The Strawberry Criterion: The Goldfinch

To view The Goldfinch through the lens of the traditional novel is to view an object with one eye closed–as an image robbed of its true depth. Discussions of character, plot, authorial biography and style, though relevant during one’s reading, prove upon the book’s completion inessential. For The Goldfinch reveals itself to be, in gradations so slow as to be almost imperceptible, a thoroughly contemporary book, albeit one whose currency is made possible by an adherence to orthodoxy. If that idea seems paradoxical, it’s because it is. A lot this particular fiction works paradoxically, anomalously, in innumerable ways it shouldn’t. Whether you’re  James Wood or the “culture” critic for the Washington Post, novels of this ilk are easy to misconstrue; faults are found and clung to in parts ultimately redeemed by the whole. And The Goldfinch does redeem its many failings, wholly and unbelievably. To read the entire book and think otherwise would be to deny the wacky, nonsensical magic of art, how a single object can give rise to infinite interpretations, how words on a page can be a map of the soul, how a collection of brush strokes can be at the same time a bird.

The Goldfinch has been likened ad nauseum to Dickens, and for good measure, and the similarities will not be further enumerated here. What this blog post will discuss is how Donna Tartt uses familiar the style and tenets of Dickens to write what is, in actuality, a completely contemporary, un-Dickensy book, a book whose central sub-textual conflict is the irreconcilability of the classical and modern sensibilities. To put it more simply, The Goldfinch is a nineteenth century novel about the current impossibility of writing a nineteenth century novel. It is Donna Tartt attempting, and purposefully failing, to wedge the square peg of Dickensian novel into the round hole of “post-modern” America. But before that can elaborated on, let’s delve into why the word “post-modern” now necessitates quotation marks.

ridin da goldfinch

The beginnings of modernism, per the theories of Heidi Julavits, are tied to the advent of the railroad. An increase in the speed of transportation–and by consequence, the speed of financial transactions–beget an industrialized world of unprecedented social and financial interconnectedness. The singular pace of waking life was suddenly and irrevocably sped up, fractured, and the modernist sensibility arose to reflect this. Loosely following this line of logic, the beginnings of “post-modernism” are linked to commercialization of airlines, the plane. (The plane is everywhere in post-modern fiction: it’s circling the sky in endless figure eights at the end of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, it’s landing as grim metaphor in the beginning of Updike’s Rabbit at Rest.) This advancement exacerbated modernism’s fragmentation, life could occur at yet another speed. The insinuated perpetuity of the “post” in “postmodernism” suggested that this fragmentation would continually increase, forever. Postmodernism would never end, it would only become more and more post. Up until the end of the twentieth century, this seemed very much to be the reality. Then two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and everything discussed in this paragraph exploded.

Appropriately, the inciting incident of The Goldfinch is a terrorist attack on New York City. A bomb is set off at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in an event that causally impacts all that follows, while also forming the psychological and emotional core of the book’s narrator, Theo Decker. Theo’s saintly mother is killed in the explosion. In its aftermath, he smuggles out the titular 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, and, over the course of the book, Theo must secretly ferry the painting through a world made fundamentally different by an act of terror. On the surface level, the painting is both unabashed maguffin and easy metaphor for Theo’s grief. But on a figurative level, “The Goldfinch” the painting exists in the post-attack world of the book much as The Goldfinch the novel exists in ours: as a classical piece of art, a remnant from the past, searching for a place in the destabilized present.  As orphaned Theo and his equally orphaned painting are bandied about the country, first to the 1%er purgatory of a family friend on the Upper West Side, then to his deadbeat father’s hustler class purgatory of Las Vegas, the stasis and messiness of our current cultural moment, of an America in a state of cultural and financial decline, haunts the character–and the novel–as much as the real and fictive attacks themselves.

In Las Vegas, Theo receives a letter from his Dickensian benefactor that sums up these concepts nicely: “When we are sad–at least I am like this–it can be comforting to cling to familiar objects, to things that don’t change…The light of long ago is different from the light of today and yet here, in this house, I’m reminded of the past at every turn.”


