The Relationship Between Gender and Trauma in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch
2022, Vol. 14 No. 09 | pg. 1/1
IN THIS ARTICLE
The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt is a novel that explores the conditions of grief and escalating lengths characters will go to survive the traumas and mysteries of life. This story of guilt and loss—intermixed with love and longing—is far detached from the traditional coming-of-age trope. I argue that one of the most tantalizing aspects found in this piece of literary fiction is the fascinating and sometimes questionable relationship between main characters, Theodore Decker and Boris Pavlikovsky. Reading this novel through a queer/gender studies lens and the use of a dialogic journal reveals that this story is a representation of the tendencies gay-coded characters are portrayed as through the use of specific literary elements and intentional subtext. I argue that themes of gender and sexuality, trauma, and masking oneself contribute to the tumultuous yet once-in-a-lifetime relationship between Theo and Boris.
Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel The Goldfinch is a miraculous exploration of grief and love represented by thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker’s whose subsequent life is violently overturned following the sudden and devastating death of his beloved mother in a New York City museum bombing. Following the death of his mother, Theo is uprooted by his father from New York to Las Vegas where he meets Russian-born Boris Pavlikovsky and begins a tumultuous yet undeniably loving relationship that is first introduced through a foreshadowing by adult-Theo’s narration: “Such was my mistaken first impression of the only friend I made when I was in Vegas, and—as it turned out—one of the great friends of my life” (Tartt 236). This story of guilt, trauma, violence and found love proves far detached from the traditional coming-of-age trope that often takes place following the death of a parent or guardian in literature. While the two main characters in the novel suffer severe bouts of abuse and loss, the tantalizing element of shared trauma that exists within the walls of the novel permeates an overwhelming but unsaid understanding of life’s unfolding mysteries and asks the all-encompassing question: in what ways does love contribute to our behavior? Previous literary criticisms of The Goldfinch by authors Olha Kozii and Ryan Coburn tended to focus on the value of art and beauty in journal articles due to the titular painting the novel is named for and its significance as the main driving point in Theo’s life following the accident. While it is no mistake the driving point art plays towards the plot of the novel, I view Tartt’s contribution of art as means to further the conversation regarding what makes life worth living. With that said, I find it unfortunate that there are little literary criticisms dedicated to the depiction of Theo and Boris’s relationship throughout the novel, nor is there much consideration of the novel’s gay-coded characters and subtext. There is almost no research regarding the interpersonal relationships of the characters but rather, opinions of where the novel fails, succeeds, and whether or not it is considered readable. The purpose of this paper is to focus on why the characters of Theo and Boris are the way they are based on their life experiences, the influence of each other’s trauma, and the coping mechanisms they both adopt to mask the true intentions of their dedication to each other. I examine the relationship of Theo and Boris and the literary themes of gender and sexuality, trauma, and masking Tartt adopted when crafting these characters and the overall impact they would eventually have in each other’s lives.Before being able to decode gender and sexuality, trauma, and masking as it is portrayed through the characterization of Theo and Boris, it is critical to define the gender and queer studies lenses used to examine the novel. Gender studies lens is defined as “a development of a sociological understanding of gender and asking if, how, and why social processes, standards, and opportunities differ systematically for women and men” (Gender Lens) while a queer studies lens is described as a critical theory that “follows feminist theory and gay/lesbian studies in rejecting the idea that sexuality is an essentialist category, something determined by biology or judged by eternal standards of morality and truth” (Harris). Both lenses provide significant insight into the discussion regarding the ways gender and sexuality are intertwined when decoding the undefined and rare relationship Theo and Boris create. When first examining The Goldfinch under a gender studies lens, it became apparent that one could not examine through gender studies alone. Kath and Sophia Woodward, authors of “Gender Studies and Interdisciplinarity,” address the similarities of each lens and how they often go hand-in-hand, “the shift towards gender studies also reflects a widening intellectual base, including psychosocial as well as psychoanalytical theories, poststructuralist, postcolonial studies, critical studies of masculinity, queer studies and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer…” (Woodward). Reading The Goldfinch through a gender and queer studies lens reveals that this work is a desperate conversation of the tendencies of grief, violence, and their impact on the way one begins to view themselves. The Goldfinch is a critique of gender and sexuality, as well as the trauma and masking that contributes to the tumultuous and rare relationship between Theo and Boris.
