The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt

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Last Updated on October 3, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769

The Power of Art

The inciting event in The Goldfinch takes place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, one of the most famous art museums in the world. The museum becomes a target of violent terrorism: a bomb kills many visitors, including Theo’s mother, and destroys invaluable pieces of art. When Theo escapes from the wreckage of the museum, he inexplicably clings to the painting of the goldfinch that so entranced his mother. 

Theo is captured by the painting, experiencing the power of art that, as Hobie believes, reaches out hundreds of years before us and hundreds of years after us. Even after the destruction left in the wake of the bombing, The Goldfinch exists and will continue to exist after all its past admirers and Theo—its temporary guardian—are gone. Hobie stresses that a painting never strikes two people in the same way, that a “really good painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and the heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular.” In his final reflections, Theo claims that art and love exist in a single place between reality and where the mind strikes reality, a “rainbow edge where beauty comes into being.” 

The Emotional Force of Physical Objects

The painting itself is a powerful object for Theo; to him, it represents his mother and serves as a major connection to her after her death. But Theo's attachment to the painting of the goldfinch is not purely sentimental. He also finds spiritual value in the painting, and even in his worst moments, he prioritizes its safety above all else. When the painting falls into the hands of criminal art dealers, Theo goes to great lengths to retrieve it—an out-of-control mission that ends with Theo killing a man in self-defense. Ultimately, Theo considers his role in the painting’s protection to be a meaningful contribution to the preservation of beautiful things. 

The furniture pieces in Hobie's antiques shop and workroom can also be seen as possessing psychological significance. To an orphan and addict like Theo, Hobie's shop represents a kind of home and rehabilitation; not only does Hobie take Theo on as an apprentice to his work, but he takes Theo in and cares for him in his lowest moments. Hobie’s presence alleviates some of Theo’s loneliness, and the restoration of Hobie’s furniture is a comforting, cathartic process. That is why Theo's choice to turn Hobie's honest operation into a criminal one is so shocking; Theo's illegal treatment of Hobie’s craftsmanship is all the more disrespectful in light of what the work means to both him and Hobie on a personal and emotional level.

The Isolating Effects of Loss 

By the age of thirteen, Theo is left without a reliable caretaker. Although he reunites with his father after his mother’s death and moves to the desolate suburbs of Las Vegas, Theo is still essentially on his own. He is devastated by the loss of his mother and continues to grapple with her tragic death throughout the novel. His decline into drugs and alcohol goes unnoticed by his negligent caretakers, and he and Boris spend their time home alone at the end of a cul-de-sac of vacant houses. 

Theo befriends Boris, who is adrift thanks to his own alcoholic father, and the two become inseparable. They learn how to survive together, scrounging for food and entertaining themselves in unconventional ways, and Theo begins to rely on Boris for more than just friendship. They lose touch when Boris finds a girlfriend, Kotku, and after the death of his father, Theo winds up on a bus back to New York—alone.

Theo is also isolated by his love for Pippa. When Theo visits Hobie’s and encounters Pippa for the first time since he saw her in the museum, she is recuperating from an extensive surgery and is fragile and inaccessible—traumatized from the event and sedated by her morphine lolipop. Theo is overcome with a young and innocent love for this vulnerable girl and visits her on several other occasions during her recovery. Throughout the novel, the two are continually limited in their ability to stay connected: first when she is taken to live with her aunt and later when she goes to boarding school in Switzerland. Finally, in adulthood, Pippa falls in love with another man, unable to commit to Theo because of their traumatic past and shared memory of the bombing. This fleeting romance leaves Theo disappointed and isolated throughout the novel. 

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