The Secret History – An Enchanting Illusive Experience of a Misfit


Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut novel “The Secret History” starts with a murder that’s not cloaked in mystery. The narrator tells us who’s murdered; how he himself is partly responsible for the murder and names others who participated in the vile act. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ part is what drives this 629 page (paperback) novel. But, don’t expect the ‘why’ and ‘how’ to be as thrilling and convoluted as in Japanese mystery writer Keigo Highashino’s works. Through the murder element, Tartt elegantly explores the isolation of a young man, oppressed by a very mundane life, who gets a distant possibility of leading a romanticized version of life. The ‘heart of darkness’ and ‘murderer’s guilt’ aspects of the novel are wonderfully incorporated to depict the life of young Americans, fascinated by nihilism and chaos.

“The Secret History” is a very straightforward novel, considering the fact that it starts with a murder, committed by college students, who are otherwise perceived harmless, innocent souls. It doesn’t use unreliable narrator trick to put up a final, thrilling twist. The narrator, Richard Papen, is definitely unreliable. But, not in the way you expect him to be. He doesn’t contort facts or offer an entirely different version to real events. His words create an artifice, as he views people through a romanticized viewpoint. The psychological toll Richard experiences in the story arises, when this romanticism comes crashing down at the meeting point of harsh reality. The central character’s constant references to Greek Classics, Dostoevsky, Jean Racine, etc tells us how much he blurs the reality by relating it with the myths and stories he adores.

Author Donna Tartt

Author Donna Tartt

Richard Papen, of course, doesn’t have a lot of things to adore in life. He is from a sun-drenched small town Plano, in Northern California. He graduated from a second-rate school in Vermont and did a brief stretch in medical school, which he discontinues to embrace classical studies. He enrolls into fictional Hampden College, where the sons of affluent parents roam around the campus. While Hampden College provides little respite from his uncaring parents and oppressive small town atmosphere, Richard is wholly attracted to five eccentric students, studying Ancient Greek, under an enigmatic professor Julian Morrow. Julian limits his student enrollments to very small hand-picked ones and his primary rule is to take all or most of their courses with him. Julian thinks that having a great diversity of teachers will only harm and confuse a young mind. Richard follows the five students around the campus, whom always stick together and mostly remain isolated from other students. Richard’s obsession and interest in Ancient Greek takes him to Julian’s office. After initial rejections from Julian, Richard attains the coveted place in Greek class after a chance meeting with the five students.

The five intriguing students are: Henry, the bespectacled, tall, enigmatic, highly intelligent and emotionally cold; twins Camilla and Charles Macaulay – beautiful, easygoing people with a smile; Francis – a charming guy with an impeccable dressing sense and a homosexual; Edward Corcoran aka Bunny – dyslexic, insecure and profligate guy. They all hail from a wealthy background and deeply cultivate a esoteric facade on Richard’s mind. Except for the antics of Bunny, Richard thinks of others as some celebrities or as wise ancient Greeks. He is fascinated by the fact that he has attained a place among their inner sanctum, so as to overlook few discrepancies. To strengthen his bond with the five students, Richard tells a lie about his background. Richard is naturally attracted to the elegant, blonde-haired Camilla and even the extroverted, annoying Bunny becomes his good friend. But, Richard feels that Henry and his team are holding some secret from him. At one point, Richard gets to know that ‘secret’, which he thinks brings him closer to the group. This coveted affinity to the group turns Richard to be a cog in committing the despicable act of murder.

The foremost achievement of Donna Tartt in “The Secret History” is how she includes the familiar elements and characters of campus novels without turning those into caricatures. The initial friendless and frustrated home plus college life of Richard was easy to relate (at least for me). The way Richard fabricates or romanticizes the reality is also perfectly written to grasp and contemplate as we ourselves would have been cloaked in disillusionment at the university age.  In Richard’s narration, Tartt diffuses sheen to showcase how when we aren’t able to really befriend a popular person (in college or in other forms of life) we load up our own fantasies upon them. Tartt is also less interested in sex, unlike many campus novels. She is more interested in depicting beauty: ethereal, poetic and superficial (“beauty is harsh”, she quotes from ancient Greek). The purity of youth getting afflicted by the reality of the harsh world is one primary theme that is often represented in Richard and others’ epiphanies. Although the psychological toll of murder on the murderers is one run-of-the-mill theme, Tartt’s vivid narration of it was captivating to read. However, those expecting a ‘page turner’ (as the book cover has promised) would be in for a great disappointment. I think getting through the initial 100 pages is a challenge, which is riddled with Richard’s perspective of the characters and claustrophobic atmosphere. The text is also much complex for a pleasure reading, with references to philosophy and classical stories that calls for some calm rumination.

Donna Tartt’s brilliant, taut prose in “The Secret History” subtly taps into our ‘morbid longing for the picturesque’ (as Richard says). It incisively investigates the idea that enamors the literary world: banality of evil.


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