How We Numb Ourselves to Strong Emotions

Many adults seemed to interpret this numbness as a positive sign; I remember particularly Mr. Beeman . . . complimenting me on my maturity and informing me that I seemed to be ‘coping awfully well.’ . . . But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping;

This quote, one of Theo’s musings and observations of his emotional state, happens in Chapter 3, “Park Avenue,” as he describes his reentry to school and life with the Barbours. Mr. Beeman is a solicitous administrator at Theo’s school whose job is to help troubled children like Theo. Theo moves through life like a sleepwalker, not allowing himself to feel the urgency and power of his grief except in moments when it bursts forth, leaving him breathless, as if he’s drowning. During this time, well-meaning adults try to help by getting him to talk, but he resists their attempts. Instead, Theo watches TV, plays video games, listens to music, hangs out with Andy, does his schoolwork . . . anything to avoid thinking about his mother and the blast. Mrs. Barbour tells Theo to put one foot in front of the other to get through it, and mostly, he does. Even before he discovers drugs and alcohol, Theo avoids his despair by playing numb.

I didn’t cry. Though cold waves of disbelief and panic kept hitting me, it all seemed highly unreal and I kept glancing around for him, struck again and again by the absence of his voice among the others, that easy, well-reasoned, aspirin-commercial voice . . . that made itself known above all others in a room.

This is Theo’s numb reaction in Chapter 6, “Wind, Sand and Stars,” to the news that his father, Larry, has been killed in a car accident. Theo and Boris have been drinking and smoking pot at Theo’s house when there is a knock at the door. Naaman Silver has returned with a man holding a baseball bat, looking for Larry. The boys are surprised when Xandra comes home from work, still wearing her uniform, and tells them that Larry is dead. Larry’s death reminds Theo of his mother’s, and he reacts to the tragic news in a similar way. Theo buries his strong emotions and does not let himself cry. He keenly feels his father’s absence, and he experiences the panic of not knowing what will happen to him next, but he doesn’t allow the grief to settle in. Xandra starts taking Vicodin to get her through the night, and the boys continue to numb themselves by stealing and using her cocaine.

My moods were a slingshot; after being locked-down and anesthetized for years my heart was zinging and slamming itself around like a bee under a glass, everything bright, sharp, confusing, wrong—but it was a clean pain as opposed to the dull misery that had plagued me for years under the drugs like a rotten tooth[.]

Theo shares this observation with readers early in Chapter 10, “The Idiot,” after Kitsey asks Theo to marry her and he agrees. Theo feels something like happiness when he’s with Kitsey because she makes him feel somewhat normal. By marrying a beautiful girl, he’s doing what society says he should do. He’s conforming, and it’s comforting. When he refers to the “dull misery” of his drugged state, he admits that he numbs his emotions. Here, Theo feels good for a moment because he’s made someone else feel good. He has been dutifully taking antidepressants instead of using drugs, although he claims that the medication does not work. Even though he’s getting married and going through all the motions and steps that a wedding demands, Theo still feels lost and alone. The depression that he endures is a “clean pain” that he cannot overcome. The sadness of losing his mother and losing Pippa, he believes, will be with him forever.

How We Overcome Trauma with Hope

I’d seen glances, subtle cues, between Mr. and Mrs. Barbour that made me hopeful—more than hopeful. In fact, it was Andy who’d put the thought in my head. ‘They think being around you is good for me,’ he’d said on the way to school.

This quote appears in Chapter 4, “Morphine Lollipop,” following a discussion between Hobie and Theo. They have been working in what Hobie refers to as the furniture hospital. Hobie tells Theo the story of how he learned to restore furniture by watching a man named Abner Mossbank who worked for Welty. By silently watching the man work, Hobie learned what he hoped to do with his life. Hobie encourages Theo to think about his own future and what he hopes for, but Theo doesn’t allow himself to think too far ahead. However, here he admits that he’s hopeful that the Barbours might adopt him. Then he will not have to fear moving in with his callous grandparents or being sent away to a boarding school outside New York City. Theo hopes that the Barbours want to keep him, and in fact, they do, but the adoption never takes place. Soon, Larry reappears and demands that Theo come live with him in Las Vegas.

‘I thank you all for your company. And I wish us all health, and happiness, and that we all shall live until the next Christmas’ . . . And though in the clockless, temperature-controlled casino night, words like day and Christmas were fairly meaningless constructs, happiness, amidst the loudly clinked glasses, didn’t seem quite such a doomed or fatal idea.

