The Moral Universe of Donna Tartt

At the end of The Goldfinch, the recent novel by Donna Tartt, the narrator, Theo, poses the question, “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted?”

Many reviewers have called The Goldfinch Dickensian, and in several ways it is. Theo is orphaned early on, when his mother dies in the explosion of a terrorist’s bomb at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He then lives with a series of characters who are all considerably more vivid in personality than he:  the Barbours, rich and unhappy; an elderly antiques dealer named Hobie; and finally, Theo’s own gambling, alcoholic father, in a sand-blasted Las Vegas suburb with more than a hint of apocalypse. As in a Dickens novel, many of these characters do not wish Theo well. As in a Dickens novel, children are used, abused, and left adrift. And as in a Dickens novel, people burn both brightly and tragically: Theo makes friends with Boris, a doomed, dramatic Russian, an alcoholic even as a teenager, the Steerforth to Theo’s David Copperfield, the two tied together in ways that become clear only years later.

I suspect all this is very deliberate on Donna Tartt’s part. I suspect the eventual contrast with Dickens is also very deliberate. The heart is a saving grace in Dickens- David Copperfield unites with Agnes at last, and Pip, even in the bleaker, original ending of Great Expectations, says of Estella: in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be. In Dickens, the heart is the source of love, and love is redemptive.

But Theo’s heart can’t be trusted.  We get hints that this is true even before tragedy strikes: Theo is in trouble at school, and is less sorry about anything he has done (from smoking to theft) than about his mother finding out. What might have been a minor flaw in him, however, is compounded when he and his mother, on the way to school, take a detour into the museum, where his mother dies. Theo blames himself, and the hairline crack through his character spreads. We see throughout Theo’s life the wreckage of his inability to love well- friends abandoned, indifferent lovers, drug addiction. At the antique shop, Theo forges and sells furniture, at first to get the business out from debt but gradually on an enormous scale, simply because he can. Hobie stands to lose the most from this fraud, but Theo, although agonized by the idea that Hobie will think badly of him, continues.

We also see the suggestion that Theo never had a chance of loving well, because he is his father’s son and learns from example (his father’s alcoholism, abuse, and abandonment). This causation is murky, however. There is the example of his mother’s love. There are Pippa and Hobie, as pure of heart as any Dickens characters.  We are left wondering where the crack started, where the flaw lies, how to trace it or name it.

This, the rot at the root of the soul, is Donna Tartt’s preoccupation.  The problem with this rot is that it is pervasive and untraceable.  What part of Theo is not Theo?  Where did Theo begin?  Theo is unreliable, as a narrator.  His visions of goodness- his mother, Pippa- are extravagant, dramatic, distant.  We don’t know if these people are as he describes them.  We grow claustrophobic and weary from the closed spaces in his head, from the sickness and paralysis he so often feels.

But of course the linchpin of the story is that Theo’s great love is not a person at all- but a painting. This is the Goldfinch of the title, a small, priceless picture of a bird, held captive by a golden chain around its ankle, which Theo takes from the museum after the explosion, hides and keeps for years, loses without knowing it, and then finds again through his old friend Boris, under dangerous and extraordinary circumstances. Theo commits murder to get the painting back, and then once again loses it. He is guilty, horrified, sick, disgusted by the murder- but mostly, you think, he is terrified of having actually been active in the world. In the end, however, the painting is saved, and Theo offers the reader a justification of himself in terms of a love of art, a love of beauty- “the first glimpse of pure otherness, in whom you bloom out and out and out.”

Does this love of beauty make him trustworthy? Not at all.  But for Theo, for whom “life is catastrophe,” it’s enough.

There is something sacramental in this attitude.  In finishing The Goldfinch, I was reminded not of Dickens but of Graham Greene’s Catholicism, of The Power and the Glory, and the alcoholic priest wandering Mexico, unable to be faithful or pure, yet on a desperate, absurdist quest to keep performing the Eucharist even though Catholicism has been outlawed.  The goldfinch painting and the sacraments are both eternal and unsullied by the imperfect people who preserve them. But both stories also have a profound despair.  Theo’s redemption by the painting, and the priest’s by the sacrament, are left ambiguous at best.  Is beauty worth preserving if it doesn’t create love? Is God in the sacraments if they don’t bring peace?  Neither Theo nor the priest could answer, probably.  But they make their choices, whistling in the dark.

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