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Book Review

Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

In this fictional memoir, Rabo Karabekian is a one-eyed artist-turned-art-collector who lives alone in a 19-room Long Island estate with a private beach. The property used to belong to his second wife, Dear Edith, before her death. When a young widow named Circe Berman wanders onto his beach, Rabo’s life begins to change. Circe is an author who writes well-known, controversial teen novels under the pseudonym Polly Madison. With no invitation, she moves into Rabo’s sprawling house to write.

Rabo and Circe have a platonic relationship, but this doesn’t stop Circe from bulling her way into Rabo’s business. She redecorates without his permission, asks lots of personal questions and convinces him to start writing his autobiography. He intertwines his past and present life stories in his narrative.

Rabo tells readers his parents were Armenian immigrants. The family lived in California, where Rabo’s father was a cobbler who hated American life. Rabo’s mother encouraged Rabo in his art when she realized some people made good money at it. She urged him to write to a famous Armenian artist named Dan Gregory and ask to be his apprentice.

Dan Gregory’s mistress, former Ziegfield girl Marilee Kemp, answered Rabo’s letters. For several years, the lonely, mistreated woman corresponded with Rabo. She also stole expensive art supplies from Dan Gregory’s massive stash and sent them to Rabo. Finally, Rabo received a letter from Dan Gregory himself, inviting Rabo to come be his apprentice. Rabo didn’t learn until many years later that Dan Gregory sent for him in an effort to placate Marilee.

When Dan Gregory had finally looked at Rabo’s work, he noticed the use of high quality art supplies no young man could afford. He realized that Marilee had been taking his tools, and he pushed her down a flight of stairs. The fall put her in the hospital. Bringing Rabo to her was Dan Gregory’s way of apologizing.

Marilee was 9 years older than Rabo, but they spent a lot of time together. When Dan Gregory became engrossed in his own artwork, he usually forgot about Rabo. Rabo and Marilee often did the one thing he’d forbid them to do: they visited the Museum of Modern Art.

As a painter of realistic art, Dan Gregory distained modern art. One day, he caught them coming out of the museum looking happy, and he vowed to evict them both from his house. He was so angry, he moved out of his own home so he wouldn’t have to be around them until they were gone.

Rabo and Marilee went home that day and had sex. It was their first time together and Rabo’s first sexual experience ever. Rabo, at age 19, thought he was in love and that they’d run away together. Marilee shut him down. She said she wasn’t leaving Dan Gregory’s home, but that Rabo must. Rabo was homeless for a time before doing artwork for a newspaper and then joining the army. He lost an eye in the war.

Rabo had an opportunity to see Marilee again in Italy. She had married a high-ranking officer, one of Mussolini’s men, and had become a contessa. She married her husband, who was gay, so she could stay in Italy and keep an eye on government affairs for America. After her husband’s death, she remained in her estate with an all-female staff. She told Rabo how badly Dan Gregory and other men in her past had treated her. She’d since made it her mission to advocate for women.

After Rabo returned from the war, he married a woman named Dorothy and had two sons. He was admittedly a horrible family man. His drinking and artistic mania caused Dorothy to leave him and remarry. His sons changed their last name and refused to see him.

Rabo enjoyed a period of artistic fame with his abstract paintings. Several of his artist friends killed themselves, and his paintings literally began to fall apart. When paint started peeling from his canvases, he gave up and decided to collect art instead. He was able to collect some important pieces during the war when people were desperate to unload them.

He rented a large potato barn from a Long Island couple to use as a studio. When the husband died, Rabo and the widow, Dear Edith, decided to marry. When she died, Rabo lived alone in her large estate with a cook and the cook’s daughter.

Visitors from around the world came to see his art collection. Other than receiving these guests and having dinners with an old writer friend, Rabo led a solitary life. Circe changed everything.

Rabo tells his memoir readers he has a big secret hidden in his tightly-locked potato barn. Circe pokes around constantly, but Rabo won’t tell her anything. As Circe is preparing to leave for good, Rabo decides to share his secret with her. The barn contains a huge, magnificent mural of the scene Rabo witnessed at the end of the war, when the Germans released prisoners and fighting ceased.

