Here is The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, Rembrandt’s pupil and Vermeer’s teacher, around which the novel is centered:
Poor, little goldfinch. A famous bird he may be, especially now that he has been written about so eloquently by such a fascinating woman, but still he is caught with a chain by his foot. He is not free to fly. To find his own way. To be his own bird. He is trapped against his will, not of his own design.
This is the crux upon which Tartt has hung her novel. The New York Times describes The Goldfinch as thus: “a painting smuggled out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art after a bombing becomes a boy’s prize, guilt and burden.” But, that is similar to the review I once read which summarizes The Secret History as being about hubris.
There is so much more.
Donna Tartt opens The Secret History with the mention of a fatal flaw. For Richard, the narrator of The Secret History, it was beauty at any cost. For Theo, the narrator of The Goldfinch, it is the ruthlessness of life: the harm done to a powerless boy when his parents divorce; the harm done when his mother dies in an explosion at the MOMA in New York (similarly, Fabritius also died in an explosion at the Delft factory in Holland); the harm done when his grandparents don’t want him, much less his alcoholic father with whom he goes to live in Nevada. If it were not for Hobie, the antique furniture restorer, he would have no one to count on. Theo can’t even wholly depend on his often charming Russian friend, Boris.
Together they drink. Steal. Practically overdose on drugs. Commiserate about the worthlessness of their fathers.
There is no one in Theo’s life who is a dependable person, let alone a moral compass. Almost every character wallows in compromise, selfishness, and irresponsibility. Hobie, and his dear friend’s niece, Pippa, are the only two who shelter from the storm. Even Pippa, who suffers under the same trauma as Theo does because they were both in the museum when the bomb exploded, has only become his “morphine lollipop.” In other words, a person who can comfort, but not sustain, another.
This novel is about loneliness, sorrow and joy. It is about art and beauty. It’s about fate and questioning God. It’s about the deceitfulness of the heart which Tartt expounds upon at the closing of her book.
“How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”
Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?”
I’ll explain it to you, Theo. The question is not “What if the heart can’t be trusted?” There is no doubt about hearts being treacherous for I, too, once believed in the adage to follow your heart. But, as anyone who does so knows, that is not the path to happiness. Why? Because “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
And yet we try to follow what we think we want. We long to understand our motivations. Our wounds. And above all, our purpose.
Surely we’re more than chained, helpless birds, beautiful to look at but unable to fly away.