The Blazing World Summary & Study Guide

Siri Hustvedt
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The Blazing World Summary & Study Guide Description

The Blazing World Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

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The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt is a tour de force novel chronicling the ficticious life, love, and work of Harriet Burden, an artist whose lack of recognition fueled her desire to lash out at the art world.

The novel begins with an Editor's Note, which is part of the overall work and is not a true editor's note. I.V. Hess reveals himself/herself as the author of the book, The Blazing World, and states that he/she has compiled the work based on the fact that he/she stumbled across a reference to an artist that Hess had little information for. Hess contacted Harriet Burden's family who graciously offered to speak with Hess. Unfortunately, Burden, herself, had passed away from cancer two years previously and was not available to be interviewed. However, her children, Ethan and Maisie Lord, produced nearly 25 journals/notebooks that their mother had kept over the years. The gender of Hess is never disclosed. Reasons for this become clear throughout the reading of the novel.

In this section the reader is introduced to Harriet Burden Lord, whose husband, Felix, a prominent art dealer, has died the year before. Now, recovered from his death, Harriet, who has reclaimed her maiden name of Burden, and has dropped her dead husband's last name of Lord, has entered a frenzied creative phase. She writes that she has been creating dolls and fetishes, all of them seemingly phallic in nature. The reader learns that Harriet has a brilliant mind and has always been a talented artist, but that her art was never promoted or supported by her husband, Felix.

Cynthia Clark is interviewed by Hess in order to gain perspective on Harriet. Clark shares that she only had a few limited encounters with Burden, but that she was never all that impressed by her work or her personality. She had dinner a few times with the Lords, and that at one particular dinner party, Harriet had ranted and raved about philosophy. Clark was sure that it been some sort of mental lapse.

Maisie Lord, Harriet's daughter, is interviewed by Hess. The reader learns that in the year following her father's death, that her mother moved from their lavish Manhattan residence to a renovated warehouse in Red Hook in Brooklyn. Maisie states that the upper floors were living quarters with many rooms and that the entire bottom floor was studio and gallery space. Then, Maisie shares, her mother began collecting strays. The reader is introduced to one of those strays whose name is Alan Dudek, but preferred to be called Barometer. He suffers from acute paranoid schizophrenia, but is also a brilliant and tortured artist. Maisie expresses her concern at the arrangement when Harriet gives Barometer one of the rooms in the vast warehouse to sleep in. Harriet, Maisie shares, told Maisie that Barometer was harmless and that he was helping her keep the place running, since Harriet, herself was in her early sixties.

The novel shifts back to more excerpts from Notebook C where Harriet continues to speak about her phallic art. She speaks to the fact that many of the pieces, some of them life-sized remind her of her late husband, Felix. She adds a warmth element to some of the large pieces, so that the artwork, when touched feels warm, as if it is alive, but frozen. The reader learns more about Felix and the lengths that he went to in order to suppress and oppress Harriet's talent and art. The reader learns that Harriet had some early success in the seventies, but that after she married Felix all of it went away.

An interview with Oswald Case introduces the reader to the snobbery that is indicative of the art scene. Case, a self aggrandizing art journalist and gossip columnist tells Hess that he first covered A History of the Western World, the first exhibit attributed to Burden posthumously. He downplays the contribution of the piece to the art world and states that he does not agree with the critics who state that Burden created the piece on her own, using Tish as the front man. It is evident that Case is an egotist.

The reader meets Rachel Briefman, who is also interviewed. Rachel has been Harriet's best friend since they were 12 years old. She states that she has agreed to contribute to the book out of love and respect for her friend. She provides the reader with insight into the formative events in Burden's early childhood that may have lead to the often bizarre and eccentric behavior of her adulthood.

