Summary and Analysis
PART I Chapter 3. Park Avenue
Theo is forced to confront his situation: His mother is dead, his father is absent, and he needs a place to stay. Fearing that he will be placed in foster care, he tells the social workers that he can stay with Andy Barbour, a friend and classmate of his; the Barbours take him into their home on Park Avenue.
Theo attempts to get on with his life, but physically, mentally, and emotionally he is unwell and struggling to get acclimated to his new circumstances. Mrs. Barbour runs interference for him with the social workers. Theo finds comfort in Andy’s companionship. Theo returns to school and tries, unsuccessfully, to rekindle his masochistic-like relationship with Tom Cable.
Two investigators question Theo at his school, and because he has taken The Goldfinch, he is anxious about their inquiries. He finds the ring the old man gave him and can’t remember their conversation, but he carries it in his pocket, hoping to make a connection or remember its significance. The practical matter of his mother’s apartment, her belongings, and his need to go there to get what he needs hangs over his head, causing him further emotional discomfort. The question of what is going to happen to him in the long run continues to be an issue as well.
Mr. Barbour speaks to Andy and Theo about sailing, making plans to go over the summer. Andy tells Theo that sailing is an activity he abhors and wishes he didn’t have to go. Theo wakes up from a nightmare remembering the words, “Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the green bell”; with this information, he locates a shop with that name. When he rings the green bell, a man who calls himself Hobie greets him.
Tartt describes Theo’s pain in stark, intimate ways. His desire for his mother is compared to a drowning man craving air. He finds himself relying on Mrs. Barbour, longing for normalcy with Tom Cable, and focusing on Andy’s peculiar mannerisms as a distraction to his situation. Tartt often places the most painful or intimate thoughts and feelings within parentheses. This literary device essentially allows Theo’s pain to be contained, encapsulated, and removed from the action of the story.
The chapter is also peppered with all sorts of allusions, from crime movies to Star Trek to the art of Salvador Dalí. As Theo fights to remain sane and to attach himself to the familiar, art and culture become his salvation. This speaks to two of the overall questions of the novel: What is the value of art? How does art “place” us in the world? For Theo, the memory of being Kirk to Andy’s Spock (which is placed within parentheses, too innocent and precious to be in the main text) constructs a place of familiarity and comfort. The consistent references to paintings, movies, plays, poetry, and iconic personalities like Judy Garland create a context in which Theo understands the world and can consider surviving in it. All other touchstones of life have disappeared. His father is gone, his mother is dead, and all of his relationships have been revised or fragmented. Without analysis, understanding, or criticism, cultural references can still provide a common language between Theo and others around him. For example, when Theo is in class, he and his classmates experience Walt Whitman in the same manner; for those moments, he is no different than they are.