Sure, but how does this all relate to the ridiculous above paragraph about planes, trains, and “postmodernism”? How does The Goldfinch embody the end of that quotation mark-requiring literary movement? Well, to understand that one should consider other recent and “important”  novels released prior to The Goldfinch, all of which took profound cues from nineteenth century literature. Franzen’s Freedom had War & Peace. The Art of Fielding cribbed from Melville and The Marriage Plot from Austen. Each of these books (all of which are great and can & will be defended, Marriage Plot included, in a subsequent blog post if necessary) co-opts the intimacy that readers have with the nineteenth century aesthetic and uses that intimacy to tell what are fundamentally modern stories. Yet each, too, abandons the established form of the nineteenth century novel for short periods in the narrative. Freedom introduces the ludicrous meta element of Patty’s autobiography. The Marriage Plot follows Leonard down his bipolar rabbit hole, and The Art of Fielding goes full Joyce in Guert’s final scene. When all is said and done though, these deviations from the classical form amount only to cracks in the facade. What Tartt accomplishes in the last twenty pages of The Goldfinch takes that facade and obliterates it. It blows that shit up, so to speak. Pseudo spoilers follow.

(Last blog aside about the end of “postmodernism,” promise: What are readers meant to brand novels operating in this mode? “New Victorianism” seems to suffice, but that doesn’t correct the lingering misnomer of “postmodernism.” To classify properly, it may require the use of our age’s most powerful means of transformation: re-branding. Which would mean a re-branding of both modernism and postmodernism into distinctions that are less comments on style and more reflections of art’s identity as a wasteful, useless byproduct of the means of production. So Modernism becomes Early Industrialism, to reflect a time when the Anglophile world still manufactured stuff. Postmodernism becomes Late Industrialism, to reflect the slowing and stagnation of that stuff-making. And the current cultural moment becomes Post-Industrialism, where everything is rehash, forgery, nothing new is produced. This is the reality depicted in (and maybe undermined by) The Goldfinch, which brings this blog post finally back to the book’s final pages.)

“peeka boo”

Like its contemporaries, The Goldfinch readily betrays its Victorian aesthetic when needed. An uncharacteristic looseness affects the prose and the imagery tends toward the surreal, like in the scene where Theo is rolling face on acid: “Everything was hysterically funny, even the playground slide was smiling at us, and at some point, deep in the night, when we were climbing on the jungle gym and showers of sparks were flying out of our mouths, I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that was the secret of the universe.” But, also like its contemporaries, the novel swiftly returns to the established mode. For almost all of The Goldfinch‘s 800 pages, this is the rule; the plot and style deviate from these deviations as quickly as they deviate into them. The Victorian plot proceeds at a Victorian pace in Victorian language so clear that air falters as simile, and not a sentence need be reread. Every word works to carry the reader to the deviation of no return, the climactic scene.

Which is, mind-bogglingly, not a scene at all. Ostensibly, the pages follow Theo, who has become an antiquities dealer who traffics in knockoffs, as he attempts to repay the buyers of his forged antiques. But mainly it’s just him, and thus Donna Tartt, sitting around thinking extemporaneously about Proust and art and Disney Princesses and the meaning of life and, of course, “The Goldfinch.” She writes, “Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature–fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.” In the story proper, that hopeless place is Theo’s grief over his mother’s death. In reality, that hopeless place is the artistic medium of the novel, a form seemingly always at odds with the modern sensibility–except here. Unlike nearly all that comes before, this section is totally, completely modern, and it is so because it emerges fully-formed from Tartt’s modern consciousness, a feat only made possible by the 800 pages of orthodoxy that precede it. The Goldfinch is derivative of Dickens for exactly as long as it needs to be derivative of Dickens. Once its reader is completely immersed in the Victorian aesthetic, the novel betrays it. The veil of fiction must first be drawn before it can be rent, and in this moment The Goldfinch stops reading like Charles Dickens and starts reading like Donna Tartt. The final voice is hers.

Little, Brown may as well have printed the mise en abyme in neon: “And if I could go back in time I’d clip the chain in a heartbeat and never care a minute that the picture was never painted.” That sentence is her clipping the chain.

It is entirely possible that not one of The Goldfinch‘s million other readers shared this interpretation. To them, the novel is the story of Theo Decker and nothing else; the trains of modernism never factor in. And it doesn’t matter. One of the most lasting takeaways from those final pages is the fundamental, paramount importance of subjectivity in the manufacture and consumption of art: to both creator and in-taker it must be personal, each aspect, brushstroke, letter like inked thumb pressed firmly to page. This is what separates art from commodities, for things made for blind consumption, and truly great novels, like this one, can only be consumed with opened eyes. The closed eyes of the world would say the Victorian novel is too rooted in the past to be applicable to modern times, and The Goldfinch would agree, with a caveat. Novelists, like their readers, are bound to the past, from first breath to final, but in this way they’re free. That is The Goldfinch‘s joke, 800 pages in the telling, with a 20-page punchline written in a language you’ve never heard before. But somehow you understand: the joke, the language, the secret of the universe. You laugh.

Strawberry Verdict: 5 out of 5 Strawberries