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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360

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The primary theme of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel is the conflict between freedom and imprisonment. This conflict is played out basically on two levels, the physical and the metaphysical or abstract. Cincinnatus, the protagonist, is incarcerated but his true imprisonment is that of his creative spirit. Although his mind may roam freely, he can rarely put his ideas into material form. The corollary theme is the limitations of language to express humankind’s most important ideas. Because Cincinnatus lives in and has been imprisoned by a repressive state, Nabokov also raises the theme of the inadequacy of political systems to solve human problems. The author thereby encourages the reader to wonder about the value of society and those who uphold its norms. Although the novel has realistic components, its fundamental concerns are existential ones, involving what—if anything—gives meaning to life.

The beheading of the title will be Cincinnatus’ execution, which will end his life. As he arises each day in prison, he cannot know if it will be his last. Thus the tedium of the mundane existence is unsettled by his anxiety and uncertain about his imminent death. What tasks are worth doing with so little time left? Writing, both as the physical forming of letters and words and as creative mental exercise, occupies Cincinnatus, and increasingly gives structure—however artificial—and some sense of freedom within the rigid environment in which his body is confined.

Even as his mind struggles to remain free, Cincinnatus tries to comprehend the social and political restrictions that have landed him where he is. In a manner reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s legal “trial,” Nabokov’s protagonist cannot understand the crime he has committed or if his sentence conforms to or violates any actual law. The reader is left unsure if he inhabits a real country—most likely Nabokov’s native Russia—or if the author considers all social systems authoritarian. As those who hinder and help him increasingly seem interchangeable, the reader further wonders if the prison does exist, or if it is a manifestation of Cincinnatus’ true imprisonment: the inability to free his mind from the unwelcome fantasies it constructs.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357

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.