Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a Beheading
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov
The Fortress

PLOT SUMMARY: The novel is about a prisoner, Cincinnatus C., who awaits his beheading, as per his sentence. However, he is not told at what date the execution will take place. The novel takes place in a dream-state like prison called the Fortress, where Cincinnatus is watched over by the guard Rodion and the prison director, Rodrig. Throughout the book, Cincinnatus hopes to reunite with his wife, but is continually sidetracked by the director, or flat out ignored. He receives a neighbor, who turns out to be his executioner, Monsieur Pierre, and is finally given an execution date. Cincinnatus is led to the chopping block. Then he walks down and off the stand. It is unclear whether or not he has been beheaded.

ANALYSIS: Nabokov’s book is a whirlwind of details that accost the reader as they try to walk across a glass bridge that they themselves cannot see. Setting, character interaction, history, all seem fluid in the novel, open to interpretation and reinterpretation by ourselves, Nabokov, and even the characters within the book. This topsy-turvy world serves to highlight irregularities and inconsistencies in human nature and how this lack of solid ground can be seen in the dynamics of the criminal prisoner and those who are considered “free” citizens.

     In many of his works, including this one, Nabokov challenges overarching grand theories or ideas — harping against what he called poshlust — the tendency for society to align itself according to broad stroke political or moral theories — such as for example, laws that define criminality. Cincinnatus is convicted for “gnostical turpitude” — meaning his crime is that of the interior, of thinking a certain way which is deemed immoral by the rest of his society. This book is a strong case study of the individual versus the group dynamic, using prison is a pivot point; a unique moment where the individual is truly separated and defined apart from society, but also paradoxically, by society. In Russian prisons, there exists a totally different real, from the real outside them. But like a house of cards, both reals rest upon each other.


"In accordance with the law the death sentence was announced to Cincinnatus C. in a whisper. All rose, exchanging smiles. The hoary judge put his mouth close to his ear, panted for a moment, made the announcement and slowly moved away, as though ungluing himself.” (11).

“Therefore Cincinnatus did not crumple the motley newspapers, did not hurl them, as his double did (the double, the gambrel, that accompanies each of us - you, and me, and him over there - doing what we would like to do at that very moment but cannot….).” (25).

“(There are some who sharpen a pencil toward themselves as if they were peeling a potato, and there are others who slice away from themselves, as though whittling a stick)… “Today is the eighth day” (wrote Cincinnatus with the pencil, which had lost more than a third of its length) ‘and not only am I still alive… but like any other mortal, I do not know my mortal hour.’” (89).

BIOGRAPHY: The Russian modernist writer Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born April 22, 1899 in St. Petersburg into an old noble family. He was raised trilingual in Russian, English and French. Nabokov had a lifelong fascination with animals. He would often collect and study butterflies as a child. His father, Vladimir, Dmitrievich Nabokov, was an influential author and politician in the Constitutional Democratic Party. He was assassinated by a rightwing reactionary in 1922 in Berlin. Assassination would be a consistent theme in Nabokov’s writings.

     Nabokov lived in many places throughout his life. He and his family left St. Petersburg in 1917 because of revolutionary rioting and in 1919 eventually moved to England. Nabokov studied zoology at Cambridge, after which, he decided to move to Berlin and make a living as a writer and poet. In Berlin he met his wife, Véra Slonim, and they had a son together in 1934 named Dmitri. As the Nazis took control of Germany, Nabokov and his family emigrated to the US. Nabokov’s status as an emigrant author has afforded him an interesting seat of respect in the Russian literary world. Since he escaped repression in Russia, his writing is often viewed as what Russian modernism could have become had it not been censured by the state. Nabokov’s writing style has been greatly influenced by his attention to the self, bold expression of individualism, and intense feelings towards others.


“Biography Vladimir Nabokov.” Biography Vladimir Nabokov | Russian Poetry, russian-poetry/biography-vladimir-nabokov/.

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton University Press, 1990. JSTOR, Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.

Kahn, Andrew, et al. A History of Russian Literature . First edition., Oxford University Press, 2018.

“Vladimir Nabokov.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 18 Apr. 2021,


Dragunoiu, Dana. “Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading and the Russian Radical Tradition.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 25, no. 1, 2001, pp. 53–69. JSTOR Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.
Dragunoiu provides a bigger picture view of the novel and how it fits into the Russian literary tradition. This article provides valuable historical context, but also further validates Toker’s points that this is a unique novel that stands on its own.

Klemtner, Susan Strehle. “To ‘Special Space’: Transformation in Invitation to Beheading.”Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 25, no. 3, 1979, pp. 427–438. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.
Klemtner discusses Nabokov’s theme of transformation, spiritual and physical, that occurs in many of his books. It is related to the specific change that Cincinnatus undergoes over the course of the novel.

Toker, Leona, “Invitation to a Beheading: ‘Nameless Existence, Intangible Substance.’” Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures. Cornell University Press, Ithaca; London, 1989, pp. 123–141. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.
This chapter offers insights into the specific realities that come with crafting a character and what forms the individual character known as Cincinnatus. Toker outlines the careful process of crafting that Nabokov does to create a unique story that perhaps we can relate to, but is not about us.

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