Kurt Vonnegut's Version of the Fairytale Bluebeard: Writing About Writing for People Who Don't Read
Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most prolific if not best American writers of the second half of the twentieth century, first earned a reputation for himself as a science-fictionist with his early works, The Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle. This reputation, however much it vastly underestimates and misunderstands Vonnegut’s work and its significance to the modern era, has been difficult for Vonnegut to escape. It does, however, provide insight into the aspects of the modern situation that Vonnegut sees as central and meaningful. Bluebeard, which trades a more traditionally Vonnegut mad scientist for a retired, eccentric expressionist painter, the same painter from Breakfast of Champions, tackles the issues which have traditionally blurred Vonnegut’s role in the literary and popular fiction traditions.
Perhaps more than any other post-modern author, Vonnegut has thoughtfully tackled why post-modernism, as a reflection of its time, has confused or even destroyed the lines that have traditionally separated high art from low art, things such as literature from things such as science fiction. One of the many tasks Vonnegut undertakes in Bluebeard is not only to accurately reflect his time in history, but also to depict the unique challenges that writing about his time presents the writer. In the process, Vonnegut also reveals the often hidden significance in such difficulties. This essay will illustrate how Vonnuget’s successful completion of this task within the novel demonstrates Bluebeard’s worthiness of the designation American Literature.
Bluebeard, being the mock-autobiography of an elderly, wealthy and retired expressionist painter, Rabo Karabekian, presents its fictional author with many of the challenges Vonnegut himself has faced. As critics have noted, many charges characters within the novel bring against Karabekian’s fictional narrative “are similar to claims Kurt Vonnegut’s own innovative fiction has had to answer” (Klinkowitz, Fact 129). Other critics have noted that in Bluebeard, Vonnegut “revisits the major themes of his earlier novels,” that are the themes Vonnegut sees as central, such as, “the question of personal identity, the role of the artist in society…the American class system, and the physical and emotional costs of war” (Marvin 135). Others have pointed out that Vonnegut’s musings in Bluebeard raise “the perennial issue of what art is” (Morse 136). An understanding of Bluebeard as a fictional representation of Vonnegut’s career and its exploration of what art is, creates a foundation that enriches the story as being not only about it’s time, but also about the process of writing about it.
This in itself is too complex of an issue to be treated fully in an essay of this length, therefore this essay will limit its inquiry to one aspect of the unique difficulties Vonnegut has confronted in Bluebeard, in an effort to illustrate to the reader how each and every aspect within the novel could be as thoroughly examined with insights just as rewarding. For the purpose of brevity, this essay will concentrate on the task of writing for an audience who has not, “heard of anything that wasn’t on TV less than a week ago” (Vonnegut 93).
This particular challenge of writing literature is symbolized within the novel by the narrator’s cook’s daughter, Celeste, who in the narrator’s words, “does no work…but simply lives here and eats my food, and entertains her loud and willfully ignorant friends on my tennis courts and in my swimming pool” (Vonnegut 8). Celeste, a typical fifteen year old, owns every book by popular fictionist, Polly Madison. Polly is a pseudonym for one of the novel’s other major character, Circe Berman. Polly Madison’s books are “young adult novels in the manner of Judy Bloom” (Klinkowitz, Fact 129). Celeste also, much to the horror of the narrator, “although only fifteen, already takes birth-control pills” (Vonnegut 37). Critics have understood “the crowd of inert youth who hang around Rabo’s pool [as] a product of [television] culture” (Rampton par. 5).
Throughout the novel, at different points, Rabo approaches the teenagers to ask them what they think about certain things, and almost always Rabo is appalled by their lack of knowledge or even interest in anything at all. Rabo confides in his autobiography that, “the young people of today seemed to be trying to get through life with as little information as possible” (Vonnegut 99). He later laments to Circe Berman that, “they don’t even know…what a Gorgon is,” to which Circe responds, “all that anybody needs to know about a Gorgon…is that there is no such thing” (Vonnegut 99-100).
 Within the text Rabo also expresses concern that no one knows about other key cultural artifacts including The Shroud of Turin (285), Bluebeard, Truman Capote, Irwin Shaw (50-51), Mathematics (1), Empress Josephine and Booth Tarkington (99), etc.
The disparity between Rabo’s disdain at the loss of literary and ancient knowledge, and Circe’s matter-of-fact dismissal of such knowledge as useless and therefore trivial, is an insightful depiction of the modern situation. How is one to write when the audience not only does not recognize a character like Circe’s name, and cannot identify it as an allusion to The Odyssey and the witch who could charm any man into a beast, but they have the mindset that such knowledge is useless? This is one of the central crux’s Vonnegut has faced head on in Bluebeard. He has given both popular culture and literary tradition a voice. This tension can be seen in all works of postmodernism, in their tendency to allude to popular culture rather than literary tradition. Can one honestly write serious literature, following canonical traditions of literary allusion and intellectually dense texts, when one’s time does not acknowledge the significance of such an endeavor? Vonnegut does not give simple answers to this tension, but rather explores its ramifications on the process of writing.
This is not the only example of a concern over the break in knowledge in contemporary culture that makes the Polly Madison’s of American best sellers, while at the same time diminishes the audience that is even capable of understanding high-minded fiction. Even the name Polly Madison, by alluding to the name of a popular bakery, alludes to the commercial nature of the culture that has no need for ancient knowledge. This begs the question, if allusions like this to popular culture better depict the time and represent it to the reader, is not an author concerned with authenticity obligated to use them? Vonnegut takes both sides of the argument in the novel by way of Circe and Rabo, and the novel becomes more a novel that debates writing about the modern age, rather than simply a novel about the modern age. In recording the tension between the process of writing for high-culture or low-culture, Vonnegut effectively does both, and shows that a true representation of postmodernism must do both if it hopes to “draw everything the way it really is” (Vonnegut 148).
