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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330

Vladimir Nabokov's 1935-1936 novel was translated from Russian to English by the author's son Dmitri in 1959, bringing it to a broader audience while retaining the author's intended meaning. The novel is narrated from an omniscient point of view.

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The protagonist is Cincinnatus C., a man who has been sentenced to death for a crime designated as "gnostical turpitude." He is a thirty-year-old teacher, and he is scheduled for beheading, which occurs some twenty days after his sentencing.

Rodion is Cincinnatus's jailer. His behavior can be described as forthright and breezy.

Rodrig Ivanovich is the director of the prison where Cincinnatus is held in the weeks leading to his execution. He is vain and conceited and places value on appearances and manners.

Roman Vissarionovich is the attorney who acts, incompetently, on behalf of Cincinnatus. He, Rodrig, and Rodion seem to interchange and merge throughout the narrative.

Emmie is the twelve-year-old daughter of Rodrig. She manipulates Cincinnatus by leading him to believe he can escape, but it is a ruse to play a prank on her father. Once Cincinnatus walks away from the prison, Emmie leads him to her family's home, where he is invited to stay for dinner before his return to prison.

Marthe is the wife of Cincinnatus. She does not return the love he feels for him and is unfaithful to him. They have two deformed children.

Monsieur Pierre is another condemned man who is brought to the prison where Cincinnatus is confined. He, too, is thirty years old. His dominant characteristic is that he is ingratiating to most people in his new orbit in the prison. Later, it is revealed that Pierre is actually to be Cincinnatus's executioner and is not a prisoner at all.

Cecilia C. is Cincinnatus's birth mother, from whom he is estranged. She and Cincinnatus's father left him in an orphanage and were never a part of his life. Cincinnatus does not want to meet with her but is compelled to by Rodrig Ivanovich.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649

Cincinnatus C.

Cincinnatus C., a prisoner awaiting execution. This thirty-year-old schoolteacher is a frail, hypersensitive intellectual who lives in an unspecified land resembling Bolshevik Russia where conformity is unquestionable. His “crime” is only vaguely described as “gnostical turpitude”: He is out of step with society; he thinks forbidden thoughts. His main peculiarity is that he can see how the fact of death makes existence pointless. He sees everyone around him enjoying sensual pleasures, like animals, unaware that they are being fattened for slaughter. The novel is mainly the thoughts, fantasies, emotions, and recollections of a man awaiting execution. He both dreads and looks forward to his death. He believes that the soul is immortal and that life is like a bad dream, but he is afraid of awakening from it.


Pierre, the executioner. This fat, jolly, vigorous man is the same age as Cincinnatus and in many respects like a horrible alter ego. Like death itself, he is implacable and inescapable. He forces his friendship on the condemned man and drives him to distraction with his inane conversation and vulgar pranks. At first with the collusion of the jailers, he pretends to be a fellow prisoner so that he can insinuate himself into Cincinnatus’ good graces. He is a living embodiment of the protagonist’s idea that death is a silly, harmless affair and may actually be a pleasant experience. Eventually, Pierre performs the beheading, but it is described in such a way that it is left ambiguous whether it actually occurred or was only something like waking from a bad dream.


Rodion (ROH -dih-on), a turnkey, a fat, comical figure who, like Pierre, affects a great concern for the condemned man’s...

(The entire section contains 1639 words.)

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