Grace and 'The Goldfinch'

I am two years late to The Goldfinch’s party, but I am not so insecure as to let that bother me. Donna Tartt’s tome still takes up a good amount of real estate in bookstores and libraries, and for good reason—the novel really is what many critics call a modern-day Dickensian tale.

A photo posted by Polly Fern © (@pollyfern) on

In short, the protagonist Theo Decker gives an account of how he came into possession of The Goldfinch, a small painting by Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius, and how that possession turned into a lifelong obsession which drove him to extraordinary adventures and contemplations of the role of fate. It’s basically Great Expectations with drugs, PTSD, and fine art.

A photo posted by Polly Fern © (@pollyfern) on

Although I did enjoy the story despite it having many passages filled with my pet-peeves— descriptions of dreams, drug-induced hallucinations, and drunken misadventures—the character development is what made this story great.

I fell in love with all of the characters to the point where I could overlook their flaws (their human flaws, not flaws in the writing), even in Theo’s closest pal Boris, who always shows up with bad decisions in his pockets. The characters are so well thought out that they effortlessly carry themselves through the nearly 800 pages. They lean a little towards the romanticized, this is being told through Leo’s foggy worldview remember, but never to the point that I stopped believing they could be real people.

A photo posted by Polly Fern © (@pollyfern) on

When reading a book review, I often think “blah blah okay character development is nice” and don’t give it the importance that I should. I should know myself better: I don’t like plot-driven stories, and I detest when it is obvious that the author doesn’t actually know how real people in the real world act. Give me characters or give me a blank notebook, I’ll write my own story thankyouverymuch. The reason why I am able to read and enjoy stories from so many different genres is testimony to this. Characters, no matter how different their personality is from my own, give me an idea as to how I would react in their situation and how to show grace to real people like them.

A photo posted by Polly Fern © (@pollyfern) on

The Goldfinch is not a perfect book. It shows human depravity, and what’s worse, at the end it preaches that perhaps sinning isn’t really anyone’s fault and we should just focus on the good things that happen.
So, why not stop then? I said.

Why should I?

Do I really have to say why?

Yeah, but what if I don’t feel like it?

If you can stop, why wouldn’t you?

Live by the sword, die by the sword, said Boris briskly, hitting the button on his very professional-looking medical tourniquet with his chin as he was pushing up his sleeve.

And as terrible as this is, I get it. We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us. We can’t escape who we are.
I get the feeling that The Goldfinch embodies the mainstream beliefs in our culture now (it did get the Pulitzer, after all), and that Theo is a representation of us Millennials. That our duty in life is to drift along, to try to make good decisions but shouldn’t be blamed if we end up making bad ones, and if two wrongs make a right…. then so be it. I completely disagree with this premise. So does the ancient wisdom written by Saint Paul:
All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers. But sin didn’t, and doesn’t, have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down. All sin can do is threaten us with death, and that’s the end of it.

Grace, because God is putting everything together again through the Messiah, invites us into life—a life that goes on and on and on, world without end. So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not!

As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end. (Romans 6, The Message)  
We are not slaves to fate. We do not have to do something bad to force karma to tip the balance of the scales in the world and create something good. On the contrary, I think we have to work all the harder to not only correct wrongs, but prevent them in the first place. And when our humanity fails us, which it will, we have grace to catch our fall.

Even though I think the message of the book is decidedly false, I would absolutely recommend this book. For,
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
- Aristotle

A photo posted by Polly Fern © (@pollyfern) on