Notebook A is introduced to the reader, and contains mostly autobiographical information that shows the reader how she decided to use men as her fronts to show her art work. She meets Anton Tish in a local bar called Sunnys, and gives him a place to stay. She eventually talks him into becoming her first 'mask'. The reader learns that the art world has suppressed and underrepresented females for centuries and that Harriet has assigned herself the task of righting the wrongs for all of them.

Harriet creates the first work, The History of the Western World, and it meets with great acclaim. The work includes a naked venus in repose with various objects and written phrases on the body. Nearby are small diorama boxes, which she calls empathy boxes. In her journals she gloats and laughs at the establishment and their antics. Anton is immediately the golden boy of the art world and the reader sees him deftly avoiding any serious questions posed to him by various interviewers. However, the partnership sours as Anton realizes that his own true artwork has been sidelined and he feels as if he has lost himself. He tells Harriet, whom the reader learns goes by the nickname, Harry, that he is leaving.

The reader meets the next 'mask', named Phineas Q. Eldridge. Phinny is a black, gay man that Harriet meets while in Sunnys. It is only a matter of time before she pitches the idea of Phinny being her next front man. Phinny readily accepts because as a gay man he has also endured his own form of prejudice and suppression. He is only too willing to help continue the ruse. They create a huge interpretive art piece called The Suffocation Room. It is met with rave reviews and Phinny is skyrocketed to fame. They both share many laughs about the antics of the art world. After a year or so, Phinny moves on as he falls in love with someone and they live happily ever after in Argentina.

The reader learns through Notebooks O, T, U, and others that Felix was often cruel to Harriet in their marriage, having numerous affairs, remaining emotionally unavailable to her. The reader also sees that Harriet was a loving and dedicated mother to her small children and that she turned her creative abilities into raising them for a good deal of her marriage to Felix. Her discovery of a note from one of Felix's lovers shakes her world and allows her to confirm her suspicions about him, but she feels unable to leave him, even when she confronts him and he does not bother to deny his infidelities. There are keys to apartments and places that she has never been. For the time being she resigns herself to existing.

She becomes very ill and can't stop throwing up. After a series of doctors she is told that physically she is well. She is referred to Dr. Ferig, a psychoanalyst who tells her that it is never too late to change things, to become who one wants to be. The vomiting stops almost overnight. Harriet continues to see him until her death many years later. The reader also sees Harry find love, again, and maybe true love for the first time. She meets a struggling poet named Bruno. He is her age and adores her for who she is.

Rune Larsen is the last 'mask' that Harriet uses. Unfortunately, his celebrity hid his darker nature and proclivities. After he assisted Harriet in producing a piece called Beneath, Harriet was ready, at long last, to make the big reveal....that she had produced all of the work over the last five years that all of the art world had been amazed by. Unfortunately, Rune turns the tables on Harriet and refuses to state that anyone other than himself created the work. She is furious and begins a campaign to discredit him. This backfires on her and paints her as a lunatic.

Saddened, angry, and humiliated, Harriet pulls herself together and begins a huge campaign to establish the fact that she was the creator of the various works. Anton and Phinny both come forward and agree that they did not create the works. However, Rune remains staunchly firm in his convictions and continues to paint Harry as a crazy, lonely, slightly psychotic woman artist whose desire to be famous was unobtainable due to her lack of talent.

Unfortunately, Harriet's health takes a turn for the worse and she is diagnosed with cancer. Slightly after a drastic surgery that removed all of her reproductive organs, Harry learns that Rune has died while creating his next art piece. Even in his death, which many thought was a suicide, he has managed to stab Harry in the back. His newest work included and incorporated elements from their earlier work, Beneath, thus convincing the art world that he was the one responsible for Beneath.

Harry dies an agonizing death, and does not achieve the recognition that she felt she deserved. However, two years after her death, Hess writes, her work was reevaluated and light was shed on the nature of the work. At the time of publication of The Blazing World, Harriet's work had been selected for a showing at a prestigious gallery in Manhattan. After her death she achieved what she'd worked a lifetime for.

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