“The History of People Who Have Loved Beautiful Things”:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
In The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Theodore Decker says:
What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way? (745-746)
What if the good things that happened in life did not always continue on to good things, and what if the bad things in life did not always continue on to worse things? What if the Good could lead to the Bad, and vice versa? After all, as Theo says, “[W]e don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are” (761). If all of this is true, then what can we hold on to? How can we endure?
The story of The Goldfinch starts when Theodore Decker is thirteen. He has a father who drinks all the time and is completely irresponsible, and a mother who loves him and is there to take care of him and all of his worries. But that all changes when a boy named Tom Cable at his school smokes, and Theo, standing by near him, gets wrongfully caught by a teacher. Theo and his mother are called to his school, and on the way to the school, his mother decides they should stop by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of her favorite places in the world, since there is some time left before the meeting. No one knew that there was going to be a bomb explosion at the museum, and that it would take away the life of Theo’s mother along with the lives of many others, including a man named Welty Blackwell. Dazed and confused from the shock of the explosion, Theo finds himself in the destroyed building of the museum, bloodied and bruised, when Welty calls out to him. During the last minutes of his life, Welty makes a surreal yet genuine connection with Theo, where Theo can see, hear, and breathe the things that Welty describes. Welty gives a ring and an artwork, The Goldfinch painted by Carel Fabritius, to Theo, and by accepting these items, Theo goes onto live his unstable and unpredictable life, where he learns much more about life than he may have expected.
Theo has quite a pessimistic view of life. Because of what he has seen and been through since he was young, this is perhaps natural. Theo’s mother once tells him, “People die, sure…But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle” (28). This resonated with me in that, indeed, so many people and things are lost due to circumstances that are unfair and cannot be justified. However, I thought it was interesting that Theo’s mother referred to this as “carelessness”. Ironically, Theo’s mother becomes a victim of this carelessness, and her death teaches Theo that life is anything but predictable. His mother had meant the world to Theo. But he did not get to see her during the last moments of her life because no one knew that their time at the art museum would be their last time together. Regardless, Theo remembers all of the small moments. As he says:
I remember a few weeks before she died, eating a late supper with her in an Italian restaurant down in the Village, and how she grasped my sleeve at the sudden, almost painful loveliness of a birthday cake with lit candles being carried in procession from the kitchen, faint circle of light wavering in across the dark ceiling and then the cake set down to blaze amidst the family, beatifying an old lady’s face, smiles all round, waiters stepping away with their hands behind their backs— just an ordinary birthday dinner you might see anywhere in an inexpensive downtown restaurant, and I’m sure I wouldn’t even remember it had she not died so soon after, but I thought about it again and again after her death and indeed I’ll probably think about it all my life: that candlelit circle, a tableau vivant of the daily, commonplace happiness that was lost when I lost her. (7-8)
I have never experienced the death of someone close to me, but I imagine that if someone we loved in our life was taken away so suddenly, these small moments would come to haunt us. My mother lost her father when she was a teenager, and even though she has never shared any details, I know that he showed up a few times in her dreams, because she always mentioned it during breakfast the next day. I cannot imagine how painful Theo’s mother’s death must be for him: the searing pain of having lost someone he loved, and yet not being able to do anything about it. Yet, as a young boy, Theo has to face the fact that he has lost his mother with no way to find out why.
There is a curious connection between Theo and Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch. There is something about how the Goldfinch is chained in one ankle that reminds me of Theo. Personally, the painting is nothing that I would have considered to be interesting. I mean, the painting shows a bird with a small chain on its ankle. I probably would have noticed the bird, and not the chain, and I would have probably glanced at it for about five seconds, noting some of the vibrant colors that I liked, and moved onto the next painting. However, Theo sees something different in it. For him, it is “support and vindication,” “sustenance and sum” (559). This is because, from this very painting, Theo learns that “[W]e can’t choose what we want and don’t want,” and that “[s]ometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us” (770). And so, just like the painting, Theo reaches out to the readers to add “[his] own story of love to the history people who have loved beautiful things” (771), adding his story of love and life to the multitudinous stories of love and life that we are all living in, and will continue to live in.
Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). Little, Brown and Company, 2015. Kindle Edition.