Daring To… A Reflection on Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”

The gripping storyline and the deftly-drawn characters of Donna Tartt’s monumental and thoroughly engaging “The Goldfinch” raise three profound issues for me that are all linked by the question of moral agency—our ability or inability to make critical decisions.

Tartt summarizes each of these issues in the concluding pages of the book.

The first is about the trustworthiness of our hearts as a guide to decision-making:

“What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?”

At the stage of life in which I find myself and after the series of personal losses that I have experienced in the recent past, the gamble to follow my heart wherever it may lead is immensely attractive—indeed, seductively, compellingly attractive. I ask myself, what have I got to lose? And even though the answer to that question points to material or reputational losses that are not insignificant, they pale in comparison to what I might possibly gain in exhilaration, if even for the fleeting moment of a beautiful flare.

So, to make decisions based on the heart as untrustworthy as that heart might be, leads to the second of the issues that “The Goldfinch” raises for me. Theo Decker, Tartt’s narrator and principal character, asks:

“…does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end—and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s still possible to play it with a kind of joy?”

To play the game with a kind of joy…I like how Tartt has phrased this. I read it as a clear-eyed affirmation devoid of guile or cynicism or sentimentality.  It’s a laugh-in-the-face of the hell that life can be.

The third issue with which I resonate strongly is when Theo comes to the conclusion that:

“…as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”

Life is never going to be fully comprehendible, and if we think it is, then we’re either arrogant in our rationalism or deaf to nuance. It is certainly simpler to live in a black-white world that we construct socially and/or conceptually. I don’t deny that blandness has its attractions. It takes much less energy to live there. But think of all those rainbow colours that one would miss.

And so, with gratitude to Donna Tartt for penning such a captivating and thought-provoking novel, I find myself echoing Theo’s affirmation:

“…And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky—so the space were I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be frank I hope to die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.”

* * *

For more information on Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” see: http://amzn.to/1eVc4Lr

For information on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead,” see my website at http://DavidGHallman.com

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