The Secret History

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This article is about the novel by Donna Tartt. For information on secret histories, see Secret history.
For Procopius's Secret History, see Procopius.
The Secret History
The Secret History, front cover.jpg
First edition
Author Donna Tartt
Original title The God of Illusions [1]
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date
September 1992
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 544 pp
ISBN 0-679-41032-5
OCLC 26515217
813/.54 20
LC Class PS3570.A657 S4 1992

The Secret History, the first novel by Mississippi-born writer Donna Tartt, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1992. A 75,000 print order was made for the first edition (as opposed to the usual 10,000 order for a debut novel), and the book became a bestseller.

Set in New England, The Secret History tells the story of a closely knit group of six classics students at a small, elite Vermont college, Hampden College, similar in many respects to Bennington College (in Bennington, Vermont) where Tartt was a student from 1982 to 1986.

The story is an inverted detective story, not a Whodunit but a Whydunit.

One of the six students is the story's narrator, Richard Papen, who reflects, years later, on the situation that led to a murder within the group, the murder being confessed at the outset of the novel but the events otherwise revealed sequentially. In the opening chapter, as the reader is introduced to Papen, we are told of the death of student Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran, although few details are given initially. The novel explores the circumstances and lasting effects of Bunny's death on the academically and socially isolated group of Classics students of which he was a part.

The impact on the students is ultimately destructive, and the potential promise of many young lives is lost to circumstance. The story parallels, in many ways, a Greek tragedy with fate dictating the very circumstances that lead to an escalation of already fermenting issues.


As the story opens, Richard leaves the (fictitious) small town Plano, California, where he is generally unhappy, for Hampden College in Vermont. His approach to his background is in keeping with the contrast of aestheticism and literary beauty, as opposed to harsh reality, that continues throughout the novel. He misleads others about his background as necessary, replacing his mediocre working-class childhood with a fabricated and more glamorous one of boarding schools, wealth, failed actors, and parents who own an oil well.

After moving to Vermont, Richard attempts to continue his study of Ancient Greek, only to be denied admittance to the Greek class, as Classics professor Julian Morrow limits his enrollment to a tiny hand-picked coterie of students. Richard becomes obsessed with the small group, after observing them around campus and noting what he considers to be a cold attitude toward the world around them and an obsessiveness with studies that he admires, and eventually manages to ingratiate himself with the group by helping them solve a Greek grammar problem as they study in the college library. Soon after, armed with advice from the students on how to impress Julian, he meets with him once more and is finally admitted to the select Classics tutorial.

The group includes fraternal twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, who are charming but secretive, as well as Francis Abernathy, whose secluded country home becomes a sanctuary for the group. (Francis reappears, in a sentence or two, in Tartt's later novel, The Goldfinch.) Two students become the central focus of the story: the linguistic genius Henry Winter, an intellectual with a passion for the Pali canon, Homer, and Plato, and the back-slapping Bunny Corcoran, a bigoted jokester more comfortable reading Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels.

Their relationship, already considered odd by Richard, becomes even more mystifying when Bunny announces that he and Henry will be spending the winter break together in Rome, Italy. This is despite the fact that Henry appears barely tolerant of Bunny and that Bunny is unable to afford such a lavish holiday himself. In fact, it is Henry who is footing the bill for the trip. To avoid revealing his fabricated past, Richard takes a low-paying job on the college campus and spends the winter break, the coldest in a generation, in an unheated warehouse. He nearly dies from hypothermia and pneumonia, but is rescued and taken to the hospital by Henry, who has returned early from the trip to Italy.

When the rest of the group returns from winter break, Richard notes that the relationships between them and Bunny have become even more strained. Ultimately, Richard learns the truth from Henry and Francis: during a Bacchanal that both Richard and Bunny were excluded from, Henry had inadvertently killed a local farmer who lived near Francis's country estate. Bunny, having been suspicious for some time, uncovers the truth during the trip to Italy after reading some of Henry's diary, and has blackmailed the group ever since. The group, led by Henry, begin to view Bunny as the weak link who threatens to reveal their secret, and Bunny's penchant for playing on his friends' fears and insecurities does little to assuage their concern.

