Summary and Analysis
PART I Chapter 1. Boy with a Skull
Theo reflects on his time in an Amsterdam hotel, alone and hiding from authorities. Ill with fever, he dreams of his mother, which leads him to recount the day that his mother was killed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While at the museum, they view a painting of a boy holding a skull and then move on to view The Goldfinch, a masterpiece that is Theo’s mother’s favorite painting. Theo recalls photos of his mother as a child, thinking that she physically resembled the bird in the painting.
Theo’s mother leaves Theo to go view the painting The Anatomy Lesson; he stays behind because he spots a young girl, whom he’s attracted to, accompanied by an older man. While Theo and his mother are apart, a bomb explodes, and Theo is knocked unconscious. When he regains consciousness, disoriented, he finds himself by the older man and sees The Goldfinch in the rubble. In his confusion, Theo picks up the painting to show to his mother and realizes that she is not with him. Dying, the older man places a ring in Theo’s hand and tells him “Hobart and Blackwell” and to ring the green bell.
In his traumatized state, Theo leaves the museum with the painting. Corpses and destruction are everywhere. He returns to the apartment he shares with his mother, hoping to meet her there.
Tartt titles this chapter “Boy with a Skull” as a reference to Theo. His mother compares the boy in the painting to Theo, teasing Theo that he and the boy look alike, but Tartt’s comparison of Theo and the boy holding the skull is more macabre. Theo’s experience of losing his mother and witnessing death and destruction will soon jolt him from a place of simple innocence to a world of death and uncertainty. The skull represents death (foreshadowing Theo’s mother’s own death in this chapter) and the possibility of pointless destruction for Theo. Theo’s mother’s death will influence all of his choices and experiences.
This chapter also foreshadows Theo’s experiences in Amsterdam and alludes to young Theo’s future of chaos, mystery, and crime. His fate is one of running to and from disaster, without anyone to assist him. His deadbeat father abandons him before the novel begins, his mother dies, the older man dies, and when Theo finally makes his way out of the museum, none of the first responders attend to him or answer his questions. This long list of initial experiences emphasizes just how alone Theo will be, on his own, with no one coming to help him.
The chapter begins the exploration of the value of art. The Goldfinch is the first painting Theo’s mother ever loved and led to her career in art. Theo notes that in pictures he has seen of his mother as a child, she resembled the goldfinch in the painting. The painting symbolizes an intimacy between Theo’s memories of his mother and the painting itself. When Theo takes the painting, he does so as if he is taking his mother with him. The goldfinch in the painting is chained to its perch much like Theo chains his mother to his memory after her death and Theo, himself, will seem chained to his chaotic future. The painting represents the last safe, sacred moment of art influencing his life in a positive way. After this moment, art becomes something much more complicated for Theo.