Gender & Sexuality
Gender and sexuality prove to be one of the defining characteristics of main character Theo and his internal struggles. In their article “Homophobia in American Gay-Themed Young Adult Novels (2000-2010),” Nachanok Hutanan writes about the influence of family on a child’s gender or sexual identity: “There are very few contemporary LGBTQ-themed juvenile novels that extensively feature homophobia within families, in particular that which is enacted by parental characters and their gay children’s struggles to deal with it” (88). They explain that familial homophobia in literature is not always immediately outright with its homophobia, but rather an act where “parents attempt to mold their sons” (93). While parental homophobia is not an outright theme found throughout The Goldfinch, family—blood-related or found—is one of the defining characteristics of the novel, particularly when considering why Theo and Boris end up developing specific characteristics from their parents and how these affected their ability to grow with stable mindsets and awareness of personal revelations.
Tartt employs the significance of Theo’s mother, Audrey, almost immediately in the few pages of the novel, “still I’ve never met anyone who made me feel loved the way she did” (Tartt 7). Throughout the text, Theo often reflects warmly on memories of his mother, relating even the smallest moments of experience to her, “But the moon was so large and clear through the uncurtained window that it made me think instead of a story my mother had told me” (Tartt 254) and “I dreamed of my mother: sitting across from me on the 6 train, swaying slightly, her face calm in the flickering artificial lights” (Tartt 256). In the simplest of terms, Theo and his mother are best friends. They find a level of companionship in each other that seems to eradicate their needs for other friends or in Audrey’s case, a romantic partner following the departure of her husband and Theo’s father. Later, readers learn that Theo’s father, Larry, cites the closeness between Theo and his mother as means behind his affair and eventual abandonment of the family, “‘It’s just that she loved you so much, I always felt like kind of an interloper with you guys. Stranger-in-my-own-house kind of thing. You two were so close—' he laughed, sadly—'there wasn’t much room for three’” (Tartt 306). Theo feels put off and sad by this revelation of his father, seemingly unaware that his close relationship with his mother was one that could be viewed and felt from outside eyes, “I felt so bad I didn’t know what to say” (Tartt 306). Following this revelation, there is a sense of implication from Larry that, due to the closeness of Theo and his mother, their father-son relationship had always been threatened, foreshadowing Larry’s distaste in his family and the nonexistent bond men often develop with their sons. This interaction between Theo and his father infers that with Audrey out of the picture, the two of them finally have an opportunity to get to know each other in a way Theo desperately needs.
Prior to the death of his mother, Theo’s father is described as someone who “had run off and left my mother and me some months before” (Tartt 10), a man known for being charismatic while also an impulsive and abusive addict. The relationship between the three of them before his abandonment is nonexistent, one that makes Theo question everything when his father shows up months after the death of his mother to move Theo from New York to Las Vegas with him and his girlfriend, Xandra. Initially, Theo is under the impression that his father is sober, “—didn’t even check himself into the join—detoxed on the safe with a basket of Easter candy and a bottle of Valium” (Tartt 184). Emotional abandonment, by both Larry and Xandra, offer themselves to Theo almost immediately during his Vegas residency. As Theo settles into his new life, he describes that “No one cared that I never changed my clothes and wasn’t in therapy” (Tartt 232). Despite their intentions of moving Theo out to Vegas to be parents to him, Larry and Xandra are seldom around and when they are, Theo moves through his new circumstances trying his hardest to avoid them altogether, “When they were at home, I stayed in my room with the door shut” (Tartt 232). Theo eventually defines the living circumstances as “living with them was like living with roommates I didn’t particularly get along with” (Tartt 232), showcasing just how vacant and nonexistent his relationship with them begins. Despite his achieved sobriety, Larry still maintains addict behavior, becoming obsessed with gambling which is what eventually causes his demise in a car accident, leaving Theo officially orphaned and abandoned again.
Following the throughs of despair and loss, Hobart & Blackwell becomes a beacon of uninterrupted light for Theo. After the death of his father and fearing being placed in the hands of social workers, Theo leaves Boris in Vegas and goes back to his native New York where James “Hobie” Hobart, an antique restorer and Theo’s eventual unofficial adoptive parent, takes Theo in as his own. Theo describes the moment he sees Hobie for the first time since moving to Vegas, “I was conscious of nothing but the relief of being there, and my aching and over-full heart” (Tartt 367). The relief and happiness Theo feels at his arrival at Hobie’s are two feelings that only mimic themselves in Theo’s memories of his mother. Hobie becomes Theo’s temporary guardian, an arrangement that becomes permanent as the novel propels itself eight years forward. While Theo’s relationship with Hobie is never one that depends on labels, he becomes the found father figure Theo has always wanted.
