Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.