The Goldfinch SPOILERS ALLOWED
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Donna Tartt takes 700 pages to write a compelling, tortuous story about art and loss, then, just in case we don't get the point, she writes a lengthy epilogue explaining the Woody Allen defense, "The heart wants what the heart wants." That's a pretty indefensible statement (as it was when Woody said it), which is why, I guess, she feels the need to spend so much time working it out. I think that was a brilliant ploy. Most of us have had some dealings with the kind of person who is willing to rationalize forever, we may even have done it ourselves. All the excuses sound so reasonable. I think she was taking a chance with the epilogue, but for me, it worked as excellent character development.
Certainly Boris's final explanation of how he stole and used the painting and then got it back reveals him as a full-fledged sociopath.
As for the final section, in which Theo rambles on about what he's learned, I confess I didn't see it as saying much about Boris, and I'm going to have to re-read it in light of what you say above.
So more to come later!
It really takes a long time to think about all this, but the Theo-Boris pair made me wonder about the nature of sociopathy. Is Boris a born sociopath? Or does he become one through his choices? Could Theo become one? Or is his slow redemption at the end inevitable because of the kind of person he is.
Most of the characters seem to develop as they are acted on by external forces. The exceptions are Pippa and Hobie, the most stable (and in some ways the most clueless) characters.
Sorry for the randomness of these comments. Lots going on in this book.
Pippa and Hobie are just about the only likable characters in the book, and I don't think they're clueless. Pippa loves Theo, but she knows enough about her remaining PTSD to know he would only drag her down if she tried to make a life with him. That's a pretty big clue. And dear old Hobie is just too moral to be involved with the cut throat people who surround him.
There is lots going on with this book, and the more I think about it, the better it gets.
I did love the character development in The Goldfinch, which I think was masterfully done. Even people who seem like caricatures on the surface, like Boris, have nuances, which is why they come to feel like very real people by the end, people who exist somewhere in the world. For me, though, the character I most disliked was Theo, who I felt was characterized mainly by his inability to take action and to direct his own life. The only real actions he seemed to take were stealing the painting and later, leaving Las Vegas. Otherwise, he seemed so passive, which I think is why Boris was so easily able to manipulate him.
He does try to get himself together at the end.
Agree exactly with you; not sure I'd re-read this, but these characters really do stick in your head. It might be one of those books you can keep by your bedside and open to any page and just read a few chapters occasionally.
I do that with a couple of novels.
I think that this is a book about character (not just the characters), and it is also a book about redemption. Like The Secret History, The Goldfinch revolves around a very bad choice made by a character, and how that decision shapes and haunts him. Anyone who has ever made a life changing bad decision can relate to this book, so its appeal has got to be fairly universal.
I'm not certain that Boris is an anti-social personality, because he did have the capacity to empathize with other people. He never hurt others (physically.) He was very kind to the dog Popchyk and the dog loved him. All that being said, Boris was clearly a teenage alcoholic. He himself had suffered terrible physical abuse, in a addition to neglect and abandonment. His life on the streets in Eastern Europe was more difficult than anything endured by Theo. If I had to sum up Boris's character, I would say that he was the ultimate survivor.
The "stream of consciousness" ending was perfectly fitting. Don't we all when we experience life changing events try to construct a rationale to fit those events into our personal history, to make sense out of them? I don't think that Boris and Theo's "the heart wants what the heart wants" is an excuse or a justification. I think that Boris showed Theo how to survive. I think that "the heart wants what the heart wants" is a statement of facts that we must accept if we are ever going to move on. You can't move on with endless guilt and self blame. Theo did the right thing in the end. Boris, in his way, came through as well. For me, the moral is that good can come out of bad things. Redemption is possible if you leave yourself open to it.
This book is still in my head after several months, and that's a clue that it has a good deal of power.
You can't move on with endless guilt and self blame.
True, but can you move on without at least a little? Aren't guilt and self-blame simply another way to look at self-knowledge without which real repentance and change are impossible?
If I had to sum up Boris's character, I would say that he was the ultimate survivor.
