Bluebeard | Study Guide

Kurt Vonnegut

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Bluebeard | Chapters 8–9 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 8

Rabo recalls the reaction of his boss at the newspaper, Arnold Coates, to the news that he would be going to New York as Dan Gregory's apprentice. The editor expressed hope that Rabo would never be involved in war in Europe, which he calls "the Republic of Suicide," among other derogatory terms. Rabo remembers the editor's warning that the residents of Europe seem "so much more civilized than Americans," but are only waiting for an excuse "to kill each other and knock everything down again." It strikes Rabo how sick of war Americans used to be in contrast with the way it is viewed currently. He says "our only solvent industry is the merchandising of death," and that "the only way a boy can become a man" is through "a shoot-out of some kind," preferably on a battleground.

Rabo recalls how his trip to New York made him feel reborn, but no one came to meet him at the train station after his cross-country journey. Rabo says he wouldn't learn the full story of why Marilee didn't meet him until years later when he reunited with her in Italy. She had been in the hospital at the time of his arrival because Dan Gregory had pushed her down a staircase when he learned she had sent some of his art supplies to Rabo. Gregory felt guilty when he realized the extent of her injuries, and that was the only reason he agreed to her request to invite Rabo to be his apprentice. Rabo says that Gregory had painted a portrait of Italian leader Benito Mussolini, which would lead to a relationship with the fascist dictator he so admired but also to Gregory's eventual death. He would be shot in Egypt by the British while wearing an Italian uniform. Rabo also recalls how, in addition to covering Rabo's travel expenses to New York, Gregory paid for two suits, one for him and one for his father. His father wound up being buried in the suit, also wearing a pair of cowboy boots he had made. His undertaker mistakenly thinks Rabo's father is Islamic.

Chapter 9

Rabo ponders how his talents as an artist might have been perceived differently had he lived in an earlier time before modern technology made "moderate giftedness" obsolete. He wishes that people could still live in "small groups of relatives" to help foster and appreciate such modest creativity. He says that his best paintings were never as good as those of his famous painter friends, but that he had once thought he could be a good as Dan Gregory if he worked hard enough. He returns to the memory of waiting in the train station wondering if he would recognize Marilee if she appeared, but he is interrupted by Circe who reads over his shoulder, asking him if he feels "creepy, writing about people so long ago." She asks what he would say to his younger self if he could use a time machine to revisit the moment when he left for New York. Rabo responds that he would say nothing, so his younger self could remain hopeful as long as possible about being "a great painter and a good father."

Circe reenters the room to interrupt Rabo a few minutes later to discuss what he calls "this human-being-as-nothing-but-radio-receivers theory." She wonders if people sometimes tune into messages from outside themselves that they then convey. She says it may account for what Rabo observed in his father and Terry Kitchen. Rabo recalls the way Kitchen "went through a radical personality change" when he found his favorite artistic medium, a paint sprayer. Rabo muses that somehow Kitchen and other abstract expressionists were able to capture the movement of time, and therefore the sense of life itself, in their paintings. In contrast, Rabo compares Dan Gregory to a taxidermist, someone who stuffs animals after they're dead, suggesting that a sense of life itself is what is missing from Dan Gregory's impeccable realistic paintings.

Analysis

In Chapters 8 and 9 readers see the first explicit instance of Vonnegut's political commentary and critique of war and war culture in America and Europe. The novel contrasts the once common exhaustion with war felt by Americans after World War I, as well as a strongly negative view of Europeans in general, with the ultimate acceptance of the military-industrial complex in contemporary America. First, Arnold Coates, Rabo's newspaper editor, reminds him that no matter how "civilized" Europeans appear, they are eager to go to war and destroy each other. Rabo goes on to speculate how the machinery of war is "practically our only solvent industry." Shooting, preferably in a war, is just another rite of passage into manhood—in fact, he says, it is "the only way a boy can become a man." Readers need only recall the horrifying descriptions of Rabo's parents' experience of war to understand the sharp, satirical tone of these comments.

In Chapter 8 the author develops the character of Dan Gregory by showing him to be an admirer of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, a leader who created a cult of personality around himself and whose fascist government was allied with Germany in World War II. He was eventually executed in 1945. Readers must wonder at the source of Gregory's interest in the foreign leader and what events tied to the dictator could possibly lead to Gregory's own death in Egypt "in an Italian uniform." At this point all that the author reveals is that Dan Gregory is delighted that the leader likes his portrait. In Chapter 8 the author uses the first instance of a phrase that he will repeat throughout the novel for comic effect. Rabo says "nobody could paint grime like Dan Gregory," and the author will repeat variations of the phrase substituting all manner of skills for the middle portion of the sentence. For example, Rabo says shortly after that "nobody could paint uniforms like Dan Gregory." Gregory, who wants his works to be considered fine art, often resembles a painting machine who can reproduce anything in the world in the form of a detailed illustration.

The theme of technology overwhelming human talent is first raised in Chapter 9. New technologies like television and radio make it possible for a few champions of various talents to share their gifts with the world. People with moderate gifts who would have once been the best at their art in their region are rendered obsolete. They might as well just give up, since they can't compete with the talents of a few superstars available to everyone through the convenience offered by modern media. Rabo uses himself as an example. While technically proficient, his paintings were never as good as the best abstract expressionist artists, and he seems to suggest that he was naive when he thought he could be as good as Dan Gregory if he worked hard enough. His father also points out how technology limits, rather than enhances, human experience. He "refused to touch a camera," feeling that "photographs were a poor substitute" for the actual people "killed in the massacre," suggesting that technology is an insufficient means to convey human loss and suffering, such as the aftermath of war.

The idea that humans can tune into something outside of themselves to convey messages through their art is one Circe shares with Rabo in Chapter 9. He finds it useful for thinking about the trancelike state of his father's making boots and Terry Kitchen's using his spray gun to make art. It seems to strike a chord with Rabo, and he concludes that Kitchen's paintings, splotches of red paint sprayed onto the canvas, somehow convey something vital, "birth and death," in a way that the realistic, precise paintings of Dan Gregory do not. Perhaps Circe's theory accounts for the difference. The chapter seems to beg the question of what signal humans may be tuning into when they make art. What is its origin? What is its purpose? Is it really coming from outside of themselves? Is it indicative of true artistic expression or just a mechanical stunt? The two people described as experiencing the trancelike state as they create are Rabo's father and Kitchen, so readers may wonder if that means the work of other artists like Dan Gregory and Rabo himself, in the absence of this state, are really not art at all, or just a cheap imitation of the real thing.

Rabo's loneliness and his desire for community come up in both chapters. In Chapter 8, as he waits alone in Grand Central Station hoping Marilee or Gregory show up, he sadly notes "not a soul, not a soul" was there to greet him, although they knew when he would arrive. In Chapter 9, he yearns for "a time when people had lived in small groups of relatives," "little families" who would provide a nurturing community in which artists of "moderate giftedness" could grow and serve the group by "tell[ing] stories ... and paint[ing] pictures on the walls of the caves." He also wishes this community would produce "someone who wasn't afraid of anything," perhaps in contrast to the culture of war and violence he despises, which traffics in violence and fear.

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