Last Reviewed on March 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666
Bluebeard is a fictional autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, an Armenian-American artist, who is penning the work at the behest of his friend and intellectual antagonist, Circe Berman. By reflecting on his life and by examining his experiences with Circe, Karabekian comes to accept his place in the world, embracing both his failures and accomplishments as an artist.
At the start of the novel, Karabekian relates all of the tragedy and darkness that has characterized most of his life experiences up until this point. He ends his narration of these events with the refrain:
"So be it! So be it!" I cry in this manicured wilderness. "Who gives a damn!" Excuse this outburst.
This quote demonstrates not only Karabekian's attempt to reconcile himself with the many disappointments of his life, but also his inherently apologetic nature, which compels him to depreciate his own feelings of frustration and despair. He asks "who gives a damn" as an attempt to allay the shame of the failures of his career as well as in his personal relationships. He not only considers himself a failed artist but also a failed husband and father. By regarding his failure as something that doesn't matter to anyone, he seems to have developed a coping mechanism for his overwhelming feelings of inadequacy—if his failure isn't significant to anyone else, it lessens the burden of his failure. Ironically, this crutch for dealing with his emotional distress only serves to heighten his feelings of inadequacy and the depression he feels therein.
Central to Karabekian's transformation toward self-acceptance in the novel is his relationship with Circe Berman. When they first meet, after he says hello to her, she answers:
This was her curious reply: "Tell me how your parents died."
Berman, without knowing anything about Karabekian, gets right to the heart of his personal distress: the loss of friends and family, and the continual alienation that Karabekian experiences in his life. This probing question foreshadows how Berman eventually coaxes Kababekian out of his cycle of self-depreciation and persuades him to embrace the world. It is only through Berman's straightforward personality and penchant for provoking self-reflection through conflict that Karabekian eventually renews his commitment to life.
When Karabekian eventually reveals his masterwork to Berman, the image is incredibly distressing—showing absolute suffering and destruction. These painful and poignant images could only have come from the intense emotional experience that Karabekian had in World War II, and the images are at once intimate and universal. After seeing it, Berman asks what it is called:
"Does the picture have a title?" she said, rejoining me at the middle.
"Yes it does," I said.
"What is it?" she said.
And I said: " 'Now It's the Women's Turn.' "
This enigmatic title could have several possible meanings. Since the painting was completed after Karabekian's second wife's death, when he retreated into solitude, the artist could have been expressing his grief by pondering the connection between the domestic grief of a husband and the social grief of a population at war. However, the fact that the image depicts extreme violence and carnage—a state of affairs brought about by the world's leaders (who were almost categorically men)—may suggest that, if this is what the world creates when it is run by men, then perhaps women should attempt to create a better world. Since it is Berman who eventually brings about the rejuvenation of Karabekian, as he is only capable of self-destruction, this thematic element of rejuvenation (the capacity of women) and destruction (the capacity of men) lends credence to this interpretation of the painting's title.
Whatever the case, the meaning of the title is never fully elucidated, leaving the reader to contemplate the possible connections between these illustrations of individuals, wartime carnage, and the "turn of women." The painting can be understood then as symbolic of the ultimate inscrutability of masterful art; even though Karabekian's work is photorealistic, it is just as enigmatic and thought-provoking through its symbolic evasiveness as abstract expressionism.
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