Yes, he is. What his long-term survival chances are, though, I don't know. I sort of think Boris is the tragedy here; I can see Theo taking care of him until he implodes.
I think that Tartt goes a long way to make the reader question whether Boris is truly immoral. She continually stresses that although he steals, he is generous, and treats everything more or less as communal property. Boris never seems to get angry, to the contrary, he seems to accept people's flaws and makes excuses for them. He is never physically violent. When he goes to work for Bobo Silver, he characterizes himself as a gopher for the boss, and not muscle. So he is a drug dealer, which could be argued is a victimless crime, or at most, supplying victims with the poison that they voluntarily crave.
Boris tried to get Theo to stay in Las Vegas, ostensibly to return the painting. Why did he show up at Theo's door years later if not to make amends? Why did he show up again at the end to give him 2 million dollars and his passport back? I cut Boris a lot of slack. With his upbringing, I don't think that he had many role models or good choices.
For me, the truly immoral, sociopathic character in the novel was Tom Cable. A petty thief and a user of people, who turned away from Theo immediately after his mother's death. Also contrast the conman Reeves(sp?) and his partner who swindled little old ladies out of their antiques.
Another interesting theme for me was how all of the fathers in the book utterly failed their children. Not just Theo's and Boris's fathers, but also Mr. Barbour, in part due to his mental illness. It seems that the best parents in the book were people who were not biological parents. Welty, Hobie and perhaps Mrs. Barbour and Mr. Decker, not for their own children but for Theo and Boris.
Another interesting theme for me was how all of the fathers in the book utterly failed their children. ... It seems that the best parents in the book were people who were not biological parents. Welty, Hobie and perhaps Mrs. Barbour and Mr. Decker, not for their own children but for Theo and Boris.
Yes, that is interesting. But the story isn't possible if Theo has a stable parent to protect and guide him.
Mrs. Barbour is one of my favorites. I think it's very difficult to draw a character like that who has very little warmth--at least outwardly--but a great sense of decency and courage. At least that's how she seems to me in her first incarnation. She doesn't try to "mother" Theo emotionally--perhaps she's constantly on guard given her husband's emotional state--but she builds a kind of shield around Theo.
I think the reason these characters stick in your head is because they invite the reader to create backstories for them. I'd read a book about Mrs. Barbour.
>16 nohrt4me2:. Regarding guilt and self-blame, I think that Theo's guilt is primarily about his mother's death, and that is what he cannot move past. In some ways, it is irrational guilt (only at the museum because he was smoking with Tom Cable and got suspended from school), but I think that children blame themselves for all kinds of things (parents' divorce comes to mind), and when a person feels guilty, he feels like a bad person, and when he believes that he is a bad person, I think that his behavior becomes that of a bad person. You are right that REMORSE is necessary to move on from a bad act, as well as making amends in some way. I think this is what Boris shows Theo how to do, and not be dragged down emotionally forever. For me, there is also a sense that perhaps he can overcome his guilt about his mother's death as well, if good truly can come out of bad. There is a hint that if Theo is no longer dragged down by his guilt, then perhaps he and Pippa could be happy together. Maybe that is the ultimate good that could come from the bad? There is hope, I think.
and, >16 nohrt4me2:, yes, Boris's life will undoubtedly come to a bad end. But maybe not inside his own head? Somehow, I don't think that he will be emotionally broken or defeated by his inevitable fate. Accepting, perhaps. If he doesn't meet a violent end, his liver will fail, and I think he knows that.
Had not thought about how the nature of Theo's and Boris's life would have much more complicated as a girl alone. But now you outline it, it makes perfect sense.
I don't know how much Boris is aware of his own flaws. He has develops an ever accruing hard shell as the novel progresses. I have not doubt he tells himself he is a very clever fixer. But as a teenager, he seems prone to crying jags and crushes on girls. How much of his own vulnerability will be able to penetrate the alcohol and drugs is hard to guage.
Perhaps that's why there's only one girl in The Secret History, who seems to be sexually used or abused by her brother, and maybe two other characters.
