• Isabelle Osborne

Reviewing Donna Tartt's 'The Goldfinch'

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, The Goldfinch is a masterpiece of literature. The plot centres around a single piece of artwork, and expands to cover different discussions that reflect upon reality of the lives of the characters, observing their relationships with drug abuse, loss and bereavement, unrequited love and criminality.

It is a quick paced novel, traversing different locations, times and ideas, yet Tartt offers so much time to understand the characters so that we are completely embraced in her fictional world. The novel has uncomfortable moments - such as the downward spiral Theo endures as he declines into the world of drugs and substance abuse - that put you on edge whilst simultaneously provoking a further interest into where Theo will end up next. Just as we are anxious to see what will become of Theo, the novel takes us in so many different directions that it is impossible to navigate or predict its events. And this, I believe, is what attributes to its beauty.

‘There’s always more to things, a hidden level.’

One thing I really loved about this novel is how engaging each character is. The characters are so individual yet embody similar character traits; whilst all from different backgrounds, we see a familiar vein of trauma, internal suffering and loss, which mean something different for each character. I also enjoyed tracing the character shifts each experience - whilst Pippa is reserved and broken upon our first acquiescence, she becomes brighter and more affirmed in herself as the novel goes on. In contrast, Mrs Barbour’s shaded superiority and nuanced arrogance is tackled by events that happen during her life, so the woman she was before transforms.

The novel takes a more philosophical turn towards its end, which is aided by how the narrative transitions to speak directly to its reader. The characters disperse and the novel comes to a halt, so the spotlight is on you as the reader and Theo himself. I was left considering: is an act that has been motivated by negativity, but results in positivity, a good act? In many cases, we consider acts based on their outcome and use this to determine whether an act is deemed good or bad. However, this novel makes you consider that an act is a product of its subject, and that motivations may be displaced when looking purely at the consequence. Theo always seems to be searching for redemption, yet is he trying to redeem himself because what he did was wrong, or because he needs to feel a sense of gratification in righting his wrongs? I think this is a question Theo is grappling with throughout this novel, alongside the reader who is also trying to figure out whether Theo is a good or bad man.

‘Intentionally or no: I had extinguished a light at the heart of the world.’

Another question I pondered after closing this book was: can we really choose a life that we want, or is what we want out of our control? Theo suffers immense hardship throughout the time we spend with him in this novel, which some may say justifies his decline into drug abuse and scandal. But I would argue Theo was not only destined for this life, but subconsciously wanted it. I suppose this leads to the realisation that everything is based on perspective and opinion, which I believe is what the novel teaches us. One may read the character of Theo as ruined, damaged, unable to control his wayward desires, but another may read him as a product of his unfortunate upbringing that leaves him no choice but to follow a darker path than he may have desired for himself. The nature verses nurture debate is paramount in this novel, and really sparks the reader to question what our desires and aspirations are motivated by.

‘You see one painting, I see another…four hundred years before us, four hundred years after we’re gone - it’ll never strike anybody the same way.’

Another layer to Theo is how he is constantly fighting against what his society, and arguably us as readers, deem respectable and worthy. Whilst his friend Boris is comfortable in his destructive ways, embracing them to live a life he knows he is destined for, Theo seems to want to battle his fate. This is, until the very end, when he knows he must embrace the life he has fashioned to himself, regardless of whether he was in control enough to change it. All-be-it nihilistic, Theo, and by definition Tartt herself, offer an interesting outlook on life.

The novel brings to light how one event can set off a chain reaction of events that can never be forseen. I am torn as to how I feel about the morality and our inevitable mortality after finishing this book.

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