Literature Study GuidesBluebeardChapters 12 13 Summary

Bluebeard | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Bluebeard | Chapters 12–13 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 12

Rabo recounts the story Dan Gregory told him about his childhood in Russia. He said he was "rescued from his parents" by the wife of an artist named Beskudnikov, who engraved the plates used to print currency, or money. In order to survive in a household which showed him no love, he learned the languages spoken by those around him and translated the master's orders for the other servants.

He eventually became an apprentice to Beskudnikov who set him the task of perfectly reproducing a one-ruble note. Gregory, under his given name of Gregorian, spent six months copying the note only to have his master tear it up. He copied another even better than the first, taking a year to make it, but Beskudnikov said it was even worse and burned it. Gregory cannily put his third hand-drawn note in his pocket and showed his master a real note instead. Beskudnikov was about to destroy this note as well, but Gregory took it before he could do so and used it to buy cigars. His master was angry and worried that they were both now at risk of being punished for forgery, so Beskudnikov persuaded the tobacconist to change the note for the one Gregory had actually made. Gregory triumphantly revealed to Beskudnikov what he had done, and told he him that he had "surpassed [Beskudnikov] by far" and had nothing left to learn from him.

Chapter 13

Rabo continues the story of Dan Gregory's childhood, recalling that he left his master Beskudnikov to become an artist in his own right. Gregory then set his own version of an impossible task for Rabo: to create a painting of his studio that was "indistinguishable from a photograph."

Rabo interrupts his reminiscence to say that he has just been to New York City for the first time in years at Circe's suggestion. There, he revisits Gregory's old house and recalls that how Gregory and Jones died together in Egypt in Italian uniforms, killed by the British, as the artist painted portraits of Italian soldiers in action. Marilee was also in Egypt with Dan Gregory because they were in love. Rabo mentions how Marilee, who had gone on to become the Countess Portomaggiore, died years later during the same week as Rabo's second wife, Edith. Back in the present, Rabo finds that the three buildings Gregory combined to make his home are now separate dwellings again. Rabo thinks he sees Slazinger's ex-wife, Barbira Mencken, whom Slazinger has lost contact with, emerge from one of the buildings, but Rabo does not speak to her or tell Slazinger he has seen her.

Rabo gets a ride home from New York with a new acquaintance, Floyd Pomerantz. Floyd tells Rabo he has recently left his media job with a multimillion-dollar severance package and is considering writing about his experiences. Rabo says Slazinger is of the opinion that people like Floyd should be in "the Money Hall of Fame" in the Hamptons for extorting the economy. Rabo wonders if Slazinger thinks that Rabo, who is wealthy, should be in the hall too, but Slazinger thinks not because Rabo gained his wealth accidentally, not as the result of greed.

Analysis

Vonnegut develops the character of Dan Gregory further in Chapter 12, offering some explanation for why he is such a hard-hearted master and cold individual in general. His difficult childhood and lack of a loving family and experience seem to account for his cruel personality. His experience with a harsh taskmaster like Beskudnikov may explain why Gregory treats Rabo in a similar fashion. Understanding the story of the task Beskudnikov created for Dan Gregory to perfectly mimic a bank note provides the context for the task Gregory creates for Rabo in Chapter 13: to paint a picture that perfectly reproduces the studio and all its contents. The task, though daunting and seemingly impossible, is simply a version of the task that honed his own skills, creating a perfect reproduction of a ruble.

The story of Gregory's childhood and the trick he played on Beskudnikov in Chapter 12 reads like a fairytale. The practically orphaned child must find his own way in the world, overcoming adversity and a cruel teacher only to surpass the teacher in skill and cunning, complete with a triumphant exit. Readers should notice that Rabo is merely relaying the story he heard from Gregory. Keeping in mind Gregory's penchant for drama, self-absorption, and manipulation, it is worth considering why Gregory would want to tell Rabo this story. The narrative justifies the parallel task Gregory sets for Rabo in Chapter 13. It also shows how cruelty can be passed from one generation to another, echoing the way war and violence pass death and destruction down the generations. Gregory, abandoned and treated cruelly, now treats others, like Marilee and Rabo, with similar cruelty. However, it also complicates Gregory and Rabo's relationship by placing Gregory into the role of the master who may eventually be surpassed by his student, something he likely finds as improbable and distasteful as Beskudnikov did. In the course of the novel, Rabo in fact will become a very different kind of artist from Gregory, while also drawing upon what he learned from him.

Readers learn a bit more about the fate of Gregory and Jones about which they may have wondered. The two men went to Italy with the permission of Mussolini, himself a cruel and brutal dictator, to paint the Italian Army, and because they were dressed in uniforms themselves, they were mistaken for soldiers and were killed alongside the real soldiers in an attack by the British army. Vonnegut's sense of humor as a writer can be very dark and often satirical. Gregory, who specializes in making exact reproductions, is killed because he himself is mistaken for an exact reproduction. Perhaps making artwork that simply reproduces reality has a downside.

The author uses the character of Floyd Pomerantz as an example of the vast amounts of wealth that can be accumulated by a few, wealth that is seemingly out of proportion with any effort or skill displayed by that individual. Slazinger views people like Pomerantz as extorting the economy for more than their fair share. Slazinger's cynical joke about a hall of fame for the wealthy in the Hamptons cuts a bit close to home for Rabo. Slazinger says the criticism doesn't apply to Rabo though, because he didn't get his riches because of greed. Rabo admits his wealth is mostly the result of accident.

This chapter continues to utilize fragmented structure as Rabo jumps back and forth from his present to his past, with an extra twist. Chapters 12 and 13 also include Gregory's tale of his past, and Rabo's description of his own return in the present to revisit Gregory's house in New York. This constant shifting between past and present shows how the past continues to shape the present at every turn. Just as Rabo's family is shaped by the massacre his parents survived in Armenia and its aftermath, Gregory's past—whether real or invented—appears to shape his treatment of Rabo and Marilee. Rabo, now 71 years old, is similarly haunted by his past as he writes his autobiography. How will his recollections of the past change his present life? He seems uncomfortable with the idea. Recalling the past means recalling painful experiences and losses, which may be why he avoids approaching Slazinger's wife when he sees her emerge from one of the buildings that used to comprise Gregory's home. As he remarks, "What would I have had to say to her ... 'Tell me how your parents died'?"

The fragmented structure also gives the novel an improvisational feel, as Rabo is writing down bits and pieces of material as they happen, particularly if they involve events in the present with Circe and Slazinger. He frequently notes, for example, how Circe interrupts him as he's writing. Not only does the past shape the present, but the present keeps making itself known, similarly to the movement of time embodied by the abstract expressionist paintings Rabo loves. These paintings are all about losing one's self in the act of creation and being in the moment.

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