. The Council of the Supreme Revolutionary Court of Justice sentenced the accused in every case to the maximum penalty: death by shooting and the confiscation of all their personal property.”
The old man Wassilij stared at the rusty hook above his head. He murmured: “Thy will be done. Amen,” and turned to the wall.

Related Characters: Wassilij (speaker), Vera Wassiljovna (speaker), Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov
Related Symbols: Christian Symbolism
Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:

Vera continues reading the trial transcript to her father, concluding with the inevitable death sentence. While Vera’s engrossment in the story makes it seem to be a tale of powerful suspense, Wassilij understands the transcript for what it is—an inevitable rehearsal of a performance that is meant to bolster the power of No. 1. Wassilij is elderly and has lived through the Revolution, which means he was raised in a very different society, one in which Christianity was still a permitted (and even common) belief system. Wassilij has refused to let go of these beliefs. Indeed, when Wassilij thinks of Rubashov—whom Wassilij continues to admire and respect, even though Rubashov has now fallen from favor—he compares Rubashov to Jesus Christ.

In fact, the ritualistic quality of the confession and sentencing can be understood, from Wassilij’s point of view, as a rewriting of the Passion of Christ, the final days and hours before Jesus was crucified as told in the Gospels. Christian doctrine states that Jesus had to be crucified in order to be sacrificed for humanity: Wassilij evidently understands Rubashov, too, as a sacrificial victim, even if he doesn’t believe that collective good will result from Rubashov’s death. While the book does show several cases (from Wassilij to the imprisoned peasant) of those who refuse to conform to Party ideology, these people are fractured and alone, largely condemned to silence in the face of an all-powerful totalitarianism.

The Grammatical Fiction: 2 Quotes

They were 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.

Related Characters: Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov (speaker)
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

As he prepares to die, Rubashov thinks of his comrades who also believed that they were acting in the service of a larger, collective cause, and who found themselves undone and betrayed by that very system. He has a sharp sense of the irony of his situation: not only does he, who once unthinkingly betrayed people in the service of the Party, now find himself condemned by that same logic, but he also recognizes that the historical laws which he considered so valuable and impervious are actually subject to individual, fallible interpretation. Here Rubashov even goes so far as to imply that these laws are not laws of history (as the comrades thought) but rather human laws, which explains why the laws can be massaged so easily depending on who is in power. Rubashov’s thoughts about guilt also suggest a different kind of intellectual and ideological framework from communism, one in which personal and collective responsibility is far greater than in a logical, means-based system. Now Rubashov thinks that all people bear some responsibility for the crimes of some.