Rubashov paces his cell, knowing that before midnight he’ll be dead. During the trial, he’d been seized by one final moment of self-pity. He had been tempted to shout at his accusers like Danton before the Revolutionary Tribunal, a speech he’d learned by heart as a boy. But he’d recognized that it was too late, too late for them all: no one could unveil the truth to the world like Danton. Some like Hare-lip were silenced by fear, others by cowardice, others by the hope to save their families, or even to do a final service to the Party by being cast as scapegoats.
The story returns to Rubashov’s point of view and revisits the trial from his perspective. Again, Rubashov sees himself within a long line of revolutionaries, including Danton, one of the initial leaders of the French revolution who ultimately was executed by other revolutionaries. Silence, Rubashov realizes now, has conquered grand historical gestures.
Rubashov thinks that they were all guilty, though not of the deeds they were accused of. They had to act in a certain way, and now, for him, the performance is over. Now, his last few hours on earth belong to the silent partner, the “grammatical fiction,” which starts where logical thought ends. He taps 2—4 on the wall, the word “I,” for the first time. There’s no answer.
The collapse of boundaries between truth and fiction is such that it’s no longer possible to separate out either truth from falsehood or guilt from innocence. The grammatical fiction hasn’t prevented Rubashov from execution, but he’s come to embrace it in his final hours.
Rubashov has been thinking over certain puzzles, the meaning of suffering, and the difference between meaningful and meaningless suffering. Revolution could only try to remove senseless suffering by radically increasing meaningful suffering. Was this justified? It was justified in abstraction, he thinks, but in the concrete it no longer applies. Neither the Party nor the silent partner has an answer for him.
Now relieved of the constant physical discomfort imposed on him by Gletkin, Rubashov can return to the intellectual theories he’s been debating with himself: it’s more clear to him than ever that there’s no way out of the contradiction between individual sovereignty and collective action.
At times Rubashov remembers a tune, or the folded hands of the Pietà, or certain childhood memories, and he reaches what the religious call “ecstasy” or “contemplation,” or what modern psychologists call the “oceanic sense.” His personality does seem to dissolve into the infinite sea, but the whole sea also seems contained in one grain of salt. No longer is Rubashov ashamed at this kind of metaphysical musing. He looks out the window, and the patch of blue sky reminds him of one he saw as a boy lying in the grass at his father’s park.
Rubashov’s childhood, the part of the painting, and other memories that are multi-sensory in nature bolster his sense that there is something to an individual’s experience that cannot be simply absorbed into or appropriated by the masses. Rubashov attempts to make sense of this idea through a mystical metaphor, once again finding in religion an alternative set of theories to those of the Party.
Rubashov recalls astrophysics research arguing that the world’s volume is finite, even if space has no boundaries. He remembers that he read about this during his first arrest in Germany, when an illegal Party organ had been smuggled into his cell, sandwiched between a story about a mill strike, and an article about the discovery that the universe was finite, though the page was torn off halfway through.
Even this abstract philosophical notion is, for Rubashov, anchored in a concrete, individual memory, which includes frustrated expectations from the torn-off page—another example of the inability of the tension between abstraction and reality to be resolved.
Rubashov recognizes that the Party considers the infinite suspect, and even fails to recognize its existence. The Party denies individual free will even while requiring individual self-sacrifice. For 40 years Rubashov has fought against economic fatality, the main sickness of humanity, but wherever he’s applied the surgeon’s knife, a new wound has appeared, and the equation continues to fail. He’s buried the old, illogical morality, fought against the “oceanic sense,” but has been led straight into the absurd.
Rubashov moves through the internal contradictions of Party ideology, which continues to rely on individual sacrifices while insisting that they don’t exist. He thought he was being perfectly logical by obeying the dictates of this ideology, but he now realizes that even impeccable logical reasoning, if based on contradictory bases, can lead to absurdity.
Rubashov thinks that for 40 years he’s been led astray by pure reason. Perhaps men should not be ripped away from older traditions, he thinks. No. 1 had ruined the ideal of the Social state like medieval Popes had ruined the ideal of a Christian empire. It was the story of Richard and the Pietà that had prompted him to begin to realize this, but he’d never admitted fully that there was an error in the whole mathematical system of thought. When he asks himself why he’s dying he has no answer: it’s a mistake in the system, he thinks.
Part of the idea behind the revolution was to break entirely with old systems and traditions, including the state but also religious institutions, and start anew. Rubashov has always held history in high esteem, but now he sees another flaw in Party ideology in that it played too casually with history by wanting to dismiss it. His death is meant to be “meaningful,” but the system’s own logical flaws make it senseless.
Rubashov thinks that perhaps later a new movement will arise with a sense both of economic fatality and the “oceanic sense.” Perhaps these people will teach that a man is not just the quotient of one million divided by one million, and that only pure means can justify ends. Rubashov stops pacing, and hears muffled drumming from down the corridor.
Before he dies, Rubashov doesn’t fall into full-throated apathy or despair: instead he posits a future society that could potentially find a way to resolve the contradictions he’s discovered, or find a way around them.