a close reading of a passage from ‘The Goldfinch’ that makes me feel insane

Look, Theo Decker is gay.

Listen, Theo Decker is not happy about the fact that he’s gay. Or more precisely, he’s not at a place where he’s willing to accept his sexuality (we’ve all been there).

He’s a tangled knot of trauma and grief, written in such a specific way that I feel like our lord and saviour Donna Tartt put him on this earth for the specific purpose of causing me as much angst as humanly possible. I cannot fathom another reason that she wrote Theo the way she did. His obsessive need to belong and reflexive emotional repression are unabashedly queer. In many ways he is a crystallisation of the Literary Gay: smart enough to deal in fine art, dumb enough to lack basic emotional intelligence, crazy enough to propel the plot in whatever direction it needs to go, and wounded enough to keep the audience’s empathy constantly engaged.

Theo Decker — for those who are not in the know — is the protagonist of the 2013 neo-Dickensian, bildungsroman blockbuster of a novel about accidental art theft and additional bad decision making titled The Goldfinch. We love The Goldfinch, it’s 800+ pages of derangement masquerading as a treatise on the value of art. It’s insane, it’s genius, it’s overlong and polarizing and perfect.

Is this the part where I summarise the plot of The Goldfinch? No! Grow up. 

This is the part where I summarise Theo’s various traumas and how they interrelate to his internalised homophobia before shifting into a close reading from a passage of the novel that deals with both in a fashion that one could only describe as emotionally brutal and generally uncalled for but also excellent.

And what trauma! Theo is less a person, and more a collection of traumatic incidents stacked on top of each other and dressed in an impeccable sweater. To illustrate my point, here’s a shortlist of some of his more intense traumas:

  • Abusive, neglectful and alcoholic father.
  • Living as in a low socio-economic family while attending a high socio-economic school.
  • Intense physical bullying from a young age.
  • Intense emotional bullying from a young age, often targeting his lack of conventionally masculine traits.
  • Living through a terrorist attack.
  • Death of mother in said terrorist attack.
  • Accidental painting theft (in the aftermath of said terrorist attack).
  • A Decade of anxiety over said stolen painting.
  • Lack of consistent guardian for the better part of three years.
  • Re-appearance of his father, who then subsequently neglects him.
  • Verbal and physical abuse from said neglectful father.
  • Death of said neglectful father.
  • Flirting with, beginning sexual relations with, and eventually falling in love with best friend and disaster bi, Boris (all while maintaining internalised homophobia).
  • Getting jilted by Boris when he gets a girlfriend.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse from a young age.
  • Development of drug addiction as a result of aforementioned substance abuse.
  • Fine art crime.
  • Anxiety over fine art crime.
  • Cheating fiancé.
  • Mafia shit.

In short, Theo Decker is a Wreck Of A Human™. 

Naturally, all this trauma is related. The likelihood of Theo developing a substance addiction, for instance, might have been tapered by the presence of a consistent guardian (although this is debatable as his first guardian, Mrs. Barbour (who, yes, is portrayed by known Bad Bitch Nicole Kidman in the “film” ”adaptation”) gives him her prescription-only sleeping pills to help mitigate the impact his PTSD is having on his sleep; the probable first piece of what becomes a Very Unhealthy Coping Mechanism). But without a Supportive Adult Presence, Theo was left to find consistency where he could. Unfortunately, as it happens the only consistent element of Theo’s entire life is his trauma.

Let’s set the stage:

Throughout The Goldfinch Theo’s sexuality is presented as being in direct conflict with his desire to integrate and be accepted as “normal”. That is, of course, because homosexuality is in direct conflict with normalcy. After all, our society has a lot of dumb Judaeo-Christian hang-ups on things like “masculinity” and “relationships” and how they dictate “appropriate people with whom men can have penetrative sex”. Theo does what any young gay with even a hint of anxiety would do in that situation: he represses his feelings, denies he has them, and internalises every single negative experience that is even somewhat gay-but-pretending-you’re-not adjacent. 

For Theo, those negative experiences come in two flavours: daddy issues and bullying. As a young child his father, Larry, occupied an antagonistic role in his life. Until his disappearance Larry maintained a general disdain for Theo, belittling him for being close with his mother (more on her in a moment). Larry is also conventionally masculine, in the most toxic sense. He drinks beer, watches football, and verbally abuses his wife and son. As a conventional man (dumb concept) Larry’s contempt for Theo came with the implication that Theo existed in opposition to him and therefore is less masculine.

At school, Theo was the victim is intense bullying: 

“That year—bumbling around among boys all older than us, boys who tripped us and shoved us and slammed locker doors on our hands, who tore up our homework and spat in our milk, who called us maggot and faggot and dickhead.”

