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Bluebeard | Plot Summary

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Summary

Autobiography

Bluebeard is Rabo Karabekian's autobiography, as well as his diary. As a result, it jumps back and forth in time from his reminiscences about his past to his life in the present. Most of the characters are fictional, but some, like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, are real people.

Rabo is a one-eyed wounded veteran of World War II, retired artist, art collector, and widower living in the Hamptons in his late wife Edith's large home. He meets Circe Berman on his private beach one day in the summer of 1987. She begins their conversation by asking him bluntly how his parents died. Rabo is fascinated and intimidated by this sexy, strange woman in her mid-40s. Rabo asks her back to his house where she meets his friend, writer and fellow disfigured veteran Paul Slazinger, who spends most of his days at Rabo's home. Rabo invites Circe to be a houseguest while she writes her late husband's biography. Circe later reveals that she is actually in Long Island to research and write the latest in her series of best-selling books for adolescents, under her pen name, Polly Madison. She forbids Rabo from sharing this with Paul, who treats her with condescension. Circe is a bold woman who immediately settles in, criticizes Rabo's diet and home, and suggests that he write his autobiography to occupy himself. Rabo takes her advice and begins writing his memoir.

Armenian Genocide

Rabo relates the story of how his parents survived and escaped the Turks during their genocide of the Armenians during World War I. When the Turkish soldiers entered his village, Rabo's father, a teacher, hid in a latrine behind the school where he taught. Rabo's mother pretended to be dead, lying in a pile of corpses on top of a corpse of a woman whose mouth was filled with jewels. Rabo's mother took the jewels that had spilled onto the ground and smuggled them out of the country. Along the way, she met and married Rabo's father and went to Egypt, where the couple were befriended by fellow Armenian Vartan Mamigonian. He forged a letter from a pretend brother in Ignacio, California, promising them a house and a job, and then convinced Rabo's parents to give him their jewels in exchange.

Rabo's mother adjusted to life in America, but his father became bitter. Instead of learning English and teaching, Rabo's father resorted to the trade of a cobbler. Rabo, from a young age, was talented at drawing. Rabo's mother learned about Dan Gregory, born with the Armenian name Gregorian, who was a famous American illustrator. At his mother's suggestion, Rabo wrote the artist a flattering letter, hoping to gain help with his career. He received a response from Marilee Kemp, posing as Gregory's assistant when she was really his mistress. Marilee and Rabo kept up a regular correspondence, even after his mother died, although Rabo's father believed that Marilee was a fraud. She did, however, send Rabo art supplies she had taken from Gregory's own supply. One day, Rabo received a telegram from Gregory offering him an apprenticeship. Rabo would later learn that Gregory agreed to do this out of guilt. It turns out that when he found out Marilee had been sneaking his art supplies to Rabo, Gregory pushed her down a flight of stairs, badly injuring her. She blackmailed him into helping Rabo.

Apprenticeship

Rabo arrived in New York, but no one met him at the train station, so he went to Gregory's home. Dan Gregory's real assistant, Fred Jones, left him in an upstairs room while Gregory held a dinner party with famous guests. When Rabo finally spoke with Gregory, he learned that his hazing was meant to recall Dan Gregory's own difficult childhood and apprenticeship to a Russian engraver named Beskudnikov. He set Gregory the daunting task of recreating a ruble note so realistic he could spend it in the marketplace without being detected. Gregory gave Rabo the equally daunting task of creating a painting of his studio and all its contents with photographic realism. Gregory threw Rabo's first attempt into the fire, so Rabo began again.

During this time, he developed a friendship and flirtation with Marilee. The two used to sneak out to the Museum of Modern Art, a place forbidden to them by Dan Gregory who deplored modern art. One afternoon, Dan Gregory caught Rabo and Marilee coming out of the museum and felt betrayed. He told them both to leave his home. Rabo and Marilee made love for the first time. Rabo called it a sexual masterpiece never to be repeated. Although Rabo expected to run away with Marilee, she stayed with Gregory to avoid starvation during the Great Depression. Rabo found himself unemployed, but he eventually got a job as an illustrator for an advertising agency. When his father died, he enlisted to serve during World War II. A general had Rabo paint his portrait, and Rabo persuaded the general that he should use artists to create camouflage against enemy aerial surveillance. The general put him in charge of the newly created platoon. In Europe Rabo was injured, losing his eye, and taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans. One night the guards took the prisoners on a march, and in the morning Rabo awoke on the edge of a large, green valley filled with tens of thousands of war survivors, the guards gone. It was the end of the war.

