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The Goldfinch Summary

10 min read ⌚ 

There are very few modern books loved by the public and critics alike.

The Goldfinch is one of them: it spent over thirty weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and still won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014.

Care to find out more?

Who Should Read “The Goldfinch”? And Why?

The Goldfinch is one of those books that are bound to touch you in one way or another: a marvelously written Bildungsroman, it feels both as a children’s book and a serious exploration of beauty, obsession, and lost causes.

We recommend it to anyone who loves to read—and especially to those who prefer long books to movies, and haunting prose to special effects.

Donna Tartt Biography

Donna Tartt is an American writer.

Included in TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” list in 2014, Tartt has authored only three novels, each of them lauded by critics and general readers alike: The Secret History, The Little Friend, and The Goldfinch.

Tartt won the WH Smith Literary Award for The Little Friend and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Goldfinch. In addition, her short story “The Ambush” was included in the anthology Best American Short Stories 2006.


The Goldfinch is a coming-of-age tale told in retrospective first-person narration by its main protagonist, Theodore Decker. At 800 pages, it touches upon so many subjects that no summary of its story will ever do the book any justice.

And this is even less true than in the cases of some other “unsummarizable” books we’ve shared with you so far because The Goldfinch is written in exceptionally beautiful and hauntingly inspiring prose. You’ll understand what we have in mind, once you read the few excerpted parts below, especially the paragraph which concludes the novel.

Though, just like Theodore, the book’s story constantly skips between places, it revolves around the whereabouts of an exceptional painting by Rembrandt’s most gifted student, Carel Fabritius. Unsurprisingly, the painting is also titled “The Goldfinch” and, if you like, you can see it, in all its mysterious majesty and timeless beauty, by clicking here.

Also, if you want to, you can click “Play” on the video below and watch the trailer of the very recent adaptation of Donna Tartt’s novel—which, we regret to say, does the book even less justice than our summary.

The Dividing Mark

Theodore “Theo” Decker is merely a 13-year-old boy when his mother takes him to the New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on an exhibition of Dutch masterpieces so that she can view her favorite painting: Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch.” 

Little does Theo’s mother know that this would be the last day of her life. Only years later would Theo understand that this would be the day which would irretrievably alter his life.

Things would have turned out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her, I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life. Her death the dividing mark: Before and After. And though it’s a bleak thing to admit all these years later, still I’ve never met anyone who made me feel loved the way she did.

As the lines above anticipate (or rather reveal), during the visit of the museum, Theo’s mother, just like several other visitors, is killed—the result of a bomb attack by a right-wing home-grown extremist group.

In the rubble, half-present due to the experienced trauma, Theo notices “The Goldfinch” and takes it with him. 

In a way, as we are about to learn, the event is much more than just a simple theft. It is one of the main symbolic transactions of the story, for, by the end of the book, it is fairly evident that the painting has taken the place of Theo’s lost mother.

The Old Man, the Red-Haired Girl, and the Barbours

Even before the bomb attack in the museum, Theo’s attention is attracted by a beautiful red-haired girl walking with an elderly gentleman. 

During the immediate aftermath of the wreckage, Theo happens upon this man, by that time already dying from severe wounds.

The man gives Theo a ring and, with his dying breath, instructs him to go to Hobart and Blackwell and ring a green bell there. Theo takes the ring and promises to do so.

Since Theo’s father, Larry Decker, is anything but a father, social services try to place Theo in another home. However, Theo has a better idea: he asks them to move in with a school friend of his, Andy Barbour, whose family is extremely rich.

And so he does, taking “The Goldfinch” with him.

At the Barbours—who live in a large apartment on Park Avenue—Theo tries to adjust to his new life. However, the best thing he can do for a while is, expectedly, to grieve. Fortunately, due to the low lighting and its vastness, the Barbours’ apartment is at least a great place for that.

However, it is not a great place to hide in, since Samantha Barbour regularly uses it to host charity events, so Theo feels as if he is on display together with the antique furniture. On top of that, Theo also has to regularly deal with Andy’s two younger siblings, Kitsey and Toddy, who resent his presence because they feel their parents are more concerned about him than them.

While at the Barbours, Theo remembers the ring and the instructions from the old man at the Metropolitan, so he decides to carry out his last wishes. 

He rings the green bell at Hobart and Blackwell and, there, he learns that the man who gave him the ring was none other than one of the two owners: Welton “Welty” Blackwell. He forms a connection with the other one, James “Hobie” Hobart, and is more than happy to see the red-haired girl at the antique shop once again.

He learns that her name is Pippa and that she has lived with Welty and Hobie ever since her mother (Welty’s half-sister) had died of cancer several years back.

In addition, he becomes pretty aware that he has some strange, but rather deep, feelings for this girl who is soon after sent to live with blood relatives.

The Return of the Prodigal Father and the Appearance of Boris

Just as the Barbours ready to adopt Theo, his father, together with his girlfriend, Xandra, resurfaces from absolutely nowhere and decides to take him to Las Vegas; Theo has no choice but to follow him, taking “The Goldfinch” with him.

In Las Vegas, things are looking bleak until, one day, Theo accidentally meets (at a crowded bus stop) a dark-haired boy who grows to become his best friend, Boris Pavlikovsky

As you can easily deduce from his name, Boris is not an American: he is the son of Ukrainian émigrés and has lived all around the world before arriving in America: Scotland, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Sweden.

