The cardinal symbolizes Finch’s mental illness and his dysfunctional family dynamic. When Finch was a little boy, a male cardinal repeatedly flew into the living room windows and fell to the patio before flying off again while its female partner watched from a nearby branch. When Finch’s sister Kate called the Audubon Society, the person she spoke to suggested that the Finches’ home had been built where the cardinal’s tree once stood, and the cardinal was trying to get back to his former tree. Young Finch found this extremely disturbing; he begged his parents to bring the cardinal inside so they could save it from the pain of hitting the glass and being knocked unconscious. Finch’s mom and Finch’s dad refused—and one day, they discovered that the cardinal had finally died as a result of hitting the glass. It was after the cardinal died that Finch experienced his first symptoms of a mental health problem (he doesn’t remember much from the weeks following the cardinal’s death). This eventually balloons into what Finch experiences in the present (implied to be undiagnosed bipolar disorder): cycling between being “Awake” (depression) and “Asleep” (mania), as well as his obsession with suicide.
Finch’s mom sees Finch’s investment in the cardinal’s well-being as a sign of his sensitivity. But to Finch, this is insulting—comments about his “sensitivity,” he feels, ignore the fact that he’s mentally unwell. In this sense, the way that Finch’s family remembers and conceptualizes the cardinal’s death shows Finch that they don’t actually care about his mental and emotional well-being. No matter what he does or how much he’s struggling, they’ll believe he’s just “sensitive,” and his reaction to the cardinal’s death will always be proof of that.
As Finch’s mental state deteriorates over the course of the novel, he thinks more about how tragic the cardinal’s death was—and his actions begin to mimic that of the bird. Whereas the cardinal flew into the glass again and again before it finally died, Finch knowingly and repeatedly puts himself in situations where he might drown. Finally, he runs away and drowns in the Blue Hole, and Violet knows that Finch died by suicide. And given that Finch thinks the cardinal would’ve died no matter what his family did to save it, this illuminates Finch’s belief that there was nothing anyone could do to save him. Just as it seemed inevitable that the cardinal was eventually going to die, suicide seemed inevitable to Finch.
The Cardinal Quotes in All the Bright Places
Most people haven’t heard of [the Nest Houses], but one old man tells me, “Sorry you came all this way. I’m afraid they been ate up by the weather and the elements.”
Just like all of us. The Nest Houses have reached their life expectancy. I think of the mud nest we made for the cardinal, all those years ago, and wonder if it’s still there. I imagine his little bones in his little grave, and it is the saddest thought in the world.
All I know is what I wonder: Which of my feelings are real? Which of the mes is me? There is only one me I’ve ever really liked, and he was good and awake as long as he could be.
I couldn’t stop the cardinal’s death, and this made me feel responsible. In a way, I was—we were, my family and I—because it was our house that was built where his tree used to be, the one he was trying to get back to. But maybe no one could have stopped it.
“You have been in every way all that anyone could be…If anybody could have saved me it would have been you.”