In many of our readings up to this point (namely, We and “Aelita,” among others), rich language of colors suffuses the text to the point that it transcends mere description. I noticed that this trend continued in Vladimir Nabokov’s surreal tale Invitation to a Beheading, especially in regards to the color yellow. Repeated focus is placed on the sunshine pouring into Cincinnatus’s jail cell, and its golden hue casting light against the dark walls is often explicitly emphasized. Nabokov also characterizes the prison through its yellow décor and lighting. As Cincinnatus and his jailers roam the corridors, they turn on lights, whose “dusty bulb, up above or at the side…burst into bitter yellow light” (Nabokov, 41). The narrator also notes the dismay Cincinnatus feels at the sallow yellow walls of his quarters, an observation that becomes more and more frequent as the plot progresses and the date of Cincinnatus’s execution draws nearer.
Over halfway through the novel, we finally get a concrete, exhaustive description of Cincinnatus’s room. The narrator explains, “[the walls] were painted a uniform yellow; but, because of the shadow covering it, the basic hue seemed dark and smooth, claylike as it were, in comparison with that shifting spot where the bright ochre reflection of the window spent the day: here, in the light, all the small protuberances of the thick yellow paint were in evidence” (118). The narrator again references the vivid “ochre” shade of paint on his walls, as Cincinnatus turned “toward the wall, for a long, long time helped patterns form on it, from tiny blobs of the glossy paint and their round little shadows…This cold ochre smelled of the grave” (124). The “implacable yellowness of the walls” (126) continues to plague Cincinnatus throughout the novel. At one point, the walls even fracture, as the “yellow wall cracked about a yard above the floor in a lightninglike pattern” (158).
The furnishings of the room are not the only items described as yellow throughout the book. Several foods and beverages are described as yellow. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator states, “Rodion the jailer brought a dozen yellow plums in a round basket lined with grape leaves” (33), and, during Cincinnatus’s dinner with the town officials, the one giving the toast raises his glass containing an “icy pale-yellow drink” (184). Other characters, too, take on certain yellow characteristics. Emmie is blonde, and multiple characters wear golden mustaches. M’sieur Pierre even dons a “little yellow wig” (159) at one point in the story.
Though this novel is a fairly recent work—at least compared to much of what we have read up to this point—its references to yellow reminded me of the link between the color yellow and insanity in 19th century Russian culture. Given that the Russian phrase for asylums literally translated to “yellow houses,” it seems noteworthy that the primary location where Cincinnatus resides is epitomized by its grotesque yellow walls. I suspect the inclusion of these details was completely intentional on the part of Nabokov. Even though he wrote at a time when this relationship between yellow and mental illness was far more tenuous, he would have almost certainly been well aware of the trope. This seemed especially likely considering some of his potential allusions to Dostoevsky (who often saturated his texts with language linking yellow with insanity) in the characters of Rodion the jailer and Roman the lawyer, whose names mirror Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment.
I wonder what, if anything, Nabokov’s use of yellow is meant to convey. Does he confine Cincinnatus to a yellow room because he wants the readers to see Cincinnatus as mentally ill? Or, conversely, does the yellow perturb Cincinnatus because he is the only character who does not deserve an insane diagnosis? At one point in the book, Cincinnatus writes about his time “[w]hen still a child, living in a canary-yellow, large, cold house where they were preparing me and hundreds of other children for secure nonexistence as adult dummies” (95). This description of a large home wherein children were indoctrinated into the society that ultimately rejects Cincinnatus seems to associate yellow with institutional forces, but this is fairly ambiguous and difficult to parse. Further complicating the issue is that we cannot, as readers, be positive that the events and characters in the story are actually real (in fact, it might be safer to assume the opposite). I would appreciate any feedback anyone had to offer about this; I know that the language of yellow is not so striking as to be a supremely important symbol, but it seems too prevalent to be trivial.