Boris is similar to Theo in more than one way. His mother (his father’s second wife) has been dead for a while, and he too has been raised by an alcoholic father who severely beats him from time to time. 

The two spend most of their afternoons drinking, smoking marijuana, and experimenting with all kinds of drugs—each of these activities is either a way out of the unbearable present or a step down the ladder of self-destruction.

Speaking of self-destruction, Theo’s father gets drunk one day and dies in a car accident, leaving Theo an orphan with neither a plan or a vision for his own future.

Scamming in New York City

Left alone and faced with the possibility of being placed in foster care, Theo steals some money from Larry’s girlfriend, takes her dog and heads off to New York City.

After wandering the streets of the Big Apple, he eventually arrives at the doorstep of Hobart and Blackwell, where he is welcomed by Hobie and spends some time with Pippa, visiting on break from her school for troubled teens, located in Switzerland. 

The narrative next skips eight years, and we see Theo well-versed in the antique trade. So much so that, in the meantime—as we soon find out—he has managed to become Hobie’s business partner. He is also engaged to none other than Kitsey Barbour, whom he has started to date after the death of Andy and his father due to a sailing accident.

The engagement aside, Theo is actually still in love with Pippa, and Kitsey has an affair with one of Theo’s most despised classmates: Tom Cable. They both find out about each other’s feelings but decide to remain engaged—for convenience.

Even though Hobie loves him very much and believes him unconditionally, Theo—now addicted to prescription medication—has been using the antique shop as the hub for a business scam, selling restored antiques as valuable originals.

True, this has saved Hobie from bankruptcy, but it has also betrayed his trust—which is why Theo is racked by guilt. He is also racked by fear because “The Goldfinch” is still with him, and he learns that a group of people who, during the museum bombing, stole treasured artwork, has now been found and arrested.

Concerned about himself but almost as much about Hobie and Pippa, Theo hides the painting in a rented storage locker. Somehow, one of the victims of his scam, a guy named Lucius Reeve, has put two and two together and tries to blackmail Theo by threatening to tell the police that Theo is using “The Goldfinch” for criminal activities. 

Correctly believing this to be a bluff, Theo dismisses Reeve and his claims.

The Returns of the Prodigal Friend

Soon after, Theo runs into Boris on the streets of New York. Due to dubious and unnamed activities, Boris is now a wealthy man with a developed network of collaborators.

To his astonishment, Theo learns from Boris that Lucius Reeve was partly right: “The Goldfinch” has been used as collateral by him and other drug dealers for the past few years.

How is that possible, you wonder?

Simple: Boris stole “The Goldfinch” from Theo back in Las Vegas and left a high school textbook in its place. In disbelief, Theo checks the storage unit only to discover the veracity of Boris’ words. 

Feeling guilty, Boris devotes himself to recovering the painting, and, at Theo’s engagement party, he comes up with a plan to reclaim “The Goldfinch.”

Soon after, the two fly to Amsterdam where they meet the dealers who have the painting. Boris and his associates do manage to steal the painting, but, at the last moment, they are confronted by armed henchmen.

In the ensuing conflict, one of the dealers escapes with the painting, Boris is shot in the arm by the other, who is, in turn, killed by the confused and fearful Theo. Boris sends Theo to an Amsterdam hotel, and Theo remains there for weeks, drinking and taking drugs on a daily basis.

Since he doesn’t have his passport and has just committed murder, he is afraid to leave his room, let alone the hotel. He even contemplates suicide, but before he can enact his plan, Boris reappears yet again, carrying with him a great deal of money with Theo’s name on them.

Its source?

Well, believe it or not, it is half of the reward he has collected from the police for informing on the dealers. Even better, this act has resulted in the police recovering “The Goldfinch” and returning it to the museum. 

The Goldfinch Epilogue

Feeling as if he has already lived through several lives, Theo returns to New York City, only to be confronted by Hobie, who has learned from Lucius all about Theo’s business scam. Theo has a plan to make amends: to use the reward money to buy back the fake antiques and restore the business’ honor.

And that’s it—that’s how the novel ends. Just like in life, everything is left open-ended. Though Hobie remains close to Theo despite the betrayal, Pippa leaves and is forever lost: even though she loves him, she assures Theo that she could never be romantically involved with him.

“I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you,” Theo speaks to us at the end of his confession, before sharing a few rather bleak lessons.

“That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.”

And he goes on, so memorably:

And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time—so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.

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“The Goldfinch Quotes”

I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and the light was laughter, and that this was the secret of the universe. Click To Tweet Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty? Click To Tweet A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. Click To Tweet You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life. Click To Tweet Stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones who will kill you. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

The Goldfinch has to be one of the most polarizing novels published in the last decade or so. Deemed “marvelous” and “Dickensian” by some, it was also criticized as “juvenile” by others, prompting “a full-on debate in which the naysayers believe that nothing less is at stake than the future of reading itself.” (Vanity Fair)

Be that as it may, it’s difficult to say that The Goldfinch is “forgettable” or even “putdownable.” Beautifully written, we guarantee you that it will take you by the hand and lead you on a journey of truths and pains—one which will leave you exhausted and happy and yearning and, why not, even dissatisfied at the end.

But for all the right reasons.

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