Racism, the Goldfinch, & Literary Canon

12.14.2020


Notwithstanding its success, The Goldfinch relied on clichés rooted in racial and ethnic stereotypes to realize its settings and elevate the protagonist.

I picked up The Goldfinch on a whim during my last visit to the library. While surveying the shelves for books that would inspire me to read again after an intense academic semester, Tartt’s name caught my eye. Previously, I read and enjoyed her novel The Secret History, a fascinating and disturbing exploration of what drives a group of elite college students to murder a fellow classmate. I borrowed The Goldfinch on the promise of The Secret History; at the time, I knew nothing of its plot or its critical acclaim. I was later surprised to find that, despite the dissent of a few literary critics who dismissed the writing as childish, The Goldfinch is a popular and generally well-respected book that I’d simply missed out on. (Granted, I was 12 years old at the time of its release, but as a book blogger I would have expected it to at least cross my periphery). In fact, Tartt’s almost 800-page tome sold over 1.5 million copies within the first months of its release, was hailed by the New York Times Book Review, among others, as “a rarity” and “a smartly written literary novel”, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. While reading, I was thus even more surprised to discover how, notwithstanding its success, The Goldfinch relied on clichés rooted in racial and ethnic stereotypes to realize its settings and elevate the protagonist.

For the unfamiliar, The Goldfinch traces the life of Theo Decker. At thirteen, Theo survives an explosion at an art museum that kills his mother. The remainder of the protagonist’s childhood ensues in unstable home environments. He lives first with wealthy temporary caregivers who relinquish him to his father, a gambler and alcoholic who abandoned Theo and his mother years ago. Theo’s father neglects him, and with his new friend Boris, leads Theo to turn to drugs and alcohol for release. Later, he runs away to live with a kind antique shop owner, Hobie, but feels unfulfilled participating in a pre-college program. To complicate matters, Theo holds onto a painting throughout his journey -- the Goldfinch -- that he stole from the museum in his unstable state during the explosion. In adulthood, this painting burdens Theo with memories of the explosion and draws him into illicit activities. 


Tartt’s opening descriptions of Theo’s home in New York City and the explosion that disrupted his life are exquisite-- if you ignore the quiet presence of domestic servants of color that underlie the glitz and the mystery. As observed by author and professor Dr. Joy Castro in Salon (in the only article from a major outlet that I could find on racism in The Goldfinch), Tartt’s doormen and housemaids-- who constitute the only characters of color in this book, save two unhelpful social workers-- exist only to enthusiastically serve their white residents. For instance, Goldie, a “light-skinned Puerto Rican, a former featherweight boxer” is a “lively little guy” who gives Theo money after his mother’s death (13). Theo remarks that the gesture “felt dodgy” and that he still “doesn’t know where the money came from”, but assumes the doorman’s good intent for him (261). In contrast, Cinzia, the Deckers’ former housekeeper, is eager to please but is depicted as more innocent than Goldie. When Theo’s mother lets her go, Cinzia “had cried, and offered to stay and work for free” (76). At the heart of these portrayals of non-white characters lies ugly stereotypes: the conniving male immigrant and the delicate and dependent Latina. While Tartt’s white side characters like Mr. Barbour receive complex backstories that delve into how their upbringing shaped their questionable characters, Goldie and Cinzia are reduced to happy servers.


Tartt further uses Asianness as a descriptor of ugliness. A few pages into the first chapter, Mrs. Decker’s hair, in bad photos that do not capture “her warmth, her merry unpredictable quality”, is described as “pulled back in a ponytail at the nape of her neck like some nobleman in The Tale of Genji” (12). The Tale of Genji is an 11th century work of Japanese literature. In other words, Theo’s mother’s hair in the style of a stereotypical Asian man contributed to her poor appearance in the photos. Theo’s white dad’s ugliness is also characterized by using a cliché about Asianness. The absent and distasteful father “gave off a strong odor of stale tobacco smoke and the ginseng tea he always drank, a habit he’d picked up from the Chinese businessmen in the baccarat salon: it gave his sweat a sharp, foreign smell” (420). Horst similarly “smelled unwashed and raunchy, with a strong, dusty import-shop odor like the inside of a Chinese box” (764). These characterizations reflect the author’s choice to associate immoral and repulsive behaviors with Asian smells. Frankly, they’re racist-- they forward the idea that unpleasantness is “foreign”.


The foreignness of the few Asian characters in The Goldfinch renders them unhelpful and unsympathetic. An unnamed Asian doorman, for instance, leaves a young Theo without help after his mother disappeared because, in their entire phone call, he only understood the word “seven” (84). Likewise, Miyako, a Japanese woman who is engaged to Theo’s friend Andy, does not cry at her bethrothed’s funeral: “Different cultures and all that, but it’s true what they say about the Japanese being undemonstrative” (585). (Notably, Andy’s mother also describes Miyako as a “tiny little thing with a squeaky voice and a pocketbook shaped like a stuffed animal". Theo is further thrilled that Andy was engaged to a Japanese woman because he “had such a thing for fanservice miko and slutty manga girls in sailor uniform” in his youth (585)). Both the doorman and Miyako do not receive enough page time to constitute even minor characters in this story. Tartt employs them briefly and casually as props to further develop the struggles and intrigue of the white main characters.


