The Wanderer Archetype in Donna Tartt’s Novel "The Goldfinch"

Essay, 2014

6 Pages


Donna Tartt’s Novel ‘The Goldfinch’

The Goldfinch is a novel by Donna Tartt wherein it contains a story as told by Theodore Decker (Theo) in a retrospective first-person narration. It is a story of a lad who loses his mother when a terrorist bomb explodes to kill her plus dozens of other attendants in the art fair. However, Theo gains a painting, the Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, which is widely renowned as the finest among the paintings that survived. This is confirmed by Theo's mother in her words just before she died: “Anything that is managed to be saved from history is a miracle.” This notion runs deeply in the flow of the novel. Consequently, Theo finds himself alone but he becomes determined to evade the city which looks up to taking him as an orphan. This leads to Theo seeking refuge in a school friend’s, Andy Barbour, wealthy family residence. However, his life at the Barbours is ended when his dad, Larry Decker, shows up with his girlfriend, Xandra, to take him away to Las Vegas. At school in Las Vegas, Theo makes friends with Boris, a son to a Russian emigrant. The two boys’ lives are similar given that they both have absentee parents. They also drink alcohol in most of their afternoons, shoplift grocery stores for food, use illegal drugs, chat from all night to dawn. The story ends as Theo travels around the world to make things right by purchasing the fake antiques which he had previously sold. Thus, Theo Decker's desire to explore and better understand the world makes him a quintessential wanderer.

The Twelve Archetypes as Portrayed by Carl Jung

Archetype is a term with origins in ancient Greek. The key words, archein and typos, translate to ‘old or original’ and ‘model, pattern or type’ respectively. Thus, combining the two words results to the phrase ‘original pattern’ whereby all other similar persons, concepts or objects are modeled, derived or emulated. Carl Jung held that every person has a universal shared subconscious from which archetypes surface as images or forms that are recognized by everyone. These images or forms hold the same meaning to all people worldwide. As such, archetypes are instinctively recognized in other people, ourselves, situations, objects and organizations; either consciously or subconsciously. Jung identified twelve archetypes namely the caregiver, the creator, the explorer/wanderer, the hero, the innocent, the jester/fool, the lover, the magician, the orphan (ordinary boy or girl), the ruler, the outlaw and the sage.

The caregivers are altruistic and motivated by the desire to assist and protect others from harm, such as Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa or a caring parent. The creators are usually seen in artists, writers, composers, entrepreneurs and inventors. Creators have flashes of inspiration and daydreams which they translate to reality. Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple are god examples of creators. The explorers (also known as the wanderers) are usually curious about everything and maintain independence. They also have an underlying feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction. The Star Trek and Christopher Columbus are good examples in this category. The hero employs courage to improve a situation and is attracted to chaos since it provides them an opportunity for heroism. Heroes such as the police, firefighters and ambulance drivers stick to their beliefs. The innocent strive to foster goodness and purity, with their primary aim being happiness; experience of paradise. Holy people in various cultures, such as nuns and monks, evoke this archetype. The jester often have good times, enjoying their moments where they always have something important to say. Personal assistants are examples that play this role. The lover strives to experience sensual pleasure, and find and give love. Fashion models, writers of popular fiction and pop stars usually evoke this archetype. The magician’s role is to transform, with one of their underlying themes being the discovery of universal laws so as to make things happen. A plastic surgeon can evoke this archetype. The orphans are okay as they are, and they seek to fit in order to connect with others. They enjoy self-deprecating humor, which shows how they take themselves less seriously. The ruler controls and creates order from chaos, since they tend to organize things. Alexander the Great and Margaret Thatcher evoked this role. The outlaw is usually a rebel that breaks the rules to disrupt the status quo. Entrepreneurs and the Rolling Stones evoke this archetype. Lastly, the sage (also known as the wise man/woman) assists others to understand their world. Plato, Confucius and some universities evoke this archetype.

The Wanderer Archetype in Theo

In the Jungian concept of the explorer/seeker/wanderer, a person with this archetype abandons the known to explore and discover the unknown. The quintessential wanderer in Theo Decker is comes out clearly in most parts of the novel. First, early in the novel, Theo the wanderer dreams of his mother for the first time after many years while still in Amsterdam. However, the orphan archetype in Theo is revealed when he affirms that he had been locked up in his hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and his heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, even church clocks tolling the hour, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. According to Jung, the orphan fears abandonment and exploitation; thus searching for safety, and always waiting for some kind of rescue. The orphan experiences loss of innocence and is aware of fear, danger and circumstances that cause trauma; hence the urge to find hope. Nevertheless, Theo continues to wander as he sits on his bed’s foot straining to comprehend the Dutch-language news on television (Tartt Chapter I). The endeavor is, however hopeless, since he did not know a word of Dutch prompting him to give up and go by the window to stare out at the canal with his camel’s-hair coat thrown over his clothes for he left New York; leaving New York also portrays his wandering nature.

