Literature Study GuidesBluebeardChapters 20 21 Summary

Bluebeard | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Bluebeard | Chapters 20–21 | Summary



Chapter 20

Rabo recalls that despite Dan Gregory's harsh reaction to Rabo's first painting of the studio, Rabo knew he was lucky to have a job during the Great Depression. Rabo thinks that he was just as trapped as Marilee, but so was Fred Jones. Rabo recalls that Jones was a pilot during World War I, and had found incredible beauty in the smoke of a planes he had shot out of the sky. He had to leave the military when he lost an eye. Rabo, who also lost an eye later, during World War II, reflects that he pitied Jones and didn't know at the time that he would suffer the same experience one day.

Circe asks Rabo what he liked most about being an artist, and Rabo says it is the laying on of paint itself. If he were shot into space in a capsule, alone with just his art supplies, he would have everything he loved about painting. He asks Circe what she would need to be happy as a writer in her capsule. She replies that the capsule would need to contain a finished manuscript and someone from her publishing house. That way, she could hand over the finished product and be done with it.

Rabo remembers walks with Marilee. She told him "walking around like this and feeling good about everything" was the best part of being in love and that she wouldn't mind if he missed out on the other parts. He says they enjoyed their outings together until one day, Gregory caught them coming out of the Museum of Modern Art.

Chapter 21

Rabo remembers when Gregory happened to see him and Marilee leaving the Museum of Modern Art. Gregory had been stopped outside the museum in traffic because of a St. Patrick's Day parade, when he saw them come out. He was so incensed that they had betrayed him by going to the one place he had forbidden them to go that he told them to move out of his home. Rabo says that he and Marilee had decided they would have sex, even before they ran into Gregory. They laughed together as they walked back to Gregory's house, then made love there. Rabo compares the experience to creating an abstract expressionist painting in which he only had to begin and the canvas did the rest. He calls it a sexual masterpiece. Rabo also compares it to what Kitchen called a "non-epiphany," in which he was free from God's control and could simply "be human for a little while." In the present, Circe discovers a book full of pictures of World War II uniforms, and asks Rabo if they have anything to do with what's in the barn. He won't tell her, but writes in his autobiography that they do.


Chapter 20 continues to challenge the idea that art's central purpose is to communicate information by showing how Rabo and his abstract expressionist friends had no need of an audience at all to enjoy their art. They could be perfectly happy creating art all alone in a capsule in space. If art needs no audience, it cannot be merely or primarily about communication, as Circe and others believe. Rabo says it was the act itself of painting that he and his friends enjoyed. This contrasts with Circe's perspective, which favors product over process. Her greatest pleasure comes from completing a manuscript, then handing it over to her publisher.

Vonnegut develops the character of Fred Jones more in Chapter 20, comparing him to the older Rabo. Although Rabo pitied one-eyed Jones in the past, he now realizes that he has turned out to be a lot like Jones. Both are wounded veterans who lost an eye. Both have only one real friend and are scared of women. Both found incredible beauty in their work. However, unlike Rabo, Jones found beauty in destruction, in the horrors of war, as a pilot in World War I. In this way, Jones resembles his employer, Dan Gregory, a practitioner of physical and psychological violence who favors Mussolini, a destructive dictator. It makes perfect sense that Gregory and Jones die together in a war zone wearing army uniforms. Rabo equates Jones's enjoyment in seeing "the smoke trails of falling airplanes" with Jackson Pollock's pleasure as he drips paint on a canvas. But there is one big difference: Pollock's pleasure isn't rooted in death and destruction.

Gregory 's discovery of Rabo and Marilee exiting the Museum of Modern Art sheds more light on the novel's title and on Gregory's character. The museum is Gregory's equivalent of the forbidden room in the Bluebeard folk tale, but Marilee and Rabo don't discover a pile of corpses inside. Instead, the art the museum contains represents Marilee and Rabo's attempt to have a life on their own terms outside of Gregory's control. This infuriates Gregory on three fronts. Gregory despises the art in the museum because it is a direct threat to his insistence on the superiority of realistic art. He thinks the museum displays the works of "lunatics and degenerates." Rabo and Marilee's visit to the museum also takes place just before they are going to make love for the first time, which means Gregory's mistress is about to cheat on him with his lowly apprentice. Finally, Gregory feels that he, Rabo, and Marilee form a kind of family. He calls himself their "Papa" and addresses them as "kids." His patriarchal authority, however, has gone out the window. Bluebeard kills the wives who peer into the forbidden room. Gregory exiles Marilee and Rabo into the Great Depression, where they face hunger and homelessness.

The idea of nonepiphany in Chapter 21 that Rabo recalls his friend Kitchen's explaining is an interesting contrast to the godless chaos Rabo seems to view around him in the wake of the horrors of war and his own improbable path through life. Rather than being alone to muddle through life, as Rabo seems to have been, Kitchen believes God is constantly giving instructions to everyone, or "epiphanies." He says he has experienced a nonepiphany in which God let go of him and let him exist just as a human, only a few times, sometimes after sex, similar to Rabo's experience, and twice while doing drugs. True personal freedom is rare and fleeting.

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