When I first reached for Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, I was unaware that it was surrounded by any controversy. It was recommended to me by a friend, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Though it took me a while to start reading it (at an impressive 864 pages, it’s not exactly a book one can read in a day), I was soon drawn into the world it described. As I started reading the novel, I felt I was reading a combination of a 19th century of a bildungsroman with a modern fast-paced thriller. And that was Donna Tartt’s book at its very best. I was absolutely gripped by the first 240 pages. I lost interest for the next few hundred pages and had to force myself to read on. The ending was as fascinating as the beginning, however, so my effort was rewarded. It’s an enjoyable book and its many references to historical paintings make it especially fun for all art history lovers. There are also references to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars. It’s a book for those who are not ashamed of being interested in reading.
After I finished The Goldfinch, I tried to investigate the meaning of a “Thank You Note” at the end of the novel, which included one Ivan Nabokov. I wondered if he was any relation to Vladimir Nabokov.( I didn’t find any information on the subject, by the way – so if you happen to know, please do explain!)
What I found instead was a long list of articles explaining why The Goldfinch got absolutely scathing reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review ( here’s a nice little summary of those critical articles)
I was completely unaware of this critical controversy surrounding The Goldfinch – and in some ways, I am glad because this has allowed me to make up my own mind about the book. But I feel that I should address it. So here goes….
Here ends the spoiler free section of the review, because to explain my sentiments about the book I do go into the plot with some considerable detail! Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The Goldfinch is in some ways a self-consciously “literary” work, which is why the literary critics have been so eager to dismantle its success. It’s not enough that people should find it highly readable, the critics must also judge it to be ‘well-written’. Whether it is or not, it is not my part judge – I read it without much stumbling, and if I raised my eyebrows it would only be at descriptions that try to be self-consciously literary (but I did that in the case of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas too, and that seem to be accepted as literary enough).
What I had a problem with is the novel’s structure. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading the book, but I wondered if it could have been considerably shorter. I pondered and pondered and pondered. And I am still not quite sure. As I see it, the book could be divided into 5 sections
- Theo’s life as a child in New York (a detailed description of the day he loses his mother in an explosion in the Metropolitan Art Museum
- Theo’s stay with the Barbours – a rich New York family, which collects art. He meets Hobie who is an art restorer.
- Theo ‘s in Nevada with his Dad, he meets his friend Boris and does a lot of drugs.
- Theo tries to straighten himself in order to fit in with New York high society
- Theo and Boris try to recover the lost painting.
Even a cursory glance at these sections will tell you is that some of these sections are overwhelmingly concerned with art and the impact it has on human life – and some are not.
The last few chapters of the book do try to create a connection between those different sections: namely a pursuit of beauty. Here’s an extract from what the critics have deemed an overly moralizing ending:
“I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow …
How can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is an illusion, and yet – for me, anyway – all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?
… If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight to the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? … Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? … Or like Boris – is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”
The Goldfinch makes an imaginative leap between the beauty of life and the beauty of an artwork, making both similarly illusory and elusive.
And that’s a real shame. Because the subject of the beauty of artworks themselves would happily fill an 800-page book, and when The Goldfinch flounders towards real life and loses a great deal of its insight.
Theodore Decker seems to think that mankind is destined for either eternal Appolonian hypocrisy or Dionysian downfall. I would be happy to blame this false dichotomy on biased first-person narration. Theodore Decker is a man who spent his life taking lots of oxycontin to forget about his problems and he has no morality to speak of. But there doesn’t seem to be a convincing counterargument to Theodore’s view of extreme ethical relativism in the novel. Either you ignore the pursuit of beauty and pleasure and live a life against yourself, Theodore suggests, or you spend your life seeking ‘perverse glory’ without any thought of the consequences.
Theo’s simplification of this incredibly complex problem is an awful shame. If we’re talking about ‘beauty’ and ‘life’, it seems obvious that one needs to at least mention Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (the true beauty is that of a life well-lived). Not to mention that Aristotle is very fond of moderation – a virtue with which Theodore Decker is not well acquainted with.
But the book’s preoccupation with explaining the meaning of life means that its discussion of art and its limits is sadly curtailed. There’s also a subject I thought The Goldfinch should obviously discuss, but it never does.
