Last Updated on March 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942
In Bluebeard, the protagonist Rabo Karabekian struggles with the creation of what he calls "soulful art." Although he has produced art since he was a teenager up until the present, Rabo begins his autobiography by stating that he is only an art "collector," though a very good one. This insecurity concerning his own ability to produce meaningful art was initially spurred by his mentor, Dan Gregory, who praised his technical skill but stated that Rabo's work lacked soul.
Thus, throughout his entire career, Rabo qualifies his contribution to the world of abstract art by claiming that he is a "collector" rather than a producer of abstract art. Even though he is skilled at this collection, it is clear that he is pained by his perceived lack of ability to contribute his own work to a field of expression he is so passionate about.
However, at the end of the novel, when the painting in the potato barn is eventually revealed to the world, it turns out to be a masterwork: a soulful representation of his painful experiences from the war. Borne out of the intense grief that he experienced following his second wife's death, the painting of his wartime experiences reveals how soulful art must be mined out of the depths of what is deeply personal. Moreover, rather than being abstract, the painting was done in the photorealistic style that Rabo excelled in. Thus, by completing his life's triumph in this style, he ultimately overcomes the scathing criticism that Gregory delivered to him as a teenager—proving that this style could exhibit the same soul and depth as abstract expressionism.
Racism and the Immigrant Experience
As Rabo relates his story, readers learn a lot about his family and culture. Rabo is a first generation Armenian American, born in the early 20th century. His mother and father narrowly escaped Turkey during the Armenian genocide. They then settled in San Ignacio, California, but their lives were not significantly improved by this change, and Rabo's father still struggled to earn a living to support his family. Because of his racial identity, Rabo's father is consistently denied better work opportunities, a situation that is only exacerbated by the onset of the Great Depression. Despite being a teacher back in Turkey, the only work he can find is as a cobbler.
The hardness of Rabo's father's life takes its toll on him. Nearly massacred in Turkey, swindled into buying a piece of property in America that did not exist, forced into a demeaning profession in an unwelcoming country without a supportive community, and finally suffering the loss of his wife to illness—the unceasing tragedy of his life proves to be too much after this final loss, and he goes slightly mad.
While in some instances the family's Armenian identity seems to be an asset—for example when they solicit Dan Gregory, who is also Armenian, to accept Rabo as his apprentice—their overall experience of race in early twentieth century proved to be restricting to their social capacities, and it severely limited their ability to escape the destitute situation they found themselves in. Rabo is constantly reminded of his "otherness," and while he comes to accept it with a wry sense of humor, it is clear that this consistent social stigma became inextricable from his perception of himself and his feelings of self-worth.
Modernity versus History
In his old age, Rabo is perplexed and annoyed by young people. He establishes this annoyance by observing his cook's teenage daughter, Celeste, who he believes does not and cannot remember anything that did not appear on television within the past week. Furthermore, he is horrified when he learns that she is taking birth-control pills, perceiving this act as proof of the moral bankruptcy and sexual degeneracy of the younger generation.
Later in the novel, Rabo also encounters the young writer Circe Berman, and although she also annoys him, he eventually befriends her and invites her to stay at his large house for the summer. It is revealed that she writes young adult novels under the pen name Polly Madison, and coincidentally, Celeste owns all of her books. While Rabo understands her works to be a sad reflection of the trivial affairs of the young that hold no true knowledge or experience, Berman contradicts him and questions his assertion that "ancient knowledge" is important. She even defends teenagers' lack of knowledge about history. When a literary friend tries to defend Rabo's point of view by quoting the old axiom, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," she argues:
"Is that a fact?" she said. "Well . . . we're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive. It's pretty dense kids who haven't figured that out by the time they're ten."
Thus, there is a central tension in the novel—between Rabo's obsession with history and the past, which alienates him from the present, and the Berman's and Celeste's obsession with the present and the future, which alienates them from the past. This tension ultimately leads Rabo to struggle with his own feelings of inadequacy and irrelevance: his fear that he will be forgotten and made obsolete by the modern world. He constantly wonders if anything he has done as an artist has made any kind of difference in the world. Celeste and Berman seem unable to empathize with his despair through their disregard for the past, but Rabo's obsession with the past also leads him to stubbornly disregard the modern world, making him anachronistic. Ultimately, the tension is never resolved, leaving the reader to contemplate the benefits and drawbacks of both positions.