On Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" – The Tale of a Modern "Idiot"

I recently decided to augment my reading of the classics with some current fiction by reading a Pulitzer Prize winner at night before bed. I embarked on this venture with Donna Tartt’s 2014 winner, The Goldfinch.  The book’s reviews had me ready for a detective story extraordinaire, as did its illustrious awards and reviews. Stephen King calls the book “a triumph.” The Washington Post deems it “a soaring masterpiece.” In addition to the Pulitzer, the book won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. What most drew me to the book, however, was NYT critic Michiko Kakutani’s description of the book as “Dickensian.” Needless to say, I embarked on my reading with high hopes. 

Tartt’s narrative centers on a young juvenile delinquent, Theodore Decker, whose mother is killed by the explosion of a terrorist bomb while she and Theo attend a museum exhibit of Dutch master Carol Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. Theo himself, injured and confused, sits amid the carnage, cradling the head of an elderly victim. This man, a stranger to Theo, offers him incoherent directives and human comfort as he lies dying. One of these directives leads the boy to remove the picture of The Goldfinch from the museum. 

As the plot develops, each random, chaotic, destructive event leads to another random, chaotic, destructive event. Theo is pushed from his own dysfunctional home, into his childhood friend’s equally dysfunctional home. Soon after, he is relocated to yet a third dysfunctional home, this time with his drugging, drinking, deadbeat father. Meanwhile, in public school Theo meets him would become his only peer, Boris, an amoral Russian immigrant from, wait for it, another dysfunctional home. Boris’s alcoholic father beats him and leaves him alone for weeks at a time to fend. Together, Boris and Theo raise themselves like wolves, foraging, stealing, drinking themselves into oblivion, and drugging. Their friendship, incidentally, proves to be as dysfunctional as their homes. 

Meanwhile, the character’s behavior patterns are never judged by the narrator; Theo and Boris (and basically every other thug the story includes) are treated with amoral neutrality. Theo’s increasingly destructive behavioral tendencies, his poor decisions, his immaturity and his selfish treatment of other characters are never censured.

As the story developed, I found myself dreading bedtime, willing the book to end. Reading it was like watching the proverbial train wreck: I couldn’t look away. I kept hoping for some good development in this wretched character’s wrecked-up life. At one point, I began to wonder if the problem with my distaste for the story might lie within me. I mean, this book won the Pulitzer Prize, right? I wondered if maybe I just didn’t have the stomach for realism. 

The more I contemplate this possibility, however, the more convinced I become that the problem is not that Tartt’s gritty book is just too realistic, but that it is, instead, most certainly not realistic enough. While the book boasts grit enough to portray our miry world, it fails to reflect the true nature of man. Tartt assumes that children are born blank slates. Her tone toward Theo, rather than offering any kind of moral judgment, seems to say, “What can you expect of the poor kid. He’s a victim after all.” She suggests that his decisions and actions are things for which he himself cannot be held responsible, since they result from his hard-luck circumstances. In reality, however, Theo himself moves pretty rapidly from victim to perpetrator in the course of the narrative. The author’s neutral treatment of his culpability simply rings false. Children, like all human beings, are endowed with conscience from birth.

Tartt’s apparent presupposition of the tabula rasa resonates with the nihilism her narrative eventually espouses. With this in mind, her work becomes predictable, its surprise ending offering no real surprises at all. Tart’s protagonist, Theo, never trades goodness for his badness, but merely changes direction, which event is never judged either. Absent any truth or morality, a happy ending is nothing more than a meaningless swerve.

 As Tartt’s book grinds to an unsatisfying conclusion, she places her thinly veiled dialectic in the mouth of Boris, who opines philosophically on the amorality of life, the beauty of nonsense, and the victimhood of good-hearted and loyal Theo, whom he likens to Dostoevsky’s famously misunderstood Myshkin in his novel, The Idiot. Boris’s argument attempts to locate design in a haphazard universe. Even though his reflections hearken to some vague sense of the supernatural, I, like Tart’s protagonist Theo, am inclined to relegate them to the category of “relentless irony,” rather than “divine providence” (746). Boris’s stab at something transcendent proves insufficient for us both.

Throughout the story, Tartt employs the haunting painting of The Goldfinch as a running motif to suggest the trapped nature of humanity, chained, like Fabritius’s beautiful bird, to a cage, unable to fly the perch, staring bleakly out into the world with both accusation and empathy in its piteous gaze. Her work suggests that, in the midst of a world of chaos, all a man can really do is offer understanding and comfort to his neighbor, who shares his plight. In Tartt’s hands, however, human beings are victims of a cruel, metaphysical joke, rather than responsible sinners gone astray. Even as she suggests empathy as the remedy for such nihilism, I wonder:  Can the worldview she articulates produce it?

Tartt employs the symbol of The Goldfinch not only to illustrate the plight of earthly creatures, but also to suggest that the empathy this condition demands is best met by art. This is, perhaps, the strongest argument against the merit of Tartt’s book. If art is the cure for what afflicts man, then the best cure it can offer is a dose of beauty, truth and goodness. Tartt’s book is shy on these. Her depiction of the misery of man is not coupled with his grandeur. Although she depicts his depravity, she neutralizes his culpability with amoral assessments. Consequently, the protagonist comes to no real self-revelation; he is left as bewildered and immature at the end of the story as he was at its outset, only a good deal more jaded. Theo doesn’t gain wisdom, but only experience. Thus, the opportunity for beauty, the discovery of truth in the wisdom of self-recognition, is forfeit. 

In Tartt’s book, protagonist Theo Decker gets the final word:  “…here’s the truth:  life is a catastrophe.  The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is catastrophe.  …no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death” (767). Tartt leaves Boris, Theo, and her reader with only a disappointingly vague notion of cosmic fate, a weak dose of Zen to calm their metaphysical anguish. 

In addition to Tartt’s admirers, she has garnered many critics. The majority of them, however, focus on her writing style. One particularly biting review suggests that her work belongs to the field of children’s books, rather than that of mature literature. Totally apart from the fact that the book’s contents are inappropriate to young readers, I cringe at that suggestion since it pretentiously insults those authors who skillfully and artistically present life to children with images of man in all his grandeur and depravity, of the world in all of its besmudged beauty – artists like Gary Schmidt and Natalie Babbitt, Patricia MacLachlan and Jane Yolen, Kenneth Grahame and, I must say, Charles Dickens.  Tartt could learn a thing or two from artists like these. 

My foray into current literature has precipitated a change of plans for me. Night time is no time for such depressing reflections and base bedfellows. From now on I’ll do my reading of neo-realism in the light, where precarious presuppositions are easier to spot and fictitious darkness chased away by daytime realities. At bedtime, give me Dickens.  Give me Tolstoy.  Give me Dostoevsky.  Give me anything but the floundering attempts of nihilists, atheists, or Zen Buddhists to prop up speculations of real world problems with nothing but self-indulgent, so-called art. Give me grit, yes.  Show me the seamy underbelly of a world estranged from God. But, in the words of the ancient Hebrew proverbist, do not remove the ancient landmarks; we’ll all lose our way.