The Secret History
Cover of the first edition
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3570.A657 S4 1992|
The Secret History is the first novel by Donna Tartt, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1992. Set in New England, it tells the story of a closely knit group of six classics students at Hampden College, a small, elite Vermont college 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 students, Richard Papen, who reflects years later on the situation that led to a murder—this having been confessed to at the outset, but with all other events being 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. It was originally titled The God of Illusions, and its first-edition hardcover was designed by Chip Kidd and Barbara de Wilde.
Richard Papen leaves his small town of Plano, California, where he was generally unhappy, for Hampden College in Vermont. His disdain for his background establishes a contrast—aestheticism and literary beauty, as opposed to harsh reality—that continues throughout the novel. He misleads others about his background, replacing his mediocre working-class childhood with a fabricated, glamorous one of boarding schools, wealth, failed actors, and parents who own an oil well.
At Hampden, Richard tries to continue his study of Ancient Greek, only to be denied admittance to the course, as Classics professor Julian Morrow limits his enrollment to a hand-picked coterie. Richard becomes obsessed with the group, observing them around campus and noting what he considers to be a cold attitude toward the world around them, and an obsession with studying, which he admires. Eventually, he manages to ingratiate himself with the group by helping to solve a Greek grammar problem. Soon after, and armed with advice from the group on how to impress the professor, Richard meets with Morrow and is finally admitted to the 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, very briefly, in Tartt's 2013 novel The Goldfinch.) Two students become the focus: linguistic genius Henry Winter, an intellectual with a passion for the Pali canon, Homer, and Plato; and back-slapping Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran, a bigoted jokester more comfortable reading Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels.
The pair's friendship, which Richard finds odd, becomes more mystifying when Bunny announces that he and Henry will spend winter break together in Rome, Italy—although Henry appears to barely tolerate Bunny, and Bunny cannot afford such a lavish holiday himself. In fact, Henry is footing the bill for the trip. To avoid revealing his fabricated past, Richard takes a low-paying job on campus and spends 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 returned early from Italy.
After winter break, Richard sees the relationship between Bunny and the others becoming even more strained. Ultimately, he learns the truth from Henry and Francis: during a bacchanal from which both Richard and Bunny were excluded, Henry accidentally killed a farmer who lived near Francis's country estate. Richard questions Henry about the nature of the bacchanal, which he understands to have been a sex ritual; Henry confirms this, but refuses to elaborate. Bunny, suspicious for some time, had uncovered the truth about the group's accident during the trip to Italy by reading Henry's diary, and has been blackmailing the group since. The group, led by Henry, now views Bunny as a danger, 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 he will report them, the group resolves to kill Bunny. Henry forms several plots, one of which is finally put into motion after a drunken Bunny tells Richard of the killing. The group confronts Bunny while he is hiking, and Henry pushes him into a ravine, to his death.
The rest of the novel follows the group's collapse, the psychological strains of remorse borne by the members, and their efforts to maintain secrecy as investigators and other students inquire into Bunny's disappearance. (The other students include loquacious drug-user Judy Poovey, a reader of "those paranoia books by Philip K. Dick".) They attempt to act natural, joining the search parties combing over the campus looking for Bunny. During this time, Richard learns from Camilla that he still doesn't know the full story of what happened at the bacchanal - she states that when they killed the stranger in plaid, his stomach was cut open and steam was coming out, suggesting that perhaps it was not accident.
Charles develops a drinking problem and becomes increasingly abusive towards his sister Camilla. Francis confirms to Richard that the twins are having sexual relations with one another, and at the same time admits he has also slept with Charles on a number of occasions. Francis himself begins to suffer panic attacks. Morrow discovers a pleading letter sent to him by Bunny, imploring him to help: "You're the only one who can." He never reports the crime, instead leaving the faculty. This action creates consequences for the main characters (though mainly just for Richard, the only one without an inheritance at his disposal). Left without a teacher, the group has few options for the coming academic year and will be unable to complete their majors, though this is hardly the most troubling thing on their minds.
As the group splinters, the members must deal with things in isolation. Henry begins living with (and likely sleeping with) Camilla, which drives Charles further into alcoholism. Henry sees Morrow's departure as an act of cowardice and hypocrisy, and is deeply upset by it. When Charles is arrested in a drink-driving incident with Henry's car, Henry fears Charles will let slip their secret to the police. The climax comes 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, Henry gets hold of the gun; the others pile on him, and Charles ends up shooting Richard in the abdomen. The innkeeper, hearing the commotion and gunshot, forces his way into the room. Before anything else can happen, Henry calmly kisses Camilla farewell and commits suicide with the gun. It seems that Henry wants to uphold the principles that he feels Morrow has betrayed. He also implicitly covers for Charles' actions: the police report concludes Henry shot Richard.
With Henry's death, the group disintegrates. Francis attempts suicide and, though homosexual, is forced by his rich grandfather to marry a woman he despises; Camilla, taking care of her grandmother, becomes increasingly isolated; Charles runs away from rehab with a married woman and no longer speaks to Camilla; and Richard, after recovering from his wounds, becomes a lonely academic with an unrequited love for Camilla. He sees Henry's death as having cut the cord that bound them, setting them all adrift. The book ends with Richard recounting a strange dream where he meets Henry in a tall atrium, unable to say all he feels about what has happened. Finally, he settles on asking, "Are you happy here?" Henry replies, "Not particularly. But you're not very happy where you are, either," and walks away.
- Richard Papen (narrator)
- Henry Winter
- Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran
- Francis Abernathy
- Charles Macaulay
- Camilla Macaulay
- Julian Morrow
- Cloke Rayburn
- Judy Poovey
- Sophie Dearbold
- Mack Corcoran
- Mr Hatch
- Mrs Hatch
- Mrs Corcoran
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 in 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." Because the author introduces the murder and those responsible at the outset, critic A.O. Scott labeled it "a murder mystery in reverse." 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."
The book received generally positive reviews from critics. Kakutani called it a "ferociously well-paced entertainment", which "succeeds magnificently" and heavily attributed the success of the book to Tartt's well-developed writing skills. 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". 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." 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.
- "THE MEDIA BUSINESS; The Marketing of a Cause Celebre" (November 16, 1992) The New York Times
- "Book cover: The Secret History". Financial Times. 2011-02-07. Retrieved 2019-02-11.
- Kakutani, Michiko (1992-09-04). "Books of The Times; Students Indulging In Course of Destruction". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
- Scott, A.O. (3 November 2002). "Harriet the Spy". New York Times. Retrieved August 10, 2016.
- 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.
- McKenzie, Sophie. "The Secret History by Donna Tartt, book of a lifetime". The Independent. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
- Wood, James (1992-11-19). "The Glamour of Glamour". London Review of Books. pp. 17–18. ISSN 0260-9592. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
- Gioia, Ted. "The Secret History by Donna Tartt". www.thenewcanon.com. Retrieved 2019-02-11.