Theo’s Spiritual Connection to Objects in The Goldfinch

To lift one of my favorite introductions (Simon Jarvis, from an essay in PMLA), “Reader! No time for pleasantries!”

It’s easy to assume Theo is attached to the goldfinch painting because it’s his last connection to his mother. And that may be so. But I think there’s more there.

I’m really struggling for a word here–totemism comes to mind, but it’s not exactly right. It might do for our purposes here though, if you’ll allow for some flexibility. Totems are symbols of one’s spiritual connections to things of the earth. The term is mostly used in reference to animals. But here, Theo connects to manmade objects the way tribes have connected to a specific creature or element. His goldfinch painting is the most obvious example–and it isn’t the animal he connects with as much as it is the painting. He feels differently with it around, looking at it, holding it. He obsesses over the weight and feel of it, and he feels as if it glows in a way that’s almost unearthly. But he does this with other things, too, starting from a very young age. About Welty’s ring, he says this:

For reasons I would have found hard to explain, I had taken to carrying the old man’s ring with me almost everywhere I went. Mostly I toyed around with it while it was in my jacket pocket…I ignored [Mrs. Barbor’s] advice to put it in a safe place, and continued to carry it around in my pocket. When I hefted it in my palm, it was very heavy; if I closed my fingers around it, the gold got warm from the heat of my hand but the carved stone stayed cool. Its weighty, antiquated quality, its mixture of sobriety and brightness, were strangely comforting; if I fixed my attention on it intensely enough, it had a strange power to anchor me in my drifting state and shut out the world around me…

And Theo, especially after his trauma, continues to find objects, not people, his anchor. He feels utterly lost when he realizes he no longer has access to his painting. He immerses himself in the touch and feel of the furniture he works on with Hobie. Certainly he finds solace in a few people here and there, but what he finds the deepest connections with are not people, but things.

There is one exception. The way he describes Pippa in the book is very similar to the way he describes the objects he attaches to. He notes her attributes, like her hair and clothing, with the same sort of fetishism with which he describes his totems. I wouldn’t probably go as far as to say Theo sees her as an object. In fact, I think part of what draws him to Pippa is the fact that he cannot possess her like he can an object. Theo’s a deep-feeling, intensely spiritual person, even from childhood, so it makes sense that he doesn’t objectify people quite in the context that we’d usually use the term.

He does not always know why he experiences the attachments he does–he just records his feelings and leaves them unsorted and unanalysed. I find it understandable, this reluctance to wonder too hard about the reasons behind his emotions. I don’t quite think of him as psychologically insightful, but that’s one of the great things about this character and about the book. It allows the reader to do the psychological work.

Theo in some ways reminds me of a character from a book I haven’t read in a long time: Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Theo is an aesthetician (an old-school one, not the kind you find at the Clinique counter), but there’s a desperate quality to his appreciation of beauty. When he learns that people can be lost, he connects instead with objects. Then, when he realizes objects can also be lost even when the greatest care is taken to preserve them, well, that’s pretty rough.

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