What are the themes of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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About The GoldfinchBooklist comments,

Tartt’s trenchant, defiant, engrossing, and rocketing novel conducts a grand inquiry into the mystery and sorrow of survival, beauty and obsession, and the promise of art.

A modern bildungsroman, The Goldfinch has themes of Dickensian proportion in the angsts and joys of maturation, as well as the promise of the aesthetic. For, the painting that Theo, the protagonist, steals from the bombed art museum becomes for him an inspiration, a reminder of his mother who died in the museum bombing-“Everything came alive in her company; she cast a charmed theatrical light”- and it leads him into several conflicts and the underworld of art.

This modern-day Oliver Twist is in search of stability in his life and shares some similar experiences such as being whisked away from his former life by his gambler father, a Fagin-like exploiter. He meets Boris and lives a life of instability and danger; however, throughout the narrative, the trope of the painting "this lonely little captive," provides Theo the impetus to continue his memory of his beloved mother and find himself. For, Theo observes,

The painting was the still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate.

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namurda's profile pic

namurda | In Training Educator

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The Goldfinch is, first and foremost, a Bildungsroman qualified as Dickensian by literary critics:

Ms. Tartt is adept at harnessing all the conventions of the Dickensian novel — including startling coincidences and sudden swerves of fortune

Indeed, Tartt draws her inspiration from the English author as one can easily notice similarities between their work (especially with the blatant references to Great Expectations).

Still, unlike Dickens, The Goldfinch's author does not offer a true possibility of redemption to her protagonist. The novel is very dark and expresses a determinist outlook on society, mostly influenced by Theo Decker's alienation. In this regard, the themes of death, loss and disenchantment are very much exposed in the story.

However, the importance of art is what truly defines the novel. Having lost his mother during a bombing attack in a museum, Theo's conservation of Fabritius' work of art prevents him from actually starting his mourning process. The painting becomes his protective amulet and prevents him from leaving his innocence behind. After its loss, Theo becomes himself an artist, finding in the writing of his memoirs a effective way to reflect on his past.

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