The lack of stability regarding family offers the question that if Theo’s mother would have survived the bombing or if it had never happened in the first place, in what ways would Theo’s subsequent life been different. Theo’s struggle with his sexuality is one aspect that intertwines itself in almost every relationship whether it be parental, platonic, or romantic. His initial loving upbringing by his mother is destroyed overnight, uprooting any kind of positive or healthy environment that was necessary for him to explore his sexuality without guilt or shame. The presence of Theo’s mother before her death and his memories of her following the accident consist of descriptions that are filled with warmth, patience, and a bond Theo himself knew he would never find again. The difference in parental figures throughout Theo’s life are palpable in their influence. He goes from having a present, supportive, and loving mother to an alcoholic, abusive father, to a suspected gay craftsman, turned business partner whose sexuality Theo never fully addresses.
One of the most apparent ways that The Goldfinch portrays a tumultuous familial upbringing is that of Boris Pavlikovsky. There are countless moments in which Boris is at the frontlines of dealing with an allusive yet domineering father figure, a relationship where abuse and love are so intermixed they begin to mean the same thing. Not much is known about Boris’s life prior to the moment he enters Theo’s. The details he does reveal are often dismissed by him, either as unimportant or things that never affected him in the first place. Boris only discloses information about his mother to Theo after Theo tells him he also doesn’t have a mother anymore, “She was an alkie. She was drunk one night and fell out a window and died” (Tartt 238). Unlike Theo’s emotional turmoil and guilt revolving around the absence of the mother, the reader can only infer Boris’s struggles with how the death of his mother affected him and his father. While not explicitly stated by either character, the shared loss of their mothers becomes an area of conversation neither of them delve into, highlighting the unspoken dead-parent bond Theo and Boris develop. Solidarity becomes a driving force in their companionship. Throughout the novel, Boris’s father is described as a “mysterious figure” (Tartt 256) and someone Theo only personally learns about through Boris. Early on in their friendship, Boris divulges “My dad drinks it so much the nerves are gone dead in his feet” (Tartt 242), showing that alcoholism is another area of faulty parenting Theo is familiar with. On a surface level, Boris and Theo find themselves trapped in similar circumstances that both of them view as inescapable, therefore resulting to the companionship of one another to overcome areas of neglect, abuse, and unsafe environments that do not allow them to healthily develop to find themselves.
Contrary to Theo, Boris has a life the reader only catches glimpses of, glimpses that can be considered teetering on the edge of pathological lying developed as a coping mechanism. The stories of his parents, true or dramatized, almost read as too grotesque to be untrue. The influence of these abandonments, the death of his mother from a drinking accident, the subsequent cycle of alcoholism from his father, portray themselves as the direct result of a tumultuous upbringing. His life at home has never been one of stability considering the constant moving around due to his father’s line of work, contributing to Boris’s inability to make lasting friendships due to his impulsivity and lack of consideration for those around him. Similarly, Theo and Boris both lack stable parental figures resulting in constant unsupervised behavior, behavior that turns into an unsaid form of co-dependency both Theo and Boris develop towards each other. Theo quotes “Before Boris, I had borne my solitude stoically enough, without realizing quite how alone I was” (Tartt 245), demonstrating recognition with his loneliness that began following the death of his mother, loneliness that only Boris’s presence could forgo.
It is necessary here—before delving into examples of internalized homophobia suffered both by Theo and Boris—to define and isolate why internalized homophobia is a trope often found in literary fiction. Internalized homophobia, defined as “negative feelings and attitudes that non-straight people have toward their own homosexual orientation and identity” (Hutanan 38), often manifests itself in real life and fiction through the presence of discomfort and feelings of alienation. LGBTQ-centric novels often result in these internal struggles, cited through its use as a narrative theme to further the plot. When considering The Goldfinch and its depiction of internalized homophobia, the argument of whether or not these intentions were purposeful by Tartt has been heavily discussed since the novel’s publication. While the sexuality of Theo and Boris is not explicitly stated, there is considerable evidence both characters are suffering both internally and externally with their sexualities and the emotional and physical intimacies that arise during their relationship.
The significance of internalized homophobia as portrayed through the characterization of Theo is damning, particularly in regards to his attitude towards the only gay-coded character of the entire novel and the one who eventually becomes his only support system: Hobie. Allusions regarding Hobie’s sexuality follow him throughout the story: previously living with a man under the guise of being work partners and being notably never married. On Theo’s end, there is never much consideration towards Hobie’s sexual preference until Boris casually insinuates that Hobie is homosexual, “‘Old Poofter?’ I was taken aback. ‘No,’ I said swiftly; and then: I don’t know’” (Tartt 282). Despite the obvious signs mentioned before, Theo struggles with the possibility that a man he looks up to and feels safe around could be anything other than straight. The insinuation follows Theo’s perception of Hobie deeper into the novel, and the reader learns that it begins to affect his overall view of him through the quote “Boris’s casual speculation (“old poofter?”) had put me off him, subtly…” (Tartt 365). While Theo is not explicitly homophobic to Hobie, there is a definable issue he upholds regarding homosexuality, one that makes him hyper-aware of these possibilities that might directly affect him. Theo’s hyper-awareness reads as fear and an element of discomfort with traits he, himself, is not inherently ready to dissect. The unease he holds towards Hobie mirrors the apprehension he holds to his own queerness.