Boris speaks these words, the last lines in Chapter 5, “Badr al-Dine,” during his toast on Christmas Eve when Larry treats Theo, Boris, and Xandra to a dinner at a fancy restaurant in the Venetian. Larry has just won big and feels flush with generosity. Boris eats abundantly, ecstatic at being treated so well. After the meal, Boris asks to speak. Here, he makes this toast, and the rowdy makeshift family responds with a surprised and respectful silence. At midnight, a champagne cork pops in the kitchen back at Larry’s house, and everyone laughs. Larry shouts, “Merry Christmas!” and gives Xandra a jewelry box and the boys five hundred dollars apiece. Despite the alcohol and drugs, the stealing and the gambling, the violence and the fear, the four enjoy a moment of happiness and hope for health. Boris’s wishes, expressed so honestly in his toast, however, do not come true as Larry dies before the following Christmas. Boris recalls the hopefulness of this moment at the end of the novel when he celebrates Christmas with Theo again.

[J]ust as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky—so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.

These wishful sentiments are among Theo’s last words in the novel at the end of Chapter 12, “The Rendezvous Point.” He has been writing about spaces between two things, such as the space between truth and illusion. For example, he suggests that music happens in the spaces between the notes. Similarly, people consider the stars at night lovely not because of the twinkling lights but because of the spaces between them. When Theo was young and throughout most of the novel, he saw the world in sharply contrasting black and white, right and wrong, past and present. Now, looking back at his experiences, Theo understands that life is ambiguous, inexplicable, and complex. Like Boris, he accepts that things can be both right and wrong, both comic and tragic, at precisely the same time. This sublime “middle place” is where Theo chooses to live and where he hopes to die. The novel has a happy ending because it ends with hope.

How Beautiful Art Grounds Us

[I]n the night when I woke up jarred and panicked, the explosion plunging through me all over again, sometimes I could lull myself back to sleep by thinking of his house, where without even realizing it you slipped away sometimes into 1850, a world of ticking clocks and creaking floorboards[.]

This quote appears in Chapter 4, “Morphine Lollipop.” Theo has just left the office of Mrs. Swanson, a counselor. She suggests that he needs to join some group activities such as sports or photography. Mrs. Swanson tells Theo that opening such a door might lift him out of his despair. He thinks she’s naive and leaves with tears in his eyes. However, he has opened a door by helping Hobie in his shop, and this quote expresses the effect meeting Hobie has had on Theo. Hobie teaches him about woods, stains, joints, and designs and how to feel the pieces with his hands. The shop is full of sights and smells that Theo loves, and Hobie treats Theo as a conversationist and companion, not as a child in need of counsel. Hobie calls the pieces “he” and “she,” a habit that Theo embraces. Theo spends more and more time with Hobie, in a place that is his hospital as well as the furniture’s. Hobie’s shop is where Theo heals.

The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a sunstruck instant that existed now and forever.

Theo shares this thought in Chapter 6, “Wind, Sand and Stars,” when he lives in Las Vegas and spends time with his father watching football games, often played in the snow. Theo hides the painting in a cotton pillowcase duct-taped to the back of the headboard of his bed. He sometimes takes The Goldfinch out to look at it when Larry and Xandra are not home. Looking at the painting always gives him a feeling of peace and rightness. When Theo stares at the goldfinch on the canvas, he enters a time warp where the past converges on the present, which converges on the future—all of it timeless. He thinks about how the painter died in an explosion, a single “sunstruck instant,” just as his mother did and how chance, or fate, chose them both. When the goldfinch stares back at him with its shiny black eyes, Theo does not focus on the chain on its ankle that signals its captivity. He only sees its beauty.

For humans—trapped in biology—there was no mercy . . . Time destroyed us all soon enough. But to destroy, or lose, a deathless thing—to break bonds stronger than the temporal—was a metaphysical uncoupling all its own, a startling new flavor of despair.

These are Theo’s thoughts in the hotel in Amsterdam in Chapter 11, “The Gentleman’s Canal.” Theo has shot and killed Martin, and Theo is hiding here, trying to decide whether to kill himself, surrender himself to the police, or wait for Boris to return his text. Theo is sick and hallucinating, dreaming of a sopping wet Andy who refuses to get into a boat. His dream makes the hotel room look and feel like the cabin of a ship. He thinks about the chunk spurting out of Martin’s head when he shot him. He thinks about death and about the painting, lost again. Martin’s death causes Theo despair, but destroying or losing something as timeless and priceless as The Goldfinch is unthinkable to him. People die every day, but great art can live forever. To Theo, the bonds that such works of art create, across time and space, are greater and more lasting than humans can imagine.