The Secret History: A Novel with Staying Power
When Donna Tartt published her debut novel The Secret History 1 in 1992, it became an instant classic. With more than 5 million copies of the novel sold worldwide, and it being translated into 24 languages, Tartt was transformed into something of a literary icon. Possessing a unique and timeless quality, many have read this cult classic. More than this though, The Secret History has amassed a devoted following which is still thriving almost thirty years after its publication.
The author describes The Secret History, not as a whodunit, but as a ‘whydunit.’ Set in an idyllic liberal arts college in Vermont in the 1980s, the novel focuses on a group of mysterious and elegant Classics students. However, not everything is as it seems in this peaceful corner of New England. Haunting this prestigious clique of students is the murder of their peer, Bunny. The novel’s fame suggests that The Secret History is more than just a captivating murder mystery.
From the way the story is told to the story itself, Tartt’s The Secret History has enormous staying power. On the surface, the enthralling plot, picturesque setting, and enchanting characters keep the reader invested. But the novel’s staying power comes from more than just this. The way this novel has been constructed carries as much importance as its content. From the deliberate choice of narrative style to the author’s subtle sense of humour, this novel leaves readers with a lasting emotional impression.
Warning: this article does contain major spoilers.
An Unconventional ‘Whydunit’
In identifying the reasons for The Secret History‘s popularity, it would be remiss to not include the novel’s exceptional and well-paced plot.
The first sentence of the novel’s prologue introduces the death of Bunny, a character we are yet to meet. The narrator, who we are also yet to meet, admits to being “partially responsible” for Bunny’s death. We also learn that this death was premeditated murder. Thus, within the first few pages we learn the details of what should be the complication in the plot. That is with the exclusion of one important fact: why did they do it? For this reason, readers spend the first half of the book wondering, what happened? as the narrator slowly retells every event that led up to that gruesome occasion. The novel is truly a ‘whydunit’, a play on the famous term ‘whodunit’ ascribed to murder mysteries in which the killer remains a secret until the conclusion.
After this punchy prologue, the story builds with immense slowness. We meet our narrator, Richard Papen, and all of his friends slowly thereafter. Together, they study Ancient Greek under the impassioned tutelage of Julian Morrow. They discuss what seem to be abstract ideas; everything from striking beauty to the ability to lose all control. As Richard grows closer to this group of scholars, we do too. Just like the narrator, we see everything good about these people. Consequently, as we read, we cannot fathom how this intelligent and elegant group of friends end up where the prologue says they end up.
Until, that is, one event that changes everything. During Richard’s first Greek lesson we learn, as the students do, about the Greek ritual known as a Bacchanal. Having a grasp of Ancient Greek history is not crucial — it is explained simply enough. This ritual causes the participants to lose control of their actions entirely. During this ritual, they may even see the God Bacchus (or Dionysus in Greek). Henry Winter, the unspoken leader of this group, decides that he wants to participate in a Bacchanal ritual.
Richard, not yet close enough to the group to be involved, learns of this after the fact. The rest of the group partake in the traditional preparations, fasting and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. At the last minute, they make the decision to exclude Bunny as he refuses to take it seriously.
The ritual worked. But, it results in the group killing an innocent farmer in a gruesome manner. It is here that everything changes. Though eager to keep this accident covered up, Bunny finds out. Wracked with guilt, his mental health begins to deteriorate and he grows ever closer to telling someone about his friends’ transgression. By this point, Richard gets dragged into the drama and it is here that the group decide that they must get rid of Bunny.
This marks the end of book one. Book two contains, arguably, less excitement. The guilt-stricken friends participate in the ten day police search for Bunny, believed simply to be missing. While the local Hampden police are oblivious, the FBI come close to discovering the truth. The recovery of Bunny’s body prevents this, and the funeral ensues.
The novel reaches its conclusion, then, with this group of friends having unravelled completely. The friends are no longer friends, one ends up an alcoholic, charged with drunk driving, one commits suicide whilst another attempts to do the same. Richard is the only one who graduates from college. From that one pivotal and murderous moment of their young lives, they are destined to live with permanent guilt and sadness.
The Secret History builds slowly and adds the right amount of excitement. Readers are captivated by this unusual sequence of events — the tragedy and sadness of it all is striking. From the prologue’s first sentence, readers are hooked to find out just what happened. But to attribute the novel’s staying power to just this would do it a disservice. The novel’s appeal comes from far more than its plot.
The Campus Novel
The campus novel genre has its origins in the 1950s. This genre is usually characterised by its setting; novels of this category are set in and around a university campus. Often, these novels will critique or mock the perceived pretentiousness of this setting. The coming-of-age story usually works in conjunction with the campus novel.
Canadian writer, Randy Boyagoda, wrote on the appeal of the campus novel, explaining that:
“The campus novel is a genre that makes a distinct promise to readers. It offers a hothouse evocation of highly educated individuals in close orbit and in frequent collision, who uniquely combine intense personal interests with abstruse professional pursuits – all while surrounded by young people making uneven transitions to autonomous adult living. Often, they do so with the threat of personal and institutional breakdown and bankruptcy in the air.”Randy Boyagoda, Why Campus Novels Matter, University Affairs.