The only real reprieve Theo has from this is his mother. She’s a nice lady. The two were close, she was Theo’s self-described “best friend”, a fact that may-or-may-not-but-probably-almost-certainly made it more difficult for him to open up to others. She was present and supportive and probably would have been a great person for Theo to come out to.

Unfortunately, she dies (so it goes).

And when she does Theo’s entire feeling of belonging dies with her, leaving him in a perpetual state of loneliness only worsened by the fact that for the first thirteen years of his life, the entire world had been reinforcing that he was: Not Normal. 

The following round-robin of guardians only deepens this issue. Every time a new guardian steps up, they are summarily removed from his life shortly after. His inability to find stability continually reinforces his isolation, which he has linked to non-conformity, which he has linked un-masculine traits, which—because of the conditioning he experienced through bullying—he has linked to queerness.

These feelings are pushed to their extreme when Larry returns and moves Theo out to his house in Las Vegas. Once there Theo’s only source of adult acceptance comes the source of his issues, daddy. This, in effect, puts Theo in a situation where to achieve the sense of belonging he so desperately wants he has to let his deep-rooted self-loathing entrench themselves further. This is on top of the unresolved grief over his mother’s death. It’s safe then to say that Theo is at a point of such rampant emotional misery that he’s really just searching for one chaotic object to give him the outlet for a full-blown breakdown into excessive, self-destructive hysteria.

Enter Boris. 

In him Theo finds a conduit to express all repressed feelings. You see he and Boris share the fact that their mothers are dead, and that commonality allows Theo to get close to Boris and obsess over him without admitting to himself that it is attraction. But do not be mistaken, Theo is hot for Boris. He like gravity, Theo can’t help but be pulled toward him, and then obsessively note small physical details about him: his fingers, nails, hair, lips, and neck. 

Again, Theo tries to pretend that his attraction to Boris is just brotherly. But this bit of self-deception is undercut somewhat when he–Theo, a man00engages in the fairly gay act of having sex with Boris, another man: 

“And yet (this was the murky part, this was what bothered me) there had also been other, way more confusing and fucked-up nights, grappling around half-dressed, weak light sliding in from the bathroom and everything haloed and unstable without my glasses: hands on each other, rough and fast, kicked-over beers foaming on the carpet—fun and not that big of a deal when it was actually happening, more than worth it for the sharp gasp when my eyes rolled back and I forgot about everything … we never spoke of it; it wasn’t quite real … I knew people would think the wrong thing if they knew.”

The drunkenness allows Theo to play off his attraction, but he’s not fooling anyone, certainly not himself, because Theo displaces his self-loathing on Boris. As a Ukrainian, Boris is “more of an outsider” than Theo. Theo seizes upon that disparity to condescend to Boris on multiple occasions, validating himself by invalidating his friend/brother/boyfriend. He reminds Boris that he is too wild, too dangerous, and (tellingly) too affectionate—in essence, different. By creating an internal sense of stratification Theo creates a system where he can both experience sexual and emotional freedom, while also not compromising his homophobic feelings.

With Boris, Theo feels comfortable enough to express his sexuality, get blackout drunk, lay in the middle of the roads, jump off roofs, and generally bait death because he knows Boris will be there to stop him at the last moment and put the pieces together. While far from healthy, it’s also the closest Theo comes to a functional romance throughout The Goldfinch, and the way Donna Tartt writes it suggests that if any relationship was fixable, it was this one. It’s no wonder then that Theo reacts with jealousy when Boris starts dating Kotku (a girl). By bringing a woman into the equation Boris compromises the safe space that Theo felt he had when they were alone; one where his sexual truth could (uncomfortably) co-exist with his desire to present as conforming.

And now we reach the passage in question, pages 394-415, the point in The Goldfinch where Theo’s desire to fit in, romantic feelings toward Boris, and internalised homophobia comes into direct conflict with each other.

When his father dies (again, I will NOT be explaining plot) Theo is at an impasse. For the first time since coming to Las Vegas, hell since Theo can remember, the figure at the centre of his web of trauma is gone. And with him the necessity to try and meet hetero-normative standards of masculinity. None of this is to say that Theo, King of Emotional Repression, can break his self-loathing cycle. Merely that a small part of him is aware that the possibility now exists.

However, Theo knows that he has to leave Las Vegas because Child Protection Services will come to collect him. At this moment Theo is faced with what he sees as a choice between the one shot at finding a new place to belong that his father’s death affords him, and the sexual safe space he had with Boris, that he could regain if Kotku was out of the picture. Theo picks the former; he begs Boris to come with him but Boris refuses. Before Theo leaves, seemingly forever, however, the following exchange occurs:

I was still babbling when Boris said: “Potter.” Before I could answer him he put both hands on my face and kissed me on the mouth…

…We stood looking at each other—me breathing hard, completely stunned…

…“Good luck,” said Boris. “I won’t forget you.”

