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Contemplating “The Goldfinch”

| Monday, August 17, 2020

My favorite book of all time is “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt. While I could go on about the book for ages, I’d like to focus on the painting the story centers on. “The Goldfinch” was painted in 1654 by the Dutch artist Carol Fabritius. In the same year, 32-year-old Fabritius died in a gunpowder explosion which destroyed much of Delft and killed over 100 people. The painting was thought to be in Fabritius’ workshop at the time of the explosion. Historians have identified small dents in the painting which may have been a result of flying debris from the explosion, and the lack of cracks on the canvas indicate the explosion may have occurred when the paint had not fully dried, meaning The Goldfinch may have been one of Fabritius’ final works before his death.

Only 13.2-by-9 inches in size, the painting somehow survived.

The painting features a goldfinch perched atop a feeder fixed to a wall. A thin gold chain loops around a ring of the feeder and attaches to the little bird’s leg, trapping him in place. The shadows, the soft brush strokes and the colors make him look so realistic, I can almost see him fluttering his wings in preparation to take flight. I can hear the soft rattle of the chain against the wooden rings when he tries to escape.

Normally when I look at the painting, I feel sad. I feel sad for this beautiful bird who has wings to fly wherever he desires but is trapped. I feel sad that he’s alone, that he was caught, chained and then simply abandoned on his perch. He’s a bird, so it’s hard for me to decipher his expression, but the way he looks directly out at his audience made me think for a long time that he was challenging viewers to pity him but to also look down at their own chains and pity themselves.

I think about the painting frequently because I identify with the goldfinch. Like many people, I often feel trapped in the circumstances I’m in. Despite the opportunities that surround me, I don’t feel free. I’m simply on the verge of being free. Like the goldfinch, my invisible shackles are small, but they’re strong enough to make me stay still on my feeder.

I have been contemplating this painting for years, and for so long I assumed that the goldfinch never leaves his perch. I assumed he was chained forever. It has only recently occurred to me in the midst of a pandemic where many of us feel trapped that maybe he gets set free at some point. Maybe this is a temporary situation. Maybe he becomes strong enough to break the chain himself. Maybe he’s not alone. Maybe there are other goldfinches surrounding him on their own little perches, and he’s content in his situation because he’s with others. Maybe he’s not sad. Maybe his expression is one of acceptance, and he looks directly at the viewer to urge them to do the same.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Serena Zacharias

Serena is a member of the class of 2021 majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She hails from the great cheese state of Wisconsin and is a former ND News Editor for The Observer.

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