This struck me not as abusive, but the kind of comfort two youngsters might offer each other when they'd been drinking and were left pretty much to fend for themselves in a chaotic adult world.
Both of them seem heterosexually oriented, but I think that brief physical bond may be important to the intensity of their friendship.
The last main difference between psychopathy and sociopathy is in the presentation. The psychopath is callous, yet charming. He or she will con and manipulate others with charisma and intimidation and can effectively mimic feelings to present as “normal” to society. The psychopath is organized in their criminal thinking and behavior, and can maintain good emotional and physical control, displaying little to no emotional or autonomic arousal, even under situations that most would find threatening or horrifying. The psychopath is keenly aware that what he or she is doing is wrong, but does not care.
Conversely, the sociopath is less organized in his or her demeanor; he or she might be nervous, easily agitated, and quick to display anger. A sociopath is more likely to spontaneously act out in inappropriate ways without thinking through the consequences. Compared to the psychopath, the sociopath will not be able to move through society committing callous crimes as easily, as they can form attachments and often have “normal temperaments.” The sociopath will lie, manipulate and hurt others, just as the psychopath would, but will often avoid doing so to the select few people they care about, and will likely feel guilty should they end up hurting someone they care about.
That seems so Boris. He hurt Theo, he felt guilty, he made things up. I would say he wouldn't be so bad if you were his friend, but, like Tony Soprano, he could certainly turn on you if he thought you had damaged his friendship.
About Mrs. Barbour, she certainly took good physical care of Theo, but her emotions were pretty out of whack. I wonder if that's because she was so sucked into love of the older son, who seemed to be a psycho or sociopath himslef.
As it turns out, it is from a letter by Emily Dickinson to Mrs. Samuel Bowles shortly after the death of her husband. Turns out, this original quote is about grief.
"When the Best is gone- I know that other things are not of consequence - The Heart wants what it wants - or else it does not care -
You wonder why I write - so - Because I cannot help - I like to have you know some care - so when your life gets faint for it's other life - you can lean on us - We wont break, Mary. We look very small - but the Reed can carry weight."
This context is completely fitting with my interpretation of the novel. It is grief that makes Theo (and Mrs. Barbour) cease caring about societal norms. They want their loved one back, and if they cannot have the loved one, then they don't care about anything, including themselves, any more. The Dickinson quote is also interesting in that Dickinson says that she knows that she cannot help with her friend's loss, but all she can do is let her know that she cares and will be there for her.
I'm happy that I looked that up!
>27 vwinsloe: Boris hurts Theo by betraying him, not only by staying at his father's house after Theo flees, but by stealing his painting. Boris is also, if not angry, easily frustrated about his girlfriends.
>28 vwinsloe: Yes, thanks for amplifying the reference to Dickenson. Seems a lot less creepy coming from her than Woody!
As for authors having or not having these definitions, it took her 10 years to write The Goldfinch, and wasn't it 10 years to write The Secret History? I think that shows she has a thing about sociopaths for some reason.
>28 vwinsloe: Thanks for looking that up. It didn't seem Tartt would quote such a sleazebag, though if you're writing about sociopaths you might want to use some real life example. Just to stretch the point, I could think she found a quote from a truly loving person that had been used by a manipulator to show a contrast.
Generally, sociopaths hurt more than people's feelings. They are angry, violent people, and I don't think that Boris is correctly characterized as such. If Tartt wanted us to believe that he was a sociopath, she would have had him lighting fires or having homicidal rages. Instead, she repeatedly softened the misconduct that he did engage in. There is not a single incident of Boris being angry or violent that I can think of.
Theo actually engaged in more criminal activity and betrayed Hobie by selling his repaired and replicated furniture as originals to unsuspecting customers. As Boris points out, only Theo has murdered someone.
I guess if both boys are just viewed as immoral sociopaths created by their environments and lack of parenting, then I am not sure what the meaning or purpose of the book is? Sure, books don't always need a meaning or a purpose. But great books have them, and I think that this is a great book.
The more I think about it, I think that the choice of that particular painting was intentional and highly symbolic. The painting itself had survived an explosion that killed the artist that created it. So right away we are given a clue that the painting symbolizes Theo and his mother.
