The Goldfinch Summary

Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us contact us.

The Goldfinch Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Goldfinch  by Donna Tartt.

The Goldfinch is a tale about loss, growing up and endurance. It chronicles the life of Theodore Decker, a thirteen-year-old boy who miraculously survives a terrorist attack in a New York art museum. In the bombing, Theo’s mother is killed, thus propelling him into a freefall of emotions and actions based on the confusion. As such, the narrative also deals with grief and the various ways Theo confronts his tragedy while on his arduous journey into adulthood.

After the bomb goes off in the art museum, Theo finds Welty, an old man who is badly injured and dying. The elderly man gives Theo a set of tasks. He is to take The Goldfinch painting from the museum, take a ring from Welty and bring it to a shop, Hobart and Blackwell. Theo then learns that Welty arrived to the museum with a young girl, Pippa. Pippa is the same age as Theo, and has red hair. When Theo finally sees Pippa, he falls in love.

As Theo’s mother has died in the bombing, Theo must be placed in someone’s custody. He mentions, however, that he would like to stay with his elementary school friend, Andy Barbour, and his social workers set about making this happen. When everything is confirmed, Theo must try and adjust to his new life on Park Avenue with the Barbours. Still reeling from grief, he sometimes feels as if he is another piece of the antique furniture on display in the apartment. Especially as his friend’s mother, Samantha, holds several charity functions. Theo also has to deal with his friend’s two younger siblings, Kitsey and Toddy. The two children show nothing but spite for Theo because his place in the home takes attention away from them. Theo also learns that Andy’s father, who loves enjoys sailing, is sick.

It is while staying with the Barbours that Theo sets about completing Welty’s tasks, and visits Hobart and Blackwell to return the ring. While there, he sees Pippa again, and so continues to visit the shop on and off. When Theo’s stay with the Barbours comes to an end, his father brings Theo to live with him in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas marks another shift in Theo’s journey into adulthood. While there, he meets a friend of his, Boris, who moves through life on gut reactions. With Boris’s outlook on life, the two soon grow closer, bonding over alcohol, thievery and excessive drug use. Additionally, they begin working in the underground world of criminal art. In time, Theo’s father gets in trouble due to a gambling debt, and a man named Bobo Silver tries to collect the debt from the Deckers. Soon after, Theo’s father dies in a drunk driving accident. With another loss in his life, Theo leaves Las Vegas and returns to New York.

Back in New York, Theo is allowed to stay with Hobie, the lawyer whom the ring belonged to from earlier on in the novel. During this time, Theo tries to orient himself by going to college. He soon finds, however, that Hobie’s antique furniture restoration business gives him more pleasure than college. In time, Hobie makes Theo a business partner. Trouble brews when Hobie learns that Theo has been selling knock-off faux pieces of antique furniture as luxury furniture, thus conning many people. To add to Theo’s predicament, a man named Lucius Reeve is threatening to expose the business on account of the fraudulent sales. Lucius also suggests that Theo has The Goldfinch painting, and wants to buy it from him. Theo himself has brought the painting with him each time he moved states, but denies all of Reeve’s accusations.

Theo then runs into his old friend, Boris, in New York. The reader learns that Theo is actually engaged now to Kitsey Barbour. Mr. Barbour, along with Theo’s friend Andy, have died in a sailing accident. It is during this encounter with Boris that Theo learns of an earlier betrayal by Boris. Boris reveals how he has actually stolen The Goldfinch painting from Theo, which Theo initially does not believe. He rushes to the storage locker where he thinks the painting is, only to find old textbooks where The Goldfinch painting should be.

After having betrayed Theo, Boris desires to make amends. He designs a scheme to reclaim the painting in Amsterdam. In the scheme, Theo is supposed to act as a rich American who wants to acquire the painting. The plan is compromised, however, and Theo shoots a man named Martin, who tried stealing the painting at the last minute, in self-defense. After the botched job, Theo hides in his hotel room, mulling over his options. He feels dead and empty inside, and contemplates suicide, as well as returning to New York. The problem is that Boris has his passport, and Boris is nowhere to be found.

One night, Theo has an encouraging dream about his mother. When he wakes up, he feels that he knows what he must do. He decides finally to turn himself in, but as soon as he decides, Boris arrives. Boris tries to give Theo a large amount of money, but Theo refuses it on the basis that the money has been obtained illegally. Boris admits that the money is actually legal. As it turns out, Boris designed another scheme where the authorities were notified about the whereabouts of The Goldfinch, and thus the whereabouts of many other missing pieces of art that were stolen.

At the end of the narrative, Theo returns to New York. He spends his time buying back all of the fraudulent pieces of antique furniture he previously sold. He is now a responsible adult, owning up to his mistakes. In the end, Theo realizes that, no matter how hard a person searches, there are some questions in life that may never have answers.

Along with the themes of loss and grief, the narrative addresses the theme of value, especially the value one places on oneself. Like the paintings and antique furniture, people like Theo are shifted around from one place to the next, from one experience to the next. Theo, though, has free will, and as such, can determine the value of his existence. He can seek to do good, and therefore mature in a way that is priceless.