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Good books, the kind that you enjoy, that you carry with you so as to pass time on the bus or train; that keep your mind occupied, but don’t do anything to change your perceptions of what literature can be, are common. Great books, the kind that you set aside time to read, that fill you with joy, and you recommend to your friends at every opportunity to do so, are rare … And then there are the scarce gems, the works of art that consume you, draw you in, keep you up at night, and leave an imprint in your mind that lasts years after you have finished them. “The Secret History,” by Donna Tartt, is such a book. It is a book both intimate and epic, and concerned with the beautiful and the terrible; a book that examines man’s relationship with the divine, as-well-as man’s relationship with one-another. It is on one level, a taught, brisk thriller, and on another, a meditation on the inherent fragility of youth and friendship.
The narrator is Richard Papen, who, at the age of twenty-eight looks back on a year he spent at Hampden College, a prestigious (and fictitious) liberal arts college in rural Vermont. The story begins in Richard’s hometown of Plano California. Of his upbringing, Richard says: “When I think about my real childhood I am unable to recall much about it at all except a sad jumble of objects: the sneakers I wore year-round; coloring books and comics from the supermarket: little of interest, less of beauty … my father was mean, our house ugly, and my mother didn’t pay much attention to me … and since all this had been true for as long as I could remember, I felt things would doubtless continue in this depressing vein as far as I could foresee. In short: I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way.”
Richard’s mediocre existence is quietly interrupted one Christmas, when, while digging through his closet, he finds a brochure for Hampden. After several weeks of traveling back-and-forth for admissions interviews, and sneaking behind his parents’ backs, Richard successfully transfers to Hampden. During his first few days on campus, Richard has run-ins with an attractive and close-knit group of students: Henry Winter, a trust funder from the midwest and the group’s unofficial leader, Francis Abernathy, a closeted homosexual who dresses mostly in black, orphan Charles Macaulay and his beautiful twin sister Camilla, and Bunny Corcoran, socially repugnant scion of a Kennedyesque New England family, desperately trying to maintain a facade of wealth and privilege. Drawn in by the group’s mystique, Richard wiles his way into their elite Ancient Greek class, taught by the charismatic Julian Morrow.
For the Fall semester, Richard enjoys an idyllic academic life, filled with lively discussions about art, literature, and ancient philosophy, as-well-as cocktail parties, and croquet matches at Francis’s country house. Everything changes after the group return from winter break. After learning that Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla have purchased one-way tickets to South America, Richard confronts his friends and discovers that they have become murderers. During the fall, the group enacted a ritual to honor the god Dionysus, in-which they consumed hallucinogens and accidentally killed a local farmer. The group manages to cover up the murder until Bunny discovers their secret and begins extorting money from them. In a drunken state one evening, Bunny tells Richard about the murder (not realizing he already knows). Richard tells Henry, and the group decides their only option is to kill Bunny.
The group follows Bunny on his Sunday walk in the woods, where they push him into a ravine. That night, an unseasonable snowstorm hits the college hiding Bunny’s body for ten days. A manhunt is launched, drawing in the FBI. The group manages (with great difficulty) to dodge accusations made against them until Bunny’s death is ruled an accident. After attending Bunny’s funeral, the group returns to Hampden, where tensions between them fester. Richard learns that Camilla is in love with Henry. After Richard tells him about this, Charles, who has had an intimate, incestuous relationship with his twin, becomes violently jealous and goes on a drinking binge that sends him to the hospital. Richard and Francis take him to the country house to recover. Shortly after that, Julian discovers a letter from Bunny about the farmer’s murder and flees Hampden in horror. Charles escapes from the country house and returns to Hampden with a gun. After shooting Richard in the stomach, Charles has the gun taken from him by Henry, who shoots himself in the head.
After the incident, the group scatters, with all the surviving members dropping out of school except for Richard, who goes on to graduate school. Francis’s grandfather forces him to marry a woman he doesn’t like; Julian is out of the country, Charles moves to California with an older woman, and Camilla finds herself stuck caring for her ailing grandmother.
From the very beginning, “The Secret History” makes a concerted effort to blend classical mythology and philosophy with contemporary fiction. Richard’s first line of narration after the prolog “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of life, exist outside literature?” pays tribute to the majesty of the ancient world and elegantly sets the tone for the novel. The ‘fatal flaw’ dates to the work of Aristotle and refers to an imperfection in a protagonist’s personality that causes them to commit some error in the arc of their story. In classical literature, these errors are often made in complete ignorance of the consequences that will inevitably follow them. It is here, in this lack of regard for any moral retribution, that Richard can find a kind of forgiveness for his crimes and those of his friends. Richard never expresses any guilt about the things he has done, not because he believes they were morally justified, but because they were meant to happen. Richard talks about himself and his friends as characters in a work of fiction, with the events surrounding them being part of an already written plot, and themselves powerless to change them. He recounts these events with a casual lucidity, and describes the “fatal flaw” of his story, which is, in his words, “A morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”
“‘We don’t like to admit it,’ said Julian ‘but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than anything. All truly civilized people – the ancients no less than us – have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old animal self … And it’s a temptation for any intelligent person, and especially for perfectionists such as the ancients and ourselves to try to murder the primitive, emotive, appetitive self. But this is a mistake … The more cultivated a person is … then the more he needs some method of channeling the primitive impulses he’s worked so hard to subdue … It’s a very Greek idea … Beauty is terror … and what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks and to our own, than to lose control completely.’”