The painting itself is of a wild bird chained. The painting becomes Theo's burden as well as a connection to his mother and that fateful day (an albatross.) Is Theo the wild bird chained by his grief and guilt? When the painting is finally returned, is Theo finally freed?
There is just SO much food for thought in this book. Instead of writing about sociopathic behavior or PTSD, could Tartt's focus really have been on the psychological condition that is known as "complicated grief disorder?"
I also think you're absolutely right about the painting's symbolism. Poor chained Theo. He hoped Pippa would break that chain, but I think she realized she would just become entangled in it with him.
She also mentions more than once that she personally has a lot in common with Theo.
Donna Tartt seems to be an interesting character herself. She is described as reclusive, and any photo that I have seen of her she is always rocking the menswear. Definitely arouses my curiosity!
Anyhow, the better nun books are about how you live with other people without losing your faith. It's a lot easier to believe in God if you don't have to be nice to anybody.
Too funny. Theoretically believing in god helps you be nice to other people, though that often does not seem to work out in real life.
I don't think Mrs Barbour was particularly nice, nor was almost anyone else in the book except Pippa and Hobie, but they intentionally or inadvertently did good things for each other.
Nuns struggle with this every day. See Mark Salzman's excellent Lying Awake, or Rumer Godden's Black Narcissus.
But I digress.
But it seems that many readers who panned the book just didn't like the characters, who they believed were evil or unsympathetic.
To the extent that The Goldfinch failed for some people, I think that they read a lot more into these characters than was on the page. And to the extent that Tartt used what could be perceived as a stereotypical character in her creation of Boris, I guess she is to blame for that. I think that many readers just thought "Russian Mafia" when they were introduced to the Boris character, and based on that, they discredited anything that the character said or did. (Boris expressly stated that he was not a part of an organization. Xandra was the drug dealer, not Bobo Silver the loan shark for whom he worked as a young man.)
Personally, I think that Boris's character was unrealistic. (Almost like the "prostitute with a heart of gold" type character.) Tartt used Boris as comic relief, she used him to propel the plot forward, but she also used him as almost a Greek chorus who perceptively commented on Theo's mental state, and who helped him get past his grief and find a way to redemption. I think that if the reader can't credit what the character says within the four corners of the novel, if you can't believe that "good can come from bad"(bad being Boris) then the book is just not going to work as well for you as it did for me.
>42 Citizenjoyce:. There were two other "nice" characters. Theo's mother and Welty, although mostly through the memories of others.
I find it interesting that this criticism is not leveled as often at the George R.R. Martin books. Maybe it's because they're "genre fiction," but good God. Talk about pretentious impositions on one's time.
I find it amusing that the book that the Newsweek reviewer thought should have won the Pulitzer was Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens. I have liked a couple of Lethem's books, and I tried listening to the audiobook of Dissident Gardens and found it so self-indulgent and so narrowly focused in its apparent appeal (jewish socialist Manhattanites) that I returned it to the library unfinished. And, I can't really remember any other time that I have done that, being somewhat obsessive compulsive about finishing what I have started.
800 pages to say that? I don't think so. So they left the people out of it entirely? Well, that would make the book seem way too long, wouldn't it?
ETA >50 vwinsloe: . I had found the book ungainly, dull and shockingly unimaginative
Ungainly to hold because it is so big, neither of the other adjectives remotely apply. What an amazing review.
So there is that view. I can understand why the book might not have universal appeal for that reason.
I am interested in all of these reactions, because I thought the book was terrific, and have a hard time understanding why others would not feel the same way.
That said, I appreciated the way Tartt treated addiction in this book and The Secret History. Pippa goes through the same trauma that Theo does ... but she does not turn to substance abuse. Theo is his father's son, and has inherited that proclivity. The same is true for Boris. Both characters are selfish, self-absorbed, and largely create most of their own problems.
Now that I think about it, the epilogue, which I found too long and dense at first, mirrors the rush of lucidity addicts say they feel when they've been sober for awhile. Suddenly, connections and become clear and things make more sense. It is Theo's first time looking outside himself. A good sign he may recover.
