The Goldfinch happens in twelve chapters of varying lengths, from fifty pages to nearly 200, each broken into numbered scenes, as few as one and as many as thirty-five, that also vary in length. Most of the novel consists of Theo’s memories beginning fourteen years before and running until the present, the time in which the story is being told. The present-day Theo speaks occasionally and solidly in the last chapter. Everything is told from twenty-seven-year-old Theo’s point of view using the first-person voice.

Although the plot begins in Amsterdam, with a dream-like vision of Theo’s dead mother, Audrey, it shifts quickly to April 10 in an indeterminate year. Details such as email, texts, and 9/11 place the setting in contemporary times. Chapter 1, section ii begins to tell the story of what happened on the day of the explosion, years ago, and what led up to it: Theo’s suspension from school. In intricate detail, Theo recalls the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of that morning. His description of the bombing and its aftermath are excruciatingly specific. Readers experience the death of the old man Theo sees after the blast, Welty, moment by moment. This event sets the plot into motion and initiates all the conflict and confusion that follow.

Theo is the protagonist. He is the narrator who appears on every single page. He is the center of The Goldfinch in every way. He wants his mother back, but she is dead. He wants his innocence back, but it too is gone. He wants love, security, peace of mind, and safety, but so much of what he does achieves the opposite. Theo longs for permanence, represented by beautiful art objects, but even they can be destroyed, lost, stolen, or damaged. Theo’s conflicts are both external, such as drugs and violence, and internal, including anxiety, loneliness, and despair. His propensity toward suicide is consistent and surfaces at several points in the narrative, most dramatically in Chapter 11.

The novel contains many subplots, each with its own conflict, so there is not one clear antagonist. The person who sets off the bomb in the museum is an antagonist. So are the interrogators who show up at Theo’s school to ask him probing questions about the explosion. Beginning with their arrival in Chapter 4, Larry and Xandra conflict with Theo. Once, Larry hits Theo and threatens to break his arm. Drugs are antagonists, for they threaten Theo’s life and sometimes make him deathly sick. Boris is his best friend for many months, but once Boris has a girlfriend, he and Theo conflict. Boris, an alcoholic, addict, and thief, steals the painting from Theo, his best friend, putting him in the role of antagonist as well. Naaman Silver is an antagonist who threatens Theo’s father. Lucius Reeve is an antagonist when he challenges Theo’s business practices and accuses him of stealing the painting. Martin is an antagonist whom Theo overcomes by killing. Still, none of these characters can be called the singular antagonist of The Goldfinch.

In many ways, the painting The Goldfinch is the novel’s one true antagonist. From the moment that Theo first sees the painting, it haunts him. It represents his mother and the day of the explosion. It embodies all the pain, guilt, and trauma of that fateful day. The painting represents all the emotions and ideas that send and keep Theo in internal conflict. Theo hides The Goldfinch, protects it, obsesses over it, and dreams of it. When he unwraps the painting and holds it in his hands, studying its details, he is at his most complete, but he lives in constant fear of the painting being discovered in his possession.

Theo identifies with Fabritius, the painter, a bombing victim like himself, and suggests that every great painting is a kind of self-portrait. He also identifies with the bird, its tiny heartbeat, its solitude, and its sense of no escape. The bird is a prisoner, tethered by a tiny chain, but it is unflinching, dignified, and vulnerable. Theo sees the human in the finch, and so he sees himself, one captive looking at another. The bird is the image of Theo’s philosophy: that life is catastrophe, but one must face it and hold on. For most of the novel, Theo resists the truth as he resists looking at the painting. He holds tight to it, but he also hides from it, unable to let it go. According to Theo and the art dealer Horst, the painting has heft. Its symbolic importance holds the entire novel in place like a paperweight. It does not let Theo escape.

The novel’s climax takes place toward the end, when Boris, several of his cohorts, and Theo travel to Amsterdam to trick black-market art dealers into giving them the painting back. When the plan fails, there is violence and bloodshed. Theo, in an attempt to protect himself and Boris, ends up killing a man, Martin, an event symbolizing the violent internal battle Theo has waged for years to reclaim his emotional and physical life.

The novel’s main conflict, retrieving the stolen painting and ensuring it is protected forever, is resolved when Boris tells Theo that the painting is safe, recovered in one of the greatest art recoveries in history according to the press. With this knowledge, Theo’s sanity is likewise restored. The two parts of himself that were separated when the bomb went off so many years ago are reunited. By his own admission, he has metaphorically died and been reborn. As Boris and Hobie both observe, life moves in mysterious twists and turns, and often it turns on itself. Sometimes the wrong way is the right way. Sometimes, we must make mistakes to get ourselves on the right path. The painting teaches Theo this along with his experience. When the little bird finds its rightful perch on a museum wall, Theo finds his rightful place in the world and can finally begin to heal from all he has endured.

The novel’s denouement, or resolution, is the peace Theo makes with Hobie in section vii of Chapter 12 and the peace he makes with himself in section viii. In section vii, Hobie and Theo talk about Welty, Hobie’s old partner, and Welty’s love of objects. Hobie says that the point of beautiful art pieces is that they connect people to a larger beauty. They are expansive and universal. However, each one is also specific to the person who is touched by them. In section viii, Theo articulates his own ideas about life, a kind of pleasant nihilism. Though not a painter, Theo is a writer. Throughout the novel, he has written papers, letters, and emails in an attempt to communicate with others. He has also torn up or deleted far more than he’s sent. Theo makes several references to the fact that no one’s ever going to read his book, the story recounted in the novel. Theo’s story, his testimony to resilience and authenticity, is his work of art, which now all the world can see.