Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The literary breakdown in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

Carol-Ann Farkas
Boston, Massachusetts, United States


The Goldfinch By Carel Fabritius, a central element of Donna Tartt's novel
The Goldfinch By Carel Fabritius. 1654. Mauritshuis. Public Domain. Wikimedia.


Diagnostically speaking, the “nervous” or “mental” breakdown is not a thing. The term has never been formally used in psychology, which has long preferred specific, definable categorizations of symptoms and conditions: stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, trauma.1 And yet the phenomenon persists in popular usage.1,2 Why? We like the “breakdown” concept precisely for its imprecision in describing something that is not simply a diagnosis, but a process; not a disorder, but disorder—we understand, intuitively, that when something vital in us breaks, we need metaphors to explain its meaning. We need a story.

And stories often (always?) need breakdowns. Take, for example, a contemporary “novel of development”—a bildungsroman—like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013).3 Tartt draws on the conventions of the bildungsroman established in the nineteenth century (think Dickens, Brontë, Dostoevsky),4,5 particularly the irony that the development, or building, of a coherent, stable self in such narratives occurs through a dynamic, psychically-violent process. The construction is constantly under stress from forces such as love, isolation, marginalization, or vanity; things break; collapse becomes catalyst. The Goldfinch makes the case that the breakdown, far from being a regrettable lapse or error that threatens some perfectible whole, is in fact an unavoidable, essential step in the creation of something beautiful and strong.



People have been having breakdowns for a long time. Personal narratives throughout western history have yielded a surprising consistency of experience: some combination of anxiety, fretfulness, insomnia, depression, panic, and physical symptoms, which become intolerably overwhelming to the point that ordinary life must grind to a halt.2 But while the physical and emotional symptoms of the breakdown might not have changed much over time, meaning and interpretation (not to mention authority) have changed greatly.1,2,6

The specific designation of the “nervous” breakdown had a relatively brief trajectory, from fashionable to unfounded, as the late nineteenth century gave way to the early twentieth. Researchers’ understanding of just what the nerves were for was inevitably influenced by changing ideas—about the relationship of body and mind, with the concomitant emergence of neurology and psychology as disciplines; and about what constituted virtuous, healthy productivity in the midst of both rapid technological developments and tremendous social upheaval.1,6,7 The definition of “nervous” disorders was partly mechanical—some important part would weaken and give way under too much pressure or wear, too little maintenance—and very much moral, reflecting judgments about the strength and weakness of individuals relative to their expected, or accepted, adherence to conventions of class and race: a nervous breakdown for the overworked civil servant, neurasthenia for an overly-refined, overly sensitive intellectual,1,6 “nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency”8 for middle- and upper-class women who were inappropriately restless.7

But even as growing knowledge of physiology and the psyche made the nervous breakdown an increasingly inaccurate term for diagnostic purposes in the early twentieth century, the breakdown has persisted in our cultural awareness to the present day. Terms such as “nervous exhaustion” or “nervous breakdown” lend themselves more readily to our figurative and narrative tendencies, and are often more illustrative of the “truth” of what we undergo than a set of codes from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).1,2 Even now, when researchers have more knowledge than ever about the biological underpinnings of depression and anxiety, much still remains unknown or poorly understood, including the interplay of biology, behavior, and social context. The rest of us, meanwhile, have trouble partitioning and quantifying our felt experience; our intuition about what our experience means somehow escapes the limitation of the biopsychosocial model. We resort to the shared metaphors, the legacy of stories, about what it means to experience a crisis—moral, spiritual, relational, nervous—that manifests in both mind and body, a collapse, truly, of one’s self, of mind, body, and identity all at once. Individuals have long understood that at a certain extremity of distress, something breaks.1,2,6



