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...
(The entire section is 649 words.)