It is this understanding of the essential inability of modernity to reconcile itself with a past it cannot deny, that marks Bluebeard as Vonnegut in clear command of his facility, and fully matured in his understanding of what it means to be American in the second half of the twentieth century. This inability of high culture and low culture to reconcile themselves is evidenced in the lack of critical appreciation for Vonnegut. It is also evidenced in Circe Berman’s inability to appreciate Rabo’s distress over the loss of literary heritage. The seeming incompatibility works both ways.
To more fully understand the significance of the two view points represented by these two characters, the nature of their relationship becomes increasingly important. Rabo, besides being an expressionist painter and collector, fought in World War II, Like Vonnegut, and in many ways was haunted by the war. Circe, on the other hand, has just lost her husband and is vacationing along the coast while writing a biography about her recently deceased husband, who was a doctor. The two meet on Rabo’s private beach, which Circe had wandered into. As critics have noted, “[Circe’s] manner brings her immediately into [Rabo’s] life—not for a sexual relationship but for something far less casual, as it involves a full revision of his value system, aesthetic and moral alike” (Klinkowitz, Effect 136). Circe, being nearly 20 years younger than Rabo, brings a youthfulness and freshness that Rabo identifies as specifically post World War II. She convinces Rabo to write his autobiography, which results in the text of Bluebeard. So, in a very real way to the internal structure of the novel, the novel itself is a product of the marriage of high and low culture, which reinforces such a marriage as the essential image of the post-modern situation.
The nature of their relationship is also defined by Vonnegut’s use of the Bluebeard fairy tale. In the novel, Rabo has a huge potato barn that is his painting studio. “Right after my wife died, I personally nailed the doors…and immobilized [them]…with six big padlocks and massive hasps,” Rabo writes (43). When Circe’s incessantly curious nature demands to know what is inside Rabo’s potato barn, he snaps and says, “Look: think about something else, anything else. I am Bluebeard, and my studio is my forbidden chamber as far as you’re concerned” (51). This represents, despite the two position’s philosophical marriage in Rabo’s act of writing, the essential gap between the traditions of high art and popular culture. Rabo has secret places where either Circe cannot, or he will not let her go. This image is strengthened by the curiosity on Circe’s part about that which is forbidden her.
The complexity of this relationship, and the obvious tensions and harmonies between the two characters, serves to reinforce an interpretation of the novel as the process of writing about the difficulties in recording the modern era. The significance is that, as the novel suggests, these difficulties stem from a television mindset that is a mindset where “too many…citizens imagine that they belong to a much higher civilization somewhere else. That…doesn’t have to be another country. It can be the past instead…This state of mind allows too many of us to lie and cheat and steal from the rest of us, to sell us junk and addictive poisons and corrupting entertainments” (Vonnegut 190). If this is the modern situation, Vonnegut is right in saying the modern situation is a situation struggling with awareness of itself as much as anything else. The awareness of the break between modernity and the past is as much a part of modernity as the commercialized Polly Madison children on birth control.
This is one of Vonnegut’s many triumphs in Bluebeard. So many more aspects of the novel complement and are complemented by this aspect of Bluebeard that it seems essential to illustrate at least one such relationship. The novel also explores the nature of abstract expressionism, and as might be supposed, Circe Berman and Rabo Karabekian have quite different views on the art form. While Rabo argues that his vast canvases of one or two colors are important because, “if I started laying on just one color of paint to a huge canvas, I could make the whole world drop away” (Vonnegut 154), Circe condemns the abstract expressionists saying, “It was the last conceivable thing a painter could do to a canvas, so you did it…leave it to Americans to write ‘The End’” (Vonnegut 254). In essence, they are both recognizing the fact that abstract expressionism has nothing to do with reality, but while Circe abhors its disconnectedness, Rabo takes shelter in it. This illustrates another tension within the modern mind. This tension is parallel with and informed by tension between literary tradition and popular culture already discussed. It is specifically this: what is the attitude of modernity towards reality? Escapism, Indifference, Optimism, and other answers come to mind, but Vonnegut goes to the underlying issue, which is that the modern situation is better characterized by tensions between different philosophies and social forces, rather than attempting to define it rigidly one way or another.
This brings to question, are any such evaluations, records, fictions, or histories that do not present the tension of forces that inform the social, moral, artistic, and individual choices, preferences, and attitudes accurate or valid? Vonnegut’s work leads us to such a reprisal of literature before it. This places it at the heart of the innovative spirit that defines all great American literature. Bluebeard, being both central to Vonnegut, and at the same time innovative, is also at the heart of Vonnegut’s literature, and while the argument should not be made for any one novel’s elevation in a body of work as large and creative as Vonnegut’s, Bluebeard must be seen as Vonnegut in his most insightful, entertaining, and mature style. Therefore, if any of Vonnegut’s previous works have given him the claim to a serious literary career, Bluebeard cements that claim.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. The Vonnegut Effect. Columbia: South Carolina, 2004.
---. Vonnegut in Fact. Columbia: South Carolina, 1998.
Marvin, Thomas F. Kurt Vonnegut: A Critical Companion. Westport: Greenwood, 2002.
Morse, Donald E. The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Westport: Greenwood, 2003.
Rampton, David. “Into the secret chamber: art and the artist in Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Bluebeard’.” CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 35 (1993): 16-27.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Bluebeard. New York: Dell,1987.