Such a recognizably-human experience is, unsurprisingly, an essential ingredient in fictional narratives of human becoming, as though the coherent self cannot be realistically developed, cannot be built, without episodes of incoherence. As Bailin points out in her study of the Victorian novel, the breakdown is a break in the plot, a moment of embodied crisis, a departure from social structure and meaning.9 Often there is some kind of moral or social chaos which precipitates the breakdown, but then the breakdown itself becomes a suspension of, escape or exemption from, the site of moral and social conflict.7,9 The crisis, manifesting as physical illness, forces transformation, perhaps reformation, allowing the protagonist to achieve reintegration with family, social roles, and social order. The breakdown is often a form of penance for moral weaknesses; a process of humbling expiation (Dickens’ Pip, or Brontë’s Rochester for example).7,9 The breakdown in nineteenth-century literature also sometimes anticipates a more contemporary kind of critique, particularly of the conditions which militate against the protagonist’s integration into her social world. For example, in Charlotte Brontë’s novels Jane Eyre and Villette, the protagonists are “superfluous women” forced to scrabble for an existence in a culture hostile to such efforts; cut adrift from the social roles and structures which facilitated relationships, they struggle to express or act upon their desires. Embodying the double meaning of “invalid,”12 they experience fits, visions, dreams, hallucinatory fugues, losses of consciousness which might be labeled as hysteria, but which, in the absence of other forms of social power, also authorize disruption, refusal, and action.7,12 



While The Goldfinch is separated from its nineteenth-century forbears by a wide gulf of time and sensibility, the echoes of the bildungsroman—the tension between destruction and construction in particular—are everywhere.4 Like Dickens’ Pip and David, Tartt’s protagonist, Theo, is also an orphan; those who ought to look after the motherless child fail in their duty, but the orphan finds shelter, generosity, and love in unlikely places; the orphan’s own vanity and shame lead him directly to self-destructive choices which in turn hurt the people who love him best; the instability of the orphan’s world is barely kept at bay, finally causing a complete rupture—the protagonist’s own misguided choices or a sense of alienation from the social world cause a crisis of identity and position.4

The narrative framework is a succession of breakdowns in Theo’s life, failures of expected order and social roles, of ethical ties, of bodily and psychic integrity. The brokenness of his family sets everything else in motion, leading him and his mother to the museum on the day of a terror attack. Family and friends die (first Theo’s mother, and Welty, Pippa’s guardian, then Theo’s father, then members of his temporary foster family). Like Fabritius’ eponymous goldfinch, chained to its perch, Theo is emotionally hobbled, suffering badly from post-traumatic stress; in particular, he is haunted by guilt, shame, and self-loathing.5 He becomes unrooted, dependent on adults, and also at their mercy: his father and Xandra, consumed with their own addictions, schemes, and delusions of grandeur, neglect Theo, leaving him and Boris (a cheerfully criminal version of Herbert Pocket or Steerforth)4 to become delinquents in their almost-feral years together. His sojourn in Las Vegas, culminating in the miserably overstimulated bus trip to New York with the little dog Popchick, is an extended breakdown of care; still just a boy, he has been allowed to become addicted, malnourished, dirty—thoroughly neglected by his self-absorbed, deluded father.

In keeping with the narrative convention, Theo’s narrative is first-person, allowing us the most immediate access to his psyche, but limiting us to what he can (or cannot) tell us. Theo obsessively relates details of his experiences, and yet we learn that he has been merely hinting at, or eliding, other crucial elements—mainly his panic, despair, self-hatred, and self-destructiveness. We can read these elisions as a representation of Theo’s consciousness, fragmented by the bomb blast, leaving wounds which cannot heal, and cannot be looked at directly either. Theo uses drugs and alcohol to deliberately obscure parts of himself that he cannot confront or narrate; his trauma keeps him from understanding the “fundamental chaos and uncertainty” of his own experience. Boris, we eventually learn, saw it all along, and kept Theo from killing himself on more than one drug-addled, blacked-out occasion.

