“And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?” —Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
When I first picked up Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Goldfinch, I had the wrong idea. The book was receiving the highest of accolades and the jacket description described a mysterious painting and a criminal underworld serving as the backdrop of “a stay-up-all-night-and-tell-all-your-friends-triumph.” I was expecting an exciting, suspenseful page-turner.
And in one sense, it is. This is a rich, imaginative novel. And yet the book is so powerful not because it is suspenseful or exciting. The Goldfinch is beautiful. It is a work of art, ironically, about a work of art.
The painting from which the book takes its name is by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt. As the book opens, thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and his mother are visiting the Met in Manhattan to see “The Goldfinch,” his mother’s favorite painting, when a bomb explodes killing many, his mother included. Theo miraculously survives, and on his way out takes the painting, drawing him into a tortuous cycle of comfort and distress, joy and longing as the escalating consequences climax fourteen years later on the snowy streets of Amsterdam.
Beauty and Suffering
At the heart of the novel is Theo’s struggle to reconcile beauty with the severity of life. Theo deeply feels the power of art to create breathtaking, jaw-dropping beauty, a beauty that “alters the grain of reality.” And yet what is beauty in a world where life is a truth-less illusion, an inevitable catastrophe? What good is beauty, mired as it is in the awfulness of human suffering?
As Tartt allows her protagonist to struggle with these questions, something good becomes something profound. Over the course of the novel, Theo begins to slowly realize a truth that brings him right to the edge of the divine—a truth that fully strikes him as he sits observing his fellow passengers on a Manhattan subway—“namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.”
Beauty Wed to Meaning
In his book Simply Christian, N.T. Wright shares the story of someone finding a musical score, written by hand, in a dusty old attic. The manuscript is an old one—handwritten for the piano. After consulting with experts, it is found to be a previously undiscovered work of Mozart’s. The only problem is that it doesn’t sound right at all—it’s incomplete. They have found only the piano part of a larger work written for a quintet. While wonderful and beautiful, this music is only a signpost of something still to be discovered.
Wright says, “That is what the beauty of this earth is like. It is a true signpost.” We can see this beauty everywhere–sunsets, arias, the flight of a bird, or the crashing of a wave. All remind us that the whole earth is full of His glory (Is. 6:1). The astounding, incomplete beauty of this world whispers something of the perfect beauty that is not of this world.
For the Christian, all of reality makes sense only in light of God. Beauty finds its meaning in relationship to God. So this innate longing (or as St. Augustine would say, this heart restlessness), points us outside of ourselves to the all-beautiful Creator of beauty. C.S. Lewis reflected on this common human experience in The Problem of Pain:
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else . . . . tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if . . . there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, “here at last is the thing I was made for.
Leading Us To Jesus
The Goldfinch movingly illustrates the human craving for beauty, the innate longing for transcendence. For Theo, that longing is only filled by love. “In the midst of our dying,” he says, “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 those with eyes to see, Theo is not far from the Kingdom. For it is only in the love of the one who was touched by Death, but defeated it; the one who lives eternally and by which all beautiful things live and move have their being; it is only in Jesus’ love that we find beauty and ours souls are at rest.
When I finished The Goldfinch I almost immediately recognized what had happened: in a book about the power of art to create soul-stirring beauty, Tartt has done just that. And so it is, that in awakening our souls to beauty and transcendence, The Goldfinch leads us to Jesus.