The Goldfinch At a Glance
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a complex story about Theodore “Theo” Decker, a young boy who suffers the loss of his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Disoriented during the attack, he takes the masterpiece The Goldfinch; this, along with the death of his mother, becomes the catalyst for a decade of adventure, sorrow, mystery, and redemption for Theo. As Theo matures, his mother’s absence and the presence of the painting prompt him to make extreme choices—even to the point of risking his life and safety. However, his tremendous vulnerability creates an opportunity for him to become incredibly strong, and all of the action culminates in a final shootout and forced exile in Amsterdam, followed by Theo’s temporary return to New York City before he sets out to travel the world. Throughout Theo’s adventures, the novel explores the meaning and purpose of art as well as love, friendship, and the pain of loss.
Written by: Donna Tartt
Type of Work: Fiction
Genre: Bildungsroman (“coming of age”)
First Published: 2013
Settings: New York City; Las Vegas; Amsterdam
Main Characters: Theodore “Theo” Decker; Boris Pavlikovsky; James “Hobie” Hobart
Major Thematic Topics: Forced maturity; the value of art; love; the definition of family; self-awareness
The three most important aspects of The Goldfinch: Throughout the book, Tartt explores the tension between adolescence and maturity. While Theo is only a boy when his story begins, he experiences a sudden transition to adulthood. The horrific death of his mother causes him to come of age in a moment of pain, violence, and loss rather than safety or security. He is forced to adopt survival tactics, beginning with his need to be accepted by the Barbours, a potential adoptive family. However, Theo’s relationships illustrate that this forced maturity is not mutually exclusive of childhood. Stranded in Las Vegas with his alcoholic father and his father’s young girlfriend, Theo’s friendship with a boy named Boris becomes his lifeline: an opportunity to leave behind childish things while clinging to that very childhood. The two boys play, cuddle, and misbehave like children much younger than themselves but also drink and experiment with drugs. Pippa—whom Theo first encountered in the museum just before the explosion—is simultaneously always and never truly a child; she is unable to function as other adults do. This recurring theme of arrested development and forced maturity is the common bond between Theo, Boris, and Pippa, and creates a definitive melancholy and grit within the overall narrative.
Tartt analyzes the value of art throughout the novel. She defines it in a variety of ways through Theo’s ever-changing relationship with the masterpiece The Goldfinch. The paradox of The Goldfinch is that it is both priceless and worthless: A stolen masterwork cannot be bought or sold on the open market, and Theo finds that the simple possession of it puts him in harm’s way. However, the existence of the painting holds tremendous personal value to him because of its connection to his mother, its connection to the day of the terrorist attack, and its value as something so intimate and beautiful in a life wrought with pain and confusion. After Theo discovers that Boris has stolen the painting, its financial value is more clearly revealed. Using it as collateral, Boris discovers a way to profit from the painting. He and Theo are vindicated and freed by returning the painting and collecting a large reward, financing their futures and repaying Theo’s debts. Beyond the financial worth of the painting is the significance it holds historically, which Theo’s mother briefly details right before her death: The artist was Rembrandt’s pupil and Vermeer’s teacher. Much later Theo credits his mother with teaching him aesthetic value: the idea that a painting can simply be beautiful without having any financial or historical value. Ultimately, how the characters value art and what impact it has on their lives signify their stances on life, love, and beauty.
Love lost, love thwarted, love betrayed, and love unrequited are recurring themes as Theo finds himself at the mercy of others’ whims and emotions. He falls in love with Pippa before the explosion but is unsure what to make of his feelings. He calculates his actions regarding her so that he can enjoy her company without revealing his true feelings and destroying their relationship. Juxtaposed to Theo’s relationship with Pippa is his relationship with Kitsey, which is convenient and easy. The confrontation that occurs when he discovers Kitsey’s affair reveals their lack of passion but the possibility of a companionate love that will allow them to maintain a pleasant life together. When Theo and Boris are intimate with each other, their intimacy is an expression of love that is not romantic. The two boys are desperately seeking physical attention that is not violent or cruel: Their affection for each other cements their relationship as one of incredible intimacy and truth.