Another characteristic of Theo that hints towards his struggle with internalized homophobia are his distinct opinions towards women who do not emulate his dead mother. Throughout The Goldfinch, Theo can be seen holding an over-exuberant distaste in women’s hyper-feminine attributes and also discerns both fear and jealousy towards women he feels threatened by. Following his introduction to Las Vegas and Larry’s girlfriend, Theo weighs out his opinion towards Xandra:
Compared to Theo’s prior descriptions of his mother, Xandra is someone very feminine and depends on her femininity to get what she wants. Xandra also exudes overt feelings of confidence, both in her appearance and her lifestyle, two things Theo finds hatred in. In addition, his mother being a very timid woman, and being around Xandra and her confidence becomes a foreign concept Theo could only justify through judgment and dismay because of his internal struggle. While Theo’s attitude towards Xandra reads as misogynistic, jealousy is another aspect that deserves consideration. Theo’s character is constantly worrying about his appearance and the way he holds himself, especially when being viewed by girls his age. In regards to Boris’s girlfriend, Theo concludes, “Definitely, she was cute—hot, even; but the glance she slid over me was anxiety-inducing” (Tartt 292). Theo’s interactions with Kotku are nonexistent, but he still puts himself at the forefront of his insecurities, either as a way to make himself appear better than other women or because he has no other way to deal with them.
Opposite of Theo’s internal viewpoints towards women, Boris displays his opinions regarding women outwardly, often resulting in slut-shaming, viewing them only as sexual objects, and threats of physical violence that he eventually carries out. Initially, Boris displays contempt only towards women that his father brings home drunk and for sexual intimacy. Theo, unfamiliar with this type of behavior, asks who the woman is only for Boris to reply “Some whore” (Tartt 255). The reader is never able to familiarize themselves with Boris’s father’s sexual relationships, but we do know that they are constant and repetitive, causing Boris to form an overall opinion he stands by: that women are sexual objects. Unlike Theo’s disgust, Xandra becomes a primary target for Boris’s sexual fantasies, “‘God, she’s hot,’ said Boris, once we were up in my room. ‘Think your dad would mind?’” (Tartt 259). This interaction, while common in immature prepubescent boys, reads as justification Boris creates in showcasing his straightness.
A year into Theo and Boris’s relationship, Boris begins dating an older girl Theo only refers to “Kotku.” Known around the school for being a flirt and hanging out with another boy, Boris takes his anger out on her through words in discussion with Theo, describing her as something that is the “Same as a cunt, basically.” (Tartt 315). In terms of Kotku, Boris harbors a lot of anger towards her behavior when it is not directed towards him. Furthermore, their relationship seemingly happens overnight which only fuels Boris’s expectations towards how a woman should act at the beginning stages of a relationship. At one point, Boris discloses to Theo “‘I could strangle her’”(Tartt 315). Eventually, the relationship turns as violent as Boris’s opinions towards her and Kotku shows up to school with a black eye. Theo, not a fan of Kotku and Boris’s sudden companionship, asks Boris after her injury and finds Boris’s reply of “‘She made me!’” (Tartt 319) unexpected. Boris uses anger and physical violence as means to assert his dominance as a straight male. We can infer that his relationship with Theo (and the explicit sexual interactions they’ve had that I will discuss in depth later on) created a lot of stress and confusion regarding his sexuality, causing Boris to do whatever it takes to combat these feelings. Boris subconsciously begins a relationship with Kotku, one that harbors no emotional connection and relies on the physicality of sexual attraction alone.
