It was hard for me to figure out exactly what I was reading as soon as I began Invitation to a Beheading – from the beginning there is an absurdity that is both ridiculous and absolutely refreshing. Nabokov has a way of setting up a scene and delivering it in the most backward way possible (the in-laws visit, the keeping of the pet spider…) that now makes other styles of writing seem bland and formulaic to me. And yet, the more absurd the events of the novel become, the harder it is to distinguish what is real and what is not. This is the case especially once we really saw how much the issue of the unreliability of the narrator comes into play in this novel – how much of the waltzing and the seemingly unsupervised escapes are real?
I began to think about the division between reality and the manufactured, theatrical world that often dominates in the novel. In particular, I was interested in how Cincinnatus perceived the world that he lives in, and whether he thinks the events of the story, if any, are as absurd as the modern reader finds them to be. It’s evident that he recognizes that the world he lives in is a farce, yet his actions often never betray any real resistance to this parody. While he agonizes internally, his outward reception to the cruelties of this prison world are often mild, taking the form of frustrated dialogue, but rarely in real, effective action.
In reading, I found one quote that seemed to provide a framework with which I can interpret Cincinnatus’ reception to this largely irrational world. At the beginning of chapter 13, while listening to the then-mysterious noises coming from the walls, Cincinnatus wonders how to react to this possible salvation. “I am quite willing to admit that they are also a deception but right now I believe in them so much that I infect them with truth.” This idea of recognizing the falsity of this world but choosing to buy into it is, I think, critical to understanding the novel.
The way I choose to interpret the novel is by looking at it as the break of the social contract that seems implicit to this futuristic world. This social contract is the agreement to play along with the illogical events of this world, in exchange for the safety of living unbothered as one of the “specters” (70). In my short paper, I’ve been developing this idea of the individual breaking away from the collective using this quote as the lens through which to interpret the conclusion of the novel. If we accept that it is solely Cincinnatus’ willingness to believe in this charade that holds it together, then we can see the last scenes of the novel as the final break from this expected social contract, which then causes the crumbling away of the scenery of his execution and allows him to walk away.