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A Bird, A Boy, & A Painting: Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch

The European goldfinch is a small bird with a red face, black and white head, warm brown upper parts and whiter underparts. The male has a dark mask just behind the eye. This seventeenth century oil on wood painting by Calen Febritius captures the life of a pet goldfinch, no doubt kept for its cheery song.

The bird stands on his feed box and looks at the viewer with confidence. It appears he could fly away until the viewer takes a closer look. A tiny chain attaches the bird’s ankle to the box. The bird appears free, but isn’t.

In this, Febritius’ Goldfinch is much like the protagonist in Donna Tartt’s Pulizer Prize winning book, The Goldfinch. Tarttt uses painting as a means to anchor young Theo, giving him a final tie to his dead mother. ThereTartt employs two other themes — references to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and a story more than one critic compares to Dicken’s Oliver Twist.

Less overt is the finch as a Christian symbol. Because it eats thistle seeds, the bird is said to represent Christ’s Passion, particularly the Crown of Thorns. It appears in many Christian paintings as a sub-text [Can paintings have a sub-text?] for endurance and persistence. Certainly, Theo represents these traits by the very fact that he is still alive on the last page.

The book is about a boy from the age of thirteen until perhaps the age of thirty. Theo Decker is an imperfect child who idolizes his mother. He’s also suspended from school. The novel opens with mother and son on their way to meet the school principal, but they have a little extra time and duck into the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art to view The Goldfinch. A sudden terrorist explosion propells Theo into more worlds that any one person could be expected to survive.

Unable to find his mother, Theo befriends a dying man who urges him to take The Goldfinch away with him in order to protect the painting. Theo complies, always intending to return the painting, but never quite able to do so. Now motherless and suffering from intense grief, survivor guilt and PTSD, Theo joins the Barbour family because he knew their son at school. Theo makes friends with Hobie, an antique furniture restorer and meets Pippa, who was also in the museum during the explosion. Pippa suffers  more serious physical injuries than Theo, and becomes the object of the boy’s  unrequited love. And this is just in the first few chapters.

Unexpectedly Theo’s father, who left the family some time before, appears and whisks the boy off to Vegas. That’s a story in itself. It’s in Vegas that Theo meets the most charming ne’er do well in the book, a seriously disturbed boy named Boris.

Boris is worldly wise with a heart of gold. Together the boys experiance life in an  alcoholic and drug induced haze. It’s like Peter Pan gone wrong – all boys and no functional parents.

Improbably, Tartt’s book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The citation calls The Goldfinch

“a beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters … a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.”

Stephen King called The Goldfinch “a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade.”

Despite the praise, many literary critics expressed dismay that Tartt’s book achieved so many accolades and sales. When adults enjoy reading Harry Potter books, they sniffed, the literary bar falls. The London Sunday Times called Goldfinch a fairy tale for adults. Indeed. Except fairy tales are generally shorter.

To be honest,  I skimmed a substantial number of pages, yet I kept reading. Tartt is a compelling writer, and I was hooked on the question of whether Theo would actually make it into adulthood and self-respect. It seems that he did … or did he?

The Goldfinch is available as a Kindle edition. Take a chance. Read it and see what you think.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Available at

Featured Image: The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. 1654. Original at the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis. The Hague, Netherlands. US Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Citation.

Natalie Hayes. “Why Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch might be the Best-Seller that Nobody can Finish.” The Guardian. Dec. 10, 2014.

Evgenia Perez. “It’s Tartt, but is it Art?” Vanity Fair. July 2014.…/goldfinch-donna-tartt-literary-critics


Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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