Nabokov and Cultural Synthesis
The Spider Motif in Invitation to a Beheading
In Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, the spider is established as a symbolic manifestation of the appetite of the fabricated world surrounding Cinncinatus, a devourer of souls. As such it is related to both Marthe and M. Pierre, linking them in their attempts to consume Cinncinatus: the first emotionally, the second intellectually (and physically as well, at the end). The spider as a motif also links Emmie and Rodion, the latter as representative of the fabricated captivity of Cincinnatus’ world, the former as the fabricated specter of freedom in that world.
Rodion, of course, is heavily tied to the spider as its keeper. As jailer, his duty lies in keeping the prisoner in captivity and slowly undermining his identity, bringing him to terms with the world around him. This explains his affinity for the spider, a representation of society’s attempt to do the same. Rodion’s duties as jailer are illustrated through the spider: “…[he] chased with a rag the dust dancing in a ray of sunlight, fed the spider, and left”(46). The dust motes, dancing points of light, most certainly represent freedom and transcendence. It is no wonder that Rodion does his best to extinguish this before feeding the spider, that which seeks to consume Cincinnatus. The spider is introduced and described as the “Official friend of the jailed”(13). As with all things ‘official’ in Cincinnatus’ parodied reality, this means the opposite. The two are opposed, the spider being an agent of the reality that Cincinnatus seeks escape from.
The spider also links Rodion and Emmie, as she is only able to penetrate Cincinnatus’ cell during feedings She enters and hides as Rodion feeds the spider (46), and is glimpsed through the door in conjunction with another feeding (66). Her ball penetrates the room, but is unconsciously kicked out by Rodion (another instance of his chasing an image of freedom from the cell in conjunction with a feeding). In planning and aiding Cincinnatus’ ‘escapes,’ Emmie is established as a force of freedom, an opposing force to her father, but one in the context of the fabricated reality that surrounds him. She can help him escape his physical confinement but not his illusional reality, thus whenever he enlists her aid during an escape he winds up back in his cell. The image of the spider punctuates each failed escape as well. When Cincinnatus solicits her aid in the corridor only to find that his path has brought him full circle back to his own cell, he notes upon entering that the spider is ‘enthroned’ in a new web (78). When he returns from escape in the tunnels, the next chapter starts:
“Let us be calm. The spider had sucked dry a small downy moth with marbled forewings, and three houseflies, but was still hungry and kept glancing at the door.” (169)
This is the symbolic consumption of Emmie and the three adults. Emmie of course, has been sent off to school, removed from the scene to a place where she can be programmed with her society’s values. She has been even more insidiously subverted by M. Pierre’s photohoroscope, which plots out a ‘normal’ life for her. The image of a small, downy moth is quite viable, as she is compared to one in numerous places. She has ‘downy arms’ (46) She undergoes a brief metamorphosis: “…suddenly seeming all legs, [she] settled herself on a sill-like projection of stone.”(76) Rodion even mentions it to the spider: “‘I don’t have anything more for you.’…’It’ll be dull, so dull without our little daughter … how she flitted about…'” (171)
The instance that cements the spider’s role as devourer, of course, is the moth scene toward the end of the book. Directly after Marthe leaves (having demanded that Cincinnatus ‘renounce everything!’) and right before the execution is to take place, Rodion attempts to feed the spider a large moth that represents Cincinnatus. Rodion’s inability to feed the moth to the spider corresponds to Cincinnatus’ unwillingness to submit to the reality of the execution. Rodion’s fear of the moth when it escapes is symbolic of the shift in power emerging toward the end of the book, wherein Cincinnatus transcends his reality and consequently destroys it. The language itself is most telling: “…the moth began noiselessly flapping its heavy wings; they seemed to outbalance its body”(204), i.e. Cincinnatus’ self. His ‘I’ outweighs and transcends the twisted reality that his physical body is bound to. The narrator slips into the moth’s thoughts for a second, proclaiming “But to me your daytime is dark, why did you disturb my slumber?”(204) These thoughts apply to Cincinnatus as well, the transparent reality of the others being a jumbled mess for him, their daytime his darkness. The author’s description of the sleeping moth’s wings (after it escapes Rodion) is most telling:
“… its visionary wings spread in solemn invulnerable torpor …but the great dark wings, with their ashen edges and perpetually open eyes were inviolable…”(206)
The ‘visionary wings’ represent Cincinnatus’ own perpetual awareness of the transparency of his surroundings, inviolable even in slumber. It’s important to note that the moth does not awaken when Cincinnatus strokes it, as he himself has not yet been able to completely surface from the nightmare world that encompasses him. Thus the spider’s final meal, the moth of Cincinnatus, escapes as Cincinnatus is to transcend his own fated execution in the book.
