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Yellow Bird – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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Choice and the struggle to create meaning

But Tartt’s work is more than a dramatic series of disasters and misadventures. It builds motifs around important aspects of the human condition. Key among these motifs is the role of choice in human affairs, or, more specifically, the negation of choice in human affairs.

Theo’s persistent sense of “if only” is part of this thread. Beginning with his ineradicable guilt that none of this would have happened if he hadn’t gotten in trouble in school and then tried to wheedle having lunch at a particular restaurant. A long chain of happenstance events, each insignificant in itself, had to unfold exactly as they did for his mother was to end up at the explosion’s epicenter. Theo is, understandably, fixated on the role of chance in life. The arc of the story itself reinforces the domination of chance over choice, the sense that we do not carve our own paths through life, that we do not control who we are or what we do.

We live too deeply inside Theo’s mind not to identify with him. But we shortchange the force of the work if it is reduced to a case study in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or the evils of addictions. For all that The Goldfinch is a story of trauma, of guilt, of the cruelties of life, it is also a story of the of the denial of the human necessity to navigate one’s own path through life despite what befalls us.

Theo refuses to see that he is an actor in his own life. He denies — and one could argue that The Goldfinch as a novel denies — that he has choices in his life. He sees his options based on a narrow view of what he needs to survive. He does not see that he has a choice in whether he chooses to trust. It seems so logical to him that he tell no one about the painting that that he never allows himself to choose to confide, to trust. Circumstances always intervene when he has the least inkling that his mentor Hobie, his potential soul-mate Pippa or his childhood friend Andy are worthy of trust. The novel, in a sense, takes the choice out of his hands.

Theo sees himself as a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a log, carried along by the waves of life like his hapless friend Andy, drowned at sea. In his mind, Theo’s fears of being found out justify his destructiveness: to himself, to his clients, and to his mentor, to the goldfinch painting itself. Theo exclaims directly to the reader that no one can choose what they want, what they crave. In so doing he justifies his father’s destructiveness and self-destructiveness. Gradually recognizing how much he is like his father, he begins to feel some compassion for this man who was such atrocious parent. But, in understanding his father, Theo is also giving himself a blanket excuse for his own actions. He sees himself as the passive product of his circumstances. His growth has been attenuated, he is still, many years later, the early teen he was when the bomb went off. His own volition is absent on leave, nearly non-existent.

Ultimately, Theo does make the choice to face his demons, but only when no other course is possible. He is almost immediately spared paying the price for his actions by Boris’ timely reappearance. Conveniently and ironically, the money he receives for playing a part in recovering the lost work makes possible a form of atonement for Theo. When we leave him, he is paying back people he rooked by fraud. But how meaningful is this atonement? Theo still clings to the perspective that life happens to people, that their personalities, predilections, and actions are etched by forces beyond their control. How much has he learned about taking the struggle to find meaning into his own hands? We know from what Theo says at the beginning of the novel that he continues to drink heavily enough that he awakens every morning with a hangover. Even at the end, is he still sleepwalking through his life?

Though Hobie and Pippa do exhibit integrity, their words are whispers; we hear them only in bits and pieces. It is Boris’ voice that comes through boisterously. Boris chastises Theo for seeing good and bad dichotomously. Yes, this is something Theo needs to learn. But Boris is the thief we are supposed to love because he tells us to our face that he, sadly, must rob us, perhaps destroy us.

World-weary and street-wise literary critic, Boris describes Theo’s story as a mirror image of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. He summarizes the classic work as a story in which bad things happen to everyone because of the hero’s extreme innocence. But inferring the inverse — that bad, guilty acts are as likely as not to lead to good — is sophistic. Doesn’t bad shit, more often than not, lead to still worse shit? Boris’ philosophizing paves the way for Theo’s fatalistic epiphany that nobody chooses what they crave. Chance is given dominion over all. Life is a roulette wheel where pain and misery are the house, taking a cut of every roll. It is a gambler’s mindset: knowing the fates of chance will crush you in the end but addicted to a twisted form of hope — a hopeless hope — and having no control.

The degree to which all human life is at the mercy of fate and guaranteed to lead to death becomes a blanket justification. It neutralizes ethics, excuses all one’s failings. The subject, the person, disappears and only the object, the result of all that has happened is what remains. Only for a few moments toward the very end do we see in Theo some light of awareness of himself as an active person capable of acting with integrity as he finds the courage to seek love.

In embracing the randomness of fate, the story of The Goldfinch, unfortunately, conforms to contemporary popular conceptions that human personality and behavior are determined by factors beyond any person’s control. Much of current psychiatric practice and popular understanding of psychology, as prime examples, once dominated by Freudian theories of unconscious motivation, then by Skinnerian notions of conditions, now trace most problems to neuropsychological causes, themselves in turn largely determined by a person’s genetic makeup. With the causes of disorder thus attributed, pharmaceuticals are given priority as the primary means to re-adjust a disordered life. We treat ourselves as though we were laboratory rats, not conscious beings whose choices matter.

If defining ourselves by our diagnoses exonerates us of our guilt, the absolution comes at a heavy price. By describing ourselves and those close to us with medical-sounding labels, as a great many do, we also sacrifice our responsibility for ourselves. With that loss, we also lose our freedom, seeing ourselves as little more than protein robots. It is ironic, then, that so many science fiction stories — Asimov’s I, Robot and Philip Dick’s Blade Runner, Spielberg’s AI, to name a few — revolve around artificial beings that attain conscious, while, in our popular view of ourselves, we are so easily persuaded that our own conscious experience and our own ability to choose are illusions.  (For more on psychology’s de-emphasis on conscious experience and human choice, see I, Robot: Psychology’s Error.)

This denial of choice is particularly insidious with regard to destructive addictions. Theo’s “we cannot choose what we crave” is a dangerous partial truth. We cannot control craving things that aren’t good for us or aren’t the right thing to do, but we must control the choices we make with respect to our cravings. We cannot cede this element of human choice without losing meaning in life.

It is a truism that we do not choose our parents, our genes, or the twists of fate life hands to us. We do choose whether to submit to our demons or to defy them. We choose whether to act egocentrically or, alternatively, to resist our worst impulses, to act with courage and integrity. We do not control our susceptibilities, our frailties, our fears, our lusts, yet we do chose whether to do whatever we can to rise above them. If we are addicted to a destructive path, we can face ourselves, we can change course. There is no guarantee we will succeed, but denial of responsibility surely guarantees failure.

To the degree that The Goldfinch appears to endorse denial of personal responsibility, it undermines its celebration of the struggle for the survival of human creations, love, and life. But the work holds us because, in the end, its core is about that struggle, however misguided its protagonists may be. The tale constantly reminds us that survival, meaning, love, and creativity are tenuous, fragile, threatened with extinction. The light of life and creation flickers on and off; it is finite. This story of how the life of a piece of a person and of art can hang in the precipice reminds of how all human creative effort, even civilization itself, hinges on a thread, is tentative, vulnerable, terrifyingly finite.

For all its heroes’ missteps and dark visions, The Goldfinch tells us a story not only of the struggle to survive but also of the struggle to find meaning in life despite the vagaries of chance and the allure of one’s own destructive and self-destructive yearnings. The painting of the goldfinch survives, Boris survives. Theo, Pippa, and Hobie all go forward with their lives. Perhaps Theo’s love for Pippa will bring meaning to both their lives. But that, as Dostoevsky might say, is another story.

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