The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
Contributed by Ariane Heyne
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
Lost Love

There are numerous incidents in the novel that exemplify the theme of lost love. First, Theo’s life becomes completely destabilized by the loss of his mother’s love after perishing in a blast at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo loved his mother not only for the material support she provided to him with, but also because of her companionship and emotional support. Theo’s new life after the death of his mother is characterized by isolation and sadness. He also loses the love of Pippa and Kitsey, who he finds kissing another man, Tom Cable, which acts as a confirmation that she does not love Theo. On the other hand, Theo maintains his love with Pippa for many years; but towards the end of the novel, Pippa changes her mind and informs Theo that they can only be friends.

Death in Life

Also known as Natures Mortes, this theme manifests through paintings in the museum, whereby different exhibits represent events in real life. Master painters use their work to highlight the fact that life on earth is just temporary. Upon seeing The Boy with a Skull painting, for example, the viewer will come to appreciate that the skull was once a head of a living person, but the person no longer lives. Again, The Anatomy of Life is a painting that evokes thoughts of suffering due to sickness, which is a common occurrence in life. As Theo’s mother tells him, a painter’s use of wilted flower petals has a special meaning both to the painter and consumers of art. In paintings, the painter shares the symbolic meaning of human existence while highlighting the thin line between life and death. Thus, the events chronicled in this novel are a lesson to biological beings as far as life, existence, and death are concerned.

Loss of Innocence

Loss of Innocence is another theme that features prominently in Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The challenges that Theo undergoes after the loss of his mother transforms him slowly, from an innocent boy to a naughty adult. Realizing that he is alone, Theo gets into drugs and joins friends who are alcoholics. Loss of innocence also leads to Theo leaving school and engaging in illicit business ventures. As a salesman in Hobie’s workshop, for example, Theo engages in fraudulent practices of selling restored antiques as originals. Theo becomes a fugitive, running from one corner of the world to another in attempts of avoiding authorities. In Amsterdam, Theo’s killing of Martin, Boris’ associate, also signifies a loss of innocence.

Crime in Art

The importance of art is highly amplified in Tartt’s novel. However, it is art crimes that fuel the greatest concern. The problems that engulf characters in this novel emanate from Theo’s decision to steal The Goldfinch painting from the museum. He has to protect this painting throughout the novel even though he does not understand its value. The only connection that Theo has to the painting is those memories of his mother’s last moments. When Theo is in Las Vegas, however, Boris manages to steal the painting by swapping it with a wrapped textbook. Boris uses the painting as collateral to build an empire before losing it to one of his associates. Crime in art is also manifested in Theo’s scams at Hobie’s workshop, where he involves himself in a successful scam of selling beautifully restored antiques as original antiques to unsuspecting customers.

Free Will versus Fate

Most events that take place in Theo’s life are dictated by external forces. These forces include his mother’s death, The Goldfinch, and the people he interacts with. First and foremost, Theo is so attached to his mother that he cannot even spend a day without thinking of her. His mother comes into his dreams, where the memories of her remind Theo that his life would be different if she had not died. The painting, on the other hand, is Theo’s most treasured possession because it reminds him of his mother. Preoccupied with worries about the possibility of losing the painting, Theo drops schooling. Finally, when Theo discovers that Boris had actually stolen the masterpiece, he believes that this happened because of fate. He regrets why he even met Boris in the first place. It should also be noted that Theo went to Las Vegas with his father, against his will — and while there, he met Boris, a boy who would later steal The Goldfinch.

Theo’s journey from the Barbours’ home to Hobie’s workshop can also be considered an outcome of fate. For instance, Theo is driven by mysteries surrounding the ring that Theo was given by Mr. Welty, the dying elderly man at the museum. Through fate, Theo comes across a shop named “Hobart and Blackwell,” from which there hangs a bell. While giving Theo the ring, Mr. Welty had shouted the name of the shop, which Theo remembers well. Theo then rings the bell as he had been instructed by the elderly man. The fate of the ring also facilitates Theo’s reconnection with Pippa. Theo had for the first time met Pippa in the museum and admired her in the first sight. During that fateful day, Pippa was in the company of Mr. Welty. Fate also reflects itself in Theo’s life when he gets into drugs — as when he meets Pippa for the second time in Hobie’s house, Theo kisses her and licks at the morphine lollipop that lingered at Pippa’s mouth. Because of fate, most people who Theo met in his life share experiences similar to his, more so Pippa and Boris. The people who Theo meets have great influence on his life. Boris, for example influences Theo into drinking alcohol while Pippa is the first person to give Theo a morphine lollipop. Theo would later lead to his drug- and alcohol-dependent life.

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