The novel ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tarrt was published in 2013 and is described in the blurb on the back of the book by one reviewer as ‘a Dickensian dazzler’. I am about half way through my second reading of this vastly entertaining book and I have been wondering about what makes a book ‘Dickensian’. The story is about a boy called Theo Decker who is badly injured in a bomb attack on a New York art gallery (his mother dies in the outrage), as he leaves the building after the attack he takes with him a painting – a small canvas called ‘The Goldfinch’ painted by Dutch artist Carel Fabritus in 1654. Of course he should not have taken it but the painting becomes a kind of touchstone for Theo as he journeys through the years following his bereavement. He moves from the Barbour’s family home in New York (where he is clearly not wanted) to a sojourn in Las Vegas with his slightly shady gambler father, then on his father’s accidental death he travels back to New York to the home of James Hobart (Hobie) a furniture restorer/ cabinet maker and the partner of the old man (Welton ‘Welty’ Blackwell) that Theo comforts in the aftermath of the bombing (Theo’s original meeting with Hobie was to return Welty’s ring with which he had been entrusted after the old man’s death). Theo’s adventures continue and the painting accompanies him through his partnership with Hobie, the reappearance of his friend Boris and his involvement with the criminal underworld, the eventual rediscovery and restoration of the painting and a reward shared by Theo and Boris. This is only an inadequate precis of an 800+ page novel, but what makes it Dickensian?
Is the vast cast of characters, all drawn with detail and, I think, an almost painterly eye; Theo’s confusion and bereavement, the Barbour family (some of whom are grotesques in a way that Dickens would have recognised), Boris’ criminality and drug taking, Theo’s father and his betting scams and the glimpse into the seedy Las Vegas underworld, Hobie (for me very much the moral centre of the book), a large, shambling man with an artist’s eye and a loving spirit who gives Theo a home and a job. Then there is Pippa, a girl who also survives the bomb and who I think Theo loves from afar, and of course Theo’s mother who, although she dies at the start of the story, accompanies Theo’s journeys and is very much represented by the painting of the gorgeous bird chained to its perch.
Is it the landscapes of the book, Theo’s travels detail both an inner journey (he is only 13 when the story opens) towards maturity, and a outer one across America itself – and several different aspects of New York. His bus journey from the sun drenched bleached out deserts of Las Vegas to a wintry New York accompanied by the dog Popper is one of the highlights of the book. Theo tries to learn from his mistakes but still gets himself in some tight corners. But like many a Dickensian hero he emerges from his journey sadder, and maybe wiser.
I also wonder whether the reward that Theo and Boris share at the end of the book also qualifies as if not a Dickensian device then certainly a much loved device of Victorian literature in the shape of the timely bequest that solves the hero’s problems. I’m also tempted to say is it the length of the book, at 800+ pages it is a long but rewarding read, as many of Dickens’ novels are. In this age of instant gratification it is a relief to find a book to live in and lose yourself in – I wonder whether the forthcoming film version will do justice to the complex and thrilling journey that the reader shares with Theo.
Although it might not have much to do with ‘The Goldfinch’ I was reminded whilst reading it of the way that George Orwell described Charles Dickens in his famous essay on the novelist. He imagines the author’s face;
(I see the face of) “a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry – in other words, of a nineteenth century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls”.
Perhaps that ‘generous anger’ is a quality we need to rediscover today as another (or the same?) set of ‘smelly orthodoxies’ contend for our souls. And maybe Theo Decker is a character who fights his way through all of his adventures to a sort of hard won maturity.
(I borrowed the representation of Fabritus’ marvellous bird from Wikipedia).