No longer able to meet Bunny's demands and fearing that Bunny will report the matter to the police, the group resolves to kill Bunny. Henry forms several plots to accomplish such, and one of the plans is finally put into motion after Bunny tells Richard of the killing of the farmer in a drunken rant. The group confronts Bunny while he is hiking. Henry pushes him into a ravine to his death.

The remainder of the novel focuses on the aftermath of Bunny's death, especially the collapse of the group, the psychological strains of remorse borne by the individual members and their efforts to maintain secrecy as investigators and other students develop theories about Bunny's disappearance. The supporting cast of other students includes loquacious drug user Judy Poovey, a reader of "those paranoia books by Philip K. Dick."

Charles develops a drinking problem and becomes increasingly abusive towards his sister. In a conversation with Francis, Richard asks Francis if Charles and Camilla are having sexual relations. Francis confirms this and believes this is why Charles is so possessive of his sister. Francis begins to suffer panic attacks. Julian discovers the evidence in the form of a pleading letter sent to him by Bunny, imploring him to help: "You're the only one who can." Julian never reports the crime but instead leaves the college.

With the group splintered, the members deal with their crime, to a large extent, in isolation. Henry begins living and sleeping with Camilla, which drives Charles further into the grip of his barely controlled alcoholism. Henry is deeply upset by Julian's departure, seeing it as an act of cowardice and hypocrisy. Charles is arrested in a drunk driving incident with Henry's car, and Henry is worried Charles will let something slip about the murder plot to the authorities. The plot reaches a climax when Charles, jealous of Henry and now a full-blown alcoholic, barges into Camilla and Henry's hotel room and tries to kill Henry with Francis' Beretta. In the struggle that follows, Henry gets hold of the gun as the inn-keeper pounds on the door. Aghast, the others are not sure whom he intends to kill. In a scramble for the gun, Charles shoots Richard in the abdomen. The commotion attracts the attention of the innkeeper, who forces his way into the room Instead, Henry kisses Camilla for a final time, then shoots himself. It seems that Henry wants to uphold the principles that he feels Julian has betrayed. He also implicitly covers for Charles' actions -- the police report concludes Henry shot Richard.

With Henry's suicide, the group disintegrates: Francis, a homosexual, is forced by his rich grandfather to marry a woman; Camilla takes care of her grandmother and ends up isolated; Charles runs away from rehab with a married woman; Richard, the narrator, after recovering from his wounds, becomes a lonely academic whose love for Camilla is unrequited. Henry's death is described as having cut the cord between them and set them all adrift. The book ends with Richard recounting a strange dream where he meets Henry in a tall atrium, and doesn't know how to voice everything he feels about what has happened. Finally, he settles on asking him, "Are you happy here?" Henry replies, "Not particularly. But you're not very happy where you are, either," and walks away, leaving Richard as aimless as ever.


Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) commented, "In The Secret History, Ms. Tartt managed to make... melodramatic and bizarre events (involving Dionysian rites and intimations of satanic power) seem entirely plausible." Because the author introduces the murder and those responsible at the outset, critic A.O. Scott labeled it "a murder mystery in reverse." [2]

John Mullan wrote for The Guardian in 2013 an essay called "Ten Reasons Why We Love Donna Tartt's The Secret History", which includes "It starts with a murder," "It is in love with Ancient Greece," "It is full of quotations," and "It is obsessed with beauty."[3]


  1. ^ "THE MEDIA BUSINESS; The Marketing of a Cause Celebre" (November 16, 1992) The New York Times
  2. ^ Scott, A.O. "Harriet the Spy," New York Times, November 3, 2002.
  3. ^ Mullan, John (18 October 2013). "Ten Reasons Why We Love Donna Tartt's The Secret History". The Guardian (London: Guardian News and Media). Retrieved January 10, 2014. 

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