Author Background

Kurt Vonnegut was born to a wealthy American couple of German origin. Though they were well known in the German expat circles, after WWI, as ill feeling towards Germany was on the rise, the Vonnegut family stopped speaking German. The rejection of the German heritage made Kurt Vonnegut feel rootless and robbed of his ancestry. He enrolled in Cornell University but dropped out in order to join the US Army. He was captured and imprisoned by the Germans. When Dresden was extensively bombed, he escaped by hiding inside a meat locker in a slaughterhouse. He was a prolific writer.

Relevance of the Title

In the old story, Bluebeard was a French nobleman who married many women but killed all of them for unknown reasons and kept their bodies hidden in a room. The last girl whom he marries, stumbles upon his secret but before she can be killed by him, she has him killed by her brothers. The protagonist of Bluebeard also has a locked room that he does not allow anyone to enter.

Main Themes

Armenians and Armenian History

The slaughter of more than a million Armenians by Turks finds resonance in the novel. This massacre is the forerunner of the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis. Vonnegut’s father just about managed to escape the mass killings. His mother had to hide amongst a pile of corpses, pretending to be dead. Later on their way to California, seeking a better life, they were cheated by another Armenian refugee.

Role of the Painter in Society

As a young boy, Rabo exhibited serious talent as a painter. He was apprenticed to work with Dan Gregory, a famous illustrator. Dan Gregory was insanely jealous of the chemistry that existed between Rabo and Marilee Kemp, Gregory’s mistress who was much older than Rabo. Gregory tries his best to crush Rabo’s talents but fortunately for Rabo, Second World War breaks and he is drafted into the US Army.  When he comes back home after the war, he turns his back on illustrations but picks up abstract expressionism instead. He makes friends with well known painters of the same school like Jackson Pollock. His paintings make him rich and famous. He lives in a large house in Long Island. After some years, disaster hits his paintings; the paint on them begins to dissolve and drip off. He shuts himself in a barn in his house ostensibly at work at his most significant work.

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Rabo’s Strained Relationship with His Father

Rabo’s father is cheated by a fellow Armenian refugee while on their way to California. He seels then a piece of land that exists only on paper. So instead fo living in Fresno, California which had a supportive Armenian community, they lived in San Ignacio. His father was a talented teacher but he ended up being a cobbler much to Rabo’s disappointment.

Characters

Rabo

Rabo whose fictitious autobiography is the story in the novel Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut is an eccentric abstract expressionist painter who was of Armenian descent. His parents were Armenians who had escaped the massacre by Turks. The father had been cheated by a fellow Armenian so the family ended up in San Ignacio rather than in Fresno. Rabo resented this. He also resented his father being a cobbler rather than the gifted teacher he was. In the play, Rabo is dismayed by the ignorance shown by the new generation symbolized by Celeste and her young friends. Like Bluebeard, Rabo has secrets locked up in a dark chamber. In Rabo’s case, it is Circe who makes him deal with his problems with his father and the Survivor Syndrome that he suffers from.

Circe

Circe is Rabo’s instrument of salvation. She brings in a freshness and spontaneity that had been missing from his life for years and that which Rabo had associated as post WWII. She gets him to write his autobiography. Though there are places in his life that she keeps closed from Circe, with her endless curiosity, she probes until she gets to the bottom of it.

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Summary

Bluebeard is a fictitious autobiography of the famous abstractionist painter, Rabo Karabekian. Though he was born in US, Rabo is affected by the near escape of his parents from the massacre of Armenians by the Turks. Even after the escape, His father has bad luck and they are stuck in San Ignicio rather than friendly Fresno with its friendly Armenian population. As a child, Rabo displayed an astounding skill at illustrations. His parents want him to become famous and rich; so they send him to apprentice with Dan Gregory, a well known American illustrator. Rabo corresponds for a long time with Marilee Kemp, Gregory’s girl friend. Gregory is contemptuous of modern schools of painting and does his best to crush Rabo’s talent. He is jealous too of the chemistry that exists between Rabo and Marilee.

When Second World War breaks out, Rabo considers himself lucky to escape from the Gregory household. But his experiences in Germany echo what his parents went through when facing the Turks. When he returns to US at the end of the war, Rabo rejects illustrating and along with Pollock and Rothko, becomes one of the leading lights of abstract expressionism. He has a collection of priceless painting which he keeps in his luxurious Long Island home. His own paintings hang in the exclusive museums of the world.

A little while later, he gathers that the paint he has used on them has begun dissolving, dripping down, leaving behind a blank canvas. When his wife dies, she moves to the barn in the mansion. The barn is nailed and no one knows what is inside it.  It is Circe, a young widow whom he meets who encourages him to open up. She gets him to write his autobiography which reveals the secret of the locked barn.

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Quotes

  1. “Never trust a survivor”, my father used to warn me…”until you find out what he did to stay alive.”

Rabo’s parents were survivors of the Armenian purge by the Turks. Both escaped certain death by hiding among dead bodies. His mother had taken jewels she found inside a dead woman’s mouth. The woman had hidden it there when she was killed. On death her mouth fell open revealing the treasure to Karabekian’s mother. Survivors of massacres often had a guilt complex; they felt they too should have died in the violence which their family and friends.