The Goldfinch: A Stunning Literary Epic

Two challenging questions pose for the readers of the sensational, 800+pages novel, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: What unifying role does the goldfinch work of art play in the story, and Is it better to follow one’s heart or one’s mind? First, the painting symbolizes the idea that all humans are “chained” to their fate. Therefore, if this be the case, then it matters little whether individuals follow their hearts or their minds. In Tartt’s epic tale, the characters all end up experiencing misfortune. When a terrorist explosion in a New York City museum kills his mother, an antiques dealer’s business partner, and injures a young girl, among others, Theo Decker, who, with his mother, has run into the building out of a downpour (It rains much of the time in Tartt’s NYC, a forewarning of unfavorable consequences for many of the book’s characters) the young 12-year-old narrator does two things that will have significant bearings on the future. He stops by the dying man {Welty}, who gives him a disk with instructions to deliver it to his partner Hobie, a furniture restorer, and on a fleeting impulse steals the famous, small painting of the goldfinch, which is considered by scholars as the greatest work of art in history. It is only later that Theo learns through social workers that his mother, who was shopping in another area for a gift, had been killed in the explosion.

The novel has three settings; New York City, Las Vegas, and the Netherlands, where the epic reaches its shocking climax. It can be separated into at least five parts:

Part I covers events from the explosion, Theo’s foster parents the Balfours, and his meeting Hobie to his moving to Las Vegas with his estranged father, a gambler, and his girl friend, a casino worker.

Part II-Theo finds his new home boring, too hot, and lacking transit service to their house in a bleak subdivision. Out of the lack of activities he befriends a boy named Boris, a Middle-European who mixes English, Ukrainian, and Russian freely. Two things happen: Boris introduces Theo {He nicknames him Potter because Theo’s eyeglasses remind him of Harry Potter} to drugs, and Theo’s father has gambling debts he can’t pay. The stay in Las Vegas ends after a tragic accident. Theo flees with the family dog Popper (Popchik, as Boris nicknames him)) and ends up, where else, but New York City. The city is not the friendly place he had found it when he moved to Las Vegas. Desolate, cold, feverish and hungry, he ends up at the antique shop, where he had found refuge following his mother’s death.

Part III–Theo learns more about antiques and furniture restoring and reunites with his former foster family.

Part IV-The novel jumps ahead several years. Theo has become Hobie’s business partner, handling sales and the account files. Three things happen: Theo becomes engaged to the girl he doesn’t really love; he has to buy back antiques when the buyers discover that Theo had been selling restored items as original objects. One customer, a scammer, troubles him, and makes trouble for the young man. Enter Boris again, a successful man in a questionable business. They spend a lot of time drinking and getting high on drugs. The Middle-European friend reveals a shocking secret that almost breaks the string holding their friendship together.

Part V-Boris introduces Theo to some of his unethical friends, Theo’s engagement party is held, and Boris persuades Theo to fly with him to Holland to settle a deal that will pacify Theo. Matters get out of hand and Theo doesn’t have his passport to get out of the country. There are several scenes in his hotel in which he takes drugs, has nightmares, and one dream about his mother that deters suicide plans in favor of going to the police.

One may ask: “What’s been happening to the painting of The Goldfinch throughout the novel? ” That would be giving away too much of the power of the work of art in Theo’s and Boris’ lives.

Although The Goldfinch is an engrossing tale in itself, it is Tartt’s style that provides its extraordinary force and uniqueness. Her command of dialogue, her loving details of different kinds of wood, and Hobie’s caring, painstaking approach to restoring antiques, the author’s insights into various works of art, her extensive knowledge of drugs, their effects, and their omnipresence, of landscapes, sailing, bus trip, language, and pets fulfills the claims that the long novel is a literary classic. Following is an example of the author’s style: (Hobie introduces Theo to some of the finer details of wood) “So,” he said, leading me downstairs. “The shop behind the shop… where the important work happens. “Right,” I said, looking down at the labyrinth at the foot of the stairs, blond wood like honey, dark wood like poured molasses, gleams of brass and gilt and silver in the weak light.”

The Goldfinch is an oil-on-canvas painting that was completed by Dutch Master Carel Fabritius in 1654. The painting is considered one of the great works of art. Coincidentally Fabritius died in an explosion at a gunpowder facility, in which most of his paintings were destroyed. The Goldfinch was one of the few that survived the blast that destroyed much of the Dutch city.. For her novel Tartt wanted to narrate a compelling coming-of-age tale in which a young boy impulsively steals a painting after another explosion.

Tartt does not churn out best sellers, perhaps one about every ten years. Her best seller The Secret History, a novel about some New England scholars who conspire to commit the perfect murder. Ten years later she published The Little Friend, another coming-of-age tale, but it failed to receive the popularity that the previous novel did. Ambitious efforts are already underway to turn The Goldfinch into possibly a miniseries for television.