Last Updated 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.
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649
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 comfort and peace of mind. He cannot comprehend the horror and loathing that Cincinnatus is experiencing, and he continually admonishes his prisoner to behave better toward others and to enjoy the comforts being provided.
Rodrig Ivanovich (ROD-rihg ee-VAH-noh-vihch), the director of the prison. He is a pompous functionary who wears a toupee and a frock coat. He is very proud of his authority and is concerned about the good name of his institution. Like the others, he thinks that the prisoner should be enjoying his experience.
Emmie, the director’s daughter, a cute, frolicsome twelve-year-old nymphet, a prototype of the author’s famous Lolita. She is continually slipping into Cincinnatus’ cell to flirt with him. She promises to help him escape if he will marry her, but eventually she proves to be part of the conspiracy to play heartless psychological jokes on him.
Marthe, Cincinnatus’ faithless wife. She is young, sensual, and phenomenally promiscuous. In fact, she has sexual intercourse with both Rodion and Rodrig on visiting days, as if to torment her husband and show him how indifferent she is to his situation. Her visits make him feel more destitute than ever.
Cecilia C., a middle-aged midwife who claims to be the prisoner’s mother. Cincinnatus was reared in an orphanage; he does not know who his father was and is barely acquainted with his mother. He has been so deceived and frustrated by his captors that he no longer trusts anyone. Cecilia, like all the others, is concerned only with her own affairs and has little empathy with her son. She visits him merely out of a sense of duty and because she enjoys playing the role of bereaved mother. She is another aspect of the swinish humanity Cincinnatus hopes to escape through his death.
Roman Vissarionovich (vih-sah-rih-OH-noh-vihch), the condemned man’s attorney. A lean, sepulchral individual with a harelip, he is continually visiting the prisoner but is of no assistance whatsoever. He is merely one more of the insensitive functionaries pressing Cincinnatus toward his inevitable execution and imploring him to behave as if their insane world were the epitome of sanity and good order.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568
Invitation to a Beheading is not a realistic novel, and author Vladimir Nabokov has not attempted to create rounded, believable characters. Most are frankly caricatures. Cincinnatus is the exception. Blond, thin, physically slight, he is a dreamy, unassertive young man of morose, reflective temperament. He is absorbed in the past, in nature, and in literature. His senses and his unworldly perceptions are extraordinarily acute, for Cincinnatus is an artist"although his diary is the only tangible expression of his talent and unique intuitions. He is the only “real” person in a false universe with its totalitarian society and imperceptive, philistine citizens.
Pierre, the executioner, is the character most directly opposed to Cincinnatus. The two are contrasted in many ways. Cincinnatus is delicate, slender, and neurasthenic. Pierre is robust, plump, and jolly. The contrasts continue: deep integrity/shallow vulgarity, artist/philistine, victim/executioner. This dichotomous relationship comes to a head at the gala dinner party, where the initials of the two men are intertwined in colored lights. In the original Russian text, the paired initials are revealed as inverted mirror images of each other, reflecting the characters’ relationship to each other"an effect that is lost in the English translation. Pierre is the essence of his banally trivial totalitarian society, just as Cincinnatus is the embodiment of that remote, ideal world which he intuits. The unctuously evil Pierre with his plump white hands and smelly feet is one of the great characters of Russian literature.
The trio of Rodion, Rodrig, and Roman constitutes a set of somewhat sinister puppets, evoking a comic opera combining the Marx brothers and the Three Stooges. The three are carefully individuated: Rodion, the fat turnkey with his red beard, cornflower-blue eyes, and bass-baritone voice; Rodng, the pompous, frock-coated prison director with his pitch-black toupee and fruity bass tones; and Roman, the fidgety, lean lawyer with his harelip and tenor voice. By following their ominous antics, the careful reader will soon discover that the three performers sometimes exchange roles and identities, along with their costumes, wigs, and makeup. Even the paternity of young Emmie is uncertain, for at times she is referred to as the director’s daughter, and at others, Rodion’s.
Emmie, at twelve, is a nymphet in a sinister, make-believe world. Fey, ballerina-like, and ethereal but with erotic undercurrents, she tantalizes Cincinnatus with hints of escape: first with a series of crude, cartoonlike drawings depicting an escape and then, even more explicitly, with a suggestion that they should flee and be married. She, too, proves to be part of the hoax.
Only two characters have realistic qualities. Cecilia C. pays a visit to her doomed, illegitimate son, whom she has seen only once since his birth. Cincinnatus suspects her, as he does all those who surround him, of being a mere puppet and regards her with doubt even after she tells him the secret of his “different” father. As she is about to leave, however, Cincinnatus catches in her gaze “that ultimate, secure, all-explaining and from-all-protecting spark that he knew how to discern in himself also.” Another more realistic, though almost incidental, character is the taciturn prison librarian, who brings Cmcinnatus treasures from the past. As Cincinnatus mounts the scaffold before the festive crowd, the librarian sits on the steps, doubled up and vomiting. Together with Cincinnatus, these two are the only characters with an inkling of another world, a higher reality.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 92
Sources for Further Study
Alter, Robert. “Invitation to a Beheading: Nabokov and the Art of Politics,” in TriQuarterly. XVII (Winter, 1970), pp. 41-59.
Johnson, D. Barton. “The Two Worlds of Invitation to a Beheading,” in Worlds in Regression: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov, 1985.
Peterson, Dale E. “Nabokov’s Invitation: Literature as Execution,” in PMLA. XCVI (1981), pp. 824-836. Rampton, David. “Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister,” in Vladimir Nabokov: A Critical Study of the Novels, 1984.
Stuart, Dabney. “All the Mind’s a Stage: The Novel as Play,” in Nabokov: The Dimensions of Parody, 1978.