In her emotional subjugation of Cincinnatus, Marthe is compared to a spider. Certainly Marthe is irrevocably linked to Cincinnatus’ downfall in the world. Their twisted relationship at once binds him to the fabricated world and leads to his downfall within its context. Cincinnatus passes the first investigation into his illegality because “he was yearning to live, to live for a while with Marthe”(30). Later, Marthe’s infidelity is linked to his exposure “Gradually Cincinnatus stopped watching himself altogether”(31). In practically the same instance Marthe is associated with the spider motif: “the velvet spider, somehow resembling Marthe.” (32) Probably the most important connection drawn between the two is:
“…the well-nourished black beastie had found points of support for a first-rate web with the same resourcefulness as Marthe displayed when she would find, in what seemed the most unsuitable corner, a place and a method for hanging out laundry to dry … it would gaze with round hazel eyes at the hand with the pencil extended towards it, and would begin to back away, without taking its eyes off it. It was most eager, however, to take a fly….”(119)
The spider, in establishing its ascendency in the cell, is compared directly to Marthe. Its fear of the pencil, of Cincinnatus’ transcendent power of reflection and expression, is closely paralleled by Marthe’s fear of the results of Cincinnatus’ letter to her at the end of the book. Like the spider, she is afraid of the power of his words, but she still persists in attempting to use his emotional attachment to subvert him: “renounce everything, everything … tell them, repent, do it – even if it doesn’t save your head, think of me”(200). Even at that dramatic point in their relationship, she is still willing to ‘take a fly,’ in leaving the cell for an assignation with M. Pierre. Thus in her role as emotional devourer of Cincinnatus, Marthe is linked to the spider.
M. Pierre is linked to the spider as well, through his needs to intellectually and even physically consume Cincinnatus. Through chess, conversation, artificial gestures of personal bonding, and even feats of strength, M. Pierre attempts to establish his ascendency and ensnare Cincinnatus in his world. In this role, M. Pierre is linked to the spider in two important instances. Directly after catching a glimpse into M. Pierre’s newly set up cell, Cincinnatus returns to his own where Rodion admires the spider:
“He seemed particularly proud of the fact that the spider was enthroned in a clean, impeccably correct web, which had just been created, it was clear, just a moment before.” (78)
‘Impeccably correct’ describes everything having to do with M. Pierre, from his fashion to his small-talk. The reference to the web being a transient facade refers to M. Pierre’s entire masquerade as a fellow prisoner. It is no mystery that Rodion is as delighted to see the spider well-established as all the jail officials were at the arrival and installation of the executioner. The executioner is again linked to the spider: M. Pierre demonstrates his physical prowess to Cincinnatus in an almost fanatical manner, while “the spider, as the youngest member of the circus family, performed a simple trick above his web”(115). M. Pierre’s position as the newest character involved in the soap-opera at the prison is paralleled in the description of the spider as the youngest member of the circus family. In his attempt to consume Cincinnatus with his faux friendship and then, physically, with his axe, M. Pierre reflects the nature of the spider. Through the spider, then, he is connected to Marthe, which accounts for their link through the black velvet motif (Her dress [p195], and the ribbon around her neck at the trial [p20], his dinner jacket [p171] and the lining of his axe case [p163]).
Thus the spider is shown to represent the appetitive nature of the society/reality that Cincinnatus finds himself trapped in. It links Marthe and M. Pierre as common consumers and Emmie and Rodion as opposing poles of fabricated freedom and fabricated reality. From this we can draw the conclusion that when the spider is revealed as no more than a plush doll at the end of the book (210) the author suggests that fabricated appetites have no substance in and of themselves beyond that which we willingly invest them with.
List of occurrences in text:
134 – spider, bars, clock lumped as parodies.
169 – “Let us be calm.” Spider metaphorically consumes jailer, director, lawyer, and Emmie (moth) “How she flitted around” (171) She is consumed earlier in being sent to school, subverted by photohoroscope
194 – After party in gardens, pending execution, Rodion feeds spider. Confrontation with Marthe follows immediately.
202 – Directly after Marthe asks him to absolve her of guilt from letter. Execution postponed. Rodion feeds last moth, representing Cincinnatus.
210 – revealed as plush doll.
13, in the opening description of Cincinnatus’ cell, the spider is introduced as the “official friend of the jailed.”
32, directly following the first description of Marthe’s marital transgressions against Cincinnatus, the spider is compared to her as, “the velvet spider, somehow resembling Marthe.”
46 Rodion both chases “the dust dancing in a ray of sunlight” (quite an image of freedom) and feeds the spider, thus the two, freedom and the spider are established in opponency. Also note that Emmie slips into the cell at this point, and she later on becomes a means to freedom to Cincinnatus as well.
66, the spider is bought up again after Cincinnatus spends time reflecting on Marthe’s affairs. In the way Rodion treats it is compared to a canary. It is also called a “tiny black aerialist receding up under the circus dome.” Here, also the image of Emmie penetrates in conjunction with that of the spider – she is seen through the doorway and her ball bounces into the room and is kicked out by Rodion.
78, the spider is connected to M. Pierre for the first time. One paragraph after Cincinnatus catches a glimpse into M. Pierre’s newly furnished cell, the spider is described as “enthroned in a clean, impeccably correct web, which had been created, it was clear, just a moment before.” In the context of the entire chapter, the spider (and the cell) is established as the height of captivity while Cincinnatus’ encounter with Emmie in the corridor is the height of his freedom in the scene – Emmie and the spider are established as opposing forces.
115, the spider is again compared to M. Pierre. M. Pierre demonstrates his athletic prowess to Cincinnatus “while he spider, as the youngest member of the circus family, performed a simple trick above his web.”
119, Compared. to Marthe with image of Well-established web. Fear of pencil and writing hand.Fondness of flies and moths touched on.