Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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...
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while, Theo keepsThe 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 itto 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.
Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Little, Brown (New York). 771 pp.
Type of work: Novel
Locales: New York City, New York, and Las Vegas, Nevada
The Goldfinch builds around the powerful mystique of a painting, which provides the framework for a powerful story about human love and loss. Through it all, the reader is led to consider the timeless power of art.
At the heart of Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch (2013) is a real painting: the 1654 work by Carel Fabritius (1622–54), entitled Het Puttertje (The Goldfinch). The painting is held in the collection of the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague, Netherlands. The Goldfinch was painted by the artist shortly before he died in an explosion in Delft in 1654. Likewise, Tarrt's novel is set in motion by an explosion. The principle protagonist, Theodore "Theo" Decker, is a child of thirteen when he and his mother become victims of a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Having visited the museum to view a traveling exhibition of the Dutch masters, the two spend the last moments of their life together studying The Goldfinch. Theo survives the explosion, but his mother does not. In the confusion and trauma of the moment, the young boy flees from the disaster site, rescuing the painting as well as himself. This act, which Theo eventually comes to understand as a crime, drives the narrative arc of the novel. Several themes build over the course of story, including the nature of love (familial, romantic, and collegial), the prolonged experience of mourning, psychic trauma, and humankind's relationship with art. The form, plot, and scope of the novel all work to serve two metanarratives: the perception of truth versus illusion and the troubled character of youth in post–September 11 America.
The Goldfinch follows Theo through fourteen years after his mother's death. When Theo loses his mother in the explosion, his world falls apart. His alcoholic and abusive father had abandoned the family a year prior, disappearing after sending a goodbye postcard from Newark airport. Following his mother's death, Theo becomes a ward of the state. He is without any extended family willing to step in and take over his care. Although somewhat protected by the wealthy—and profoundly unhappy—Barbour family, whom he has known for years because of his long-term friendship with their son Andy, Theo is shaken by the profound shock of tragedy and loss. In addition, he suffers guilt and insecurity from living under auspices of state social services. Things take a turn for the worse when his father returns to take him to Las Vegas. Neglected by his father and Xandra, his father's live-in girlfriend, Theo rarely has enough to eat and is also emotionally starved. It becomes apparent that his father is an even darker and more abusive character than he first seems. The stint in Las Vegas is short and horrific. Following the death of his father, Theo returns to New York City orphaned and penniless. He takes residence with Hobie, a woodworker and antiquarian, to whom he is bound by the mutual tragedy of the explosion.
Donna Tartt's novels include The Secret History (1992), The Little Friend (2002), and The Goldfinch (2013). She received the 2003 WH Smith Literary Award in 2003 for The Little Friend.
By the time the kindly, if somewhat distant, Hobie takes over his care, Theo is already so damaged by that his life cannot resume a normal tack. Theo divides his life into "before" and "after," with his mother's death as the turning point. At its core, The Goldfinch is an exploration of Theo's post-traumatic "after." Tartt's book explores the persistence of love, loss, and memory. After losing both his parents, Theo remains bound to both his mother, whom he idealizes, and his father, of whom his memories are much more troubled. This intertwining of self and memory is demonstrated in the first pages of the book, in which Theo describes his mother in a dream—his eyes locking with those of his mother in the reflective gaze of the mirror. Much of the novel seems to exist in a dreamlike space—between the real and imagined, the present and the absent, the transcendent and the tragic.
