Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The central theme of Invitation to a Beheading is the plight of the artist, someone with a personal vision of the world and a unique way of conveying it to others. The writer lives at the center of a paradox; he possesses his own language, the only one adequate to the expression of his vision, but his language is incomprehensible and, thus, suspect to his audience, his fellow citizens. Cincinnatus’ prison is thus dual. On one level, he is in an actual prison for crimes against the totalitarian state, and, on a deeper level, he is in the prison-house of language.

Cincinnatus’ prison is only one of the novel’s worlds for which he dimly visualizes a replacement, an ideal world in which he is a free citizen among people who speak his tongue. The novel’s structure is cast in terms of these two opposing worlds: the world of the prison and the totalitarian society that it represents, and Cincinnatus’ ideal world, the free world of his imagination. This thematic dichotomy manifests itself in many ways, but most important is the frequent juxtaposition of the terms “here” (that is, this world) and “there” (that world). This distinction defines the novel’s metaphysical, moral, and political geography.

Invitation to a Beheading is a tightly, almost schematically structured work. It opens with the pronouncement of Cincinnatus’ death sentence and ends with his “execution.” With only minor variation, each of the twenty chapters"which begin with Cincinnatus’ morning awakening and end with lights-out"corresponds to one day in the death countdown.

The writing is saturated with intricate stylistic games involving letter shapes which form patterns, hinting at the presence of “the other world” in this case, the controlling hand of the author. Almost every chapter has its own dominant motif: a clock tolling off the remaining hours of Cincinnatus’ life, an otherworldly draft that wafts a fake acorn on Cincinnatus’ bed, and Cecilia C.’s nonnons, grotesquely twisted, unrecognizable objects which become familiar and pristine when reflected in artfully distorted mirrors"a parable of the relationship between the perverted world of the novel and the ideal world of art.