Did Donna Tart write a masterpiece or is she a thief piggybacking off of the artful motifs of others? Is The Goldfinch a Dickensian neo-classic or a childish attempt at a Pulitzer prize-winning yarn? Tartt’s novel has caused a lot of polarization, to say the least. Why did it split critics so?
To quote Nietzsche, as she does in her book, “We have art in order to not die from the truth.” I believe The Goldfinch is Tartt’s attempt at cramming truth into art in order to do everything but kill us.
As a reader who knows little about the world of art, I came into the book feeling like I would miss something—so many references to art, to antiques, to New York buildings and people and things. There as much meditation on objects as there is to themes, and perhaps too much of both The world of material objects and the world of out-of-reach truths mirror each other, and between them are people; this seems allegorized by our narrator’s attachment to a small famous painting and to the moon in the sky.
Art and beauty are interrupted by tragedy, and it’s just not fair. Theo Decker rescues what beauty he can in a moment of terror and it alters the rest of his life, more than the explosion itself. Our themes blossom from this messy moment.
Let’s not beat around it—Theo is the Goldfinch, not even the painting, but the subject. Circumstances beyond his understanding chain him, and it’s almost funny how he can still retain beauty. He is weighted down by trauma no matter how “free” he is in life, without parents, without school, and with a multi-million dollar painting in his possession. His life becomes intertwined by influences who both shape his life and teach him how to shape his own, each by giving and taking. Theo’s is a contemporary bildungsroman in which he must make the most beauty out of pain.
Theo’s memories of his mother taken from him in the bomb are like “a teahouse amid the cherry blossoms, on the way to death.” He inherits from her a love of art, and with it a love of beauty. His “robbery” of the Dutch painting is not the primary way he clings to beauty, but representative of his clinging to the memory of his mother, and of his connection to Pippa, who shared his tragedy. It’s no narrative surprise that he comes under the mentorship of Hobie, whose career is restoring objects to their original beauty and connecting people to their significance, or that he bonds with Boris, the most un-anchored human being he will ever meet. Theo’s mother spoke of a time warp, a “flow of chance” that brought possibilities together, and may or may not be or involve God. The novel itself is certainly a long time warp of coincidences and twists of fate. Theo must make what he can out of it all:
“When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point, a sunstroke instant that existed now and forever. Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a living creature—fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.” This little yellow bird has value to Theo more than the money and fame that comes with it. Outside of any critics or police or scholars or collectors, the painting spoke to him, his mother spoke to him, beautiful moments speak to him, and he tries what he can do cling to them and cope with losing them. Theo is supposed to look up at the moon and feel anchored. Instead, the moon with the same face feels different in different times.
Theo desperately wants to recover beauty by falling in love with memories of his mother, furniture restoration, mentorship, friendship, crushing on a tragic girl, drug use, and obsessing over Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. Sometimes Pippa is the painting, the moon, the anchor, “the golden threat running through everything, a lens that magnified beauty so that the whole world stood transfigured in relation to her, and her alone.” But even she, the “morphine lollipop,” is not a permanent happiness for him.
When Theo loses the painting, just as when he loses anything, his whole world is likely to fall apart all over again. The painting almost becomes a kind of horcrux for his mother (Boris does call him “Potter”). To lose the painting is to re-experience the tragedy of the bombing, and forever remain uncanchored in “a world lost and vast and unknowable, a dingy maze of cities and alleyways far-drifting ash and hostile immensities, connections missed, things lost and never found, and my painting swept away on that powerful current and drifting out there somewhere.”
Theo despairs when he feels himself losing anything, and when he realizes the painting is forever out of his grasp, his despair becomes suicidal. He has focused so much on the painting, idolized it, assigned it the wrong beauty. He does not have to have the painting to find a semblance of happiness any more than a person has to look on the exact painting to find a good semblance of its art.
When Theo is able to “zoom out” from his obsession with all these connections and objects of permanence he is able to accept the fleeting nature of human mortality. In the painting, he comes to see, are “dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate. There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.”
Is that a copout?
Tartt closes out her book with crammed quotable—”beauty alters the grain of reality;” “the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap;” “it’s ignoble to spend your life caring so much for objects” yet “beautiful things connect you to a larger beauty.” She almost seems to be pushing too hard. At times it does seem like she takes cliche and stuffs it mostly with fluff, and an occasional literary paragraph. Other times it seems almost necessary. She does play the “this is the narrator telling the story, not the author” card. Maybe it says something about Theo that he tells the story the way he does.
Maybe Tartt is saving herself from criticism by being messy with a story that demands to be messy because of its tidy coincidences, its Dickensian twists and turns orchestrated around a busy coming and going of character, plot, and detail. She borrows also from John Irving in her meditations on fate and damage using characters caught up in the past. She continues this coming-of-age tale in her own way, with much attention to the details of objects, the habits of people, and the themes of events, as they unfold in the tragedies of our lives and play themselves out in the cards we are dealt. Parts of it whispered to me. Maybe parts of it will whisper to you as well.