The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Many of the novel’s significant and memorable quotes appear in its final pages, as the narrative winds down and the narrator, Theo, reflects on life, beauty, love, and himself. 

Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?

This quote clearly points toward the connection Theo has developed with The Goldfinch. To art lovers and historians, The Goldfinch is a world-renowned painting and relic of Fabritius’s work. But for Theo, who cares for and has an uncontrollable attachment to the painting, it is also a beacon of hope and love. He cares deeply for the painting and, in doing so, derives purpose from his role in “the history of people who have loved beautiful things.”

That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it.

At the end of his story, Theo reflects on his life up until this point and stands firm in his belief that life is a game cruelly stacked against its players. But Theo believes there is still a way of finding joy in the cycle of “hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts”: that is, by moving through it fearlessly, regardless of the chaos. 

This quote gestures, too, at art’s immortality. Theo sees the preservation of art as a privilege and an opportunity to love what death cannot ruin: to love art unabashedly during our lives, he believes, is a small—yet necessary—way to circumvent the oblivion of death. 

What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can't be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?

This is the central conflict of Theo’s character as he struggles with his own purpose and fate. He finds the popular message to “be true to yourself” irrelevant, given that he has so much trouble trusting his heart and coming to terms with his own faults, which are integral to his sense of self. Theo watches his father, after an attempt at domestic life, turn and run toward what will ultimately be his own destruction. Yet though Theo begins to move toward a tranquil, high-society life through his engagement to Kitsey, he is unable to stay the course. He leans into his addiction and eventually abandons his relationship, knowing that a conventional life is not for him. 

Theo wonders if it is Boris—someone who happily throws himself into the world with no regard for convention or disaster—who has it right. Boris tries to help Theo see that the line between “good” and “bad” is false: instead, the two are always wrapped together. Throughout the novel, Theo has made both good and bad choices and had traumatic experiences regardless of what he chose; he takes Boris’s words to heart and ponders the idea that making an active division between right and wrong might make no difference in the larger patterns of fate.

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