Thursday, March 6, 2014

Theo Decker: Donna Tartt's Study in Guilt

Grief can become a heavy cloak, dusty black velvet, a weight upon the soul and shoulders. Inside we feel safe even if o’erburdened, too chilled to lay down the garment, too warm to expose ourselves to the vicissitudes of wind and weather.

Theo Decker, the protagonist of Donna Tartt's novel, The Goldfinch, dons such a cloak early in life. On the day his mother will die, he has already stitched a lightweight version, its threads the stuff of casual error and misjudgment. He’s a friend of a boy who can be cruel to those weaker and different. Together they break into homes and steal. Their grades slide, and they come to the attention of their school’s principal.

On the way to that appointment, Theo’s mother detours into a museum and shares her appreciation of Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, with her son, but on this day, at this hour, the museum explodes, killing the boy’s mother and leaving him forever scarred. Not only does he persuade himself that his mother would have, could have, should have lived if not for the errors of his youth, he also endures paternal grandparents who have no interest in giving him a home; an absent, alcoholic father who would steal from his own son to feed his gambling debts; a rogue and rascal of a best friend who leads Theo into drug use; and a poorly understood desire to cling to the very painting his mother admired so much even though doing so is illegal and impossible. These are the threads that turn a lightweight cloak into deadweight.
Nevertheless, Theo enjoys great gifts. A school friendship with a boy often bullied opens a door into Andy Barbour’s home, granting Theo a safe haven from foster care and later in his life, a maternal figure in Mrs. Barbour. She genuinely cares for him.

The man over whom Theo must crawl as he makes his way through the museum rubble gives Theo a ring and asks him to carry it away. When Theo returns it to its rightful heir, he finds another parent and a vocational mentor in Hobie. This man gives the boy a home when he has nowhere else to go, and this man never adds weight to Theo’s cloak. He errs in judgment even, granting Theo the benefit of the doubt always.

When Theo’s father finally claims him and offers him shelter if nothing else, Theo finds Boris, an irreverent boy who endures abuse from his own alcoholic father. Boris also becomes a boy without a home or country, but like an artful dodger, Boris learns to manipulate and fly below the law’s radar. Perhaps more than any other lesson, Boris learns not to expect much from love or friendship even as he remains loyal to both as ideals and theoretical possibilities.

Theo stumbles always. He leaps to the wrong conclusions. He settles for appearances rather than substance. He lets fear and guilt move him into dark, depraved realms as easily as he enters into the lights shined by art and friendship. He grows in understanding, but he never sheds his cloak even as it becomes thinner and lighter with time.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Goldfinch. Trace the dynamic changes that Theo Decker undergoes.

Writing Challenge:

Reflect upon other characters afflicted by guilt:

  • Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Sonia in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • Jim in Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
  • Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Sethe in Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Sophie in Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
  • Amir in The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • John Bartle in The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers