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