Invitation to a Beheading
is the second-to-last novel written in Russian by Vladimir Nabokov. A Russian version was first published in Paris in 1938, with an English translation by Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, following in 1959. Many readers see echoes of Kafka’s work in the novel’s surreal, nightmarish society in which pressure to conform and absurd bureaucracies overpower individuality, imagination, and common sense.
The main character of Invitation to a Beheading
is Cincinnatus C. who, prior to the beginning of the novel, has been arrested and imprisoned by the government in the unnamed country in which he resides. Cincinnatus has been charged with “gnostical turpitude,” a nonsensical phrase that seems to refer to his ability to imagine a world in which knowledge and innovation are prized.
As the book opens, Cincinnatus is in court as a death sentence is pronounced for his crimes. He is to be executed in three weeks’ time, and until then, he is confined to a cell in a prison fortress. At first, he is the only prisoner in the fortress, though his confinement is overseen by the prison director, Rodrig, the jailer, Rodion, and Cincinnatus’ own lawyer, Roman.
At first glance, these three characters seem to have distinct and one-dimensional personalities and roles. Rodrig is ingratiating and prone to flattery; Rodion is direct and unsubtle; and Roman is ineffectual and prone to confusing matters with legal jargon and formalities. However, at times the three trade places with one another, switching costumes and roles seemingly at random as a means of underlining how each is interchangeable in the society against which Cincinnatus wishes to rebel.
Cincinnatus makes two requests of his handlers. The first is that they tell him the date of his execution so he can mentally prepare, and the second is that they grant him a visit from his family. Though efforts are made to grant both wishes, little progress is made on either. The men in charge are constantly stymied by frivolous bureaucracy and rules that seem to change constantly and without sense or warning.
Eventually, another prisoner is brought to the fortress. The satisfied and complaisant Pierre enjoys special privileges and seems utterly 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 has tried to help Cincinnatus escape. Though Cincinnatus is confused as to when or how Pierre did this, he is pleasantly surprised by his honesty, and by Pierre’s 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.
that he was always different from others in his ability to imagine a better world. Unable to find others who are able to dream as he does, Cincinnatus begins to suspect that the dreary world he lives in 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. Raised in an orphanage, never knowing his birth parents, Cincinnatus at first declines to see her, but then is forced to by his jailer. His mother, Cecilia, tells Cincinnatus the story of his birth, and also confesses that his birth father had similar dreams and ideas.
Cincinnatus begins to hear scratching in the walls during the night, which is eventually revealed to be the work of Pierre digging a tunnel between their cells so he can keep Cincinnatus company. While the two talk, they are joined by Roman and Rodrig, who reveal that Pierre is not a fellow inmate, but rather Cincinnatus’ executioner. He also finally learns that his execution is scheduled to take place in two days.
Shortly before the event, a large group of government officials meet with Cincinnatus and attempt to convince him to recant his thoughts and ideas. They are soon joined by Marthe and other members of her family. Though he is terrified of death, Cincinnatus refuses to recant and sends Marthe and the others away.
When the day of his execution finally arrives, Cincinnatus proceeds to the public square with Roman, Rodrig, and Pierre. 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, which is where the novel ends.
It is important to note that Cincinnatus does not actually describe the execution, though it is implied that it took place, and his triumphant descent from the scaffold occurs after his death. Much as he theorized in his writing, death has freed Cincinnatus from his earthly body and allowed his spirit to pursue the more imaginative and aware world he has dreamed about. He is described as shedding his body like a “toupee” and suit of clothes, indicating that his corporeal form is unnecessary in the world of the mind, which he will soon enter.