Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.