Finally, the Russian youth Boris, whom Theo befriends while living with his deadbeat father, reads almost laughably as a cliche. The dark-haired, 14-year-old boy speaks in an accent with a “dark, slurry undercurrent of something else: a whiff of Count Dracula, or maybe it was KGB agent” (313). The child is an egregious alcoholic and introduces Theo to an underworld of drinking and hard drugs. In fact, Boris’s contribution to their Thanksgiving is a bottle of vodka (353). At one point, he admits to beating his girlfriend, and suggests that Theo ought to, too, if the girl “deserved it”. Theo has to admonish his new friend: “Um, we don’t hit women in America” (333). 


So why does any of this matter?


The Goldfinch’s racism and ethnic stereotyping should challenge us to question what we are accepting into literary canon and what defines a classic. In high school classrooms, classic novels that preserve racism remain foundational in our syllabi. The Secret Garden, for instance, states that Black people “are not people-- they’re servants”; some advocates have rallied against teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its prolific use of the n-word (a slur which Tartt’s Boris also frequently employed). In my experiences in the classroom, moments of racism in literature have been met with dismissive attitudes -- a slur is quickly moved past and forgotten; a racist character is discharged as a part of some older time that we are now beyond. I am not arguing that books that demonstrate racism be banned, but that we interrogate the assumption that these biases are eradicated in our modern literature and discourse about books. The Secret Garden may be a relic of 1911, but The Goldfinch received gleaming seals of approval in 2014. 


The success of The Goldfinch is also relevant to recent discussions about the importance of diversity in book publishing. Just a few days ago, a New York Times article entitled “Just How White is the Book Industry?” made waves in the book blogging community. The authors found that, of 7,124 English-language fiction books published from 1950 to 2018, 95% were published by white-identifying authors. Moreover, in 2019, 85% of those working in editorial -- those who acquire and edit books -- were white. The lack of diversity that still pervades publishing today enables books like The Goldfinch to not only pass editorial but to thrive in a competitive marketplace that disadvantages authors from minority groups.


Most jarringly in my eyes, The Goldfinch demonstrates the power of racism and ethnic stereotyping to remain acceptable to the public palette when packaged in an eloquent and digestible manner. Tartt’s evocative prose appears to be so enticing and vivid that few literary critics have pointed out its prejudices. But relying on clichés and stereotypes for plot development today ought to be recognized for what it is: bad writing. 

9 comments :

  1. What a thoughtful and insightful post, Claire! I have never read The Goldfinch but I have only seen it praised so far. You are the first person I've seen who has drawn attention to the book's prejudices. Racism can really be sneakily put into writing. It's important that we draw out these microaggressions and look critically at them. Like you mention, this writing should not just be deemed "acceptable" to the public.

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  2. Your reviews are always so informative and well-written Claire! I've honestly always been intimidated by Tartt's works because of how massive they are, but I really enjoyed your analysis of how the BIPOC characters help to elevate the white protagonist - it definitely makes me want to go through some of my favorite classics and analyze on a deeper level.

    riv @ small stained pages

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  3. I've never read this book and after reading your very well written review and seeing how revolting it can be, I don't ever want to read it!

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  4. I've heard of The Goldfinch but never read it. and to be honest I was not aware it was so acclaimed! I was also not aware how offensive it would be- reading some of those lines I'm shocked! Wow. And you make a great point that we shouldn't assume that those "sign of the times" elements are necessarily gone- apparently they ae still with us!

    Great post. :)

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  5. Wow. Your review is so thought-provoking, and I'm really glad I came across it as I'd not heard anything about this aspect of the book! I especially liked what you said about the need to continuously consider and interrogate the racism present in books today/what are considered classics etc., even if they're not banned in classrooms. (I don't know if banning books would really be that helpful anyway.) Really good point.

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  6. Amazing post. I wanted to read it but now... I am not very fond of the idea. As Latina, it kinda bothers me what you pointed out in this review. Thank you!

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  7. I love your deep insight. The sheer size of this book kept me away, but I have a stronger reason to do it. Thanks!

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  8. This is a very thoughtful and insightful review, Claire! I haven't read this book, but I do know it's very famous within book community as a whole. Yet I agree that the racism within the book was barely discussed or even talked about. I'm so glad I read this and it made me think of other classics as well and how they preserve racism as you said.

    Tasya // The Literary Huntress

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  9. This is such a fantastic post / review, Claire! I loved and appreciated reading your thoughts so much. I haven't read anything by this author, but it's horrible that a novel that relies on racial stereotypes is so highly praised. Although I'm not particularly surprised after the novel that came out this year (or late last year? time has no meaning anymore) about immigration, I believe, that also used stereotypes and was criticized. Despite that, the publisher promoted it quite a bit and it received great feedback as well. :| I think racism in classics can be very damaging - I don't understand how we can expect Black students, for example, to read books with the n-word in them and to maybe hear others use it because in that context some teachers would allow it. Moreover, reading about racist characters normalizes racism, especially if there is no anti-racist discussion (which, I think, there usually isn't) in class. Again, great post!

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