Bluebeard | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Bluebeard | Chapters 2–3 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 2

Rabo explains that he is writing his autobiography at the suggestion of a woman who has recently come to stay with him. He tells how he meets Circe Berman on the beach, where she greets him with the odd request: "Tell me how your parents died." He is instantly fascinated and intimidated by the sexy widow who is almost three decades younger than him. He tells her about his parent's deaths. His mother dies of a tetanus infection after working in a cannery when Rabo is 12. His father dies alone in a movie theater in 1938. Rabo invites Circe back to his home for drinks, and by the end of the evening invites her to stay at his home.

Paul Slazinger, Rabo's friend, also shares his home during the day. Slazinger is a penniless writer who does very little writing anymore, just as Rabo no longer paints (and will not even doodle). Rabo explains his artistic disgrace, attributing it to a "postwar miracle" in the form of a new type of paint he had used called Sateen Dura-Luxe. The paint was supposed to be a technological breakthrough, providing color that would last for centuries. It had an unforeseen defect, however, and it deteriorated within a period of years. This caused Rabo's paintings, which once commanded high prices, to disintegrate, leaving bare canvas behind.

Writing the autobiography brings up many memories of his parents' escape from Europe that show how the horrors of war don't end for the survivors. Rabo tells how, as his mother tried to save herself by playing dead in a pile of corpses during the massacre, she saw the body of an old woman with her mouth open. There were valuable jewels in the woman's mouth and around her body. Rabo's mother takes the jewels near the body. Rabo also recalls his father's frequent phrase "Thank you, Vartan Mamigonian." This was his sarcastic reference to the man who convinced him and his wife that an ideal life awaited them in San Ignacio, California. Rabo says he will tell more of that story later.

Once in California, Rabo's father, an educated man, reverted to his family trade of cobbler and refused to assimilate into American culture. Rabo says that if he had lived to see them, his father would have joined those who "snorted and jeered" at even his most well-known paintings. This thought makes Rabo still feel a sense of "adolescent resentment" toward his father, and he exclaims, "Let me off this hellish time machine!" Rabo's autobiography is also a kind of time machine, and it often causes him to relive some very painful situations.

Chapter 3

Circe Berman moves into Rabo's home and takes over, offering opinions on everything from the wine, to the art, to the health of Rabo and Slazinger. Rabo calls her "outrageous" when she criticizes his art collection for not conveying any decipherable information. She prefers her own collection of Victorian color prints, called chromos, of little girls on swings. She suggests that Rabo paint a realistic picture of his mother's experience during the Armenian massacre. Circe is vacationing away from her Baltimore home in order to, ostensibly, write a biography of her late husband, but she reveals to Rabo that she is actually a very successful writer of 20 young adult books published under her pen name, Polly Madison. She is actually in the Hamptons to research and write the next one.

Circe's name is an allusion to the Greek mythological character who is a sorceress and daughter of Helios. She has the ability to turn humans into pigs, lions, and wolves, as well as the power to return them to their original form. Homer wrote about Circe in the Odyssey.

Rabo conveys more information about his parents' escape from Europe after the massacre of Armenians by the Turks. His mother smuggled the jewels she had taken from the ground near the corpse of the old woman in her own mouth across the border to Egypt, where she met Rabo's father. She and Rabo's father used the jewels as payment to Vartan Mamigonian, who convinced them to move to San Ignacio, California, by forging letters from a brother in America promising Rabo's father a teaching job and house there.

Analysis

Chapters 2 and 3 introduce readers to the character of Circe Berman, a vibrant, commanding woman in her mid-forties with plenty of opinions and writing talent, as it turns out. She is the motivation behind Rabo's autobiography, which she suggests he write to give him something to do. Readers may wonder at her nerve when she not only takes him up on his offer to stay at his home after knowing him for only an afternoon but then immediately criticizes the way it is run and decorated. Rabo claims she "scares the pants off [him]," and disturbs the peaceful equilibrium of his life. Her commercial success as a writer, as much as her personality, may also be a source of intimidation to Rabo, who has long since passed his days of artistic acclaim.

Through Circe's criticism of Rabo's collection of abstract expressionist art, Vonnegut offers an alternative judgment of modern art's aesthetic value, a theme to which he will return throughout the novel. Circe prefers her own collection of Victorian chromos of little girls on swings—sentimental, representational art, and likely mass-produced. Popular in Victorian times, chromos, or chromolithography, is a type of print making using color. Circe openly loathes Rabo's Jackson Pollock painting, a twentieth-century work by the most famous of all the abstract expressionists, for which Rabo has been offered two million dollars. In fact, she hates his whole abstract expressionist art collection. She feels that good art should communicate its message clearly and values art that gives her information so she can learn from it. Perhaps Rabo's father would agree with her judgment, as Rabo seems certain he would have "razzed" him about even the paintings Rabo sold for good prices.

Readers learn more about what Rabo calls his "artistic disgrace" at the hands of the "postwar miracle" called Sateen Dura-Luxe. The paint not only failed to live up to its claim to last longer than Mona Lisa's smile, it didn't even outlast Rabo. Only a couple of decades after his best works were sold for tens of thousands of dollars, the paint degraded and fell off the canvases into piles of dirty crumbs. This catastrophe makes Rabo a comical figure in the history of the abstract expressionist movement, although it seems to be a painful memory to him as he later abandons painting altogether, refusing to allow himself even to doodle.

The author explores betrayal and loss through both the deceitfulness of Vartan Mamigonian and the failed promise of Sateen Dura-Luxe. A fellow Armenian survivor and friendly helper, Vartan Mamigonian earned the trust of Rabo's parents who confided in him about their jewels and plans for the future. He fabricated details about a town in California and forged documents to trick them out of what little wealth they had. That betrayal and his bitterness over it stayed with Rabo's father the rest of his life. When the miraculous paint causes his paintings to self-destruct, Rabo is also left with nothing. Just as Mamigonian had promised Rabo's parents a bright future, Rabo chose the new latex wall paint for its grandiose promises about its endurance only to be betrayed. Just as they lost their wealth, so too he lost his work and reputation as an artist. These are the first of many losses Rabo endures in his life.

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