The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt

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Last Updated on October 3, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663

The Goldfinch is a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age novel, that tells the story of Theo Decker, a New Yorker who narrates his own journey after a terrorist attack leaves him orphaned and triggers a wild and unpredictable series of events.

When Theo moves to Las Vegas, what could have been a normal high school experience becomes a drunken, dirty haze of cigarette smoke and drugs. Theo and his friend Boris are neglected by their caretakers and left to fend for themselves. Boris resembles the “Artful Dodger” from Oliver Twist, a streetwise thief who acts and dresses like an adult, and his influence leads Theo to develop an array of taboo habits. Boris smokes cigarettes in his early teens, has traveled around the world with his father, drinks heavily, and experiments with a variety of illegal drugs. Theo’s loss of innocence is catalyzed by both Boris’s recklessness and their lack of supervision. Many of Theo’s destructive or risky tendencies stem from his relationship with Boris, who has a “live by the sword, die by the sword” approach to life. In Theo’s memory, there is an indistinct level of intimacy that exists between the two friends. Theo writes about flickering memories of drunken nights in which he and Boris wrestled half-dressed. He admits their relationship was very affectionate but has difficulty recalling the intimate details of their time together in his fog of intoxicated memories. 

Theo’s experience of love and relationships is tainted by his early encounters with Pippa—first in fleeting glimpses of her in the gallery before the bombing and then during her recovery, as she dips in and out of a morphine-induced haze. His romantic interest in Pippa is repeatedly thwarted—by the bomb, by her recovery, and by her time abroad—and his love for her remains unrequited in their adult years. She falls in love with another man, and though she expresses affection for Theo, she makes it clear that the traumatic memory of the bombing has left her unable to love him as he loves her. 

The other major romantic relationship in Theo’s life—his engagement to Kitsey Barbour—is passionless and half-hearted. Despite their engagement, they do not truly love each other, and Kitsey values the relationship primarily for its convenience. Unable to be with Pippa and committed to an engagement with Kitsey, Theo finds this lack of an authentic and reciprocated romantic connection to be an additional source of pain in his life. 

Theo’s early drug use and deep emotional pain fuels his addiction during his later years in New York City. He hides his addiction from Hobie, their clientele of furniture collectors and curators, and the circle of high-society New Yorkers that surround the Barbour family. At this point in the novel, it is important to note the resemblance between Larry Decker’s substance abuse and Theo’s own drug habits and fraudulent dealings within Hobie’s business. 

The final pages of the novel reveal that Theo is the author of the story and that he has told it retrospectively, using notes and journals he has compiled over the years. We now know that the main character, narrator, and author are all the same individual. As Theo retells his story from both notes and memory, it is possible that his perception of the past has changed over the years, which calls into question the reliability of the narrative. 

At the end of the novel, Theo realizes that life is essentially one big, catastrophic mess and that in order to survive whatever time is allotted to us on this earth, we must wade straight through and embrace the muck. Theo believes that it is life’s combination of “despair” and “pure otherness” that creates a place of beauty and that to experience and pass this beauty along from generation to generation—as he has done through the painting—is what has given his life meaning.

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