Bluebeard | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Bluebeard | Chapters 4–5 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 4

Rabo recalls his past as a series of pictures in an imaginary gallery. One of these is the photograph of a house Mamigonian pretended to sell to Rabo's parents. Rabo remembers that his father asked Rabo to tell him if he ever came across that house, because he felt it rightly belonged to him. Rabo ripped up the photo at his father's funeral, angry that his father hadn't overcome his disillusionment to make a better life in America.

Circe, reading over his shoulder as Rabo writes, claims his father must have had Survivor's Syndrome, a topic she has written about in one of her own books. She also criticizes Rabo's writing, asking "How come you chop it all up into little sections instead of letting it flow?" She wonders if he envies his father's painful ordeal. Rabo recalls losing his eye during World War II. Because he was unconscious through most of the event, he experienced minimal pain and his wound healed quickly. Circe is very nosy, snooping in every closet and drawer in the house, discovering the many gallons of Sateen Dura-Luxe paint stored in the basement and the existence of 15-year-old Celeste's birth control pills. The only place safe from Circe's intrusion is the sealed and padlocked potato barn in which Rabo painted a huge eight-paneled piece called Windsor Blue Number Seventeen years ago. The potato barn now houses something he keeps secret from everyone, saying only that "it's the worthless secret of a silly old man."

Chapter 5

Rabo explains that some people have speculated about the contents of the potato barn, guessing it houses a great work of abstract expressionist art kept off the market to increase its price or European paintings Rabo stole during his time in the war. Rabo says these guesses are wrong, but that if he had taken an offer for three million dollars he once received for the barn and its contents it would have been "like selling ... Brooklyn Bridge." Rabo admits that he did buy some art during the war at bargain prices, but those works are not in the barn.

Rabo had trained with "the most meticulous illustrator of this century," Dan Gregory. But he explains that after the war he enrolled in business classes, abandoning his earlier art training because he was convinced he would never be more than "a reasonably good camera." Instead he spent evenings befriending artists in the area, buying their friendship with drinks and financial help. Some repaid him with a few of their paintings that didn't sell. He adds that he was married at the time with a pregnant wife.

Rabo shares the story of Bluebeard, the tale of a man who had a succession of wives. Bluebeard tells his latest bride she may have the run of his large home but may not to look in a particular room. She looks in the room when she thinks he is away, but he catches her as she stares at the corpses of all his previous wives. Apparently none of them could resist their curiosity either, and in response, Bluebeard killed them. Rabo tells Circe that he is Bluebeard and that the potato barn "is my forbidden chamber as far as you're concerned."

Analysis

Vonnegut paints a picture of a broken American dream in Chapter 4. Promised an ideal life with a good job, a supportive community, and a picturesque house, Rabo's parents came to America full of optimism and confidence that the American dream would be theirs. Once they arrive, they find it was all a lie created by the duplicitous villain, Vartan Mamigonian. Rabo's father felt he had been cheated out of what was rightfully his, and his hope turned to disillusionment, bitterness, and resentment. Readers may wonder if Rabo's own version of the dream turned out differently, given his lonely but comfortable situation in a mansion in the Hamptons.

The story for which the novel is named sheds light on its title. The character Bluebeard has a dark secret he wishes to keep from his wives by forbidding them to enter a specific room in his house. But by making it forbidden he only draws their attention to it and creates a desire in them to know its contents. Rabo does the same by telling readers that the potato barn houses a secret that no one may know. This connection between the folktale and the novel generates suspense for readers and eventually leads to the novel's climax. When Rabo tells Circe that he is Bluebeard and the potato barn is his forbidden room, readers can only wonder if the contents of the barn will prove to be as gruesome as Bluebeard's forbidden room. Circe is not alone in her curiosity about the contents of the padlocked barn. It seems just about everyone wants to discover what the barn contains. It has even been speculated about in several articles in the newspaper. Readers must also wonder why Rabo wishes to keep whatever is in the barn from public view, and Vonnegut provides no clues.

Chapters 4 and 5 provide more glimpses of Rabo's history, including his artistic training as a youth, how he got started collecting art during the war, some of his war duties, how he made artist friends when he was in college after the war, how he made money at that time, the existence of his wife and her pregnancy, and a bit about the painting of his most famous piece Windsor Blue Number Seventeen. When Circe comments on Rabo's writing style, she echoes criticism often offered about Vonnegut's brief, disjointed, sometimes satiric style of delivery. In Rabo, Vonnegut uses a novice writer as his narrator, a choice he made in many of his novels, and the open spaces between sections and simple, telegraph-like delivery are often dismissed by critics or embraced by fans. By revealing bits and pieces of Rabo's life in a disjointed way, and revealing more unexpectedly as the novel progresses, Vonnegut establishes a push-and-pull structure that mirrors Rabo's own struggle to find balance in his life. Memories of the past come in and out of Rabo's present as he writes, suggesting that the past has had, and will somehow continue to have, a defining effect on Rabo's current situation. This structure also creates an improvisational feel that makes Rabo feel more immediate, lively, and credible as a character.

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