Homoerotic vs. Homoromantic
Love and the erotic play major roles in the complicated interwebbing of Theo and Boris’s relationship throughout the course of the novel’s 700 pages. Moreover, Tartt’s use of questionable interactions and desires through the guise of friendship is a defining characteristic of not only The Goldfinch but also in her 1992 novel The Secret History. The effects Tartt uses to develop this concept of undefined friendship in her literature is heavily talked about in the literacy criticism “"The only story I will ever be able to tell": Nonsexual Erotic’s of Friendship in Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Tana French's The Likeness.” Author Anna Kurowicka begins her criticism by conceptualizing this idea in literature that “one major relationship may determine the course of one's life forever tends to be inextricably linked to romantic and sexual love,” highlighting the concept that relationships that have a lifechanging effect need to be both sexual and romantic. In terms of Tartt’s literary works, a majority of them depend on overzealous elements of dramatics where sexuality is not what makes the moment sexual but rather the circumstances of their situation. Considering this concept with The Goldfinch, Theo and Boris are both left unattended and unparented, allowing them the opportunity to drink, smoke, and do illicit drugs as much as they want. It is also critical to consider that they are thirteen years old at the beginning of their friendship, showcasing this avenue of them coming into puberty and dealing with a heightened sense of sexual awareness.
Although Theo and Boris’s relationship appears to sit comfortably in the realm of platonic love based on friendship, Theo is constantly struggling with exactly how he is meant to define their relationship, “Weren’t we still friends? Best friends? Brothers practically? Then again: there was not exactly a word for Boris and me” (Tartt 298). Initially, sexuality is often understood as “a system for categorizing desire . . . that invents normalcy and deviancy toward forwarding the interests of colonialism, whiteness, wealth, ability, and normality" (Kurowicka). Normality is one word that cannot be used to describe Theo and Boris’s interactions in good faith. The circumstances of their relationship are dependent on their lack of supervision and lack of awareness of their dangerous pre-teen behavior. Despite the aura of platonic love, readers eventually learn through Theo that their relationship has been anything but, showcasing elements of the homoerotic themes laced throughout the chapters dedicated to their life in Las Vegas:
The revelation that their relationship has been sexual on numerous occasions is one of the most critical elements of the discussion in regards to how Theo and Boris’s relation includes both elements of homoromantic and homoerotic. Sex and attraction between them have always been present, but their reactions to these experiences are what make them develop a sort of wall between each other. It is also important to note that Theo only discloses that he and Boris had sex after Boris begins a heterosexual relationship with Kotku, one that we know stemmed a heavy amount of jealousy in Theo. Furthermore, we learn that their sexual relationship is one Theo and Boris never discuss with each other, but instead act as if nothing has happened, “We never spoke of it; it wasn’t quite real…” (Tartt 336).
Contrary to the homoerotic elements laced throughout Theo and Boris’s interactions behind closed doors, the presence of homoromantic feelings provides a completely different side to the role they play in each other’s lives and the unspoken love they never allow themselves to express openly. Theo and Boris live day-to-day in Vegas domestically, cooking and cleaning for each other, sharing clothes and the same bed, showing their love through action rather than words. There is only one moment throughout the entire novel where we see a moment of physical and romantic intimacy between Theo and Boris, a moment that is not clouded with the influence of alcohol or drugs but rather influenced by Theo’s impending departure out of Boris’s life, “…he put both hands on my face and kissed me on the mouth” (Tartt 352). While the kiss can be argued that it was done with platonic intentions on Boris’s part, it remained a very stagnant and important aspect of Theo’s memory of his last night in Vegas. Theo’s reaction to the kiss is one he processes internally, evoking a damning but unspoken revelation regarding his feelings towards Boris, “…we both knew well enough without me saying it out loud to him in the street—which was, of course, I love you” (Tartt 353). During the next fourteen years—and zero contact with Boris—we learn that Theo dedicated much of his time thinking about Boris and fighting through the weight of his absence, going as far as taking Russian language courses during his time in college because it helped Theo keep Boris close to him, “You know what I did in college?’ I was telling him. ‘I took Conversational Russian for a year. Totally because of you…I thought of you so much!” (Tartt 548). Theo and Boris’s relationship can be perfectly summed up through this comment by Theo; a relationship where they both found a form of solace in the other although neither of them would ever admit it openly. Further, into their fourteen-year reunion, the readers learn that Theo only disclosed his most sensitive information regarding the guilt, loss, and trauma he had experienced to Boris when he was black-out drunk only for Boris to counteract this statement by expressing that Theo was the only that ever loved and cared about him the capacity that he needed, “‘Everything good that has happened to me in my life, Potter, has happened because of you’” (Tartt 550). The elements of homoromanticism in regards to Theo and Boris mold themselves through the characterization of their circumstances, creating an unspoken but also an undeniable level of emotional intimacy that constantly crosses the line into romantic love.