Moments before her death in an explosion Theodore’s Mum says:
“People die sure… But it’s so heart-breaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelesnesss. Fires, wars”
Maybe Theodore would be torn between saving a dear one’s life and protecting the painting that his mother loved so much, I thought. Maybe he would have to decide between his love for humans and things? Maybe it was because people wanted to steal the painting that Theo’s Mum lost her life?
But no. The explosion that killed Theo’s mum is never really explained. Nor is the principle on which artworks almost outweigh human lives ever questioned.
Let’s take a look at what Theodore thinks to himself when he believes the lost painting he has been trying to retrieve has been destroyed. For context, you should bear in mind that he has also just killed a man whose name was Martin.
“I didn’t matter much in the scheme of things and Martin didn’t either. We were easily forgotten. It was a social and moral lesson, if nothing else. But for all forseeable time to come – for as long as history was written… the painting would be remembered and mourned.”
Erm. Okay, this seems like a pretty callous assessment of things. But you could argue that Theo has been associated with gangsters for long enough to have turned into a monster.
But then Hobie (who is the closest human in the book who has something of a moral compass ) says the following in a conversation with Theo
“It’s not as if we’re running a hospital for sick children down here, let’s put it that way. Where’s the nobility in patching up a bunch of old tables and chairs? Corrosive to the soul, quite possibly…. Because, I mean – mending old things, preserving them, looking after them – on some level there’s no rational grounds for it-“
“There’s no rational grounds’ for anything I care about.”
“Well, no, nor me either,” he said reasonably”
Just when you thought that there were possibly some moral concerns about ethics involved, they were dismissed out of hand. The problem with this conversation is that it makes no distinction between the things Hobie cares about (he has selflessly adopted an orphaned child and spent his life restoring artworks and having honest dealings with his clients) with the things Theo cares about (he spent most of his youth doing drugs, defrauded buyers of his money, and betrayed Hobie’s trust). This conversation confuses Hobie’s devotion for antiques with Theo’s shameless pursuit of pleasure in life. Indeed, that is what the structure of the book seems to point to – a blurring of distinctions between the two. And that’s a massive problem for me.
Aesthetics and ethics are matters of importance. Blurring the boundaries between them is a serious matter. Think about Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita.
That’s not to say that I did not enjoy reading this book. I did (well, I was slightly exasperated with Theo’s behavior– naturally). But I just happen not to agree with it.
I loved its discussion of artworks and its loving description of the Rembrandts and the Corots. I hoped the book would dwell longer on the importance of art and artworks… The difference between the physical possession of an artwork and admiring it in a museum, the difference between an artwork’s personal importance and its artistic quality, the difference between an idolatry of objects versus the idolatry of art (what’s the difference between Mrs. Barbour’s passion for artworks and her daughter’s passion for designer clothing? Is there any?). What is the boundary at which we can say that an artwork is worth more than a human life?
I wanted this book to discuss the meaning of art. A crucial subject not to be ignored.
Instead, I encountered a discussion about a painting of a Goldfinch and the meaning of life. It wasn’t entirely what I expected, nor do I agree with its conclusions. But it’s a very enjoyable read.
Image credit: https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/07/goldfinch-donna-tartt-literary-criticism
3 thoughts on “Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” and the meaning of life”
I read this book this summer and it’s my new favourite read of all time. The Secret History, also by Donna Tartt, was my previous favourite. I think getting bored in the middle of her books is understandable, as a lot of the slower details can seem unnecessary, but I absolutely love her writing and the way she makes those small daily actions seem important and stand out so strongly. My personal favourite part was the time with Boris, because I absolutely adore him – not as a person, but as a character. I love his complexity and his sense of humour and way to accept life and turn things around. He was fun and fascinating to read about, and I find myself very fond of him.
Your whole discussion of the morality of the novel is interesting, but to be honest I just loved the book for its entertainment and my investment in the characters’ lives. It made me feel a lot of things, and I adored every bit and was constantly terrified that the characters would get hurt (especially Popchyk!). So I think while all the criticism the book gets is of course valid, it personally doesn’t affect my reading of it. x
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Boris is very good fun to read about, isn’t he? He made me laugh a lot…
i really want to check this out! it’s so cool how it has references to art. i also really want to check out How to Be Both by Ali Smith