Literature / The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch is a Pulitzer-winning 2013 novel by Donna Tartt, the author of The Secret History. Like The Secret History, The Goldfinch is an introspective, confessional neo-romanticist novel that focuses on aesthetic beauty, guilt, and the inner thoughts of the protagonist against a troubled situation filled with strikingly picaresque secondary characters.

When young Theo Decker's mother is killed by Western Terrorists in an attack on a New York art museum, Theo finds himself moving between a variety of guardians, including his mother's wealthy but emotionally distant friends and an abusive father with a gambling compulsion. All the while Theo makes a number of quirky and unusual friends, including a charmingly dishonest elderly antiques dealer/swindler, an irreverent and anti-intellectual globe-trotting European druggie named Boris, and his true love Pippa - every bit as broken and confused as himself. Just as he makes unusual, morally dubious friends, Theo faces challenges to his well-being from a number of equally quirky and morally complex antagonists, including Bobo Silver, a soft-spoken but intimidating and flamboyantly-dressed loan shark, and Lucius Reeve, a mysterious and manipulative blackmailer tracking Theo's movements. As Theo, perpetually traumatized and always deep in his own thoughts, moves between one amoral and dangerous situation after the other, one overlying current defines his life: the stolen painting of a goldfinch that Theo carries with him from the museum where his mother was killed, and his fear of being caught.


This work provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Theo's father, and Boris' family as well
  • Affably Evil: Mr. Silver - despite his profession and threats to Larry's life, he is consistently and sincerely praised by both Larry and Boris for being a great guy.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Theo manages to feel pity for his father after it's all said and done.
  • The Alcoholic: Larry Decker, Boris's father, and Boris himself.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Kitsey is in love with a deadbeat conman. Theo's father, an irresponsible gambler, is in a relationship with Xandra. Boris has a number of conquests to his name. Theo, something of a bad boy himself, also notes that he has no shortage of romantic opportunities.
  • Alternate History: While some real world trends and events are alluded to, the catastrophic event that sends Theo on his troubled journey is entirely fictitious and society as a whole is implied to have taken a somewhat different trajectory from that in the real world, due to the absence of certain major events and the presence of others (such as said fictitious catastrophic event).
  • Ambiguously Bi: Theo and Boris have a single experiment with bisexuality as teens. Theo feels awkward about it afterwards, but Boris is unfazed. This trope is a theme in Tartt's works.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Theo and Boris wonder if Hobie is gay, since he seems to have no love life. Theo isn't sure whether Hobie is discreetly involved with a woman or just very close friends.
  • The Artful Dodger: Boris to a "T"
  • Bastard Boyfriend: Boris is this, despite being a sympathetic character, and dating Theo's self-destructive father isn't Xandra's smartest choice.
  • The Beautiful Elite: The Barbours are a wealthy, elite and beautiful family.
  • Big Applesauce: Most of the action takes place in Manhattan. Theo writes that until age 13 he had only been outside of New York City for 8 days.
  • British Teeth: Theo notes that Boris, who has lived all around the world, has grey, crooked and "un-American" teeth. In adulthood, Boris has received a new set of pearly white, very American choppers.
  • Broken Bird: Theo and Pippa. In Theo's case, it leads to his becoming more introspective and focused on beauty, but also - not unrelatedly- more likely to find himself in harm's way.
  • Character Filibuster: Hobie has a huge one about art in the last chapter after Theo confesses his secrets.
  • Deadly Road Trip:Amsterdam
  • Death Is Such an Odd Thing: Theo's reaction to the death of his mother
  • Department of Child Disservices: Theo's social workers in New York after his mother's death are distant and incompetent.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Crossed by Theo's father after he is unsuccessful in obtaining Theo's educational fund to pay off his debts.
  • Died Happily Ever After: Heavily implied with Theo's mother, in his vision of her in the mirror
  • Disco Dan: Larry Decker is a subtle example. He still affects the manner of an 80s playboy and ignores the decay around him in the doomed pursuit of a big-shot lifestyle that no longer has a place in the 21st century.
  • Door Stopper: At over 800 pages, it definitely counts as this.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Downplayed. Theo and Boris take quite a lot of drugs from their early teens and on. While it doesn't send them into a Afterschool Special-style tailspin of self-destruction, it still has a deleterious effect on their lives. In adulthood, Theo has become a Functional Addict who struggles with getting off the pills.
  • Emotionless Girl: Mrs Barbour is an adult example. She never seems to express any emotion and always has a detached and proper demeanor. However, she becomes more emotional after her husband dies.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Kitsey is admired as extremely beautiful and has platinum blonde hair.
  • Evil Debt Collector: Mr. Silver, who goes so far as to communicate threats to Larry through teenage Theo.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Lucius Reeve
  • First Girl Wins: Played with. Theo falls instantly in love with Pippa at the age of 13, but they never get romantically linked. In the end, we don't learn whether he'll end up with her.