Theo’s mind wanders immediately after the blast when he passed out and started having visions of lying flat on his stomach in a sandbox, on some dark playground in a somewhat deserted neighborhood. A gang of tough, runty boys had bunched around him, kicking him in the ribs and the back of his head. He felt his neck twist to the side; the wind was knocked out of him, and sand was in his mouth. He heard sounds of boys muttering only to roll over and throw his arms over his head only to find that nobody was there. The orphan archetype is also manifest here when Theo lay too stunned to move for a moment. As Theo narrates:

“There was a strong sense of being alone, in wintry deadness. Nothing made sense in any direction” (Chapter 1, V).

Theo also elicits his caregiver archetype when he helped the wounded old man who gave him the painting during the blast. He gave the old man some water to drink and also put the painting into nylon to protect it from father damage. “Are you all right? I said -frantic, close to tears. Can you hear me?” (Tartts Chapter 1, V). As the old man thrashed and grappled (a fish out of water), Theo held his head up, or tried to, not knowing how, afraid of hurting him. Again, the hero/warrior in Theo is depicted here. The hero/ warrior in Theo rides over the hill, when everything else seems lost, to save the day. Courageous and tough, this archetype helps Theo to overcome obstacles and persist in the difficult times he is going through during the blast. However, the explorer archetype of Theo is rekindled as “I looked at the moonscape of rubble trying to orient myself and figure the best way to go” (VI). Even in the ensuing chaos of a terrifying bomb blast, Theo does not coil his tail in a hasty retreat to wait for rescuers. Rather, he moves around to find his mother. “There were at least a dozen people on the floor -not all of them intact… Three or four of the bodies were partially covered with firemen’s coats, feet sticking out. Others sprawled glaringly in the open, amidst explosive stains. In the gallery beyond, there were more dead -three dead… I walked through several galleries littered with equipment but despite the bloodstains on the floor, there were no dead at all… as I walked through, in the oddly screaming silence, the only two observers were the same two puzzled… Then something snapped. I don’t even remember how it happened; I was just in a different place and running, running through rooms that were empty except for a haze of smoke that made the grandeur seem insubstantial and unreal” (VI). The wandering mind of Theo is actively at work here again. Eventually, Theo manages to wander his way out of the chaotic aftermath to safety at the exit that spat him out in Central Park, “through a deserted side door between the loading docks and the parking garage.” However, the orphan archetype is once again revealed when Theo says, “In the entire welter, nobody noticed me. For a moment or two, I ran uselessly back and forth in the street... Everywhere I looked, images of my own panic dashed past. People coursed and surged around me blindly” (Tartts Chapter 1, VI). Theo is abandoned by his father and taken in by a wealthy friend’s the family. He is bewildered by his weird new home on yet another new neighborhood, Park Avenue. The torments he is subjected to due to his unbearable longing for his mother makes his mind wander back to her most of times. This makes him cling to the only thing that reminds him of her: the mysteriously captivating painting which would later draws him into the underworld of art. The wandering archetype in Theo follows him into his adulthood when he moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the wealthy and the dusty labyrinth of the antiques shop where he works. Memories of his mother always keep Theo’s mind wandering; “A used-book dealer came to look at my mother’s art books, and somebody else came in to look at her furniture -and, almost before I knew it, my home began to vanish before my eyes with sickening speed. Watching the curtains disappear and the pictures taken down and the carpets rolled up and carried away, I was reminded of an animated film I’d once seen where a cartoon character with an eraser rubbed out his desk and his lamp and his chair and his window with a scenic view and the whole of his comfortably appointed office until—at last—the eraser hung suspended in a disturbing sea of white. While in Las Vegas before school started, Theo loiters around downstairs and later comes to learn a number of interesting facts. First, his: my dad’s former job was not so elaborate, business-wise. Theo also reveals his explorative archetype when he admitted that though he had been in Las Vegas for about half a year, it was his fourth or fifth time on the Strip, unlike Boris (who was pretty contented in their little rounds between school, shopping plaza and home) who had barely been into Vegas proper at all.


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The Wanderer Archetype in Donna Tartt’s Novel "The Goldfinch"
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wanderer, archetype, donna, tartt’s, novel, goldfinch
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Oliver Tumbo (Author), 2014, The Wanderer Archetype in Donna Tartt’s Novel "The Goldfinch", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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