One of the most hyped releases in recent memory, Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch remained in the hot white spotlight of the book world for much of 2013–14. But amid the acclaim—more than 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, a movie deal, and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction—the novel experienced serious backlash.
An article in the Washington Post called it “The Disappointing Novel That Just Won a Pulitzer Prize.” The headline to Newsweek’s review complained that “Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch Neither Sings nor Flies.” And a writeup in the Guardian declared it an “overlong and tediously Potteresque adventure.” In my own conversations with reader friends, I’ve found similar reactions. Some rated it okay, others said they flat-out didn’t like it, and a few put it down before finishing.
As someone who edits books for a living, I’ll be the first to say that this 800-page behemoth could have benefitted from an editor more willing to wield a red pen. The novel is overly long, it tends to ramble, and some of the characters’ extended musings seem somewhat pointless. Its drifting, grifting main character, Theo Decker, is downright unlikable at times. And we’re never sure what he’s going to make of himself, even after the novel comes to a close.
Yet I would argue that there’s meaning behind the clutter, if we mine for it. There’s a point to the length, the rambling plot, and the seeming pointlessness, if we are willing to put up with it. And there’s a philosophical payoff at the end if we wait.
The Goldfinch is about a journey—a meandering, oftentimes aimless journey. It’s about Theo’s search for many things, from parental figures to love to personal significance. His is an arduous quest with a goal that usually remains out of reach. Though his journey never reaches an ultimate destination, the final 50 pages of the novel do bring him, if not happiness, at least some understanding. And, sometimes, in this inexplicable world, that’s about all we can ask for.
All along, Tartt makes us feel adrift, but she doesn’t ultimately let us drown (yes, there’s a deluge of water metaphors). Despite keeping a few tricks up her sleeve for 700 pages (and intertwining themes of magic, gambling, and chance), she finally shows her hand at the end. If you don’t give up, the conclusion of The Goldfinch packs a hefty philosophical punch, helping Theo make sense of his life and helping the reader make sense of all the pages that have come before. Below, in the novel’s own words, are some of the big ideas Donna Tartt plays with in The Goldfinch. You don’t have to understand all these ideas about art, language, fate, morality, and mortality to savor the novel. But you do have to savor these ideas to understand how it won the Pulitzer Prize.
The focus below is more on the big ideas and less on specifics, but there could be a few spoilers along the way; so read at your own risk.
The Goldfinch isn’t just a novel; it’s a real-life painting that was almost lost to posterity when its painter, Fabritius, died in an explosion that destroyed most of Delft. In the fictional world of the novel, Theo rescues the painting yet again, after the bombing of the New York Museum of Art. Just before that bomb goes off, Theo’s mother tells him, “People die, sure, . . . . But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. . . . I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.” From then on, the novel focuses on the process of searching, saving, and preserving. Hobie, an antique furniture preservationist by trade, is the one who saves Theo’s life and teaches him the art of preservation. Like the miniature set of figurines in his kitchen, Hobie is Noah, “the great conservator, the great caretaker.” Though Theo is continually threatened by water all around—from the pouring rain on the day of his mother’s death to the drowning of his friend Andy and his father—Hobie takes Theo aboard and teaches him the value of loving and saving the most beautiful things in life.
This is from Hobie, here explaining himself to Theo and, in turn, explaining Theo to Theo. As a curator and preservationist, Hobie can best explain Theo’s attachment to art for art’s sake. Beautiful objects inspire in us something spiritual, something beyond rational thought. And, in this mortal world, art is a way of establishing something immortal. By preserving something beautiful, we might just capture the eternal, even if for a fleeting moment, during our brief stay on earth. With this theme, Tartt calls to mind one of the most famous Romantic poems of all time, John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The urn shows a scene of a lover pursuing his beloved—like Theo pursuing Pippa, his “morphine lollipop”—but never catching her. It’s a chase scene that’s set in stone forever, a permanent representation of our futile pursuit for permanence. We humans can’t help but keep up the chase.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, though canst not leave Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”
In the painting that gives the novel its name, a tiny goldfinch is chained to its perch by links so delicate they’re almost invisible. Theo feels a kinship with that bird, realizing by the end, “We can’t escape who we are.” Like Fabritius’s bird, we can’t escape the chains that bind us. Each of us is bound to the person we were born to be, and all the flaws and weaknesses that come along with it. So what if the self we’re given isn’t so good? Not to mention the parents and circumstances we inherited? By the end, Theo realizes that living an imperfect life—and doing it with passion—is still preferable to merely existing.
