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Joseph Taylor

Lit Essay 3
There are many kinds of prisons. There are physical prisons, those erected
to trap the body, but there are also mental ones, which ensnare the mind,
impeding thought and individualism. The depiction of imprisonment is
commonplace in Shalamovs Kolyma Tales, which chronicles the horror, despair
and even degradation of the soul which such places breed. Another classic
example of imprisonment is Nabokovs Invitation to a Beheading which shows
the final days of a man condemned to death. On the surface both of these
authors are focusing on the physical nature of imprisonment, but deeper reading,
especially when taken in context with each other, reveals that the true danger
lies not within the impediment of the flesh, but of the chaining of the mind.
In Shalamovs An Individual Assignment we see the tale of Dugaev a
young man who has the misfortune of being imprisoned in a work camp, like so
many others. Though it is stated that Dugaev was twenty-three years old the
conditions of the camp have broken him down (pg 21). He was steadily getting
weaker . . . [and] was hungry all the time (pg 22). This combined torment and
the mundanity of the prisons walls did more than sap the young mans strength,
it robbed him of his will, the creative energy and individualism that should be
apparent in a young person. The system in place around Dugaev had eroded his
will and energy to the point that he was totally indifferent to any change in his
fate (pg 22). This state of indifference, of mental fatigue, also leads to
compliance. Dugaev does not hesitate or question when his jailors give him a
strange individual assignment and it is so severe as to be to the point where
Dugaev eats, not because he feels the need to, but because it is what all those
around him are doing. It is an obvious metaphor for blind compliance with
society.

Joseph Taylor
This state of fatigued compliance and acceptance can also be seen in
Invitation to a Beheading. Cincinnatus, who seemed to almost delight in not
doing as his jailors want, in refusing to play their game, reaches a point where
his defiance ceases. On the way up the scaffold, and during his execution he
does nothing to prevent his fate, playing his role in their little production. Like
Dugaev the prison of his surroundings have apparently won out, putting him in
numb state of obedience, which is ultimately the goal of any successful prison.
Cincinnatuss case is perhaps the more philosophical, as the physical prison in
which he resides is not the prison that has broken him down. For Cincinnatus, the
hollow world that surrounded him was the prison with walls as seemingly
inescapable as the barbed fences that entrapped Dugaev.
In the case of both men, this obedience is leading them to their
destruction. With Cincinnatus this is quite obvious as the man is climbing on
stage in order to be executed, but with Dugaev the reader is unaware of what
fate awaits him. In both cases the authors are hinting at the dangers of such
capitulation to conformity, which happens to be a prevalent theme in all of
Nabokovs works. As dismal as the fate of these two men appears to be, both
authors again give us a glimmer of hope. Neither man dies in the stupor of
ignorance that ultimately led them to their fate. In his final moments Dugaev
realized what was about to happen and has the presence to reflect on his
actions in a way that no mental prison could allow. He manages to steal back just
a sliver of his old self in the end, which is more than most manage in his
situation.
Nabokov, unfettered as Shalamov is by the limitations of reality, goes for a
more dramatic display. Not only does Cincinnatus find himself once more,
shrugging off the cow-like stupor that the prison of a world had so carefully

Joseph Taylor
induced in him, but this realization actively dismantles the system that was
trapping him. As Cincinnatuss individual poetic spirit rallies, the false world
around him buckles, revealing that in the end, it was all a careful fabrication
designed to destroy his individualism and willpower and replace it with that
horrid conformity that had erected it in the first place. His jailors grow small,
their power destroyed alongside the prison they had erected for him, and flee.
Cincinnatus is then free to move on, the last of the mental shackles finally
removed. This is perhaps the more artistic way of looking at it. In actuality, it is
likely that Cincinnatus also meets his end after his moment of mental
resurgence. It does not change the moral in the slightest, however.
Both Nabokov and Shalamov were painfully aware of imprisonment,
Shalamov having been physically imprisoned, and Nabokov having observed the
mental imprisonment that gripped first Russia and then German on the onset of
the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Through their tales we see the danger of flirting
with such conformity, in allowing oneself to be mentally shackled. We are able to
see that there are far worse fates than being physically imprisoned, and even
death.