Not only do Richard’s friends share his longing for the picturesque, but they find it augmented by the speech from their professor. And if this desire is intrinsic to the characters’ true natures, as Julian suggests, then it was inevitable that they would abandon the trappings of civilization and immerse themselves in the sublime beauty of their own raw, animalistic nature. What’s more, any damage to outside parties – such as the murdered farmer – is negligible, as it is merely the residue of contriving to achieve a higher level of being. And just so we are sure that the characters’ immorality is not just a mere lapse in judgment, Tartt shows us the group’s decadent behavior transcend their academic and spiritual pursuits, and bleed into their personal lives. Tartt maintains the integrity of this depraved atmosphere by never judging any of her characters. While we read about the group drinking excessively, snorting cocaine, engaging in incest, and plotting the murder of one of their friends, the novel never takes the time to remind the audience that what the protagonists are doing is wrong. Rather, it assumes we already know we are watching people do things they shouldn’t be. Instead of forcing us to learn a lesson about restraint and prudence, the book asks us to simply observe. This lack of condescension in storytelling is one of the qualities which I feel marks Donna Tartt as a great writer, with another being her ability to compress grandiose moral and philosophical themes into such a small setting.
All the major scenes in “The Secret History” take place indoors, and rarely involve anyone outside the six main characters. In the first half of the novel – before Bunny is murdered – this creates an atmosphere of intimacy. The characters’ discussions have all the weight of history behind them: Homer, Aristotle, Virgil, and Dante guide them on epic journeys through life, death, and human nature, without ever leaving the comfort of their tobacco smoke-filled dorm rooms. With the murders and their subsequent investigations, this intimacy turns to claustrophobia, and the cozy confines of Hampden and Francis’s country house become less of a comfort and more of a trap. As rumors of the group’s bizarre behavior around Bunny’s murder begin to surface, and they become a target of the investigation, we feel every bit of pressure they are under. And even after they are ruled out as suspects, things only become worse, as their close-knit relationships turn from a blanket of protection into a crucible of frustration and anger, causing them to turn on one another, and ending in the self-imposed exile of their mentor and the suicide of another one of their own. This landslide of tragedies proves just how fragile the bubble Richard and his friends had built around themselves was. Hampden and Julian’s class was the substantiating force in their lives, and with the former ruined and the latter taken away from them, the members of the group become lost in the world. This exchange between Richard and Charles exemplifies this:
“‘I wish we didn’t have to go back to Hampden tomorrow,’ (Charles) said.”
“‘I wish we never had to go back,’ I said. ‘I wish we lived here.’”
“‘Well, maybe we can.’”
“‘I don’t mean now. But maybe we could. After school.’”
“He shrugged. ‘Well, Francis’s aunt won’t sell the house because she wants to keep it in the family. Francis could get it from her for next to nothing … I mean, all Henry wants to do when he finishes school, if he finishes school, is to find some place where he can write his books and study the twelve great cultures.’”
“‘What do you mean, if he finishes.’”
“‘I mean, he may not want to … There’s no reason he’s got to be here, and he’s surely never going to have a job.’”
“‘You think not?’ I said, curious; I had always pictured Henry teaching Greek, in some forlorn but excellent college out in the Midwest.”
“Charles snorted. ‘Certainly not. Why should he? He doesn’t need the money, and he’d make a terrible teacher. And Francis has never worked in his life … He’d like it better here. Julian wouldn’t be far away either.”’
We see that the members of the group can picture no way of living differently from the one in which they are currently engaged. This is an attitude shared by most people in college. The first four or five years of one’s adulthood have a lasting transformative effect on the rest of their life. It is for this reason that college can be both a blessing and a curse, as it provides a safe environment for us to experiment with different ways of looking at the world, and cultivate new tastes and attitudes about how we wish to conduct ourselves in the future. The flip-side of this is that the environment can be too safe, a bubble of semi-adulthood in which we get only a taste of the real world, with few chances to experience the full range of consequences that come with our mistakes. A person can become so used to this, that when the time comes to enter into real adulthood, they feel overwhelmed. Tartt’s novel not only captures this feeling but magnifies it to mythic proportions. From the very beginning, Richard makes clear his dissatisfaction with his upbringing and desire to live a greater life – a life defined by beauty. He believes Campden will be the gateway to such a life, and devotes so much energy to cultivating an image of the college as a perfect haven of beauty and intellectualism, that even long after the image has shattered and he has left Campden, it remains an integral part of his life, saying: “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”
“The Secret History” may not be to everyone’s taste, but those who are susceptible to its charms will find themselves fully enraptured in a novel unlike any other, one that blends style with substance, and makes you belive that true beauty comes with pain.