Apart from the constant subtext regarding sexuality and gender, trauma-reactive violence and the effects of PTSD develop themselves as two of the most domineering aspects regarding the interactions between Theo and Boris and the turbulent lifestyle they adopt. Caroline Clark and Mollie Blackburn, authors of “Scenes of Violence and Sex in Recent Award-Winning LGBT-Themed Young Adult Novels and the Ideologies They Offer Their Readers,” hypothesize that scenes of physical violence often “focus on the ways fear and hatred create distance between characters” (869). In terms of previous conversations regarding internalized homophobia, fear maintains itself as one of the absolute reasonings behind the violence Theo and Boris force upon each other. During the prime time of their lives in Vegas, Theo describes seeing Boris literal minutes after Boris had just been harshly beaten by his father, Mr. Pavlikovsky, “…he was a mess: blood everywhere, eye swollen to a glossy slit” (Tartt 273). Initially, the violence against Boris only stems from his father’s hand but we soon see Theo and Boris take out their frustrations on each other after a seemingly innocent moment of play-fighting in Theo’s backyard pool, resulting in Boris pulling Theo into the water and Theo repeatedly holding Boris underwater and screaming at him, “…and wound my fingers in his hair and pushed him under. ‘You miserable shit’” (Tartt 275). This momentary scene of pure rage from Theo stems deep from somewhere inside him, showcasing itself against the only person who has ever really been there for him. Their previous moments of play-fighting and jokes turned grim in the pool, resulting in the last time we ever see Theo and Boris become physical violent with each other.
Much like Boris’s lifelong abuse from a parental figure, the next moment of unprovoked violence Theo experiences is by the hand of his father following a bleak conversation regarding money that Audrey left Theo after she died. Larry finds himself in over his head in debt, strategically avoiding debt collectors and deciding to use his own son’s inheritance to smooth over his mistakes. Theo, curious about the sudden need for this money, questions Larry’s need for it only to be met with abrupt and purposeful physical violence by Larry, “Without warning, my dad snapped out and whacked me across the face” (Tartt 327) and “…he caught me by the throat with a sharp upward thrust and forced me up on tiptoe so I was gasping for breath” (Tartt 327). Despite the obvious emotional abuse and abandonment of his father, Theo has never been physically attacked by him which evokes such a visceral fear in him that he can barely stand to remain in the same room as him. Unlike Theo’s reaction to the violence of his father, Boris is someone so accustomed to the threat and eventual carrying out of abuse by this father that he is forced to familiarize himself with the violence, the eventual apology from his father, and preparation for the next time he will be beaten.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Elements of PTSD throughout The Goldfinch most commonly show themselves through Theo’s internal commentary and his lack of understanding of the amount of internalized trauma he holds inside himself. Moments of unwarranted PTSD follow him particularly closely in the year after the death of his mother, often revealing themselves in moments of physical darkness or overstimulation, “It was like in the museum again, trapped in the dark space, no way up or out” (Tartt 274) and “The panic that overtook me then was hard to explain” (Tartt 303). Despite the severity of these panic attacks, Theo is never given or seeks out professional mental health, but rather self-medicates with illicit drugs. Moreover, his father and Xandra are not present enough to give Theo the emotional support he so desperately needs, a role that eventually lands on the shoulders of Boris in an unspoken understanding of trauma and loss. A large portion of Theo’s repressed trauma presents itself in visceral nightmares that closely resemble the museum in shambles after the bombing, causing Theo to wake up gasping for air only for Boris—sharing a bed with Theo as they so often did—comforting him through the aftermath of his panic attacks, “Ssh, Potter, he whispered, into the back of my neck. Is only me” (Tartt 300). Contrary to the obvious reasoning behind the presence of Theo’s struggle with PTSD, Boris’s relationship with guilt-induced PTSD does not reveal itself until he meets Theo again for the first time in fourteen years. Conversations regarding Boris’s experience with guilt regarding his treatment towards Theo and the form of betrayal he commits in stealing the painting are heavily found in the article “The Still Small Voice. Psychoanalytic Reflections on Guilt and Conscience” by Phil Leask. While it can be argued that guilt is the only thing driving Boris towards his eventual unannounced reunion with Theo fourteen years later, Leask instead theorizes that “Boris’s sense of obligation is based not on conscious guilt and perhaps not even on unconscious guilt, but on his love for Theo” (179). Boris views stealing the painting from Theo as the penultimate event that casts Theo out of his life for good, an ideology that causes Boris massive amounts of grief because not only was Theo the only person who ever really loved him, but the stolen painting also helped Boris become massively financial, inspiring Boris to begin his act of repentance towards Theo by saying “‘I owe you everything’” (Tartt 550). Despite the stark differences in Theo’s grief-induced trauma and Boris’s guilt-induced trauma, the characters continue to mirror each other in the unhealthiest of ways, propelling them both forwards into a life of constant unfulfillment and deceivement.