  • Fish out of Water: Theo attends an early college program for high school students, but due to his unusual life situations and untamed personality barely earns his degree and shows nowhere near the level of interest or ambition as his classmates.
  • Freak Out: Theo's sense of guilt and fear of being caught clash with his fondness for the stolen painting
  • Functional Addict: Theo as an adult has a pill addiction, but still manages to keep his life together, or at least look like he does.
  • The Gambling Addict: Theo's father fancies himself a big-shot gambler, but he's heavily in debt and convinced that his next shot will take him all the way.
  • Gentle Giant: Hobie is frequently described as a giant of a man. He has a sedate, kind and almost meek personality, preferring quiet meals with close friends and working in his shop.
  • Green-Eyed Monster:
    • Theo is intensely jealous of Pippa's boyfriend.
    • A teenage Theo bitterly resents that Boris, with whom he has been inseparable and once even has casual sex with, takes up with Kotku.
  • Heroes Prefer Redheads: Theo has a lifelong crush on Pippa. He frequently mentions her red hair.
  • Heroic BSOD: Theo at several points in the story, especially in Amsterdam.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Theo is hopelessly in love with Pippa, but she doesn't give him the slightest bit of encouragement. In the end it's revealed that she does love him, but thinks that a relationship between them could be disastrous. It's left open whether they do decide to get together.
  • Informed Attractiveness:
    • Theo spends some time talking about how attractive his parents were.
    • Kitsey is described as flawlessly beautiful by several characters.
    • Pippa is described as pretty, but not as classically attractive as Kitsey
  • Kosher Nostra: Theo's father owes money to a Jewish loan shark who dresses like a cowboy.
  • Likable Villain: The eccentric and Affably Evil Bobo Silver is incredibly personable by nature, as well as, let's face it, kind of cool.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Andy Barbour is very much this.
  • Lovable Rogue: Boris all the way
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Subverted by Pippa, who is quirky and just as damaged as Theo. He's hopelessly in love with her, and a relationship with her just might finally make Theo happy, but she's hardly ever around and never becomes romantically involved in him, though the future remains open.
  • My Nayme Is: It's "Xandra," not "Sandra." Theo finally discovers that her legal name is actually still Sandra.
  • Mysterious Past: It's never made explicitly clear what Boris' family's background involves (other than them being laborers), but it may or may not be savory.
  • No Ending: In the end, the painting issue is resolved and Theo talks about the lessons he's learned about life, love and beauty, but most other plotlines are unresolved: Does he end up with Kitsey or Pippa? Does he manage to smooth over the issue with the chimeras and Lucius Reeve?
  • Parental Favoritism: The Barbours each have a favorite child of their four.
  • Romantic False Lead: Both Theo and Pippa become involved with "safe" romantic partners, but Theo is in love with Pippa. Theo's fiance is also in love with someone else. Whether they'll all choose a safe life of comfort or a passionate and risky life is left unresolved.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Boris exemplifies this trope
  • Shout-Out:
    • Theo drops the names of a wide range of shows, books, authors, and films that he enjoys.
    • The Goldfinch is a real painting and takes a central role in the plot.
    • At Theo's engagement party to Kitsey, one of the guests is Francis Abernathy from Tartt's previous book The Secret History.
  • Time Skip: After following Theo's life very closely from the ages of 13-16, then the story jumps about eight years.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Played with. Boris leads Theo into a number of self destructive lifestyle habits and eventually a potentially fatal situation, but is also the one person who genuinely treats Theo the best in the entire book.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Theo, so very much.
  • Troubled, but Cute: Theo, among other characters.
  • Two Decades Behind: The description of Theo's father Larry recalls '70s and '80s actors typecast in "bad boy" roles, such as Don Johnson or James Caan. Theo's narration describes him as a "relic" of that era. Fittingly, his risky, decadent lifestyle is rooted in the late 20th century and hasn't budged for a present that demands more resourcefulness and caution.
  • The Unfavorite: Andy Barbour is the odd man out in his family.
  • Viva Las Vegas: Theo's father Larry moved to Las Vegas after his divorce to become a professional gambler. He lives in a derelict McMansion and is heavily in debt to local thugs.
  • Western Terrorists: an attack by unnamed violent right-wing extremists is the impetus for the rest of the events in the novel. We never do find out much about who they are or what they want.
  • White Guilt: Theo briefly muses that his slot at an early college high school program, which he does not seriously invest time or thought in, would be better suited for a lower-income minority student more intelligent or talented than he is.
  • Why Did You Make Me Hit You?: Boris makes this excuse to Theo after Boris's girlfriend comes to school with a fat lip.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Boris hits his high school girlfriend, giving her a fat lip. Amazingly, he remains somewhat sympathetic, though he's always a rather unsavory character.
  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: Xandra (not "Sandra") spells her name with an X in a rather silly attempt to be edgy.