50 pages 1 hour read

Vladimir Nabokov

Invitation to a Beheading

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1935

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Summary and Study Guide


Invitation to a Beheading is a 1938 novel by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, and the penultimate novel Nabokov wrote in his native Russian before transitioning to English.

This guide uses the 1965 Capricorn Books edition, based on the 1959 English version, translated by Dmitri Nabokov with help from his father, Vladimir.

Plot Summary

Cincinnatus C. has been arrested and imprisoned by the government in the unnamed country in which he resides. Cincinnatus has been found guilty of “gnostical turpitude,” a nonsensical charge that apparently refers to his ability to imagine a world that values knowledge and innovation. Cincinnatus appears in court as a death sentence is pronounced for his crimes. He is then confined to a cell in a prison fortress to await his execution. At first, he is the only prisoner in the fortress. His handlers are the prison director, Rodrig Ivanovic; the jailer, Rodion; and Cincinnatus’s own lawyer, Roman Vissarionovich. Rodrig is ingratiating and prone to flattery; Rodion is direct and unsubtle; Roman is ineffectual and prone to confusing matters with legal jargon and formalities. However, the three occasionally trade places with one another, switching costumes and roles seemingly at random.

Cincinnatus makes only one request of his handlers, that they tell him the date of his execution so he can mentally prepare, but they are unable or unwilling to do so. Eventually, another prisoner, Pierre, is brought to the fortress. The compliant man enjoys special privileges and seems content to be kept as an inmate. Though Cincinnatus only wants to be left alone with his thoughts, Pierre contrives to become his friend and even confesses to the jailer that he tried to help Cincinnatus escape. Though Cincinnatus is confused as to when or how Pierre did this, he is pleasantly surprised by the man’s honesty and by his offer to take the scaffold with him. However, he is still unable to learn the scheduled date of their joint execution.

During his time in prison, Cincinnatus dutifully keeps a diary in which he records his thoughts and the circumstances that led him to be imprisoned. He is especially troubled that no one will tell him the date of his execution, because that means he does not know how much time he has to complete his writing project. Unable to find others who are able to dream as he does, Cincinnatus begins to suspect that his dreary world is only an illusion. He wonders if his upcoming death will free him from the world he currently inhabits and allow him to enter a better one.

A few days into his imprisonment, Cincinnatus is visited by his mother, whom he hardly knows, having been raised in an orphanage. Cincinnatus at first declines to see her but is eventually forced to meet with her by his jailers. His mother, Cecilia, tells Cincinnatus the story of his birth and also confesses that his father had similar dreams and ideas, though he quickly abandoned her.

Cincinnatus begins to hear scratching in the walls during the night, which is eventually revealed to be the work of Pierre, who has dug a tunnel between their cells so he can keep Cincinnatus company. While the two talk, they are joined by Roman and Rodrig. Pierre reveals that he is not a fellow inmate, but rather Cincinnatus’s executioner. Cincinnatus also finally learns that his execution is scheduled to take place in two days. After a confusing visit from Marthe (his wife) and her extended family, and a failed escape attempt, Cincinnatus seems doomed to his confusing fate. He spends his final hours trying to put all his thoughts into writing.

Shortly before the execution, a group of government officials meet with Cincinnatus and Pierre, as is custom. When the day of his execution finally arrives, Cincinnatus proceeds to the public square with Roman, Rodrig, and Pierre. They pass by Cincinnatus’s house, where Marthe waves to him. After he leaves his cell, it is dismantled by Rodion as if it were a set for a play. Cincinnatus places his neck on the chopping block and prepares to be beheaded. He counts backward from ten. All at once, he stands up and descends the scaffold freely, leaving his corporeal form behind.