At this point, we have examined the presence of gender, sexuality, and trauma in The Goldfinch and how these exact elements contributed to both emotional and physical reactions from Theo and Boris. And while these themes can be easily defined and identified, there is one specific research-developed trope this novel uses that requires further examination. The concept of masking, personally defined as the process of blinding oneself to their self-identities using tactics to make this process less detrimental and easier to cope with, is the final major theme up for discussion. Betsey Rabyor describes the use of masking as a way of self-control, citing that those who do adopt masking as a coping mechanism use it to say “I am in control, there is nothing wrong with me, it is this other person that has problems.” When considering Theo and Boris’s characterization following the fourteen-year progression forward, masking is a heavily used mechanism that they each adopted independently while simultaneously using the same three things to hide who they are: substance abuse, sexual intimacy, and the painting.
Drugs and alcohol maintain a dominant presence in Theo and Boris’s lives from their time in Vegas onward, often cited in passing as the novel progresses and the commonality of illicit drug use are not only perpetuated but reach an area that teeters into full-blown addiction.
Despite The Goldfinch being a work of fiction, substance abuse in the LGBTQ community is a prevalent issue that often develops itself as a coping mechanism because those who are LGBT-identifying “have greater exposure to discrimination” (Green). Contrarily, Theo does not use his substance abuse as a coping mechanism against homophobia but rather one to cope with him being gay altogether. Theo contributes the severity of his drug use to his teenage years spent in Vegas, “The pills I’d stolen from Xandra all those years before had started me on a bad road: oxys, roxys, morphine and Dilaudid when I could get it, I’d been buying them off the street for years…” (Tartt 455), using Xandra’s addiction as the primary reasoning behind his own, averting any sense of personal accountability or self-awareness. It appears that Theo prides himself in the secrecy of his substance abuse, using his appearance as a white-collar antique seller to cover up the overt severity of his dependency. Contrary to Theo’s acknowledgment of his addiction, readers are left in the dark regarding Boris’s co-dependency with opioids and other drugs until we are reintroduced to him during their reunion when Theo sees the physical markings, “The light wasn’t great in the car but I knew needle marks when I saw them” (Tartt 546). The revelation that Boris is still drug-dependent after all these years is not something unexpected, but his abuse of drugs differs slightly from Theo’s constant pill-popping. Furthermore, drugs remain one of the primary factors in their relationship even after the fourteen-year absence. Theo describes the moment he and Boris snort cocaine, a mere four hours after their first conversation together since they were fourteen, “I hadn’t done blow since Carole Lombard left town…” (Tartt 548). The constant drug use when they were teenagers mirrors itself almost instantly despite them both being in their late twenties as if being reunited sets them back all those years ago where they spent their entire friendship in drug and alcohol-induced hazes that helped them cope with the trauma of their circumstances and the sexualities they refused to acknowledge.
In terms of Theo’s relationship with women, sexual intimacy presents itself in two ways: as a way to convince himself that he is straight and as a way to diverge anyone with outside eyes from thinking that he is gay. Following the fourteen-year time jump, Theo discloses to the reader that he is engaged to childhood acquaintance, Kitsey Barbour, and takes serious pride in her physical beauty, “She was beautiful, with a luminous, sugar-white quality that turned heads on the street” (Tartt 514). This relationship prides itself in appearances to those around them, particularly in the way the relationship is seen by Kitsey’s mother—a woman Theo is heavily attached to as she adopts the makeshift role of his mother. While the relationship between Theo and Kitsey is sexual and intimate, something Theo prides himself in heavily, they live out a very bland and loveless relationship that depends more on outside approval than the happiness of each other. Despite the constant allusions to the concept of their relationship as “saving face,” Theo allows himself to the ignorance of this idea, finally realizing keeping up appearances was Kitsey’s plan all along when Theo finds out that she has been cheating on him, only for her to want to continue with the engagement, “It’s the right thing to do. Marrying. We’re a good match. It makes sense for everyone involved, not least us” (Tartt 599). While this interaction between Theo and Kitsey is damning in its own right, Kitsey also goes on to allude that she is okay with being Theo’s cover for both his drug addiction and his sexuality despite never saying those exact words, “Because—I mean, look, I know. You don’t have to tell me. And I mean too—things are better for you now since we’ve been seeing each other, aren’t they? You’ve straightened up a lot” (Tartt 598). Similar to Theo’s initial stance regarding his engagement to Kitsey, Boris also prides himself in his relationships with women, citing the love he had for Kotku despite it being a short-lived teenage relationship and his current marriage to a German woman with whom he has twins, “The kids…looked far too blond and bonney to be even vaguely related to Boris” (Tartt 533). Despite the pictures of proof and the words of Boris, Theo cannot help but think that Boris is lying about his situation, either because he knows Boris has always been someone who stretched the truth or because Theo sees his façade playing out right in front of him through Boris. The act of hyping up their straightness, and finding comfort in doing so, demonstrates how badly Theo and Boris have internalized their queerness and how far they will go trying to prove that to each other and those around them.