Unlike his other abstract art, it is meticulously detailed and realistic. The masterpiece depicts a valley full of thousands of people from many different backgrounds. It proves to Circe, visitors who eventually come later to see it and even to Rabo, that he has talent as an artist.

Christian Beliefs

Rabo sees a televangelist preaching that Satan is attacking the American family through communism, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and the Polly Madison books. Rabo’s editor at the newspaper says he has never prayed before but that he will pray Rabo never has to go to Europe as a soldier. When a face emerges underneath one of Rabo’s paintings, a curator likens it to the shroud of Turin. He boasts that Armenians like himself were the first people to make Christianity their national religion.

Other Belief Systems

When Rabo’s father dies, the funeral director wrongly believes he is Muslim. Rabo doesn’t want to disappoint the director who has worked so hard, so he instructs him to say, “Praise Allah” as he closes the lid. Rabo says he’d like to go back in time, when evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically. Rabo has a theory that humans are nothing more than radio receivers.

Dan Gregory says he was born in a stable like Jesus Christ. Circe calls Rabo her Lazarus because she brought him back to life by getting him to write his autobiography. When Rabo tells his friend Terry Kitchen about his amazing sex with Marilee, Kitchen says Rabo has had a “non-epiphany.” He says people think God doesn’t make himself known to us but, in truth, He is holding us constantly by the scruff of our necks. Only when God lets go and lets a person be human can the person experience something as amazing as the sex Rabo describes. Kitchen says his only non-epiphanies happened a few times after sex and the two times he took heroin.

Rabo talks about people having meat (bodies) and souls. He envisions a soul as a flexible neon tube inside of people. He says he is more able to forgive people when he can look past their meat and see only their souls. In the end, Circe urges Rabo to make peace with his meat. He holds his hands in front of his eye and thanks his meat for allowing him to paint a masterpiece. Circe mentions a legend that says Gypsies stole the nails from the Roman soldiers who were preparing to crucify Christ. After that, God Almighty gave permission to all Gypsies to steal all they could.

Discussing all of the new technology and medicine in post-war America, Rabo says now Lazarus might never die. He says, tongue-in-cheek, that all of this could make the Son of God obsolete.

Authority Roles

Rabo’s parents survived the first Armenian genocide before coming to America. His father is a bitter, unhappy man. Rabo’s mother repeatedly urges Rabo to connect with Dan Gregory and find a place for himself as a painter. As Marilee’s financial provider, Dan Gregory believes he can treat her like his property. He frequently abuses her.

Profanity/Violence

The Lord’s name is used in vain. P---, s---, a--, d--n, h---, whore, b--tard, b--ch, p---y and the f-word also appear. Rabo and his friends repeatedly talk about the color babysh—brown.

Dan Gregory frequently hits and kicks Marilee. When he discovers she’s been sending his art supplies to Rabo, he pushes her down the stairs. Marilee tells Rabo that her high school football team once raped her all night. Rabo mentions Mussolini liked punishing his enemies by making them drink a quart of castor oil. They vomited and defecated themselves to death as the oil tore up their insides.

Rabo likens himself to a fictional character named Bluebeard who killed all of his former wives and locked their bodies in a room. Marilee tells Rabo about one of her servants whose husband had plunged her hands into boiling water. He did this so she would tell him who her lovers had been while he was away at war. Gangrene set in.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Rabo discovers his cook’s 15-year-old daughter takes birth control pills. The unmarried cook has had two or three abortions. She gets pregnant while Rabo is writing the book and decides she will carry this fetus to term. Rabo says he often gave money to fellow painters for things like their girlfriends’ or wives’ abortions.

Rabo loses his virginity to Marilee when he’s 19. When Rabo and Marilee reunite in Florence, Marilee tells him she was carrying Dan Gregory’s baby, and he had sent her to a clinic to get rid of the fetus. Circe’s Polly Madison novels for young people include issues like teen pregnancies and incest.