I don't see Boris having any similar moment. He likes being a drunk.
I didn't feel much sympathy for the characters in The Secret History, but felt that their actions and the way they viewed themselves, fueled by alcohol and a sense of superiority encouraged by their teacher, was certainly believable and very well done. They were sort of like a bunch of Leopold and Loebs. I wonder if Tartt was inspired by that relationship when she wrote the book.
Good insight. And I couldn't agree more.
While I couldn't relate to the drug use, I didn't think it made Theo or Boris bad people (they did some bad things but I think they were fundamentally good at heart). And I could see that the many upheavals in Theo's life would have an effect on his ability to make good choices for himself by impairing his judgement. My instinct was to protect him, not judge him.
>60 nohrt4me2:, 61 I really like this interpretation, too. And I like the point about Pippa whho responds differently to the trauma.
For me, the main theme is more about the limits of human endurance in the face of grief and loss, and how different people deal with it.
One interesting thing to look at is the way Pippa and Theo respond to Hobie, who is the stabilizing force in both their lives. Pippa accepts Hobie's kindness and love, but Theo betrays it--rejects it, really.
Theo's temperament is different from Pippa's in many ways, not just by way of his tendency to addiction.
One of the things I liked very much about the book is that Tartt did not make Pippa Theo's "salvation." She protected Pippa from Theo's self-destruction.
Though I guess you could also argue that Pippa's lack of passion for Theo WAS his salvation. Instead of relying on a "savior," he had to work out his own salvation.
I found many similarities in the Patrick Melrose cycle by Edward St. Aubyn. I don't recommend it to vwinsloe's mom :-) Hard to read in spots, but leavened by humor and wonderfully drawn characters.
Absolutely. The usual meme is that the love of a good woman will save any man, or rather that the good woman thinks that is true. Good for Pippa for not falling nto that one. Or rather, good for Tartt for being smarter than that.
I'm 68, so I grew up during the rebellious 60's where drug use was everywhere. But as I think of it, >54 vwinsloe: your mother was the generation we were supposedly rebelling against. It makes sense that she would still find the drug scene so foreign if she were always rather conservative. However, good ol' alcohol has always been around and always been a problem for some. People who don't have an addictive personality have a hard time understanding those of us who do. We look at people making stupid, self destructive and really boring decisions and want to tell them to just stop. That's the reasonable thing to do. Theo, Boris and the characters from The Secret History (loved the Loeb and Leopold reference) are smart, but not reasonable. Alas, we humans are so lacking in reason.
I just finished New Orleans Mourning in which there's a kind of Blanche Dubois character who's oppressively (to the reader) addicted to drugs and alcohol. Julie Smith, the author, says that her kind of alcoholism, in New Orleans, was not only not reviled but was rather admired, I guess because it showed what a sensitive, vulnerable woman she was. I see that in much of film and literature. I'm glad Tartt doesn't present addiction as evidence of some sort of enlightened spirituality.
Yes. In some cultures, hyper-sensitivity is offered as cover for addiction in women, just as the "who can hold their liquor better" virility tests covered male addiction.
Isn't there a little of that in Theo and Boris as boys? Anesthesia in the guise of machismo.
"In his original study of the Goldfinch in European art, the ornithologist Herbert Friedmann (1946:7-9) wrote that this bird has several symbolic meanings ascribed to it. The four principal symbolic meanings all link up to important biblical things including: the soul, sacrifice, death, and Resurrection. Another symbol that the Goldfinch stood for was recovery from illness, and the raising up of a person out of their sick-bed was another kind of symbolic Resurrection."
Another interesting tidbit of sychronicity is that two other people died in the Delft Explosion that killed the artist who painted the Goldfinch, and one of them was named Simon DECKER.
The more I think about this book, the more "easter eggs" I find.
>77 nohrt4me2: I kept seeing that single advertised every time I opened my Kindle but didn't get it. Did you?
>74 vwinsloe: Tartt just gets better and better, doesn't she?
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