I found my way to Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History (1992) on the recommendation of a co-worker. Having also read Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner The Goldfinch (2013), she was adamant that the author’s first work was vastly superior to the more heralded one. So, I trekked out to the only library in the city of Toronto where the book wasn’t taken out or on hold, and got myself a copy—which I proceeded to burn through in a few short days.
The full-on page-turner effect didn’t kick in immediately though. For me at least, the literary world that Tartt crafts took some getting used to. It’s a world centred around a group of elitist classics students whose priorities and problems run pretty much perpendicular to the rest of the affluent students that occupy their small liberal arts campus. Readers have the story filtered to them through the memoirs of Richard Papen, an unhappy Californian who scrounges just enough money and financial aid together to leave his dysfunctional family behind and pursue the kind of East Coast educational escape he’s always lusted after. After some departmental maneuvering, Richard finds himself accepted into the select clique of students who study almost exclusively under the enchanting classics professor Julian Morrow. Despite not sharing their pedigree, Richard manages to fit right in.
Tartt puts most of her plot-related cards on the table almost immediately. By the end of the prologue we learn that our narrator and his comrades have brought about the death of someone named Bunny under the direction of Henry—both of whom we soon find out are also among Julian’s pupils. This is a pretty substantial revelation, not to mention a highly improbable one, which is part of a general pattern of the reader needing to suspend his or her disbelief and skepticism. As the first 40 or so pages unfold, there’s a slight challenge to bridge the gap between our conceptions of the typical—or even the regularly supercilious—undergraduate experience and the snobby peculiarities of this classics crew. Everything from their diction to their extracurricular affairs is next-level uppity. When the novel does occasionally touch on the mainstream college pastimes of partying and casual hook-ups, they have a jarring effect because they feel so out of place.
But the complexity with which Tartt delves into the inner-workings of this group dynamic makes the novel feel not only incredibly real, but incredibly captivating as well. Richard is like a less hypocritical and (seemingly) more reliable version of The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, second guessing his involvement in this lifestyle at times but usually coming to terms with his full complicity in it. The opening words to Chapter 1 give us a pretty good facsimile of his core identity:
Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running don the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.
That longing is what drew him to the outwardly pristine Hampden College in the first place, and also what allowed him to get on board with Henry’s plot to murder a friend. After something goes horribly wrong in the enactment of a bacchanal (look it up) that neither Bunny or Richard was present for, Bunny finds out and uses the knowledge as a kind of blackmail that greatly upsets the balance of the group (this might feel like a spoiler, but we already know right away that Bunny is getting murdered; plus, the overall effect of this book isn’t really tied to the surprise in any of its major plot points as much as the characters’ reactions to them). With Bunny in the picture, things can never again be neat and tidy as they were before the night of the Dionysiac frenzy.
Yet without him, things turn sour in a very different kind of way. The buildup to Bunny’s murder and the fallout from it make up the two halves of the novel respectively, and while the former offers up some intriguing interpersonal material to digest, the latter blows it out of the water. Each new development following the homicide creates a series of intricate ripple effects between the remaining five scholars. You find yourself racing to unravel it all once things kick into full gear.
Henry, the de facto leader of the group, is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever come across. Of all of them, he is the most wholly devoted to the Ancient World and his dedication is so commendable that it occasionally obscures the cold indifference with which he approaches so many other things. Bunny is like Henry’s polar opposite, a scholar unfit for academia who flaunts his personality and imposes constantly on anyone who will let him. Then there’s Charles and Camilla (remember, this came out in 1992, while Princess Diana was still alive), the harmonious twins who go through some previously unimaginable tribulations in the wake of Bunny’s death. And the crew is rounded out by Francis, a generally agreeable guy who often struggles to hold back more than just the criminal activity he’s embroiled in.
These six individuals and their charming but somewhat distant professor come together in ways that you’re not really accustomed to seeing anywhere else. It makes for a novel that feels just as classic as the subject matter it explores so vividly.
Some Spoiler-Heavy Stray Observations
- I really thought Julian was going to have somehow been involved in the two murders (besides teaching the material that inspired the first one). Perhaps it was the bond between him and Henry that hadn’t been elaborated on enough or just a feeling that Tartt had one last major twist in her, but either way, I was very surprised to see his storyline play out the way it did.
- Also, I’m 98% sure J.K. Rowling based the character of Horace Slughorn off of Julian. Everything from his love of having exclusive favourites to his decision to flee upon figuring out what happened matches up perfectly with the walrus mustachioed-Potions master from the Harry Potter universe.
- Tartt did a good job of slowly building up the Henry-Camilla romance, planting the seed early on with the conversation Richard recalled about how he used to like her and then revealing their relationship’s actual existence just as Charles was going off the rails—not to mention dropping the incest bomb as the rising action was getting out of control.
- What’s up with some of the secondary characters’ rhyming names? Must have been intentional because it’s kind of odd to just randomly conjure up names like Judy Poovey and Laura Stora.
- Pretty cruel irony that Bunny was drinking Rolling Rock beer right before being pushed off of a cliff, rolling through the air, and greeted below by a bed of rocks.
- At the beginning of Book II Richard says, “But while I have never considered myself a very good person, neither can I bring myself to believe that I am a spectacularly bad one.” Do you agree with that statement? Why or why not?
- What factors more into the way Bunny treated his friends: nature or nurture?
- According to Francis, Julian tries to impress upon the group that ghosts and memory (or the unconscious) are essentially the same thing. Keeping in mind the examples of dead people allegedly reappearing in The Secret History, how do you interpret this line of thinking?