Literature Study GuidesBluebeardChapters 16 17 Summary

Bluebeard | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Bluebeard | Chapters 16–17 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 16

When the cook hears Rabo tell Circe to leave his house, she gives her notice. She says she and Celeste had been planning to leave the "dead" house anyway, until Circe arrived. If Circe is leaving, they want to go too, and they are not alone: Slazinger has already left. The cook says Rabo doesn't treat her like a real person and never calls her by her name, Allison White. Rabo remembers how his first wife, Dorothy, made the same complaint about him. The cook goes on to say that Rabo is afraid of women. In addition, she and her daughter Celeste no longer care what's in the potato barn. Finally, she complains that Rabo sold the only painting in his collection that she liked because it "was really about something, a painting of "two little black boys and two little white boys." Rabo remembers that it was his only Dan Gregory painting. He sold it to a wealthy Texan with the world's largest collection of Gregory paintings. Rabo recalls Gregory's telling him "he would never have a black person in his house," so he produced the painting entirely from photographs. Rabo regrets his hero worship of Gregory and confesses that he came to resemble his mentor "in many ways." Rabo realizes that he is now "all alone" in the house. He falls asleep downstairs only to be awakened at Circe's return. He begins to tell her what happened with the cook, but Circe says she has talked her and Celeste into staying. Circe promises that she too will remain. Rabo is relieved.

Chapter 17

Rabo says he and Circe came to an agreement that night, each getting something they wanted. He wants her vibrant personality around him "to keep him alive," and she wants to keep staying in the house. She agrees to no longer mention the potato barn.

Rabo returns to his recollection of his first night in Gregory's house and the impossible task he gave Rabo of creating a "super-realistic painting of his studio." He remembers that Gregory taught him that modern art was "the work of swindlers and lunatics and degenerates," that Mussolini agreed with that opinion and would destroy such artwork. Gregory also told Rabo that Americans are "begging for a frightening" and need a leader "to tell them exactly what to do."

Rabo remembers how Gregory forced him to learn the correct names of every part of the objects he was painting in the studio, like the parts of every gun and boat model in the room. This exercise tripled Rabo's vocabulary. Gregory had to do the same exercise as part of his training in Moscow. He also claimed that it was the role of painters to determine and convey to an audience what is good and what is evil. Rabo now sees that Gregory had "delusions of moral grandeur," something he says is not true of any of the abstract expressionists Rabo knew.

Gregory also told him that Marilee fell down the stairs because she was drunk and clumsy, when he, in fact, had pushed her down the stairs. Rabo believes that Gregory really believed his own lie by that point. Gregory then proceeded to share his misogynistic views of women. He believed that women should not try to do the same jobs as men, but be restricted to having children, doing housework, and supporting their husbands' endeavors. At the time, Rabo could think of only one example of a woman who succeeded in a man's job, Joan of Arc. Gregory declared her to be a hermaphrodite, or someone with male and female reproductive organs.

Analysis

The opinions expressed by Allison White, Rabo's cook bring into question the reliability of Rabo as a narrator. When Allison tells Rabo in Chapter 16 that he doesn't even treat her like a real person, readers may begin to wonder what Rabo hasn't told them, especially since her claim reminds him of something similar his first wife, Dorothy, once said to him. Until this point Rabo has presented himself as a perfect gentleman toward women. When Allison says he doesn't know her name because he only calls her "cook," he responds that he writes it correctly on her check every week. This impersonal, detached way of thinking about a woman who shares his home suggests that Rabo may indeed be afraid of women, as Allison claims.

The painting that Allison likes, of four little boys, two black and two white, again raises the question of what is considered good art and what it should accomplish. In Chapter 16 Allison claims it is the only painting in Rabo's collection that is "actually really about something." She likes it because she can understand it, and she likes to imagine what happens next to the little boys. According to Allison, representational art, which is art that represents physical reality, is superior to art that does not, such as abstract expressionist works, which are generally nonrepresentational. This criticism of modern art versus representational art harkens back to Circe's earlier criticism of Rabo's collection and her preference for Victorian chromos.

Most chillingly, in Chapter 17 Dan Gregory says something similar when he demands that Rabo's paintings of guns be so realistic that he could use one to shoot a burglar. Dan Gregory claims that nonrepresentational, abstract art, like much modern art, resembles the emperor's new clothes because it is simply an illusion and therefore the work of "swindlers." According to Gregory, Mussolini would destroy the Museum of Modern Art and outlaw the word democracy. Gregory's insistence on realism and his support of fascism go together. His comment also links democracy and modern art, perhaps because they both represent freedom of expression. A dictator like Mussolini would certainly find this unsuitable, as would Gregory, who insists on realism as the only legitimate approach to art.

Gregory, of course, is a dictator, too. Manipulating and using people, having few if any real, close relationships, is a hallmark of sociopaths, as is flouting the law and having angry, violent outbursts. Rabo says Gregory kept him around because Rabo was "servile" and provided him with company. Gregory had alienated most other people with his admiration of Mussolini. He certainly acts like a dictator toward Rabo. In Chapter 17, he is also revealed to be a sociopathic misogynist. Not only does Gregory lie about his abuse of Marilee, he even believes his own fabricated version of events in which he blames her for the fall. He shares his misogynistic views with Rabo, explaining why women are asking for trouble because they refuse to accept their place as mothers in the home, instead wanting to be like men and take men's jobs.

Rabo may not seem as poisonous as Gregory in his response to women, but his cook, Allison White, states in Chapter 17 that Rabo fears women. Vonnegut has already introduced some strong women in the novel. Rabo's mother and Marilee, although they suffer from violence, are survivors capable of courage. And Circe runs completely counter to Gregory's description of what a woman should be and do. She is a successful writer, an outspoken woman who bows to no one—powerful, fearless force who dictates life on her own terms.

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