The Good Thief: A Novel

by Hannah Tinti

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Chapters 1 & 2 Summary and Analysis

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Summary

The Good Thief opens in New England in the middle of the 19th century. A man arrives on horseback at Saint Anthony’s, a Catholic monastery and orphanage for boys. The orphans congregate beside the statue of Saint Anthony for inspection, their nervous excitement held in check by Father John and his switch.

The visitor stops before a twelve-year-old boy named Ren, saying that he needs a boy who is “old enough to help [him] work and young enough for [his] wife to feel she has a child.” Before Ren can respond, Father John orders him to display his left arm. Ren is missing his hand. The man moves along and chooses a boy named William instead.

Deeply disappointed, the remaining orphans return to Saint Anthony's to work while the portly Brother Joseph supervises. In addition to being a monastery and an orphanage, the monastery sells wine, and the boys sort and press grapes. Brother Joseph tries to cheer them up by suggesting they pray for William and his new family, explaining that bad luck usually follows good luck—and bad luck comes in groups of three. The boys find this very comforting and their imaginations run wild with all of the terrible things that might happen. Ren can only imagine William sitting down to a wonderful supper with his new mother and father.

Ren dumps a basket of sorted grapes into the wine press, which is operated by the oldest boys. Ren will be one of them soon, and he worries about his fate if no one adopts him. Father John has a rumored agreement with the army, which pays him a fee in exchange for ownership of boys who reach a certain age. These boys are usually of poor health, so they suffer greatly in the army. Ren recalls seeing Sebastian, “a boy remarkably pale and thin,” return to the gate of the orphanage and beg to be taken back in. Father John refused. Ren is terrified that he will be like Sebastian.

Ren does not remember ever having a mother or a father or living anywhere but at Saint Anthony’s. Someone had sewn his name into the collar of his nightshirt, which was made of good linen. He wore the nightshirt until he was nearly two years old, and then it was given to a smaller boy. Year after year, the nightshirt was handed down to smaller boys. Ren would tackle them so that he could look at the fading letters of his name and wonder who sewed them. After a while, the nightshirt became too thin to be worn. It was cut into bandages, but Brother Joseph allowed Ren to keep the piece of the collar with the letters. He hides it under his pillow every night.

Later that day, the boys gather together to divide up the stones William left behind. Stones are like currency in the orphanage, and the boys argue bitterly over them. Ren notices a “wishing stone,” which is a rare stone the color of gray with an “unbroken circling band of white.” Ren, who regularly steals things, tries to pocket the stone before anyone notices. However, his best friends—twin brothers named Brom and Ichy—see him and chase him outside. Before Brom and Ichy can walk off with the wishing stone, Ren snatches it away and throws it down the well.

Analysis

From the novel’s opening scene beneath the statue of Saint Anthony, Hannah Tinti establishes a theme of physicality—specifically, the commodification of bodies through physical ability and physical transformation. The correlation between physical ability and survival is clear in the character...

(This entire section contains 929 words.)

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of Ren, a twelve-year-old boy who is missing his left hand. Ren’s physical disability, which renders him less valuable than his able-bodied peers, could be the end of him; boys who have little utility are not usually adopted, and Father John sells them to the army when they reach a certain age. While other orphans can transform themselves by hiding or emphasizing physical traits to attract potential parents, boys like Ren cannot.

The color red emerges as a motif that represents the physical body, as well as intense emotions like anger or jealousy that are likely to have physical manifestations. Saint Anthony’s is steeped in red; the monastery sells wine, which is produced by the boys, and is surrounded by a red brick wall. Father John disciplines the boys with a switch, which leaves red marks on the boys’ bodies, and Brother Joseph occasionally sets his robe on fire with the hot coals of his foot warmer while supervising the boys’ work. Even William, the boy chosen for adoption instead of Ren, has red hair. Redness is associated with labor, pain, blood, anger, and jealousy. In stark contrast, the color white emerges as a less-frequent motif that represents higher-order luxuries like security, stability, and love. Motherhood and the safety of family life appear in images of whiteness, such as the white arm of a mother than Ren imagines reaching for the baby she abandoned through a small door in the monastery wall.

Commodification appears again in chapter 2, when Tinti reveals Ren’s penchant for stealing things. Furthermore, the boys are obsessed with collecting and trading rocks, particularly those left behind by boys who are lucky enough to be adopted. Collecting rocks as though they are amassing great fortunes causes even close friendships to break down, as is revealed by Ren’s sudden hatred of his best friends Brom and Ichy when they discover his attempt to steal William’s wishing stone.

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Chapters 3 & 4 Summary and Analysis