Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Author Kurt Vonnegut first introduced the character of Rabo Karabekian in his 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions. In this novel, Karabekian is known for being an abstract expressionist painter who sells a work titled The Temptation of Saint Anthony for $50,000. This is the subject of much derision in the novel, as people believe that this sum is a ridiculous amount to be paid for what is essentially a solid green canvas with one vertical yellow stripe. However, the artist himself defends his work, asserting that it represents the awareness of the human soul.

Bluebeard reintroduces Karabekian and tells his life story. The book is written as an autobiography that is being penned even as it is being read. Vonnegut was a journalist before he began writing novels, and he stated that, as a journalist, he learned to deliver pieces of information as though they were part of a quick telephone conversation. This technique is evident in his prose style, which is a succession of short scenes and paragraphs. Vonnegut is also well known for having non-linear timelines in his stories; in Bluebeard, Karabekian jumps back and forth from his present day (summer in the Hamptons, writing his book) to reflections on his early life and career. He apologizes to the readers at the very start for his erratic writing style:

HAVING WRITTEN "The End" to this story of my life, I find it prudent to scamper back here to before the beginning, to my front door, so to speak, and to make this apology to arriving guests: "I promised you an autobiography, but something went wrong in the kitchen. It turns out to be a diary of this past troubled summer, too! We can always send out for pizzas if necessary. Come in, come in."

Thus, Vonnegut embeds the non-linear arc of the narrative in Karabekian's character: how he simultaneously tangles up his past experiences with his experience of the present and how, perceived to be distinct, these two temporal realms are actually inextricable.

The narrative eventually comes to reflect on Karabekian's experiences in World War II. When he had a chance to serve, he was eager and enthusiastic, and he ended up painting illusionistic backdrops that were used to trick the enemy during combat. During the Battle of the Bulge, however, Karabekian was captured by the Germans and eventually put into a POW camp with thousands of other captives. After the war, he describes it as such:

When we awoke at sunrise, the guards were gone, and we found that we were on the rim of a valley near the ruins of an ancient stone watchtower. Below us, in that innocent farmland, were thousands upon thousands of people like us, who had been brought there by their guards, had been dumped. These weren't only prisoners of war. They were people who had been marched out of concentration camps and factories where they had been slaves, and out of regular prisons for criminals, and out of lunatic asylums. The idea was to turn us loose as far as possible from the cities, where we might raise hell.

Despite Karabekian's traumatizing experience of the war that eventually resulted in the loss of one of his eyes, the profound impact of this event would eventually lead him to create his artistic masterpiece: an enormous painting in photorealistic detail of these images that pays due attention and tribute to the victims of this experience.

Eventually, Karabekian becomes immersed in the abstract expressionist artistic movement. Unlike many of his artist friends, he enjoys monetary success and is able to sell his...

(This entire section contains 1343 words.)

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paintings for substantial sums of money. Karabekian maintains, privately, that the bright tape that he uses on his canvases represents the auras of human souls. As he tells Circe Berman:

The whole magical thing about our painting, Mrs. Berman, and this was old stuff in music, but it was brand new in painting: it was pure essence of human wonder, and wholly apart from food, from sex, from clothes, from houses, from drugs, from cars, from news, from money, from crime, from punishment, from games, from war, from peace—and surely apart from the universal human impulse among painters and plumbers alike toward inexplicable despair and self-destruction!

For Karabekian, his work represents simultaneously the essence of the human soul as well as a transcendency from the earthy needs and pleasures of the human body. Abstract expressionism, which departed from the literal visual transcription of objects, thus presented a form that was capable of expressing ideas and concepts that could not be articulated through classical artistic forms. Therefore, this statement illustrates how Karabekian believed that the human soul was something that could only be expressed through art by accessing visual styles which surpassed the limits of photorealism.

Another central event in the book is the concealment and ultimate uncovering of the contents of the potato barn. Initially, Karabekian refuses to allow anyone else inside—he even refuses to articulate its contents to the readers of his autobiography (at least initially). It is through this secret that the title of the novel, Bluebeard, becomes evocative of the eponymous folktale. In the story of Bluebear, which originated in the seventeenth century, a wealthy nobleman named Bluebeard marries a young bride but refuses to allow her to enter one room in his great estate. Compelled to discover the room's secret, Bluebeard's wife eventually gains access to the room—only to discover the rotting corpses of Bluebeard's many previous wives who have all been murdered. The novel therefore, in evoking this story, imbues Karabekian's secret with a sinister undertone.

However, when the contents of the barn are eventually revealed, the bodies that are hidden in the artist's studio are instead painted on a canvas: an enormous painting of Karabekian's wartime experience titled Now It's the Women's Turn, which is his magnum opus. Berman eventually reflects on Karabekian's refusal to let anyone see this incredible piece and tells him that "concealment" and his talent as a photorealistic artist are the overwhelming characteristics of his life:

"That's the bedrock of your life, to hear you tell it," she said. "That and camouflage. You were no good as a commercial artist, and you were no good as a serious artist, and you were no good as a husband or a father, and your great collection of paintings is an accident. But you keep coming back to one thing you're proud of: you could really draw."

In this statement, Berman epitomizes the central aspect of Karabekian's paradoxical artistic nature: while he is drawn with great interest toward abstract expressionism, his real talent lies in his ability to produce incredibly realistic images. Thus, his "concealment" of this incredible work can be understood to be born out of shame—Karabekian's shame that his greatest work is not abstract but is instead the pinnacle of realism. As she makes this uncompromising criticism, Karabekian concedes that he must at last accept his deficiencies as well as his accomplishments, and by making this concession he is thus able to, in a way, begin his life again. He confides in the reader:

A good subtitle for this book might be this: Confessions of an Armenian Late Bloomer or Always the Last to Learn.

Thus, as Karabekian reflects on his past and his present, he comes to understand how his trajectory as an artist has been shaped by the experiences of his life, and how his own talent has restricted the kinds of expression that he thought himself capable of. Karabekian functions allegorically as Bluebeard in the way that he compartmentalizes one part of his life—the area where he creates his greatest art—from the rest of his world, which is overwhelmingly characterized by abstract expressionism. His "secret" is spurned by the fear and the guilt over the way that this expression of his "soul" will impact the rest of his life. It is only by opening the door and bridging the two realms that he achieves a sense of peace and wholeness, finally attaining some semblance of self-respect as an artist.

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