Described as the titular role of the entire novel, the goldfinch painting plays a very significant role in the way Theo chooses to memorize his mother and how he views himself. Taken from the debris as he stumbled through the museum following the bombing, Theo keeps the painting wrapped up and hidden during his time in Vegas, fearful of his finding out he stolen a priceless work of art that was his mother’s favorite. Although the possibility of the painting being found often plagued during his short time in Las Vegas, he often purposefully uncovered the painting to admire it because he viewed it as the last connection he would ever have with his mother. However, the act of physically holding and admiring the painting is a privilege he after fleeing Vegas, and instead keeps the panting tightly wrapped and held safely in a New York storage unit where he leaves it covered and stored away for the next fourteen years of life. The disclosure that Theo hasn’t looked at the painting in over a decade is something Boris struggles with because he knew how special the painting was to Theo, “‘All these years?’ said Boris, half-frowning. ‘And you never once—?’” (Tartt 553) and “You really haven’t opened it up and looked at it? All these years?” (Tartt 556). Boris’s disbelief shadows his initial fears regarding how Theo would react once he found out that Boris had stolen the painting all those years before, and demonstrates to Boris firsthand how unwell Theo views himself. The physical masking of the painting closely resembles Theo’s masking of his traumas and sexuality. One of the prime purposes behind masking is to combat feelings of confinement, an issue Theo struggles with his entire life. He finds these feelings of isolation mimicked in the painting when he first notices “the chain on the finch's ankle" (378). The goldfinch’s chain alludes to Theo’s confinement in the ways his tragedies and fears of being gay keep him chained up. Even though his life has the opportunity to be beautiful, he is ultimately restricted and confined by his past. The comfort, beauty, and connection to his mother the painting used to symbolize for Theo shifts into areas of fear and anxiety because of how uncomfortable Theo is in his skin. To uncover the painting would mean uncovering years of repressed emotions, unspoken trauma, and internalized homophobia. Much like the painting, Boris is also another being in Theo’s life that spends fourteen years tucked away. From the moment Theo left Las Vegas, Boris believed that the best way of helping Theo was to stay out of his life, citing him stealing the painting from Theo as the ultimate unforgivable act and therefore a “…a messed up time” (Tartt 535), justifying why he spent so long out of contact with Theo. In other words, Boris theorizes that he would be doing more harm than good if followed Theo to New York like they had initially planned, only decidedly coming back into Theo’s life when he knew he could finally right his wrongs. Furthermore, their last interaction in Vegas—the kiss goodbye—was one decision Boris made out of the love and devotion he had to Theo, an action that we can infer evoked a visceral reaction in Boris through his own words, “Stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones who will kill you” (Tartt 594). The sudden departure of Theo and the sudden loss of contact from Boris on Theo’s end had detrimental effects on how they both decided to live out their lives when the other was no longer around, resulting in the use of masking to cover up what had been lost.
In one of the handfuls of interviews she has given regarding her thought process writing The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt reveals that “As a writer I’m giving the reader signs to help create the story with me. The reader is bringing his or her own memories, intelligence, preconceptions, prejudices, likes, dislikes.” Her stories are one’s that beg to be examined, torn apart, and even destroyed. The characters, while flawed and often irredeemable, are ones that hurt and cope in very specific ways that mirror themselves even outside this specific literary universe. In terms of this literary interpretation, gender and sexuality, trauma, and masking are all specific literary elements that felt deliberate in their contribution to crafting the once-in-a-lifetime relationship between Theo and Boris. And while their relationship is never one that is explicitly defined, the love between them is palpable, a kind of relationship where labels aren’t necessary or vital. I argue that this novel is a love story between two heavily closeted boys turned men who learn that love, beauty, and companionship are everywhere and in everything—a novel that can shift past the limits of the traditional LGBTQ coming-of-age trope, where happy endings are always there if one is brave enough to believe that they deserve one. In the end, readers of The Goldfinch find themselves submerged in a conversation about loss and guilt, but also equipped to understand that life is most meaningful when love is not only sought after but unconditionally accepted.
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