Darkness at Noon, while highly regarded, never seems to be mentioned along the same lines as 1984 or Brave New World, those two pillars which define the dystopian novel, yet all the same elements are contained within: the shadowy, all-ruling government which speaks publicly through propaganda and iconography while speaking privately by firing squads, the individualist free-thinker whom the regime sets out to squash, the inevitable unhappy ending. Darkness at Noon even has its Big Brother who glowers down at the masses from his ubiquitous poster, here called simply "No. 1."
The difference between those books and this is that while 1984 and Brave New World are set in distant futures where Britain has been subsumed by nascent fascism, the unnamed country of Darkness at Noon is transparently identifiable as the Soviet Union post-World War II. No. 1 is no other than Josef Stalin himself and the protagonist, N. S. Rubashov, an amalgamation of those men like Trotsky and Bukharin who had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of internal strife within the Communist Party. Darkness at Noon is a real-life dystopian novel that bridges the gap between speculative fair, like 1984 and Brave New World, and the semihistorical accounts of men like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak. It is perhaps precisely this that makes it a more powerful novel than Orwell's or Huxley's; whereas those novels warn of a dark future ahead, this one announces that it is here, as brutal as imagined, having landed not in Britain but across the Iron Curtain.
The narrative is confined for the most part to the close quarters of a political prison in the aftermath of Rubashov's arrest. Once a fundamental player in the Revolution, Rubashov is now on No. 1's blacklist as a counterrevolutionary, collared with the specious accusation of arranging an assassination attempt. The charge is nonsense, of course, but it is only the justification for punishing Rubashov's true crime, a difference in opinion from No. 1 and the Party's current ruling elite. In other words, heresy. As Rubashov is grilled by his interrogators, he recounts his own life as a Party operative through flashback: There is the young German Party member whom Rubashov reprimands for printing material antithetical to the Party line, and whom Rubashov ultimately banishes from the Party. There is the dock worker and Party sympathizer whom Rubashov convinces to break a dock strike that they might receive a supply shipment for the Revolution. Later, we find, the dock worker commits suicide from shame. Most hideous of all, we hear the story of Arlova, the young secretary whom Rubashov loved but let the Party try and execute rather than speak up on her behalf.
And yet Rubashov's flaw isn't selfishness, but something quite the opposite of it: Rubashov seems to believe in that moment that letting Arlova die is the best thing because he is more important to the Party's goals than she. Rubashov talks endlessly of following things to their logical end; here is the logical end of Stalinist Communism: "He who is in the wrong must pay," Rubashov writes in his prison journal, "he who is in the right will be absolved. That is the law of historical credit; it was our law." Such is the law in a world where the good of the movement is always put ahead of the good of the individual, where wrong is the same thing as evil and the ends always, always justify the means.
What results is a cannibalistic society that is, Ourobourous-like, always devouring itself by the tail. Those who once were in the right, like Rubashov, find themselves suddenly in the wrong in the eyes of the new guard, and shuffled off to the firing squads. In the end, Rubashov decides that what is best for the people is what is worst for him, and goes to his death with only minimal objection. Rubashov's death is not the ultimate tragedy of the novel--for it is difficult to read the book without knowing that it will come--but the fact that he goes quietly. Ultimately, Rubashov is a man faced with a choice between the system he has worked all of his life for and his own self-preservation, but the conclusion that there can be no defending a system that asks that choice of anyone seems just beyond his grasp.
Interesting notes: Darkness at Noon was originally written in German, but the original copy has been lost and the existing German copy is translated by Koestler from the English. Also, famous screenwriter and communist Dalton Trumbo (and author of Johnny Got His Gun) once bragged that he had long kept anti-Communist material out of Hollywood, including a film version of Darkness at Noon.