The Secret History (1992) Donna Tartt

The Secret History begins with this haunting prologue:

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

By starting at the end of the adventure, Donna Tartt chooses to avoid the usual trajectory of the run-of-the-mill murder mystery and instead aims for something greater; A story about characters and not mere caricatures.

In this way the author can create elaborate & melodramatic events (such as Dionysian rites and suggestions of Satanic power) and they all seem entirely plausible during the context of the novel because of the incremental way in which the reader absorbs the information leading up to the events.

The novel set in an elite New England, Vermont College, tackles themes of elitism, the importance of academia and the value of human life. The students are scholars of Classic Greek and in many ways the novel mirrors a Greek tragedy, with fate seemingly playing a large part in fermenting circumstances.

The novel is told from the perspective of Richard Papen, a relatively middle class Californian who never feels truly comfortable rubbing shoulders with the so-called upper-classes and as a result creates an elaborate back-story of his own oil-rich background.

Julian Morrow the enigmatic teacher of Classic Greek is portrayed as both brilliant and elitist.  Limiting his class to just 5 students annually, as result he rejected Richard’s initial application. Ultimately it may be said that Richard’s fatal flaw is his obsession with the group, this  leads him to force his way into the group by ingratiating himself to the others by solving a Greek grammatical problem .

The characters include Edmund “Bunny” Cochran, the vulgar, chancer who is ultimately doomed, Henry the leader of the group, the possibly incestuous twins and the homosexual Francis. Other students are the garrulous Judy Poovey, who is described as a reader of “those paranoia books by Philip K Dick.”

The novel’s characters are preoccupied with the world of ancient Greeks at the expense of modern-day concerns, no more so than the Henry, and it is ultimately their shared elitist values that lead them to committing a murder.

Ultimately Tartt implicates the reader in the crime from the outset, using occasional forays in Classic Greek legend to make a bold statement about modern society. Tartt challenges the reader’s morals and emotions by depicting at times abhorrent, Bacchanalian characters favourably. But ultimately leaves the reader to decide. The novel has a salutation to Bret Easton Ellis at the start and the characters are reminiscent of Ellis’ work in many respects. Casual scenes of adventurous sexual acts both heterosexual and homosexual and even incestuous are lined with drug taking and upper-class social engagements, as well as Dionysian blood rites in the woods. Yet such is Tartt’s adeptness and assuredness it never seems fanciful and it is clear to understand why the book has become something of a Cult Classic.


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