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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
When events are too painful and emotions too strong, Theo and other characters choose numbness over sensation. After Mr. Barbour’s and Andy’s death, Mrs. Barbour and Kitsey show little emotion. Kitsey uses norms and habits to numb herself, and her mother uses solitude and isolation. After the bombing, Theo stumbles through the rubble feeling numb, a form of self-protection against the trauma. After he’s been at the Barbours’ for several weeks and begins to recover, adults interpret his numbness as a positive sign, but it’s not. The first time Theo takes a pill from Mrs. Barbour and the first time he gets drunk from Xandra’s champagne, he feels the pleasure of numbness.
Boris numbs himself after years of childhood trauma, neglect, and violence. When his father beats him, he turns to vodka for relief. When Theo and Boris start using harder drugs and binging to the point of blacking out, Theo learns that he can control and induce the numbness he craves. Eight years later in New York, Theo becomes addicted to heroin. At the engagement party, he tucks a pill in his pocket just in case he needs it. However, Theo’s tolerance is so high that he cannot commit suicide by overdosing when he wants to in Amsterdam. By the novel’s end, Theo uses drugs in moderation, but he does not give them up.
Much of The Goldfinch is gloomy, traumatic, and violent, but there are glimmers of hope that break through the darkness. Theo’s most hopeful moments occur with people he loves, most notably Pippa, Hobie, and Boris. Being with Pippa makes him hopeful, even as he realizes that he cannot be with her as a romantic partner. In her presence, even when she’s injured, Theo feels happy. She tells him that they don’t have to talk, a welcome change from the teachers, counselors, and investigators who make him feel confined and prodded. Sitting on her bed feels like a moment of waking up, between dreaming and daylight. Theo hopes to see Pippa again and again—and he does.
In Hobie, whose name even sounds like “hope,” Theo finds the father and friend he lacks. Hobie loves Theo unconditionally and supports him without question. Hobie writes to Theo when he’s in Las Vegas and welcomes Theo in whenever he appears at his door, no matter what his condition. Akin to hope is love. In his philosophical final chapter, Theo writes about the spaces in between things, the magical place where art and beauty exist. Hope and love are embodied in small things, such as origami frogs, a lock of hair, a paintbrush stroke, an emerald earring, or a faded photograph. For Tartt and Theo, love and art sustain humans and give them hope.
After Theo’s mother’s death, there’s not much in life that grounds Theo, but he learns again and again that beautiful art objects have the capacity to make people strong and show them meaning. Hobie and Welty embody this belief most explicitly in their love for authentic antiques and their devotion to restoration. From Hobie, Theo learns to love old furniture. Contemplating the lives of the dignified pieces, much longer and gentler than human lives, calms his troubled heart. Both Welty and Audrey are grounded by the painting The Goldfinch. Just as the bird is tethered to its perch by a tiny chain, Theo becomes tethered to the painting too. Every time Theo looks at The Goldfinch, he feels peaceful and grateful. Even Horst, the crazy dealer of stolen art, admires the artist Fabritius’s genius. Horst commends the beautiful doubleness of The Goldfinch, how one sees both the brush’s paint and the living bird. Theo describes the painting in terms that reveal his dependence on it. It is his support, vindication, sustenance, sum, bedrock, reinforcement, and keystone. The painting, and all that it represents, gives his life meaning.