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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading tells the story of the enigmatic Cincinnatus C., a thirty-year-old prisoner and former teacher who has been sentenced to death for the crime of "gnostical turpitude". He is to die in twenty days time, although he is never made aware of this deadline, and the...

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Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading tells the story of the enigmatic Cincinnatus C., a thirty-year-old prisoner and former teacher who has been sentenced to death for the crime of "gnostical turpitude". He is to die in twenty days time, although he is never made aware of this deadline, and the novel follows his remaining days of life.

The jailer, Rodion, takes Cincinnatus to the "fortress", where Cincinnatus converses with his lawyer and then shares a dance with Rodion. Afterward, he writes down his thoughts, and we learn that Cincinnatus does not know the date of his execution and wishes to so that he knows whether or not he has enough time to write about his experiences. He asks several characters to tell him when it is, but he is unable to learn. At some point, he is assigned a cellmate by the prison director, Rodrig. After meeting Rodrig's daughter, Emmie, Cincinnatus is taken into the hall by Rodrig to observe this cellmate through a peephole.

We learn that Cincinnatus has a wife, Marthe, whom he loves but who is not loyal to him. He eagerly expects her to visit him in prison, but she postpones her visit. When Cincinnatus is allowed out of his cell in order to clean it, he wanders the vicinity, dreaming of escape. He sees Emmie playing in front of a picture of a garden, which he mistakes for a window. The following morning, Cincinnatus meets his cellmate at last: Monsieur Pierre. Cincinnatus dislikes him, but the prison director behaves otherwise.

After a little over a week in prison, Cincinnatus starts writing again, confessing his fears and angst about how society perceived him even when he was a free man. He finally gets a visit from Marthe, but she arrives with her lover. Cincinnatus is unable to meet with her because his cell is cluttered with furniture in preparation for the visit. He gets another visit, this time from his estranged mother, Cecilia. Cecilia tells him about the strange circumstances surrounding his birth and the identity of his father. That same night, Pierre digs a tunnel through their cells and invites Cincinnatus into his. Cincinnatus instead emerges out of another hole, where Emmie is waiting to take him to a dining room. There, Cincinnatus finds Rodrig and his wife dining with Pierre. They ask Cincinnatus to join them, and then Rodrig shows Cincinnatus a photo album detailing Emmie's future.

At last, Rodrig is revealed to be Cincinnatus' executioner, and Cincinnatus is finally told the date on which he is to die: "the day after tomorrow". Cincinnatus once again writes about his fear. Marthe visits him one more time, asking Cincinnatus to repent for his crimes. Cincinnatus finally dismisses her. The day of his execution arrives, and Cincinnatus is taken to the town square in a carriage. A crowd has already formed, and he climbs up the scaffold. He counts backward from ten in preparation for the beheading. Suddenly, he gets up, and steps off the scaffold; implying that his soul has left his body for good.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 807

Invitation to a Beheading was Nabokov’s next-to-last Russian novel. Cincinnatus, the hero, is a quiet rebel against the stifling mediocrity of imagination and consciousness of his world. He has an intuition of another world, one in which imagination is king and there are other people like him. Cincinnatus has been condemned to death for the crime of “gnostical turpitude,” which seems to refer to his unique sense of unknown, unnamed things in a world where all things are already named and known to everyone.

The events of Invitation to a Beheading take place in a mythic country, with no indication of temporal or geographic setting, although the characters speak Russian. The story covers the last three weeks in the life of Cincinnatus, a youthful teacher of defective children. On the novel’s opening day, Cincinnatus hears his death sentence pronounced and is remanded to the hilltop prison fortress, where he is to await the fall of the ax. At first, Cincinnatus is the only prisoner in the fortress, where he is attended by his bluff jailer, Rodion; the unctuous, frock-coated director Rodrig; and his lawyer, Roman, who beleaguers him with inane legal formalities. The careful reader soon realizes that the three characters, like actors, sometimes exchange costumes and roles.

Cincinnatus wishes only two things from his jailers: the date of his execution and a last visit from his callous, unfaithful wife, Marthe, and their two deformed children. Nothing can be learned on either score. Cincinnatus is soon joined by a new inmate, the plump, complaisant Pierre, who intimates that he has tried to help Cincinnatus escape. A cheerful vulgarian who seems to enjoy odd privileges for a prisoner, Pierre forces his friendship upon Cincinnatus, who wishes only to be left alone to explore his thoughts.

Cincinnatus devotes himself to keeping a prison diary in which he explores his sense of his differentness from all others in his society and his intimations of another, better world: “I am the one among you who is alive—Not only are my eyes different, and my hearing, and my sense of taste—not only is my sense of smell like a deer’s, my sense of touch like a bat’s—but most important, I have the capacity to conjoin all of this in one point.” This point is that he knows “a paramount thing that no one here knows.” He has come to believe that the world in which he is imprisoned is an illusion. While still fearing the executioner’s ax, Cincinnatus suspects that death is a doorway between this wretched, delusional world and another, brighter, real one. Through some ghastly mistake, he has been born into the “wrong” world, and only death will rectify the error.

The day of Cincinnatus’s public beheading arrives, and he is escorted from the prison by Pierre, who proves to be the executioner. Strangely, Cincinnatus’s cell starts to disintegrate and as they move toward the fatal square, statues and buildings begin to crumble like decrepit stage sets. As Cincinnatus ascends the scaffold, the crowd starts to fade into transparency. The ax falls, and “amidst the dust, and the falling things, and the flapping scenery, Cincinnatus made his way in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him.”

The intuitions of Cincinnatus, the quiet loner and heretic, have been confirmed. He has been trapped in a false, nightmare universe in which he is the only “real” person. His imagination and awareness, which make him a criminal in the eyes of his fellow citizens, also give him his intuition of a better world, to which he, with the help of his author-creator, gains entrance at the moment of his beheading. His death in the evil world is his birth into the ideal world fashioned by his creator.

Invitation to a Beheading, composed in a matter of weeks during 1934, is Nabokov’s most poetic, artifice-saturated, and technically sophisticated novel. There is no pretense of realism in Nabokov’s most overt venture into high modernism. There is no attempt to create rounded, believable characters, nor would they be appropriate to what is patently a false, antihuman fictional universe. The plot revolves around the relative reality of Cincinnatus’s two universes—his prison world and the free world suggested by his imagination. Nabokov has interposed these two worlds into his dystopian novel in a subtle and ingenious way that is more evident in the Russian original than in the English translation. The presence of the two worlds is almost subliminally woven into the text through the use of the words “here” and “there” signifying the false and the real worlds. Cincinnatus’s creator, Nabokov, has structured his story around these contrasting terms, affirming what his character can only suspect. Stylistically, Invitation to a Beheading is Nabokov’s most brilliant novel.

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