The Secret History

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The Secret History
The Secret History, front cover.jpg
Cover of the first edition
AuthorDonna Tartt
Cover artist
CountryUnited States
PublisherAlfred A. Knopf
Publication date
September 1992
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages544 pp
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3570.A657 S4 1992

The Secret History is the first novel by the American author Donna Tartt, published by Alfred A. Knopf in September 1992. Set in New England, the novel tells the story of a closely knit group of six classics students at Hampden College, a small, elite Liberal Arts college located in Vermont based upon Bennington College, where Tartt was a student between 1982 and 1986.

The Secret History is an inverted detective story narrated by one of the six students, Richard Papen, who reflects years later upon the situation that led to the murder of Bunny – wherein the events leading up to the murder are revealed sequentially. 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.

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. The novel was originally titled The God of Illusions,[1] and its first-edition hardcover was designed by the acclaimed New York City graphic designer, Chip Kidd and Barbara de Wilde.[2]


Richard Papen leaves his hometown of Plano, California for the elite Hampden College in Vermont to study Ancient Greek. Though Richard is accepted by most of his peers, he finds he cannot enroll into the classes of Classics professor, Julian Morrow, who limits enrollment to a hand-picked clique: charming but secretive fraternal twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay; Francis Abernathy, whose secluded country home becomes a sanctuary for the group; Henry Winter, an intellectual with a passion for the Pāli canon, Homer, and Plato; and Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran, a bigoted jokester.

Henry seems to have a strained friendship with Bunny, but they spend winter break together in Rome while Richard takes a low-paying campus job and spends winter break in an unheated warehouse. He nearly dies from hypothermia and pneumonia, but is rescued and taken to the hospital by Henry, who returns early from Italy.

After winter break, tensions between Bunny and the group worsen. Richard learns the chilling truth from Henry and Francis: during a bacchanal from which both Richard and Bunny were excluded, Henry accidentally killed a farmer near Francis's country estate. During the winter break trip to Italy, Bunny discovered the truth by secretly reading Henry's diary. Bunny has been blackmailing the group since he found out about the death of the farmer. No longer able to meet Bunny's demands, and fearing that he will expose them, the group resolves to kill Bunny. The students confront Bunny while he is hiking and Henry pushes him into a ravine to his death.

The group struggles to maintain their cover, joining search parties for Bunny and even attending his funeral. Richard learns more about the bacchanal murder from Camilla. It turns out that when they killed the stranger in plaid, his stomach was cut open, suggesting that it was not accident at all.

Shortly after Bunny's murder, Charles develops an alcohol problem and becomes abusive towards his sister, Camilla. Henry steps in and arranges for Camilla to move into a hotel to get away from Charles. Francis tells Richard the twins have sex with each other, and that he has had sex with Charles several times. Francis also admits that he suffers from panic attacks.

Julian eventually comes to understand the group's culpability in Bunny's murder when he catches a glimpse of the logo of the hotel Bunny and Henry stayed at in Rome on a letter from Bunny imploring Julian to help him, which he had initially dismissed as being written by another student on the campus as part of a joke. Instead of reporting the crime to the authorities, Julian leaves the faculty at Hampden College and never returns.

Henry begins living with Camilla, which drives Charles further into alcoholism. When Charles is arrested in a drunk-driving incident with Henry's car, Henry fears Charles will let slip their secret to the police, while Charles fears that Henry may kill him to keep his silence. After this incident, Charles barges into Camilla and Henry's hotel room and tries to kill Henry with Francis's gun. In the struggle, Charles accidentally shoots Richard in the abdomen. The innkeeper, hearing the commotion, forces his way into the room. To protect the rest of the group and keep their secrets hidden, Henry kisses Camilla farewell and shoots himself. The police report concludes that, in a suicidal fit, Henry inadvertently shot Richard.

With Henry's death, the group disintegrates. Francis, living in Boston, attempts suicide and, though homosexual, is forced by his rich grandfather to marry a woman he despises. Camilla, caring for her grandmother, becomes increasingly isolated. Charles runs away from rehab to Texas with a married woman and no longer speaks to Camilla. Lastly, Richard, after recovering from his wounds, becomes a lonely academic with an unrequited love for Camilla. Richard sees Henry's death as having cut the cord that bound them, setting them all adrift. He meets Henry in a dream, and asks him if he is happy there. Henry replies: "Not particularly. But you're not very happy where you are, either."


According to Michiko Kakutani, some aspects of the novel are reflective of Nietzsche's model of Apollonian and Dionysian expression in The Birth of Tragedy. Kakutani, writing for the New York Times, said "in The Secret History, Ms. Tartt manages to make...melodramatic and bizarre events (involving Dionysian rites and intimations of satanic power) seem entirely plausible."[3] Because the author introduces the murder and those responsible at the outset, critic A. O. Scott labeled it "a murder mystery in reverse."[4] In 2013, John Mullan wrote an essay for The Guardian titled "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."[5]


The book received generally positive reviews from critics. Michiko Kakutani called the novel a "ferociously well-paced entertainment", which "succeeds magnificently" and heavily attributed the success of the book to Tartt's well-developed writing skills.[3] Sophie McKenzie, writing for The Independent, called it "the book of a lifetime", stating that it was "perfectly paced" and the characters are "fascinating and powerfully drawn".[6] However, James Wood of the London Review of Books gave it a mediocre review, writing: "The story compels, but it doesn't involve...It offers mysteries and polished revelations on every page, but its true secrets are too deep, too unintended to be menacing or profound."[7] Critic Ted Gioia wrote:

There is much to admire in Tartt's novel, but it is especially laudable for how persuasively she chronicles the steps from studying classics to committing murder. This is a difficult transition to relate in a believable manner, and all the more difficult given Tartt's decision to tell the story from the perspective of one of the most genial of the conspirators. Her story could easily come across as implausible—or even risible—in its recreation of Dionysian rites on a Vermont college campus, and its attempt to convince us that a mild-mannered transfer student with a taste for ancient languages can evolve, through a series of almost random events, into a killer. Yet convince us she does, and the intimacy with which Tartt brings her readers into the psychological miasma of the unfolding plot is one of the most compelling features of The Secret History.[8]


  1. ^ "The Media Business; The Marketing of a Cause Celebre" (November 16, 1992) The New York Times
  2. ^ "Book cover: The Secret History". Financial Times. 2011-02-07. Retrieved 2019-02-11.
  3. ^ a b Kakutani, Michiko (1992-09-04). "Books of The Times; Students Indulging In Course of Destruction". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  4. ^ Scott, A. O. (3 November 2002). "Harriet the Spy". New York Times. Retrieved August 10, 2016.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ McKenzie, Sophie. "The Secret History by Donna Tartt, book of a lifetime". The Independent. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  7. ^ Wood, James (1992-11-19). "The Glamour of Glamour". London Review of Books. pp. 17–18. ISSN 0260-9592. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  8. ^ Gioia, Ted. "The Secret History by Donna Tartt". Retrieved 2019-02-11.

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