The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt


Sharon Fleming

Plot Summary


Growing up in a world where threats of terrorism and other crimes are highly prevalent can have devastating effects on one’s life (Judah, 2017). This is the situation that Donna Tartt attempts to capture in her novel, The Goldfinch. Published in 2013, The Goldfinch chronicles the events in the life of Theodore “Theo” Decker. At the young and tender age of 13, Theo lost his mother through a terrorist attack when an explosion occurred at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The mother-and-son duo had visited the museum to attend an exhibition on Dutch masterpieces of art and architecture. Subsequently, the ensuing explosion killed Theo’s mother, along with many others. Among the wreckage, Theo noticed a dying old man who advised him to steal The Goldfinch, a good-looking painting he had earlier admired from one of the museum’s galleries. The man also gave Theo a mysterious ring. Little did he know that these two items would eventually, and progressively, take a heavy toll on his life.

During this very same time, Theo encountered a red-headed girl named Pippa and fell in love with her at first sight. He describes the girl as a cool, serious beauty who had bright red hair and whose movements were swift and well-calculated. Other individuals who Theo became acquainted with, and who have great influence on his eventual life, are Larry (his dad), Xandra (his dad’s girlfriend) — both of which are living in Las Vegas, and Boris, a friend who Theo meets in Las Vegas. There is also Andy Barbour (Theo’s elementary school friend) and Hobie (an antique restorer). After his mother’s death, Theo goes through a turbulent life journey that is characterized by grief, confusion, fear, and endless challenges as he tries to forge a meaningful life. His biggest challenge was trying to keep The Goldfinch as a secret while living in other people’s homes. He believes that his life would have turned out better if his mother had survived the explosion.

The title of the book is derived from the painting that Theo steals from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Goldfinch. Theo had admired this painting when he was going around the museum’s galleries with his mother. Though he had not initially contemplated stealing it, the dying old man named Welty hinted to Theo to steal it in the midst of the confusion following the explosion. The death of Larry, Theo’s father, through a drink driving accident, led to Theo becoming homeless, and his efforts at hiding the painting from all people he lives with. At some point, Boris manages to steal the painting and trades it away. Although Boris and Theo later retrieves it from Amsterdam, they eventually lose it again. The story ends with The Goldfinch back in the possession of its original owner, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

The Historical and Current Context of the Book: The Goldfinch

When Tartt authored her third book, The Goldfinch, she was probably inspired by the spirit of preserving art and culture, evidenced by widespread phenomenon of building museums in the modern world. The other two novels that Tartt published, The Secret History (1992) and The Little Friend (2002), set the foundation for The Goldfinch. However, The Goldfinch is different from Tartt’s other novels because of its central themes: the importance of preserving art; and the fragility of art. In an interview with BBC News, Tartt confessed that she was inspired to write The Goldfinch after learning of the destruction of priceless Buddha statues by Taliban extremists in Afghanistan (BBC Culture, 2014). Destruction of artifacts is a common occurrence when there is armed conflict and during terrorist attacks. In 2015, for example, Muslim extremists were spotted destroying seventeenth-century shrines in Timbuktu, Mali. In Tartt’s novel, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York lost their old painting in the confusion that sparked after the museum was bombed. Though the narrator’s mother, and many others, died in the disaster, the narrator survives and takes possession of the painting.

The painting that Theo stole featured a small Goldfinch bird, and was created in 1654 by Carel Fabritius. The charming painting is on a wooden background and features the bird perched on its feeding box. At the bottom, the artist’s signature is clearly visible in grey, accompanied by an inscription of the painting’s year of creation, 1654. From the perspective of art historians, the information accompanying the painting makes it invaluable. Fabritius was a renowned painter of the Dutch Golden Age, having trained in Rembrandt’s studio in the heart of Amsterdam (Judah, 2017). Fabritius moved to Delft where he would later pass away at a tragically-young age of 32, in an explosion at a gunpowder store that was located just next to his home. Art historians believe that most of Fabritius work was destroyed in the explosion because only a dozen of his paintings in modern museums are associated with him (Judah, 2017). Tartt, who grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, was a bookish child, and through her reading she had come across Fabritius and his artworks. Tartt was also concerned about the fragility of art in the face of mounting threats of terrorism. She decided to write her award-winning novel, The Goldfinch, to accentuate the plight of historical art masterpieces and the importance of preservation.

Donna Tartt, whose full name is Donna Louise Tartt, was born on 23 December 1963, in Mississippi’s Greenwood area. She tried her first hand at writing in 1968 when she composed a poem. Tartt attended the University of Mississippi from 1981 to 1982 before transferring to Bennington (Vermont), where she graduated with a Masters Degree in Arts (Independent.IE, 2018). At Vermont, Tartt befriended other writers, including Bret Easton and Jonathan Ellis. From there, she began writing her first novel, The Secret History, a book set in a fictional Bennington college whose narrative revolves around a murder, and where the details are revealed in the initial stages of the novel. In literature, this technique is referred to as a reverse murder mystery. Ten years later, Tartt publishes The Little Friend, whose narrative revolves around a 12-year-old girl seeking revenge for the murder of her brother.

The Goldfinch, which is the subject of this guide, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2014 for the significant additions it made to the literature of trauma. The jury hailed The Goldfinch as a novel that is highly engaging and that touches ‘the heart” (Judah, 2017).

The painting that inspired Tartt to write The Goldfinch is among the most celebrated works of art, and is found permanently in the collections of Mauritshuis, The Hague. Tartt’s novel features a 13-year-old boy who makes away with a painting amidst the chaos that follows a fictional terrorist attack on New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tartt writes this novel in order to place the rare seventeenth-century Dutch bird in the context of art because she knew this would motivate communities to embrace a culture of preservation (Independent.IE, 2018). Goldfinches were antiquity pets that were known for their ability to perform exceptional duties and dexterous tricks. For example, they could be trained to open their feeding boxes and fetch water using small buckets on a chain. Goldfinches were also known for their beautiful songs, specifically those sung by the males. Artists of the seventeenth century Dutch, including Fabritius and Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), documented these birds through their paintings (Judah, 2017). More than three centuries later, Tartt used her novel to remind the world about the need to protect and preserve artwork.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt amplifies the importance of the paintings by making it the central object of confusion, competition, and rivalry. For instance, despite being in danger of imminent death, the elderly man uses his final breath to advise Theo to steal the painting (Tartt, 2013). Similarly, Theo does everything possible to keep the information about the painting a secret. When Theo was a partner in an antique business, he figures out that a blackmailer, Mr. Reeve, suspects that Theo could be in possession of The Goldfinch. Boris, who is a close confidant of Theo, discovers the painting and cashes it out. The fact that Boris and Theo were rewarded for returning the painting to the museum is an indicator that it was indeed a valuable thing.

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