At a country club, Rabo meets a man who is married to a well-known sexologist. Her husband confesses her career is burdensome to him. While staying in a hotel, Rabo spends the evening watching pornography on television.

Rabo describes Circe’s voluptuous figure in her low-cut, skin-tight dress when she’s going dancing. He calls her a sexual bully. Dan Gregory calls Joan of Arc a hermaphrodite. Rabo also notes they learned Dan Gregory’s cook was a hermaphrodite after her death. Rabo theorizes that sperm, if not ejaculated, is reproduced in males into a substance that enhances their abilities and creativity. He fantasizes about having sex with Marilee so he can generate sperm that will translate into beneficial chemicals for his body.

Circe says the moment when she hands her manuscript off to a publisher is orgastic. Rabo mentions Dan Gregory never took Marilee out to parties but always took his assistant, Fred. He says Dan Gregory and Fred were men’s men, though, and they were not homosexuals.

Marilee and Rabo grope one another on their way home from a museum when they’ve decided to have their first sexual encounter. Rabo says his erection is so hard, it might have smashed coconuts. He looks at the experience as sacramental, as though they would be leaving the Garden of Eden together when Dan Gregory kicked them out. They knock over furniture, and Rabo speaks effusively about the sexual masterpiece they’ve created.

He later wonders if Marilee could have had his baby. She tells him she was rendered sterile from an infection she got during her abortion. When Rabo and Marilee meet in Italy, Marilee asks him if he thought he was going to get laid that day. As she tells Rabo her life story, she mentions being raped all night by her high school football team. She says her stage manager at Ziegfield Follies told her she had to be one of his whores.

Marilee’s Italian husband was gay. She knew it, but she married him to stay in Italy and spy for the American government. After his death, she sold his collection of homosexual pornography for a lot of money.

Rabo mocks a newspaper article that offers proof of men and women being separate races at one time. It suggests the clitoris is the last vestige of a weaker, emasculated race. Describing his painting to Circe, Rabo explains a group of women are hiding in a cellar to avoid being raped for as long as possible. They know this is something that will happen to them eventually because of the war.

After Rabo shows Circe his hidden painting, he describes their feelings for one another as sexual in nature. Rabo says his friend Kitchen was once one of the world’s greatest cocksmen (referring to his sexual prowess).

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Suicide: Rabo knows a number of people who have killed themselves. Circe’s dad hanged himself. Three of Rabo’s painter friends killed themselves by either driving drunk, hanging or by gunshot. He suggests any artist who wants to jack up the value of his artwork should consider suicide. His friend Kitchen may have shot himself by accident.

Theft: Marilee takes art supplies from Dan Gregory and sends them to Rabo.

Prejudice: Dan Gregory paints African Americans but tells Rabo he will never have a black person in his house. He considers them orangutans.

Drugs: Rabo says for him, painting is as powerful and irresponsible as shooting up with heroin. Terry Kitchen mentions using heroin a few times. Rabo discovers Circe has an overabundance of prescription drugs in her medicine cabinet. During his painting days, Rabo was intoxicated most of the time, on alcohol and paint fumes.

Women’s Issues: Rabo notes the lack of choices for women during the Great Depression. His memoir depicts Marilee as a woman who had no choice but to accept Dan Gregory’s abuse since she had nowhere else to go. Dan Gregory illustrates an edition of the Ibsen book A Doll’s House in which the main character, Nora, leaves her middle-class family. She says she has to discover her own identity before she can be a good wife and mother. Marilee wants to know how Nora is really going to survive. She’s convinced Nora will have to commit suicide. She says Nora should have stayed home and made the best of things. After living in Italy, Marilee becomes a staunch, outspoken advocate for women. She gives Rabo a cutting speech on the inequity and injustice women face in the world. According to Rabo, she believes men are useless, idiotic and downright dangerous. Circe thinks it’s good to use curse words once considered taboo in front of women and children, since they now have more freedom to discuss their bodies and take care of themselves more intelligently than they once were.

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

18 and up

Author

Kurt Vonnegut

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.

Released

On Video

Year Published

1987

Awards

Unknown

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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