Theo then leaves, ruminating on the exchange, whether he regrets the decision to leave:

But I didn’t. And, in truth, it was maybe better that I didn’t—I say that now, though it was something I regretted bitterly for a while. More than anything I was relieved that in my unfamiliar babbling-and-wanting-to-talk state I’d stopped myself from blurting the thing on the edge of my tongue, the thing I’d never said, even though it was something we both knew well enough without me saying it out loud to him in the street—which was, of course, I love you.

Now, Theo would have you, the reader, believe that he made the right choice. He certainly wants to feel that he did. However, it only takes approximately two seconds of critical thought to realise that Theo does not sound one hundred percent certain in his certainty. “It was maybe better”, does not ring true of the definitive outlook that Theo thinks he has.

The truth is Boris’ openness clearly shakes Theo’s worldview, not just because the open display of intimacy proves that Boris was always the more liberated of the two, but because he had been thinking of sexual freedom and social freedom as two separate modes of existence when really they were the same: one shared with Boris.

The remainder of the passage documents two parallel journeys. The first is Theo’s physical return to New York, a neat little cross-country greyhound trip filled with little misadventures like coming down from an acid trip and trying to hide the dog he accidentally stole.

The second is a psychological journey, the opportunity for emotional metamorphosis that Boris’ kiss unlocked. However, the uncertainty of Theo’s physical journey interferes with his emotional journey causing him to fall back on whatever dependent presence he can locate. Unfortunately, with his most recent guardian dead and Boris left behind, that presence is his trauma.

First, Theo begins slipping into a self-prejudicial frame of mind:

[The cab driver] reached across the back seat to shake my hand. “You want my advice about something?”

“Sure,” I said, quailing a bit. Even with everything else that was going on, and there was quite a lot, I felt incredibly uncomfortable that this guy had probably seen Boris kissing me in the street.

Not only does this quote display Theo falling back on his internalised homophobia, but it also hints at his rejection of the possibility of sexual liberation that Boris had shown him. “Boris kissing me” removes the reciprocation he had felt, the fact that the act had nearly spurred him to confess his love.

Upon reaching New York Theo runs into Mr. Barbour, the member of the Barbour family Theo would “most wanted to meet” in a moment of desperation. However, Mr. Barbour, Theo quickly realises is off his medicine and whatever stability he thought he had located is quickly shot down:

With shocking violence, he turned and threw my hand off. It was Mr. Barbour all right; I would have known him anywhere. But his eyes, on mine, were a stranger’s—bright and hard and contemptuous.

“No more handouts!” he cried, in a high voice. “Get lost!”

This is obviously not what a newly homeless, newly parentless, newly not-quite-boyfriend-but-definitely-best-friend-and-emotional-brother-who-I-had-sex-with-until-he-got-a-girlfriend-less lad would want to hear. Despite recognising the mania behind Mr. Barbour’s actions, Theo still feels the rejection. The person Theo became in Las Vegas, with Boris, is a total stranger in the eyes of someone he once called a guardian. At that moment, Theo falls back into the cycle of self-loathing he had been offered a way out of.

Immediately following this Theo is approached by two sexual predators who both try to take advantage of him. The two encounters, which occur in quick succession, are a literary technique where a character’s fears are brought to life as a way of forcing a character to confront them, and Donna Tartt seems to have employed it just to hurt Theo, and therefore me. Because Theo, as we have established, falls back on what is dependable in moments of anxiety, and in this situation that is (as you all know) his trauma. The two encounters trap Theo in the mindset he had been offered a way out of, once again denying his sexuality because he believes that expressing it precludes him from the normalcy he desires.

Look, you may now be thinking that I have been building toward a point about how young queer people require dependability and support, how social conventions push them into a cycle of self-punishment caused by trauma and re-enforced by internalised homophobia. And sure, that’s certainly something you can take away from this. Like I said way back at the start of this blog, Theo is in many ways the prototypical literary gay. The commonness of his character archetype would imply to me that there is still a gap in support for young queer people. And if this reads as a call for support and compassion to you, I won’t do anything to dissuade that interpretation. In fact, I would encourage it.

Listen, I think about Theo and Boris all the time. There are few characters who I wanted to see achieve happiness more, and even fewer who received so little. And that there exists a passage explicitly about them missing that window, or that they miss it by such a narrow margin, because if Theo hadn’t had to leave, or his trauma was just slightly less knotted, then he would have had the chance to say the thing that would have granted him the freedom he had been denying himself.

All I wanted to say is that it makes me feel insane. That’s all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s