Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch & “The Imagination of Disaster”

Henriette Browne, A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch 1870

For over a year I had wanted to read Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2014 novel but hesitated because it is so long, almost 800 pages. A few women I know read it and claimed there were some real gems in the novel, but overall, when they finally finished it, they were disappointed by the ending. That was not my experience as I found that one of the most precious gems was offered at the end. Once I finally got round to reading it, I was instantly taken in since the novel opens in Amsterdam, my mother’s hometown and one of my favorite European cities.

Because of the length, the novel has been called Dickensian. However, once I got into it, I came to see it as a kind of Harry Potter on drugs, or even Harry Potter gone wrong. In part this is because the main character, Theo Decker, comes to be called Potter by his Russian friend, Boris, when they meet up in the suburban wasteland outside of Las Vegas. Later, Potter is taken in by a kind New York antique dealer by the name of Hobie. These names made me think of children’s literature, or YA, as fiction for young adults is known. But as I moved through the novel, I was struck by how  the underlying theme is actually Jamesian in the sense of his notion of “the imagination of disaster.” In 1896 James wrote a friend, “I have the imagination of disaster, and see life as ferocious and sinister.” Life for Theo certainly is a disaster, yet by the end of the novel we learn that meaningful beauty can be found even in ruin.

The novel opens in a hotel room in Amsterdam, where Theo begins to relay his story. It’s told from the first person point-of-view, drawing us right in to Theo’s thoughts and emotions. When he was thirteen and living in New York with his mother, an art history buff, they stopped in at the Metropolitan Museum to see an exhibition of Dutch masters. As they are leaving, they are separated when his mother dashes back inside to see something. At that moment a bomb goes off. Theo wakes up in the rubble and eventually makes his way out of the museum in search of his mother. On his way out, he takes the small painting his mother had so loved, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, 1654.

Theo’s mother does not survive the blast. Fortunately, the shocked and grieving Theo is taken in by the family of one of his school friends, Andy Barbour. With the Barbours we gain insight into the lives of New York’s rich and privileged. But before long, Theo’s alcoholic father shows up to reclaim his son, so Theo ends up in an abandoned suburb of Las Vegas. Here we get a glimpse of the wasteland the American mortgage crisis produced in 2008. Although Theo’s dad has given up drinking, he is now seriously into drugs and gambling, so Theo is pretty much left to himself and befriends a lonely Russian youth who also lives with his alcoholic father. At this point, the novel becomes a first person account of one long alcohol and drug binge, covering everything from cocaine to oxycontin to heroin. Donna Tartt’s power of description is formidable, but one cannot help wonder how she gained such knowledge.

When Theo’s father dies in a drunken car accident, Theo escapes to New York. He is now fifteen and terrified the social services will try to place him in a home. When he arrives in New York, he runs into Mr. Barbour on the street, but Theo is not recognized as the poor man is going through one of his manic phases. Theo turns to Hobie, a friendly antique dealer he made contact with earlier through a dying man he had met in the museum. Hobie takes Theo in and through his mother’s legacy, Theo is able to go to college.

Eight years have elapsed when we next meet up with Theo, who is now happily working for Hobie. Theo runs into one of the Barbour children and learns that Mr. Barbour and Andy drowned off the coast of Maine while sailing. Mr. Barbour had been undergoing a psychotic episode at the time. The grieving Mrs. Barbour is thrilled to see Theo again and welcomes him like a lost son. Theo begins dating Kitsey, the daughter, and they become engaged. In the meantime Boris shows up and the drugging begins again. This is the last part of the novel (believe me I have left out a lot despite the spoilers), and Theo ends up in Amsterdam with Boris where they are attempting to retrieve the painting which Boris had “borrowed” in order to get a temporary loan. Here we are introduced to some very unsavory underworld characters. The deal Boris sets up goes bad, and Theo ends up shooting one of the thugs. He actually kills him.

I suppose the readers I mentioned at the outset objected to the fairytale ending. Just when Theo was about to turn himself in, Boris reappears with bundles of money — reward money for having given up the art thieves. He tells Theo not to worry about having murdered such trash, so Theo promptly forgets about it. He flies back to the States and the novel ends with a meditation on how to live. Theo reflects on why Fabritius painted The Goldfinch. Was it a lonely pet bird? And what does the chain signify? That we are chained to a life of suffering? For Theo has come to the realization that life is a catastrophe; nothing but age and loss await us. The only way out is death. There is however “a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.” This is the zone in which Theo wants to live, “where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime” (770). Although death will eventually win out, we don’t “have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open” (771). That’s the final gem I was talking about.

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3 thoughts on “Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch & “The Imagination of Disaster”

  1. I like or can appreciate a happy ending when it’s believable. Oftentimes when a character reforms or an unlikely improbable set of circumstances are suddenly trotted out for me to find redemption or hope (the rainbow effect?) in, it grates because it has the opposite effect on me who would like life to be worth while. If you have to prove this this way, you have demonstrated your thesis is not so. That’s why for me the ironic close often works best. What James does in the end is quietly — if the reader is paying attention — leave her characters (and the reader) devastated.

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  2. Happy ending? I wouldn’t use those words. It’s more like up-beat. It’s a coming-of-age narrative, so Theo grows up. He realizes his life has been a disaster, but he accepts what he believes he must do — so we learn that he is buying back the fake antiques he sold over the years. It certainly isn’t a happy ending in the sense of a marriage plot. Pippa tells him they are both too damaged to be able to help each other and it isn’t at all clear that his engagement with Kitsey will hold up. She is having an affair with another and using Theo as a cover. Now this is another Jamesian twist. Who knows, Theo may be queer! After all, he and Boris did have sex earlier on.

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