Tartt’s novel is obsessed with the elements and consequences of breakdown: instability, fragility, breakage, betrayal, destruction of innocence, security, family, community. Theo’s relationship to the crafted object—the painting, Hobie’s furniture—becomes the symbolic space where he makes a misguided attempt to create and preserve stability. From the moment Theo rescues, or steals, “The Goldfinch,” he and the readers become forcibly concerned with authenticity and fakery; the real and the tromp l’oeil. Studying furniture restoration with Hobie, Theo provides details not only of how to tell the authentic from the fake, but, fatally, how to do the forgery himself. His dysfunctional coping becomes the forging of his own identity, in the double sense of creating and asserting something true and stable while also creating a clever imitation, the carefully-made patina hiding the real provenance, hiding the flaws. Theo’s ideas about authenticity become interwoven with a compulsion for artifice, simulacrum, illusion, the magician’s trick, the con. And yet Theo, obsessively, keeps coming back to the Goldfinch, the masterwork which perseveres, endures, transcends—and which is, for most of the novel, more ideal than real, wrapped up and hidden, a kind of Schroedinger’s cat, neither present and alive nor absent and dead. It is Theo’s belief in the object—a trompe l’oeil image, a trick on the viewer’s perception of reality—which makes it real to him.

A collapse of integrity, ethics, identity; a stripping away of false veneers, of forged security—in The Goldfinch, these are the conditions of opportunity, to build something new, stable, and authentic.5 That is, the breakdown process is central to a psychologically realistic, ethically gratifying, and “pro-social” formation—the building—of the protagonists’ identity.9 Tartt’s novel is an existentialist, humanist assertion, that—seemingly—there is no meaning or value other than what we construct (the object, the self). The “art” is in embodying authenticity through craft. Tartt asserts that the authenticity—of the art object, and symbolically, of the individual—is built through, and for, artifice and trickery; once the object is created, constructed, it takes on a solidity which defies the chaotic breakdown going on all around it.



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  2. Shorter E. How Everyone Became Depressed: The Rise and Fall of the Nervous Breakdown. Oxford University Press; 2013.
  3. Tartt D. The Goldfinch. Little, Brown and Company; 2013.
  4. Heineman HK. David Copperfield and the Goldfinch: The coming of age novel in two centuries. Midwest Q (Pittsb). 2015;57(1):23-36.
  5. Corrigan Y. Donna Tartt’s dostoevsky: Trauma and the Displaced Self. Comp Lit. 2018;70(4):392-407. doi:10.1215/00104124-7215462
  6. Schaffner AK. Exhaustion and the Pathologization of Modernity. J Med Humanit. 2016;37(3):327-341. doi:10.1007/s10912-014-9299-z
  7. Frawley MH. Invalidsm and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Chicago University Press; 2004.
  8. Gilman CP. The Yellow Wallpaper. New Engl Mag. 1892;11(5):647-657.
  9. Bailin M. The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: The Art of Being Ill. Cambridge University Press; 2007.
  10. Brontë C. Jane Eyre, An Autobiography. Service & Paton; 1897.
  11. Brontë C (Currer B. Villette. Smith, Elder, & Co; 1853.
  12. Herndl DP. Invalid Women: Figuring Feminine Illness in American Fiction and Culture, 1840-1940. UNC Press; 1993.



CAROL-ANN FARKAS, PhD, is a Professor of English at MCPHS University, where she teaches writing, nineteenth-century fiction, and health humanities. In 2020 she will direct the University’s new undergraduate degree program in health humanities. With a background in Victorian, cultural, and composition studies, she specializes in the interdisciplinary study of medicine and wellness in popular culture. She is the editor of Reading the Psychosomatic in Medical and Popular Culture: Something, Nothing, Everything (Routledge 2017). Her current research focuses on the ways in which we turn to popular media to learn about, and cope with, eco-anxiety.



Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 13, Issue 1 – Winter 2021

Summer 2020 |  Sections  |  Literary Essays

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