Saturday, August 9, 2014

Donna Tartt's THE GOLDFINCH has GREAT EXPECTATIONS, how the tropes of one classic inspired another.

While greatly enjoying THE GOLDFINCH, I noticed more than a nod to Great Expectations. Tartt doesn't merely reinvent the familiar tropes of the classic but takes them in directions significant for our time. Like the painted goldfinch, the trompe l'oeil masterpiece of the story, this novel is both referential and its own entity. The fluff on the bird in the painting looks soft as real down but close-up is just brush strokes. Part of my pleasure in this novel was to be caught up in it, while noticing Tartt's sleight of hand.

Both THE GOLDFINCH and GREAT EXPECTATIONS are narrated by young heroes trying to make sense of strange destinies in journals they assume no one will read. Both are resigned to diminished expectation, when fate takes a sudden turn. The orphaned Pip, though exposed to wealth, literature and culture, through the stagy Ms. Havisham, had resigned himself to an apprenticeship at the blacksmith's bench, when a mysterious benefactor gives him the moneyed life of a gentleman.

When Theo loses his mother in a terrorist blast at the Met, he's taken into the wealthy Park Avenue family of his boyhood friend. His eccentric mother, Mrs.Barbour, runs a stagy household of formal meals and parties, where each family member has an expected role. And, as the expendable outsider, Theo desperately wants to fit in. Neither Pip or Theo know if these frosty women really care.

Then, just as Theo learns the family will adopt him, his long-lost father appears to take him to Las Vegas. Pip's barely started his apprenticeship, when a lawyer appears to take him to the city for a new life. Both of these changes have disastrous effects. Pip's descent into debauchery introduced by his dissolute roommate, includes expensive liquor, foppish clothes, and dinners with actresses. Unsupervised in Las Vegas, Theo meets Boris, a teen stoner, who introduces him to alcoholism, drugs, and shoplifting.

Pip's existence as an ersatz gentleman erodes his sense of identity and values. He acquires a cursory education for his new station in life but has no real purpose. Even spending money gives Pip decreasing pleasure, since it can't buy him the status he needs to win his beloved Estella. His hopes to establish himself also mean he divorces himself from Joe, the simple blacksmith.

Similarly, in Las Vegas Theo finds his old prep school jacket literally no longer fits. He's educated to be a "player," a gambler like his father, whose mystic philosophy of winning works, until it doesn't.  Boris, like Pip's roommate, is a dissolute influence. With no mother or real home, he teaches Theo streetwise ways to survive parental neglect. Crime acquires a certain legitimacy and glamour for Theo, until his father's loan shark comes calling.

When he dies, Theo flees to New York and ends up living with Hobbe in the Village. Like the blacksmith, Hobbe is a master craftsman, skilled in Antiquarian furniture. Both men are good natured with earthy appreciation of food and company. They serve as emotional anchors for Pip and Theo, who know they can always find a home with them. As a boy who suffered huge loss, Theo was attracted to the permanent feel of old things in Hobbe's shop.  As a man, he takes over the business side of the firm. Yet his duplicity, like Pip's, hurts his mentor.

A curious invention in The Goldfinch is Tartt's Pippa, the girl Theo loves. In some ways, she's a female Pip. Orphaned and raised by Hobbe, as Pip was by Joe, she is his counterpart in pragmatism. Though physically damaged by the blast, in which she lost the ability to become a professional musician, she seeks a stable life. Theo sees Pippa as his better self. But he is only her twin in having lived through the blast and lost a parent. But, where Pippa wants the salve of simplicity, with Theo there is only the recognition of trauma. Theo comes to understand his obsession with her (like Pip's for Estella) is due to the strange fact that her appearance at the Museum and his mother's loss were simultaneous. He experiences her purity and goodness as what's lost to him.

Theo plays out scenarios of dislocation and destruction. He desperately wants love but experiences estrangement. Possessing The Goldfinch, a painting beyond value, makes him feel complete. When 13 year old Theo first woke up in the devastated museum, he put the painting in a shopping bag to protect it. But when he fled with the bag, he unwittingly became an art thief. The 16th century work is of a bird chained to a stand. Though the bird's captive, the painting's luminous with a transcendent quality. For Theo, it's the last tie to his mother. He hides it for years, becomes afraid to look at it but the secret of the hidden painting separates him from everyone--except Boris.

Pip's secret benefactor, a reformed criminal, is also like Theo's Boris. Both are shadow "others" to their heroes. Boris is a kind of doppelganger, who likes girls and money, but is most happy when in danger through some business. In Boris' lack of limits with alcohol, drugs, risk, Theo sees a reflection both scary and attractive. Boris lives life with a connection Theo lacks but a self-destruction he understands. The difference is that while for Boris criminality is how he's survived, Theo knows his grand theft of the painting began with good motives.

Nevertheless, Theo's continued possession makes him duplicitous to himself. Outwardly his work and residence with Hobbe are stable. Yet his secret creates emotional distance and the need for constant manipulation. Playing to other's expectations, Theo becomes a gifted salesman. Then, favoring his "father's half," he does duplicitous deals to save Hobbe's business. His good intentions through bad means are echoes of Pip's risk of prison to save his benefactor. Pip thinks of nothing but to repay the man's generosity

Honesty and crime are muddled in both stories, not unlike Boris' beloved Dostoyevsky. In THE GOLDFINCH, the reader experiences with Theo how intentions can be viewed differently, depending on the circumstances in which a person finds himself. Boris and Pip's patron, the former convict, are both criminals and benefactors. They echo the theme of good intentions through bad means that follows Theo from his theft. In addition, the blame Theo feels for his mother's death colors all that follows. When Theo and Boris learn the Goldfinch is stolen by a gang of art thieves, they engage in a violent attempt to recover it. Not so amazingly, Theo's focus is now on preservation over possession.

At the end of THE GOLDFINCH, Theo, like Pip, finds himself much the wiser in a better life. For Theo, redemption, business and personal, brings a strange peace. This novel is smart and entertaining. Glad it got the Pulitzer.


Victoria Hetherington's novel, I HAVE TO TELL YOU ( will, I am sure, appeal to young single people in the working world. I  liked the Edie conversation in the beginning, where the girl skewers the guy about liking self-destructive women. I also liked the sexiness of the novel.