What the Goldfinch Gets Right About Grief
Updated: Jul 7, 2020
The Goldfinch is an entertaining, but mildly morbid, story about art theft. However, the story's centre focuses on one thing: the death of Theo’s mother. This centre becomes the root of all things. All the events, obsessions, and romances in the narrative ricochet from this one tragic event.
In other grief narratives, although they effectively tackle the ferocity of grief, they can fall down at the end, where the narrative transforms into a three-part structure: sorrow, strength, and letting go. The final chapter usually involves some sentiment of letting go – with a character rushing forward into the sunset, carrying mixed joy and sadness at occupying a world where they’ll always miss the person they’ve lost, but ultimately accepting, and even rejoicing in this. Letting go is usually a final, pleasurable outcome, a reward for enduring pages and pages of sorrow. It’s also true of cinematic depictions of grief. In ‘Mary Poppins Returns’, grief is explored in this film for children. The grieving father Michael Banks magically soars above London, holding onto a helium balloon – he has become weightless, the ultimate reward for letting go of his grief, the picture of pleasure.
At the end of the Goldfinch, (with minor spoilers ahead) Theo does the opposite: he leans into destruction. He leans into his grief, and all its spoils; his drug addiction, his relationships that are mutually destructive. It’s refreshing to see an outcome like this – especially for those who live with grief and know the lifelong slog of carrying the weight of that death with them. In a world that coerces you with well-meaning sentiments of letting go, it’s comforting to see a character refuse to, who holds on tight. We want to see Michael Banks pop his balloon, to stay on the ground, closer to his wife. To revel in his choice, that he knows it’s the right one for him.
Grieving narratives exist to comfort those who have not grieved yet. They offer a hopeful, comforting story: the worst thing will happen to you, but it’s okay. Eventually you will let go. As well as these narratives being overwhelmingly white and heteronormative, grief is a much more complicated experience than what can be expressed in a single arc – and if they make up the narratives we consume, an overarching and sometimes threatening sentiment can rise above all, and push us along deeper into the struggles of grief – just let go. It’s time to move on. But for who?
The respect for grievers and their refusal to move away from their grief makes them outliers in society. In Theo’s case, he rejects marriage, a legitimate career, and hitting adult milestones, like moving out, in favour of languishing in his grief. Although far from healthy, Theos’ honesty and obsession speaks to those who have suffered life defining tragedies. Grief fundamentally changes you, and makes it harder to try and fit into a society that isn’t grief-friendly.
Strength arguably doesn’t come from being freed from what causes suffering, but rather it comes from rebuilding a life without the one you love, a life worth resurfacing for. It’s about taking all the love that now just lives in the bereaved, and honouring it, building, best you can, a world you want to live in. Theo took that love and attached it to a painting – an obsessive, all-consuming love, but real love all the same. And it ultimately led to unexpected benefits, the same way the transformative power of grief can generate empathy and compassion, and encourage mass healing of our communities and huge change. People should be encouraged to commit fully to their grief, and be supported in it. The Goldfinch makes a strong case for holding on, rather than letting go.