Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is a Dickensian novel of epic proportions. Nearly 800 pages, it is supposedly written by the now-grown Theo Decker--the novel's chief protagonist. Unlike the boy heroes in David Copperfield or Great Expectations, Theo is no innocent. At age 13, he is again in trouble at school and has been summoned to the principal's office.  He has been caught smoking. He has also been stealing with another boy and wonders if the appointment he and his mother have pertain to the theft.

Theo and his mother duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art on their way to the school. There she shows him her favorite painting--"The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius. This painting becomes both the focal point for the suspense of the novel as well as its central metaphor.

What happens in the museum that fateful morning will change Theo's life forever. Tragically, a bomb goes off and his mother is killed. The guilt caused by her death, and the ensuing loneliness, throw him completely off-course.  "Things would have turned out better if she had lived," he reflects. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that's happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life." (p. 7)

Theo is one of the few survivors of that terrorist blast. With rubble all around him, he makes his way to a dying man and tries to comfort him as much as he can. This man, aware he is dying, gives him his ring and tells him where to return it.  He also convinces him to save the only extant work of the artist, Carel Fabritius.

Thus begins this dark Bildesroman in which "The Goldfinch" becomes the talisman for all Theo holds dear. It is his one constant as he is shifted from his temporary home at the wealthy Barbours to that of his feckless and alcoholic father is Las Vegas. Here he meets the boy named Boris--a character reminiscent of one of the street urchins in Oliver Twist.  Similarly motherless and unloved, Boris becomes best friend and adviser to Theo as he sinks into a life of drugs and alcohol, and eventually, into the criminal underworld of the Russian mafia. Along the way, he meets Hobey--a kindly antiques dealer who gives him something akin to home.

Like Dickens, Donna Tartt exposes the lurid under-belly of the criminal world.  Her depictions of the effects of drug addiction are graphic and difficult to read, as are her descriptions of drug dens.  Similarly, although there are no workhouses, children are still at the mercy of adults. The custom of keeping familes intact is not always in a child's best interests, as we see when Theo is placed in the care of his dissolute father.

Yet it is Theo's self-awareness that ultimately redeems him--that, and his love of "The Goldfinch." By saving the painting, Theo believes he is saving himself. As he ponders the significance of this small painting of an even smaller subject, its worth becomes clear.

But what does the painting say about Fabritius himself?, Theo wonders.  Nothing about religious or romantic or familial devotion; nothing about civic awe or career ambition or respect for wealth and power. There's only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and a sense of no escape. Time that doesn't move, time that couldn't be called time. And trapped in the heart of light: the little prisoner, unflinching. ..Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another. (p. 766)

Ultimately, though, it is the beauty and timelessness of the painting that gives Theo hope in the future. Great art speaks to us from past centuries; it is the one immutable presence that Death cannot touch.

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