Long before Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel “The Goldfinch” and subsequently became one of the most renowned authors of recent times, she wrote “The Secret History.”
“The Secret History,” Tartt’s first novel, which was published in 1992, should come with a warning that says it will make readers question everything they’ve done with their lives. Though the novel has been a cult favorite among college-aged readers for years- basically since its publication- it has the same effect on everyone. Readers, regardless of age or way of life, will want to move to New England, enroll in a small, elite college and study the Classics.
In the prologue, readers immediately discover the climatic event, a murder that has taken place within the small, central group of characters. However, this does not take away at all from the story. Even though the actual murder occurs approximately two-thirds of the way into the story, readers are never bored with the events leading up to it, as Tart creates palpable tension between the characters who seem to be having a battle of the wills, or with the events after it, since they finally get to see the affects the climax has on all the characters.
“The Secret History” revolves around six students who study the Classics, particularly ancient Greek history, language, philosophy and religion, at the fictional Hampden College, which is in a small town in Vermont. It is narrated by Richard Papen, who tells the story in retrospect. At the outset of the novel, he is an outsider to the Classics program. When he finally convinces the one and only enigmatic Classics professor Julian Morrow to let him study the Classics with the other students, Richard quickly finds himself an integral part of the group.
There is good reason that “The Secret History” is a cult classic.
First, the Classics students, like their professor are mysterious and unnerving. Henry Winter, a intellectual genius, is the leader of the group and one of the foremost characters in the novel. Twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay are both charming and Camilla appears to be delicate. Francis Abernathy is a very attractive in a severe sort of way and the easiest character to sympathize with besides Richard. Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, the final original member, is a bigot and one of the most loathsome characters readers may ever encounter. No matter how secretive or frustrating the characters are, they are magnetic and make even readers want to join their elite, little group.
Second, Aristotle, the “Iliad,” “The Bacchae,” religious ecstasy, the condition of human nature and the idea that beauty is terror are all explored in varying degrees.
Third, hints of the supernatural and evil are found throughout the novel.
Fourth, the New England town, the college and the country home that are the background for the story is sleepy and idyllic, at once seeming to be too serene and just right for such a story. The background also lends itself well to the isolation that the Classics students use to keep themselves away from everyone else outside their group.
Richard’s narrative voice is somewhat reminiscent of Holden Caulfield’s in “The Catcher in the Rye,” though the stories are only similar in the way that both Richard and Holden are lost young people.
Because “The Secret History” is dense and highly intellectual, it requires readers to actively read it. It is most definitely not a light and easy read; it’s all consuming and demands readers’ attention in order to understand and properly appreciate it.
Tartt has with “The Secret History” created one of the most aesthetically pleasing novels readers will ever have the chance to read. Most pleasing of all is the thrill readers will feel at learning the secrets of the Classics majors and, henceforth, becoming one of the few members of their group.
Tartt is also the author of “The Little Friend.”
**Originally published on September 27, 2016 in The Falcon, Volume 89, Issue 1
PDF of original version: SECRET HISTORY PDF
(Image belongs to me.)