Book Club Series: The Goldfinch
The “Bromance” in The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch, named after the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius of a chained goldfinch, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 novel by Donna Tartt and a book club favorite. This article provides a personality perspective that focuses on the relationship between two of the book’s main characters—Theodore “Theo” Decker, who tells the story in retrospective first-person narration, and his boyhood friend, Boris.
The personality profiles described below are based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types and the research of Isabel Myers (creator of the Myers-Briggs), David Keirsey, and Paul and Barbara Tieger, and others, but use a different terminology that is easier to remember. Thus, introverts are “turtles,” extroverts are “puppies,” sensing types are “eagle eyes,” intuitive types are “psychics,” feeling types are “bleeding hearts,” thinking types are “pointy heads,” judging types are “tyrants,” and perceiving types are “hippies.” For additional information on the behaviors associated with these types go to www.2bme.cc/traits.
The familiar theme of the “bromance” between Theo and Boris is one of opposites attract. Theo, a bleeding-hearted, psychic tyrant turtle (Prophet or INFJ) finds in Boris, an eagle-eyed, pointy-headed hippie puppy (Politician or ESTP), perspectives and ideas that he has not developed, expressed, or lived out in himself. Orbiting in the sphere of Boris’ irresistible energy and enthusiasm for life enables Theo to experience his own life more fully. Boris in turn is drawn to Theo’s sentimental, idealistic and introspective nature.
Explaining how Theo is different from himself, Theo’s father says to him, “Now you’re a Cancer, hermit crab, all secretive and up in your shell, completely different MO [from me]. It’s not bad, it’s not good, It’s just how it is.” Interestingly, the crab is the symbol of the Cancer zodiac sign. The crab is similar to the turtle, as both live inside a protective shell. According to astrology, Cancers are prone to mood swings, sometimes coming across as the most extroverted members in a group and at other times appearing completely introverted, sitting in a corner and lost in their own world.
Theo, too, can seem extroverted at times, especially when next to his extremely introverted friend, Andy Barbour. But puppies don’t go to movie theaters alone, fret over the escalating social pace of their romance, or take narcotics to deal with the anxiety of socializing, as does Theo. Theo is inwardly focused, idea-oriented, and guided by internal values. He enjoys solitude, needs to understand life in order to live it, and tends to think long and hard before acting. Theo’s puppy father called it right—Theo is a turtle.
Boris is just the opposite—outwardly focused, activity-oriented, and guided by external conditions. He enjoys groups, must experience life fully to understand it, and tends to act before thinking. Boris is a puppy in the spirit of the Artful Dodger, the leader of the gang of child criminals in Oliver Twist. Like the Dodger, Boris, too, is always in charge of the ne’er-do-wells around him.
Theo likes to think of himself as a perceptive person, which he is. But his perceptions are outside his five senses. Theo is intuitive and imaginative, interested in possibilities, and more conceptual than factual. He learns by understanding, seeks creative inspiration, and trust impressions. Theo is a psychic.
Like many psychics, Theo is interested in metaphysical questions, such as why do good people suffer, and is fate random. He sees interesting people on the street and imagines what kind of food they eat. He thinks of sending his deceased mother a psychic message that he is alive. In Hobie’s furniture shop, he imagines the chairs having different human personalities. When shopping for an apartment with Kitsey, he “smells” divorce, bankruptcy, illness and death in almost every space they view. Theo’s imaginative world is filled with intuitive perceptions.
In contrast to Theo, Boris is practical and realistic, interested in the here and now, and more factual than conceptual. He learns by familiarization, seeks physical sensation, and trusts experience. Boris is an eagle eye.
