Literature Study GuidesBluebeardAuthors Note Chapter 1 Summary

Bluebeard | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Bluebeard | Author's Note–Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Author's Note

The author, Kurt Vonnegut, explains that the book is a novel, "a hoax autobiography," that should not be read as a history of abstract expressionism or as anything other than "a history of ... my own idiosyncratic responses to this or that." The main characters in the book, including Rabo Karabekian and Circe Berman, are purely fictional. But a few "real and famous" people are mentioned in the book, like Jackson Pollock, although Vonnegut claims that they "do nothing that they did not actually do." The author also says the novel was inspired in part by "the grotesque prices" paid for art due to the rise of a small number of wealthy "persons and institutions" who act as collectors. He complains that the accumulation of wealth "endow[s] certain sorts of human playfulness with inappropriate and hence distressing seriousness." Vonnegut prefers playfulness in all its forms, whether in art or "children's games."

Chapter 1

Having just finished writing what he calls "this story of my life," the narrator, Rabo Karabekian, returns to the start of the book to note that he intended to write an autobiography, but "it turns out to be a diary of this past troubled summer, too!" He introduces himself as a 71-year-old, one-eyed man born of Armenian immigrants, and once well-known as an American painter. He relates that he lost his eye in World War II, during which he commanded a platoon of artists who created camouflage. Rabo was so attached to his platoon, he refused a promotion that would separate him from his "happy family of thirty-six men." The next such family he would have were artists in the abstract expressionist movement, in which he participated after the war.

Rabo explains that his parents lost their family when all their "blood relatives" died in the Turkish genocide of the Armenians during World War I, which he compares to the Germans' extermination of the Jews during his own time. Unlike the Germans, the Turks had "none of the specialized machinery required" to deal with mass deaths. They rounded up Armenians, killed them, and left them in a heap to decompose. His mother survived by pretending to be dead in the killing fields, her face inches from a dead woman whose mouth was filled with jewels. His father hid in a latrine behind the school where he was taught to avoid the soldiers. While Rabo's mother was able to move past what had happened "and find much to like when she came later to the United States," his father never did.

Rabo tells how he was happily married to his second wife, Edith, in whose palatial house in East Hampton, Long Island, he writes his autobiography for twenty years before she died suddenly. A descendant of President William Henry Taft, the home had been in her wealthy family for generations. He recalls that she was very engaged in the day-to-day running of the home, calling her a "great Earth Mother" and "a multitude." Rabo first met her, and her first husband, Richard Fairbanks Jr., when he rented the potato barn on their property to use as his art studio and residence after his first wife, Dorothy, and two sons "moved out on him." Estranged from both his sons, Karabekian also has no contact with his artist friends, most of whom are dead. He exclaims, "So be it!... Who gives a damn!" after describing both losses. Rabo is alone in the large house, save for his cook and her teenage daughter, Celeste. He has not painted for decades. He likens the house to a museum and himself to a guard watching over his vast collection of abstract expressionist art contained within. He jokes that he was a "lousy" artist but is a great collector.

Analysis

Vonnegut has readers questioning the book from its first pages and wondering how to categorize it. In the Author's Note, Vonnegut tells readers the book is a novel, "a hoax autobiography," not a true autobiography or history of abstract expressionism. In Chapter 1, the narrator, Rabo Karabekian, lets readers know that the book is just as much a diary as an autobiography. The "story of his life" is not told in chronological order like many autobiographies, but rather jumps around from past to present, and sometimes from one subject to the next, in a free association of emotions and memories. This flexible style is quite reminiscent of abstract expressionism. The Author's Note also seems to suggest that the book may be a criticism of the excessive value placed on artworks he calls "the mudpies of art," which Vonnegut says detracts from their playfulness.

The first chapter introduces readers to the protagonist, Rabo Karabekian, by developing both his character and establishing some of his major life events. Karabekian is an immigrant whose parents raised him in the shadow of the violent genocide they experienced as Armenians during World War I. He has been a part of several families, both genetic and synthetic, from his family of origin to his military family. These families included his first wife and children, the artists of the abstract expressionist movement, and his second wife Edith. But Rabo is almost completely alone. He is estranged from his first wife and children as well as his former military comrades and his artist friends. With Edith gone, he lives in a huge home alone, save a servant and her child. He seems resigned to these losses, declaring "so be it ... who gives a damn!" But readers may wonder if his sense of humor and jaunty tone covers Rabo's underlying pain over the many estrangements and deaths he has witnessed. As his mother, an immigrant far from her Armenian home and community, understands, "the most pervasive American disease was loneliness."

In Chapter 1 Vonnegut introduces readers to Rabo's second wife, Edith, whose background is sharply different from Rabo's. She was born into a wealthy family that traces itself back to President Taft. The 19-room home in East Hampton, Long Island, the primary setting of the book, has been in her family for three generations. She is widowed, and after she married Rabo, the two were together for two decades before she died. Rabo paints a picture of a woman of privilege who did not put on airs, was happy to cook with the cook and garden with the gardener. She did not hesitate to marry an immigrant with a very foreign-sounding name. Rabo's fondness for his late wife is clear to readers in the way he describes her. Her role in the vitality of the home is evident in the contrast between the narrator's description of the house as "alive" with Edith in it and as a lonely museum when she is gone.

The theme of genocide and the recurring violence of war is introduced in Chapter 1. Rabo's comparison of the Turkish genocide of Armenians during World War I, experienced by Rabo's mother and father, with the Germans' genocide of the Jews in World War II, emphasizes how the horrors of war recur in generation after generation. The ruthlessness and inhumanity of the violence Rabo describes in his parents' past are mirrored in his reference to the Holocaust, and will be echoed in Rabo's own experience in war, as readers will discover later in the novel.

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