Perhaps being bad isn’t always so bad, explains Boris. This is just a small portion of Boris’s final diatribe to Theo, a Russian-inflected speech that invokes Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and, like that novel, turns the good-versus-bad dichotomy upside down. Theo proves himself to be a Dostoyevskian-type idiot much earlier in the novel (Tartt even dubs him that in a chapter title) when the grand wool is pulled over his eyes, and by a friend no less. Though, in this speech, Boris is clearly casting about for justification, he hits on the murkiness of real life. Bad things happen to good people, and good people end up doing bad things. It’s not a comforting view of morality, but it may be the truest. Theo is neither all good nor all bad. He starts out by doing something wrong—an unknown act which gets him suspended from school and called, with his mother, to a meeting with the principal. And he spends the rest of the novel wondering whether his own wrongdoing caused his mother’s death. Did it? Of course not. Fate is cruel sometimes, even to people trying to do the best they can. And our only response to the cruelty of fate is . . . to try to do the best we can.
When Boris offers this justification to Theo for their thieving past, Theo doesn’t buy the idea right away. But it applies to so much more than stolen art. Things go missing time and again in this novel, not just paintings, but also friends, money, love. The plot revolves around the ultimate loss: a child losing his mother. And, with the exception of a few paintings, most of the losses never get recovered. Yet, in loss lies the possibility of redemption. During his final conversation with Theo, Boris does a brilliant job of mixing his Bible parables in a way that makes a lot of sense. He suggests that Theo’s story is the lost sheep, the widow’s mite, the prodigal son, the unjust steward, and the parable of the talents all rolled into one. Theo plays the part of the unjust steward who is both dishonest and faithful to his master, Hobie, and then turns into the prodigal child that Hobie welcomes back with open arms. Led by Boris, his stolen painting is a risky investment that could go south but ultimately brings a big return, when other lost paintings are recovered. But, most of all, Theo’s story is that of the lost sheep—the one that finds redemption even after wandering far afield. Theo also learns to value the lost things in his life, since he has to lose his mother to find relationships with so many others, from his father to Boris, Hobie, Pippa, and the Barbours. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but Theo comes to discover the truth of what his gambling father always told him: “to quote another paradoxical gem of my dad’s: sometimes you have to lose to win.”
This quote from the novel’s very last page brings us back to the theme of saving and rescuing. But this time, we aren’t saving art; it’s saving us. Donna Tartt is pilfering from George Steiner here, and I love her for it. George who, you ask? In his book After Babel (1975), literary critic and thinker George Steiner wrote, “We speak, we dream ourselves free of the organic trap.” Language—and, by extension, art—represents our attempt to rise above the human condition and avoid, escape, and forestall death. Though death is all around us, an ever-present reminder of our status as mere mortals, we do have the power to, in Theo’s words, “sing ourselves out of despair.” Tartt is drawing not just on Steiner but also on Modernists like T. S. Eliot and philosophers like Nietzsche. Poetry was Eliot’s medium of choice: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” he proclaimed in The Wasteland. Nietzsche, despite having a bad rep as a nihilist, gave the power to the people; the whole concept of his “will to power” is that we rise up and make something out of nothing. Nietzsche’s declaration “We have art in order not to die from the truth” becomes the epigraph to the final section of Tartt’s novel. And it becomes the mantra that will help Theo survive beyond the conclusion of his narrative. Theo may not be a model hero with a happy ending to his quest, but he figures out a way to survive in a world that seems against him at every turn. Art is a lifeline for Theo and for all of us who have read his story.