“I’ve done some things I shouldn’t have, I want to put them right....”
“Hard to put things right. You don’t often get that chance. Sometimes all you can do is not get caught.” [Page 550, The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, London: Little, Brown, 2013]
Dona Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch, is a tour de force that explores the theme of growing up in a world which is an inextricable mix of good and evil, beauty and filth. Theo Decker, the protagonist and first person narrator of the novel, is thirteen years old when he loses his mother to a bomb explosion in the Metropolitan museum in New York. Their father, an alcoholic gambler, had already abandoned them. Theo’s world turns upside down after his mother’s death. All the love and security he needed as a young adolescent is stolen by the tragedy. He is taken care of by the Barbours until his father comes to claim him learning that much money had been put aside by Mrs Decker for Theo’s education. Larry Decker is now living with Xandra, another shady character. Theo had taken Carel Fabritius’s classical painting of the goldfinch from the museum as he ran out in terror and confusion when the bomb exploded. He now carries that painting with him to Las Vegas, where he will encounter a whole lot of evil and wickedness.
Boris, son of a Russian emigrant who is no better than Larry Decker, becomes Theo’s bosom friend in the new place. The two boys with absentee parents travel many dark alleys and labyrinths of life until Larry Decker’s real intention (appropriating the money that Theo’s mother has kept for him) becomes clear to Theo. Soon the subhuman creature perishes in an accident and Theo does not want to be sent to a care home. He returns to New York but is shunned by Mr Barbour. Hence he takes up residence with Hobie, an antiques dealer.
|The Titular Painting|
Theo grows up into a young man of 23. He is almost a drug addict, no better than his father in many ways. He also cheats many people by selling them fake antiques. A sense of despair mounts in him looking at his “dirtied-up life”. Soon he learns that the goldfinch painting he had taken from the museum was no longer with him. The pillow case in which he had preserved it had actually contained a false replacement, thanks to an act of deception by his own bosom friend Boris. But Boris had not intended to deceive Theo. A quirk of circumstances or destiny brought all this about.
Now, years later, Theo wants to set things right. Boris is ready to help him though Boris knows that it’s sometimes “hard to put things right.” The last part of the novel is about how the two do their best to put things right.
The novel reflects the contemporary American life with all its goodness and wickedness, and ample shades of grey. Theo confronts with horror the “multiple ironies” of “the layered and uncanny” life that unfolds before him. “The world is much stranger than we know or can say,” he learns from Boris. Can we boil anything down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’? Is the innocence of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin desirable? What did Myshkin’s angelic goodness bring about but murder and disaster? “Why be good?” Isn’t that the dark message of Dostoevsky’s novel?
Time teaches Theo some inevitable lessons. “How funny time is. How many tricks and surprises,” as Hobie reflects philosophically. Some things happen sometime in your life cracking your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, the images, their meanings, life’s meaning...
And meaning is not something you arrive at through your reason. “There’s no ‘rational grounds’ for anything I care about,” Theo learns. Your dream, as well as your truth, is beyond reason. There’s a lot of evil around. But ‘good’ can come around sometimes through some strange back doors. And we can choose to be among those who have learnt to retain love in their hearts, beauty in their souls... and add our own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire... and gave them to the next generation, and the next.
The Goldfinch is an enormous novel with 771 pages. It can get a little tedious in places. On the whole, however, it enchants. There is something Dickensian about it. Theo may remind you of Pip of Great Expectations. But Dona Tartt may not possess the Dickensian skill of sustaining the suspense in every page.