The Secret History
- For Procopius's Secret History, see Procopius.
Cover of the first edition
|Original title||The God of Illusions|
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)|
|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.
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 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.
In Vermont, 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 tiny hand-picked coterie. Richard becomes obsessed with the group, observing them around campus and noting what he considers a cold attitude toward the world around them and an obsession with studies that he admires. Eventually, he manages to ingratiate himself with the group by helping to solve a Greek grammar problem. Soon after, armed with advice from the group on how to impress Morrow, Richard meets with him and is finally admitted to the 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: linguistic genius Henry Winter, an intellectual with a passion for the Pali canon, Homer, and Plato; and back-slapping 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 has returned early from Italy.
After winter break, Richard sees the relationship between the others and Bunny 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 inadvertently killed a local farmer who lived near Francis's country estate. Bunny, suspicious for some time, uncovered the truth during the trip to Italy by reading Henry's diary, and has been blackmailing the group since. The group, led by Henry, now view 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".)
Charles develops a drinking problem and becomes increasingly abusive towards his sister Camilla. Francis confirms to Richard that the twins are having sexual relations. 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.
As the group splinters, the members must deal with things in isolation. Henry begins living and sleeping with Camilla, which drives Charles further into alcoholism. Henry, deeply upset by Morrow's departure, sees it as an act of cowardice and hypocrisy. When Charles is arrested in a drunk driving incident with Henry's car, Henry fears Charles will let something slip 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. Meanwhile, Henry kisses Camilla farewell and shoots himself fatally. Apparently, Henry, wishing to uphold the principles he feels Morrow has betrayed, covers for Charles, his suicide leading the police to conclude that Henry shot Richard.
With Henry's death, the group disintegrates. Francis, though homosexual, is forced by his rich grandfather to marry a woman; Camilla, taking care of her grandmother, becomes increasingly isolated; Charles runs away from rehab with a married woman; 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.
The Secret History deals with themes such as aesthetic beauty and sexual self-exploration (including allusions to male bisexuality), as well as a Weberian view of social class and social stratification expressed through some of the upper class main characters and the lower middle class narrator who aspires to what he believes is their standing as cultural elites. One of the most important themes in the novel is that of guilt - in keeping with this theme, the story is written in a confessional manner.
Some aspects of the novel seem reflective of Nietzsche's model of Dionysian and Apollonian expression in The Birth of Tragedy. Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) commented, "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 novel is written in a florid, neo-romanticist prose style, in keeping with its romanticist themes of aesthetic beauty and its tendency to draw connections to Edwardian and Victorian literary references as well as classical civilizations.
- "THE MEDIA BUSINESS; The Marketing of a Cause Celebre" (November 16, 1992) The New York Times
- Scott, A.O. "Harriet the Spy," New York Times, November 3, 2002.
- 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.
- "Students Indulging in Course of Destruction": The New York Times review
- John Mullan in Guardian (January 11, 2003)
- Review by Ted Gioia
- "Book cover: The Secret History"