What symbolism is in Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief?
Hannah Tinti grew up in Salem, Massachusetts with a strong Catholic upbringing. Both of these influences are present in The Good Thief, the story of an orphaned boy, Ren, who is taken in by a con man, Benjamin Nab, pretending to be the boy’s long-lost brother. That the character of Benjamin would bare a strong resemblance to Fagin, the criminal who takes in orphaned or lost boys in Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist is no accident. Tinti was inspired in no small part by Dickens’ stories. She was also inspired by the history of her hometown, Salem, and its legacy of witch burnings as well as by the Catholic education she received. In an interview posted on her website, Tinti discusses her affinity for the history and stories of Catholicism and how they factored into The Good Thief:
“For me, the tales of martyrs and saints always held great weight, and I tried to draw on them as I wrote Ren’s character. Saint Anthony, in particular, caught my imagination. . .Not only was he a famous storyteller, like Benjamin, but he was the saint prayed to for lost things, which fit with Ren’s missing hand. He was also involved in the resurrection: One of his miracles was raising a boy from the dead. . .As I wrote The Good Thief, Saint Anthony became my touchstone . . .”
It is no accident, then, that the orphanage where the story begins and at which Ren had been left as a very small child with one hand is named Saint Anthony’s. Ren has no knowledge or memory of his life before the orphanage, but assumes he was abandoned in no small part on account of his disability. Much of the novel involves his search for answers as to his family and the fate of his missing limb. In other words, the patron saint of lost things plays a major role in the story of a boy looking for his hand, or at least for the story of what happened to it. The symbolism inherent in Tinti’s decision to name the orphanage for this particular saint is clear.
The character of Benjamin is also fraught with symbolic meaning, in addition to his obvious debt to the character of Fagin from a much earlier work of literature. In addition to referencing her interest in Saint Anthony, Tinti also references the Biblical story of the Crucifixion, specifically, one of the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus:
“I also liked the Biblical reference to the Good Thief (also known as Saint Dismas), who was one of the men crucified with Jesus Christ on Golgotha. His story is one of redemption at the very last minute, and that suits this novel perfectly.”
In The Good Thief, the character of Dolly, a professional assassin buried alive only to be uncovered by Benjamin, Tom and Ren during their grave robbery endeavors, is resurrected as a relatively decent, productive individual with whom Ren develops a close relationship. If it is too much to suggest that Dolly represents redemption, then certainly the character of Benjamin can fit that description. Finally revealed as Ren’s father, and having left the son heretofore unknown wealth, the theme of redemption can apply to this character and his relationship to Ren, who he had, after all, saved from a childhood in the orphanage and an adulthood of social and professional rejection. Tinti, however, in response to an interviewer’s question regarding the theme of redemption and the character of Dolly had this to say:
“The whole book is a meditation on resurrection. Dolly embodies it in the physical sense -- he is literally resurrected -- and also in a more spiritual way. He is a bit of a Frankenstein, not quite of this world or the next. But returning allows him to have his first (and in my mind, only) connection with another human being, a small boy named Ren. He later saves Ren’s life, and in this way redeems a bit of his murderous past.”
Benjamin does, though, seem a candidate for redemption, in much the way another character from Dickens did: Abel Magwitch, the escaped prisoner in Great Expectations who Pip helps and who, in return, devotes his life to being Pip’s benefactor. Just as Magwitch is resurrected, so is Benjamin, only in a more metaphorical way than Dolly, who is literally raised from the dead. Tinti's choice (it was actually her mother's) of "The Good Thief" as a title for her novel is in itself symbolic of the Crucifixion and the last second redemption of that thief who saw in Jesus a more noble character. The "bad" guys in her novel are not entirely bad, just as the "good" guys, the monks running the orphanage, are far from entirely good.