Last Updated on October 3, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1143
Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch begins with a feverish Theo Decker holed up in an Amsterdam hotel room. He dreams of his beloved mother, Audrey, and recalls when they lived together in New York City after being abandoned by his alcoholic father. In his retelling, a thirteen-year-old Theo and his mother visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a traveling exhibition of Dutch painting, including works by Rembrandt and his protégé Carel Fabritius, whose 1654 painting The Goldfinch is pointed out by his mother as one of her favorites.
In the gallery, Theo sees an elderly man accompanied by a beautiful redheaded girl, to whom he is instantly attracted. Shortly after, a terrorist bomb is detonated and destroys the inside of the museum. Theo survives and finds the elderly man, Welty Blackwell, badly injured and covered in rubble. In the man’s dying breaths, he asks Theo to return a ring to his business partner and urges Theo in the direction of The Goldfinch. Theo takes the painting from the debris and sneaks it out of the museum. Still stunned and whirling from the blast, Theo wanders home alone; late that night, two social workers come to the apartment to tell Theo that his mother died in the blast.
In order to avoid foster care, he goes to stay with the upper-class family of his classmate Andy Barbour in their apartment on Park Avenue. During this time, Theo locates Hobie—Welty’s partner—and returns the ring. Hobie and Welty share an antiques business, Hobart and Blackwell, in the Village, where Hobie does restorations in a workshop behind the store. Theo begins to spend time in Hobie’s shop, watching and learning the art of antiques restoration. Upstairs, in Hobie’s apartment, Welty’s niece Pippa is recovering from serious injuries she suffered during the museum bombing. Pippa endures a painful recovery both physically and mentally, and she is sedated by morphine lollipops. Despite her troubled state, Theo is enamored by Pippa and spends time with her as she recovers. The two quickly form a romantic connection, and Pippa kisses Theo before going away to live in Texas with her aunt.
After Theo stays with the Barbours for several months, his absent father, Larry, shows up unexpectedly, taking his estranged and damaged son back to Las Vegas to live with him and his girlfriend, Xandra.
In Las Vegas, Theo is left to his own devices while his father drinks and gambles. Theo meets Boris, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant, whose mother is also dead. The two become inseparable friends and spend most of their time drinking, smoking, and experimenting with illegal drugs. All this time, Theo has The Goldfinch hidden in his room and takes it out to admire from time to time. Eventually, Larry tries to unfreeze a savings account in Theo’s name. After failing to access the money, Larry dies in a drunk driving accident.
Immediately after his father’s death, Theo flees Las Vegas for New York City, riding a cross-country Greyhound bus with The Goldfinch concealed in his backpack. Before he leaves, he says goodbye to Boris and tries to convince him to come along to New York City. Boris refuses, and he gives Theo a kiss goodbye.
Back in New York City, Theo ends up staying with Hobie, who agrees to be his temporary guardian. Pippa and Theo continue their friendship during her visits from a boarding school in Switzerland. Theo is accepted to an early college program and begins to help Hobie in his workshop—and notices Hobie’s lack of attention to the retail end of the business. All the while, Theo keeps The Goldfinch wrapped in a pillow case and duct tape in a storage unit outside the city.
Eight years after returning to New York City, Theo is addicted to opiates, engaged to Kitsey Barbour, and being threatened with blackmail for selling fake antiques through Hobie’s business. During this eight-year period, Theo’s emotional baggage and anxiety over the stolen painting has led him into an expensive dependence on painkillers, fed by his lucrative and fraudulent dealings of Hobie’s restorations.
Unexpectedly, Boris shows up in New York City as a wealthy man. He tells Theo that he stole The Goldfinch during their time in Las Vegas and sold it to a ring of criminal art dealers—the painting now circles the world of underground art trafficking. Theo hasn’t unwrapped the painting since he left Las Vegas, and when Boris admits to switching it with a high school textbook when they were kids, Theo realizes that he has been horribly tricked. Boris feels guilty about stealing from his friend and asks Theo to accompany him to Amsterdam and try to recover the painting.
Theo agrees and, leaving Kitsey behind after a fight, declares his love for Pippa in a letter left outside her bedroom door, along with an expensive necklace. In Amsterdam, Theo and Boris have a violent confrontation with the dealers in possession of the painting. Theo shoots and kills a man in self-defense during the altercation, and one of the criminal dealers escapes with the painting.
After several days of waiting in his hotel room, hiding from the authorities and unable to leave the country because his passport is locked in Boris’s car, Theo is feverish from wandering around in the winter elements, looking for his hotel. On the brink of suicide, he begins to write letters to Hobie, Mrs. Barbour, Kitsey, and Pippa, and he prepares a lethal concoction of heroin and alcohol. Before he has the chance to finish the deed, however, he passes out from a fever and vividly dreams of his mother for the first time since her death; in the dream, he sees her reflection behind him in a mirror and is overcome with a sense of relief.
Theo wakes up on Christmas morning and finally hears from Boris. Boris has turned the art dealers over to a special police force, receiving a handsome reward that he shares with Theo. With the painting safely in the hands of the authorities, Theo returns to New York City to face the aftermath of his shady dealings in Hobie’s business.
Theo explains everything to Hobie and vows to recover the false antiques Theo has sold to patrons around the world. Hobie tells Theo that The Goldfinch was Welty’s favorite painting, which explains why he pointed to it just before dying. Pippa confesses that although she loves Theo, she feels incapable of being with him because of the traumatic past they share.
The story ends with Theo explaining that he has written all of this out over the years, detailing his life in journals and letters and ultimately compiling them into the pages of the book.
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