Book I

Summary: Chapter 1: Boy with a Skull

Theo Decker is shut up in an Amsterdam hotel room. Cold and sick, he is concerned with the newspaper headlines that state that an American has committed a crime. In a feverish dream about his mother, she stands behind him, smiling, while he looks into a mirror. The sight of her fills Theo with happiness, but he knows that if he turns around, she will be gone. He wakes up.

Theo then describes his mother, Audrey, and her history. She came from Kansas to New York City and became a model. Theo considers her death, on April 10, fourteen years earlier, his fault. Theo, as narrator, then tells the story of his life, starting with the day his mother died. He is an eighth grader at a private school. His father recently left him and his mother, and they struggle to pay their bills at the apartment building where they live. Theo was recently suspended from school, but he isn’t sure why, maybe smoking with Tom Cable on school property or maybe someone learned that he and Tom broke into houses in the Hamptons where Tom’s family summered. Theo and Audrey must go to the school for a conference to discuss the suspension. It’s raining hard as Goldie, the doorman, calls them a cab. The cab smells so awful that Audrey gets sick, so they get out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art instead. As they have time to kill, they go into the museum. Audrey wants to see an exhibit of Dutch portraits including The Anatomy Lesson. They look at a painting by Hals of a boy holding a skull that Audrey thinks looks like Theo.

Theo notices a red-haired girl with a flute and wants to talk to her. Audrey locates the first painting she ever loved, a tiny one by Fabritius, of a goldfinch chained to a perch by its ankle. They talk about death and losing things. They agree to meet in the gift shop, and Theo goes off to find the girl. An explosion rocks the museum, and Theo loses consciousness. He stumbles through layers of smoke, debris, and bodies until he sees a man moving. The man grabs his hand. He’s bleeding and dying. He calls for Pippa, the girl he was with. The man tells Theo to take the painting of the goldfinch and the ring from his finger. He tells Theo to go to Hobart and Blackwell and ring the green bell. He spews blood all over Theo and dies. Theo crawls through tight spaces and long administrative hallways, seeing bodies and stretchers but not his mother. Theo follows an exit sign and emerges in Central Park amid sirens and trucks and people running away. A police officer tells Theo to run because there is another bomb. He frantically looks for his mother as they disrupt the second bomb, and he decides to go home. He staggers through the chaos with a headache.

Analysis: Chapter 1

The first chapter introduces Theo Decker as a young man in Amsterdam, wanted for some crime, but quickly flashes back to the day of his mother’s death, the event that marks the “Before and After” that divides his life. Theo confesses that he’s always been obsessed with strangers and their hidden personalities, the curiosity that led him to break into houses with his friend, Tom. The same curiosity motivates him to wonder about the red-haired girl carrying a flute.

Tartt uses abundant foreshadowing in this initial chapter, a technique she will use throughout the narrative. For example, Fabritius, the painter of The Goldfinch, died when a gunpowder factory exploded at Delft in the 1600s, destroying most of his paintings. This historical fact foreshadows Audrey’s imminent death. Similarly, Tartt plants seeds that will sprout in later chapters. The red-haired Pippa will become a main character in the novel. Hobart and Blackwell, a reference among the dying man’s last words, will become a major setting and element.

The details of Chapter 1 suggest that The Goldfinch will be a tale of a character’s coming of age. This places the novel in the genre of bildungsroman, narratives that focus on the moral and psychological education and growth of a protagonist from childhood to adulthood. In such stories, a person traditionally begins innocent and young and matures into someone experienced and wise. In the process, he or she experiences loss and hardship, goes on a journey, makes mistakes, and discovers both disappointment and love. In addition to their personal focus, these novels often illuminate the values, norms, and pitfalls of the society the characters inhabit. They are often told in using a first-person narration and a reflective, analytical tone. All these characteristics are true of The Goldfinch.

Several images of confinement establish a motif that will continue throughout the novel. Theo is, at first, shut up in a hotel room, feverish and cold, obviously trying to lie low to avoid discovery. Headlines suggest that an American has committed a crime, and readers can assume they refer to him. In his flashback, as Theo climbs through the rubble after the blast, he is trapped again and again, in small spaces, in hallways, in gallery rooms, and in his own dread. The claustrophobia he experiences is both physical and emotional.

Another theme introduced early is guilt. One of the most poignant sentences in the early pages is a simple one. Theo considers his mother’s death his fault. In fact, he takes responsibility for everything that happens to him in the rest of the novel. In this chapter, Theo feels guilty for smoking, for breaking into houses, for getting in trouble at school, and even for separating from his mother in the museum and failing to find her after the blast. As Theo tells his story, he is trying to address, neutralize, or even overcome his guilt. Telling his story will be part of that process.