The interplay of truth and illusion unfolds subtly over the course of the novel, with a shocking reveal toward the end of the text. Given the central significance of the painting The Goldfinch to the text, this theme is particularly appropriate. As a work of art, The Goldfinch occupies a place between illusion and realism. The painting, which features a compelling rendering of a diminutive pet bird tethered to a wooden block, has many characteristics of a trompe l'oeil work. The painting serves as the genesis for the novel's exploration of mystery, essential truth, power, and tragedy. As Theo and his mother study the work on the gallery walls, she tells him of her long relationship with the piece and confides in him, "This is the most extraordinary picture in the whole show. Fabritius is making clear something that he discovered all on his own, that no painter in the world knew before him—not even Rembrandt." Yet, the novel is narrated in the first person by Theo, and in this passage, the reader is denied the knowledge of Fabritius's discovery because he is instead distracted by his sudden infatuation with a girl he has recently spotted in the gallery. Some of the most beautiful and poignant passages of the novel revolve around descriptions of the painting. As Theo recounts, "Taking it out, handling it, looking at it, was nothing to be done lightly. Even in the act of reaching for it there was a sense of expansion, a waft and a lifting; and at some strange point, when I'd looked at it long enough… all space appeared to vanish between me and it so that when I looked up it was the painting and not me that was real." Tartt also engages self-consciously in this passage with things that endure across human lives. The painting has a seeming truth to it that transcends mundane humanity. Likewise, through its form, Theo—the living viewer—finds himself in uneasy convergence (what he calls a "time warp") with Fabritius and with his own deceased mother. Chance, happenstance, random violence, and a painting tenuously bind Theo and his mother together, even as reality and the passage of time keep them irreparably apart.
The essential nature of trompe l'oeil painting relies on trickery—forcing the viewer to discern paint from reality and to deconstruct the fiction of form. Tartt's novel is no different. It is narrated by Theo, and the reader initially approaches his story with sympathy and trust, believing him to be an innocent child. However, Theo changes as the novel progresses. He becomes a heavy drug user and builds a highly lucrative career selling counterfeit antiques. There is also the matter of the painting's theft and his ongoing failure to return it to the proper authorities. As the book moves forward, the relationship between reader and narrator becomes strained. Tartt deliberately pushes the boundaries of belief and complicity as Theo's missteps mount, leading the reader to consider the boundary between authenticity and deception. This all comes to a climax in the final, meditative passage that Theo addresses to his "non-existent reader." This section comprises some of the most beautiful pages of the novel. The protagonist reflects on the nature of existence and what he calls the "middle zone" where reality and the human mind come into contact, "a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic."
If truth and fiction define the transcendent arc of the novel, the tragedies and nihilism of Theo's young adult life speak to a larger, darker theme in the text, in which Tartt's fictional tragedy leads the reader to engage with the difficulties of youthful existence in post–September 11 America. Theo's life after the death of his mother incurs precipitous decline. Friends, family, and the social service system fail him. Theo's two closest friends—Andy Barbour, his childhood friend in New York City, and Boris, whom he meets in Las Vegas—are also damaged and burdened by the world. Andy is intellectual and antisocial, a misfit both within his family and in society. Boris, like Theo, has lost his mother and has come to Las Vegas with a violent and abusive father. Despite its hardships, Boris's life is a globalized one. He has lived in at least twelve different states and numerous countries, following his father's work in the mining industry. Part Polish, part Ukrainian, and born in Australia, Boris nonetheless thinks of himself as "Indonesian," since of all the places he has lived, it is the one place he wants to return to. The young women with whom Theo comes into contact, including the two with whom he is seriously romantically involved as the story unfolds, are also troubled. Theo and his love interests fail to make profound connections, stringing together relationships by means of text messages and drug-induced bonding. All this unhappiness and tragedy leads Theo to eventually conclude, "Here's the truth: life is a catastrophe," though, even as he admits this, he tries to convince the reader that this fact is no big deal, since every life—happy or sad—is a journey toward death.
Tartt's novel is surprising and, at times, spellbinding. Her melding of prose and pictorial forms makes for a fascinating literary experiment. Her exploration of the social and psychological ramifications of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center is equally intriguing. The Goldfinch is a challenging but rewarding novel for its cosmopolitanism and its deep engagement in the art world.
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- Wood, James. "The New Curiosity Shop." Rev. of The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. New Yorker. Condé Nast, 21 Oct. 2013. Web.