World War II

Gregory, Jones, and Marilee went to Italy during the war with permission from Benito Mussolini to paint the Italian army in action. Gregory and Jones were wearing Italian uniforms when they met with the British, who shot both men. Marilee remained in Italy where she was something of a celebrity.

After the war Rabo met his first wife, Dorothy, who was a nurse in the hospital where he had cosmetic surgery on his eye. They married and had two children. Although Rabo studied business, he spent most of his time and money making friends with artists. Finally, he gave up all pretense at a regular job and devoted himself to being an abstract expressionist artist, much to Dorothy's disappointment. As Rabo spent more time with his artist friends, sharing a studio with Terry Kitchen, his marriage deteriorated. He rented a home in the country as well as potato barn to use as a studio and painted Windsor Blue Number Seventeen, a huge piece. Dorothy left him, taking their two boys. Rabo found himself even more alone when several of his friends died, including Pollock in a car crash and Terry Kitchen by suicide. Even his paintings disappeared. The Sateen Dura-Luxe paint he had used reacted unexpectedly with his canvases, sliding off and leaving them bare.

When in Italy to testify in a case about several pieces of artwork that had been stolen during the war, Rabo was contacted by Marilee and went to her Italian home. She inherited it from her late husband, Count Portomaggiore, who had been executed for being the head of British Intelligence in Italy. Marilee employed a number of women in her household who had been disfigured by war, and she told Rabo how she, too, had been mistreated by men throughout her life.

The Potato Barn

Rabo later married Edith, whose first husband had rented Rabo the potato barn. She was a wealthy widow with a large estate that she left to Rabo after 20 years of happy marriage. After her funeral, Rabo painted over the blank canvases of Windsor Blue Number Seventeen and stored his new painting in the barn. When it was finished, he sealed and locked the barn, refusing to let anyone in or to tell them about its contents.

Rabo says Circe learned every secret in his home, but he refuses her repeated requests to see inside the potato barn. He compares it to the forbidden chamber of Bluebeard. One day when he is gone for a visit in New York, Circe removes the paintings from his vast collection of abstract expressionist art from the foyer of his home. She redecorates with floral wallpaper and her collection of Victorian prints of little girls on swings. She paints the trim a shade of brown Rabo hates at the suggestion of Paul Slazinger, who is angry at Rabo for not telling him Circe's true identity as the woman who wrote the Polly Madison books. Rabo has a fit of rage when he discovers what Circe has done.

The summer draws to its end. Circe is nearly finished with her book, and she finally persuades Rabo to show her what is in the barn. Titled Now It's the Women's Turn, the painting is huge. It is based on Rabo's experience at the end of the war of seeing the green valley filled with people. The painting might have been a photograph, it was so real. Rabo has a story for each person in the painting and answers all of Circe's questions about them. He has created the scene he experienced at the end of the war but also added important people from his life story, like the corpse of the woman, her mouth overflowing with jewels, that his mother saw, as well as Pollock and Kitchen. Circe loves the painting, and Rabo agrees it is good. The two leave the barn hand in hand, truly friends.

Bluebeard Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Rabo's Armenian parents survive genocide and go to America.

Rising Action

2 Rabo trains to be an artist under Dan Gregory.

3 Rabo and Marilee Kemp make love, then reunite years later.

4 Rabo loses an eye in the war and sees the valley of people.

5 Rabo becomes an abstract expressionist painter.

6 Rabo's paintings fall apart due to the paint he used.

7 Rabo stops painting after his closest friends die.

8 Rabo's wife Edith dies, and he begins to paint again.

Climax

9 Rabo shows Circe Berman the painting in the potato barn.

Falling Action

10 Rabo explains the painting to Circe.

11 Rabo and Circe leave the barn hand in hand.

Resolution

12 Rabo finally makes peace with himself.

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