While Theo ruminates over metaphysical quandaries, Boris is on lookout for his next meal or sensation. When Boris asks, “Who pays the bills here, Potter?” Theo realizes that he has not considered this matter of great practical importance about how his father and Xandra earned a living. Boris is street smart and survives by his wits. Recollecting his drug dealing days, Boris tells Theo, “They say experience is good teacher, and normally is true, but I am lucky this experience did not kill me.” While Theo frets over what to do with the once-stolen Goldfinch he thinks to be in safe storage, Boris makes his fortune trading on the now twice-stolen masterpiece he has lifted from his best friend.
Theo is a “socially alert creature”—subjective, personal and emotional, warm and generally tactful. He decides based on what he likes or dislikes. He tries to avoid conflict in favor of harmony. History and English are his favorite subjects. He is uninterested in politics, and unwilling to engage in “pointless arguments” about politics with his father. He once complains that Andy’s email replies are “frustratingly impersonal.”
We know for sure Theo is a bleeding heart when he decides to take Popper with him on the bus from Las Vegas to NYC. He knows that he could be thrown off the bus for harboring a pet. He knows that Popper’s presence is likely to make him unwelcome at the Barbour’s home because Andy is violently allergic to dogs. And still, knowing that the dog may force him to live homeless on the streets, he cannot leave Popper behind with Xandra. “There’s no rational grounds for anything I care about,” Theo explains.
Relative to Theo, Boris is more objective, impersonal and logical, brief and businesslike. He decides based on what he believes to be true or false without concern for others’ feelings. Unlike Theo, Boris enjoys debating politics with Theo’s father. Boris can rationalize anything, as shown when he explains to Theo, “if you didn’t take picture from museum, and Sascha didn’t steal it back, and I didn’t think of claiming reward—well, wouldn’t all those dozens of other paintings remain missing too? Maybe the one had to be lost for the others to be found?”
Tyrants are decisive, opinionated, and inflexible to change. They are orderly and organized and like routine. They are more judging than accepting of others. Enter Theo.
A central theme in the story is Theo’s struggle to accept that good and bad often co-exist side by side in people and events. To Theo, his mom represents all that is good in the world. His father represents selfishness, egotism and vice. Theo cannot make sense of a world where bad things happen to good people and good outcomes arise from evil acts. How could his angelic mother be killed in a terrorist attack at an art museum? How could Boris find anything to admire in Theo’s father? Only Boris can resolve this moralistic conflict for Theo.
Opposite of Theo, Boris is inquisitive, open-minded, and ever adaptable to change. He is spontaneous and playful, and more accepting than judging of others.
Boris is a hippie. He doesn’t see the world in black and white. Referencing Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Boris shares his view with Theo that the world is not all good or all bad, that Theo’s father had much good in him, that good doesn’t always follow from good deeds, and bad does not always follow from bad deeds. Thus, Boris questions, “Why be good?” Boris prefers to experience life instead of judging it.
Prophet and Politician
The Prophet and the Politician—what attracts one to the other? Boris’ attraction to Theo is revealed by his attraction to Kotku: “Little skinny witch! In my arms, she’s so bony and light! Like air. And so brave and wise, such a big heart! All I want is to look out for her and keep her safe.” Boris, the savvy, street-smart survivor, admires Theo’s idealistic nature and wants to rescue and protect him from the world’s harsh realities, as in S.O.S. Iceberg. Ironically, Theo turns out to be a talisman for Boris: “Everything good that has happened to me in life, Potter, has happened because of you.” In the end, it is Theo who protects Boris’ by killing Martin.
Theo, who wrestles constantly with the meaning of life, is attracted to Boris’ enthusiasm for living life fully without questioning it. Theo says of Boris, “The future had never appeared to enter his head further than the next meal. I could not envision him in any way preparing to earn a living or to be a productive member of society. And yet to be with Boris was to know that life is full of great ridiculous possibilities far bigger than anything they taught in school.”
Theo sees in Boris that which he has rejected, abandoned, or failed to live out in himself, but wants to experience, or at least understand, nonetheless. He wants to follow his heart, but questions, “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of somehow being a better person? Or—like Boris—is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”