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Bluebeard | Themes

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The Horrors of War

Vonnegut, a well-known antiwar activist who explores the theme in many of his novels, does not hesitate to paint graphic pictures of the horrors of war in Bluebeard. Wartime atrocities touch everyone, not just soldiers. From the genocide of the Armenians that Rabo's parents barely survive, to the loss of his eye in battle, to the terrible disfigurements of Marilee's employees, war is responsible for nothing but pain and lasting trauma. Rabo's masterpiece Now It's the Women's Turn depicts the end of World War II. It shows a panorama of the terrible price of war, including a dead, bloated body, dying concentration camp victims, women hiding from rapists in a basement, and bewildered, defeated soldiers. The figures represent people from around the globe to show how wide-reaching the horrors of war can be.

Vonnegut is amazed that outrage over the horrors of war can be so short-lived. It is evidence of the inability of human beings to learn from the past. Rabo reflects on how hard it is to believe that people used to be so "sick of war," but now "the merchandising of death" is taken for granted. He comments satirically that instruments of war are now considered appropriate gifts for children, and there is an idea that war is simply a rite of passage into manhood. Rabo says that even as he writes there may be a third world war happening, hidden by media. Rabo's eye and Slazinger's scarred body, both due to wounds they suffered during World War II, serve as a permanent reminder to them both of the real horror war brings. The horrors of war also tie in to other types of violence in the novel in or out of wartime, especially physical violence toward women.

The Need for Community

This theme describes the need for a group that provides human contact and support. Such a community can take the form of biological family, people who share the same heritage, or an extended family of people who are not blood relatives but come together to care for one another. This need for community motivates Rabo's parents to seek other Armenians to help them after they survive being massacred by the Turks, and to feel betrayed when they find they are all alone in a strange American town devoid of any fellow Armenians. Marc Coulomb, a fellow Armenian, helps Rabo find a job after leaving his apprenticeship with Dan Gregory, a favor which saves Rabo from likely starvation and homelessness.

Community is not confined to ethnicity, as Rabo shows in his affinity for his fellow artists and soldiers during the war whom he calls his "happy family of thirty-six men" and for whom he has much affection even years after they have lost touch. Rabo longs for the community of friendship of abstract expressionist artists so much that he admittedly buys their friendship, loaning them money, paying off debts, and accepting their company and cast-off paintings in return. His friendship with one of them, Terry Kitchen, resonates throughout the novel.

It could be argued that Rabo's desire for community is what leads him to reveal the contents of the potato barn after hiding it and himself from everyone for so many years. When he shares the painting, and his life, with Circe, they become friends. The events of the summer bring him closer to a new community, that of the people in his household, including Slazinger, Allison White, Celeste, and Circe.

The Role of Art

Vonnegut explores in Bluebeard what art is, what it should do, and what differentiates "good art" from "bad art." Rabo's art goes through several, often conflicting, phases. At first, his work is representational, depicting people, places, or things in the real world. The hallmark of his mentor Dan Gregory's work is its photorealism. As Gregory's apprentice, Rabo perfects this type of art, which accurately portrays its subjects down to the last excruciating detail. However, after the war, Rabo begins to explore abstract expressionism, which stands in opposition to Gregory's style. It is nonrepresentational, using pure color and form to create images that spring from the artist's unconscious and emotions, and are therefore not rooted in the real world. But while he adopts an abstract expressionist style, painting entire canvases with a single color, for example, he still secretly imagines people and animals as he works, putting down pieces of colored tape across the canvas to represent their souls. Bluebeard asks whether one type of art is more effective than another, which raises the question of what art should or should not accomplish.

Rabo argues repeatedly about this issue with Circe. She is unimpressed by his large collection of valuable, historically important abstract expressionist works. Circe believes that art should be based in reality and communicate information, not simply show abstract colors swirling through space, like the paintings in Rabo's collection. This is why she collects sentimental Victorian chromos, or color prints, of little girls on swings. Rabo argues that the chromos lack "intelligence or skill" and are in terrible taste. In this way, Bluebeard asks how art is defined as good or bad and whether its main purpose is to be based in the real world and convey a clear message or to remain a mysterious manifestation of the mental world. Another possibility the novel raises is that it may be possible to combine these contrasting viewpoints into a more satisfying whole. Readers may conclude that Rabo's masterpiece in the potato barn does just that by evoking great emotion and memory, communicating information, and representing things with a stunning degree of realism and skill.

Men versus Women

Vonnegut comments on the damage men inflict upon women, largely through the lens of Marilee's life. Marilee grew up with an abusive father. She was raped in high school by a whole football team. Later, an employer tried to force her into being a prostitute. She is regularly beaten by her lover, Dan Gregory, but because it is the Great Depression, and there are few opportunities allowed for women, Marilee is forced to stay with Gregory, upon whom she depends for her economic survival. He only controls her for so long, however. She eventually goes on to become a powerful individual in her own right when she outlives him. She becomes the Countess Portomaggiore, a rich and powerful defender of women.

Marilee believes men create wars, only pretending to fight one another, in order to keep women subservient, willing to do anything men say in order to survive. She has plenty of examples in her own Italian household. Everywhere Rabo turns when he visits her in Italy he sees disfigured women, injured directly at the hands of their husbands and lovers, or by the wars men create. Marilee thinks men are too evil to continue to live in a world they have damaged so severely. It is time for men's domination to end and women, who favor creation over destruction, to take control. Rabo comes to acknowledge Marilee's conclusions in the title of his masterpiece Now It's the Women's Turn. Certainly things in his own life seem to improve when he lets a strong woman, Circe, take control. In fact, she inspires him to write his autobiography, which forms the novel itself.

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