The Good Thief: A Novel

by Hannah Tinti

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The Importance of Family

Hannah Tinti expresses the importance of a stable family in The Good Thief. The mid-nineteenth century New England that Tinti describes is dangerous and chaotic. The American army is fighting Native Americans in the West, and Ren will join them if he is not adopted before he reaches adulthood. Ren dreads his future and dreams of being adopted into a family. For Ren, a family will offer emotional warmth, a warm bed, clothing, and home-cooked food. Essentially, Ren is dreaming of finding an identity within the context of a family. Although Ren is adopted, he does not receive the home he craves when he leaves St. Anthony’s. Instead, he quickly finds himself in the company of thieves, murderers, and gangsters.

Although Tinti highlights the adventure inherent in the life that Benjamin and Tom lead, she does not endorse life on the road. Benjamin often tells Ren to lead a life without attachment, but Ren consistently chooses to treat the people around him with compassion. Before long, he finds himself living amongst a surrogate family, one composed of odd characters like Mrs. Sands and her brother, a dwarf who lives on the roof of the boarding house. By the end of the text, Ren learns his true name, but the most important thing he finds is the stability offered by his surrogate family.


Many of the characters in The Good Thief are in search of redemption. Ren is given a copy of The Lives of the Saints to take with him when he leaves St. Anthony’s, which invites the reader to interpret the title as an allusion to Saint Dismas, the “good thief” crucified with Jesus. Dismas is considered the patron saint of thieves and the condemned, and he is considered to have found redemption for his crimes.

Benjamin is a thief, but it is not easy to tell whether he is good. He has a sordid past and is a wanted man for his many crimes. However, he may be more strongly haunted by his failure to provide for his abandoned son, Ren. Although Benjamin does not pay for many of his crimes, he earns a measure of respectability by conning Silas McGinty into providing for Ren.

Meanwhile, Benjamin’s partner, Tom, is also overcome with guilt because his best friend committed suicide after learning that his wife and Tom had slept together. Ren, who is compassionate, often seeks to confess and say prayers after he commits crimes. Tom is lost in his sense of grief and for much of The Good Thief fails to find a road to redemption. Tom drowns himself in drink and is often either drunk or hung over while conning people or grave robbing. Tom’s best chance for redemption comes through his adopted family, Brom and Ichy. By the end of the novel, he also begins to take care of Ren’s inheritance, which earns him Mrs. Sands’s forgiveness.

The connection between redemption and responsibility is repeated elsewhere. Ren betrays his friend Dolly after the latter attempts to strangle Benjamin rather than robbing graves. Tom manages to save Benjamin by knocking the giant Dolly down with a shovel. The gang, including Ren, abandons Dolly. When Dolly and Ren are reunited, Dolly accuses Ren of betraying their friendship. At first Ren attempts to explain away his guilt, but when he accepts responsibility for his mistake and then apologizes, he is forgiven and redeemed in Dolly’s eyes.

Outsiders and Compassion

Nearly all the prominent characters in The Good Thief are outsiders, and nearly all of them feel a need for compassion and understanding....

(This entire section contains 832 words.)

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Many of the characters are physically unusual: Mrs. Sands cannot help but yell when she speaks, Ren has lost his left hand, Mrs. Sands’s brother is a dwarf, Dolly is a giant, and Jenny has a harelip. Meanwhile, Benjamin and Tom are outcast due to their illicit activities. However, throughout the text, each of these characters comes to care for and protect Ren.

The America that Tinti describes is one largely without compassion. The army is fighting Native Americans in the West. People often greet strangers who knock on their door with a gun. Mrs. Sands’s dwarf brother lives on the roof of the boarding house to avoid persecution. Other characters, while not necessarily cruel, are still macabre. Dr. Milton is obsessed with obtaining fresh bodies to study. The people in The Good Thief are lonely, and they struggle to find goodness and fellow feeling in America.

Ren offers these characters compassion and understanding. Throughout the text, Ren’s compassion reveals that all people are united by their need for compassion. The Harelip is especially quick to help Ren, and although Ren is embarrassed after he kisses her hand in thanks, she is also embarrassed to admit how much his kindness means to her. The kindness that Ren shows to his companions allows them to form a surrogate family with him as its center.


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