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Literature / The Goldfinch

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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 charming old antiques craftsman Hobie, 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.


A film adaptation was released in 2019.

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: The housing bubble is alluded to, but the reason the event that kills Theo's mother is so significant? Because of another, much bigger destructive event that implicitly doesn't happen in Theo's world.
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  • Ambiguously Bi: Theo and Boris have many experiments 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.
  • Anxiety Dreams: A near-constant problem for Theo.
  • The Artful Dodger: Boris to a "T." Upon meeting him, Hobie, who has heard about him from Theo, admits that he had literally been picturing him as the Trope Namer from Dickens' Oliver Twist.
  • 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.
  • The Cameo: Francis Abernathy from The Secret History.
  • Character Filibuster: Hobie has a huge one about art in the last chapter after Theo confesses his secrets.
  • Cool Loser: Boris.
  • Cool People Rebel Against Authority: Part of Boris' appeal to both Theo and the reader - he pays little attention to teachers in school, filling his homework assignments with snarky quips. He later shows more interest in pursuing gratification in the criminal underworld than pursuing any socially accepted or legally legitimate goals.
  • Cut Himself Shaving: Boris has become an expert at inventing cover stories for the bruises his father leaves on him.
  • 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 a Sunshine Noir style 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.
  • Figure It Out Yourself: A rare Tear Jerker example when the protagonist finally reunites with his beloved deceased mother in a dream:
    And I knew that she could tell me anything I wanted to know (life, death, past, future) even though it was already there, in her smile, the answer to all questions, the before-Christmas smile of someone with a secret too wonderful to let slip, just yet: well, you’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?
  • 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.
  • Foreshadowing: Andy Barbour hates coming along on his father's sailing trips. Guess how he dies. Lampshaded when, after his death, Theo sees a photograph of Andy and his father standing by a boat model under unlit lamps and a clock showing five to twelve, and realises how intensely foreboding it looks.
  • Freak Out!: Theo's sense of guilt and fear of being caught clash with his fondness for the stolen painting
  • Freudian Excuse: The story follows Theo through his youth with all its nasty events (the terrorist attack, his mom's death, his separation from people he loves like Hobie and Boris, his father's attempt at robbing him and death, and the death of Andy), which makes the reader more predisposed to feel sorry for him when he grows up to do quite a few bad or shady things (drug addiction, selling forgeries, stalking Pippa even though she is in a relationship with someone else).
  • 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.
  • Generation Xerox: Both Larry and Theo get mixed up in crime and have massive substance abuse problems, and both go through life with a broken moral compass.
  • 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 often 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
  • Karma Houdini: Theo stole the painting as a child, and as an adult he is involved in an elaborate forgery scheme that could ruin the man who took him in as a Troubled Teen, and even eventually kills someone. Despite all this, things mostly work out for him: he's able to get off scot-free for both the murder and stealing the painting after turning in someone else, and pays off his debts from the forgery scam with the reward money.
  • Kosher Nostra: Theo's father owes money to a Jewish loan shark who dresses like a cowboy.
  • Left Hanging: The identity and motivations of the group who destroyed the museum are never revealed, and numerous potential plot threads and background details alluded to by Lucius Reeve are left in the dark.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Andy Barbour is very much this.
  • Lovable Rogue: Boris all the way.
  • Love at First Sight: Theo for Pippa.
  • 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.
  • Maybe Ever After: Theo and Pippa.
  • 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?
  • Now or Never Kiss: Boris and Theo.
  • Occidental Otaku: Reclusive young Andy Barbour's hobbies consist mostly of reading manga, which is stated as the reason he wants to learn Japanese.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Theo refers to Boris' girlfriend by Boris' nickname for her, Kotku, because at the time of writing he can't remember her real name.
  • Parental Favoritism: The Barbours each have a favorite child of their four.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Two for the price of one with Audrey Decker and Welty Blackwell in the opening chapter.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: A lot of the things Theo and Boris get up to over the course of the novel are pretty reprehensible (e.g. Boris stealing the painting from Theo, Theo passing off the Chimeras as legitimate knowing full-well it would ruin Hobie's credibility if discovered) but when these things come to light, no one is particularly bothered by them in the long term. Boris even speculates that if they hadn't done some of these bad things, later good things would never have happened.
  • 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.
  • Rule of Symbolism: At the engagement party, Theo's fiancée Kitsey wears white (and is compared to a snowflake by Boris), whereas Pippa, the woman he really loves, is in warm colours (green dress and red hair).
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Sensitive Theo to the more impulsive and assertive Boris.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Theo drops the names of a wide range of shows, books, authors, and films that he enjoys.
    • Boris refers to Theo by the affectionate nickname "Potter", because of his apparent similarity to a certain teen wizard.
    • 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.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Boris exemplifies this trope.
  • 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. Interestingly, his mother claims he is her favorite after his death.
  • 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.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Everywhere. Theo's father started dating Xandra before he left their family, Theo is initially sleeping with two different women at the same time (both of whom are also dating other people), Kitsey is seeing Tom Cable while engaged to Theo, and Boris often cheats on his wife Astrid.

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