As preferred genre is subjective, it would be misguided to attribute too much of the novel’s popularity solely to its genre. That being said, the campus novel does have a certain appeal. As The Secret History demonstrates, this type of novel allows room for a high degree of acceptable snobbery and eccentricity. It takes a romanticised institution, the college campus, and makes it accessible to any person who might want to experience it. It creates the perfect environment for adults without responsibilities to run amok. For part of Tartt’s audience, this would certainly prove an important factor in their enjoyment of the novel.
“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”
These opening lines of the novel’s first chapter eloquently sum up both the focus of the novel and one reason why the novel is so adored. That word in particular, picturesque, is the pillar upon which this novel rests. The narrator is in pursuit of it; when he finds it, we get to enjoy it alongside him.
A Brief Lesson in Semantics
The Oxford English Dictionary offers several definitions of the word ‘picturesque.’ It details the various ways in which this particular word has been used throughout history.
The way in which the contemporary reader likely understands the word ‘picturesque’ has been in use since the early 1700s. Derived from the word ‘picture’ – the word denotes that which has the qualities of a picture. Usually given to scenery, ‘picturesque’ is used to describe that which is beautiful and striking in appearance. This seems the kind of picturesqueness that our narrator, Richard, pursues.
More obscure, the word ‘picturesque’ is also used in relation to language and narrative. It is used to describe stories, narratives, or accounts which are very obviously graphic, vivid, and striking. The rich description that appears on nearly every page of The Secret History demonstrates that, with her unique story-telling, Tartt is creating a picturesque narrative. This, it seems, is the kind of picturesqueness that we as readers are drawn to.
Both definitions of this peculiar word are working in concert to create the truly timeless text that is The Secret History. Tartt’s world and character building creates an atmosphere most romantic and enchanting.
A Romantic Setting
From the moment the narrator steps off the bus and onto the grounds of Hampden College, readers are given a sense of the picturesque. Vermont, over four thousand kilometres away from Richard’s home in Plano, California, is described “like a country from a dream.” A sun rising over mountains, birches, and thriving meadows greet the narrator.
Bennington College in Vermont, the gardens of which are pictured below, is where Tartt was studying when she began writing The Secret History. This school, like the fictitious Hampden College, is a liberal arts institute. It is believed that in creating Hampden, Tartt drew inspiration from her own campus. It appears that Richard, in his pursuit of the picturesque, has certainly found it in this setting.
Tartt manages to make even the least wonderful of buildings, dorm rooms, seem picturesque. Richard explains that what he expected in a dorm room was “cinderblock walls and depressing, yellowish light.” But, to his elation, his accommodation turns out to be one of many “white clapboard houses with green shutters.” His room in particular has “big north-facing windows” and expensive wooden flooring. Hampden College, it seems, is the exact place Richard has been searching for.
Throughout the novel, Tartt emphasises beauty by making other places, or people, seem comparatively less beautiful. Richard seems to view everything as a dichotomy; it is either enchanting and picturesque, or it is not. He either approves wholeheartedly or he disapproves. Demonstrating this idea, the narrator introduces his hometown of Plano, California, on the first page of the first chapter as “a small silicon village.” He associates Plano with “drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop.” Compared to the rich imagery assigned to Hampden, readers are positioned to see this home town as inherently inferior.
While the picturesque is usually limited to landscapes, the same romantic descriptions can be identified in Tartt’s character building. The key characters are described as infinitely more desirable and dynamic than the novel’s few supporting characters. The best way to understand the enchantment ascribed to these individuals is to read how Tartt has chosen to portray them.
Henry Winter is oddly charming, he has several peculiarities. He wears small, old-fashioned glasses. Over six feet tall, he’s dark haired and a little mysterious. Dressed in English suits and carrying an umbrella, he is said to have walked with the “self-conscious formality of an old ballerina.”
Henry seems to come from equally as mysterious origins. His father is a construction tycoon, yet nobody knows what he really does, and Henry acts as if he does not even know himself. He’s an only child, adored by his “awfully young” mother. Henry’s family is fabulously wealthy, but it is allegedly new money. Tartt portrays Henry as enigmatic from the novel’s outset. Within the first few pages of the novel, the other characters are introduced. However, it is not until the second chapter, over fifty pages later, that Richard, and readers, are introduced to Henry. He is continually positioned just out of reach; he’s a source of intrigue.
Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran lacks some of the mystique that his friends exude. He’s “a sloppy blond boy, rosy-cheeked and gum-chewing,” as well as perpetually cheerful. He wears the same old-fashioned glasses as Henry. Each day, he wears the same tweed jacket, slightly frayed and not quite tailored.
Despite being less alluring than the others, Bunny’s wealth boosts his social standing. He had “an American childhood.” His father was a football star who later became a banker. With four brothers, Bunny grew up in a wealthy suburban home. They had everything that Richard saw as desirable for a childhood; “sailboats and tennis rackets and golden retrievers.” They went on frequent holidays to Cape Cod and they were educated in the best schools.
Charles and Camilla Macaulay are the only twins on campus. Their faces are clear and epicene, and they both have blonde hair. Hampden is known for its intellectualism and decadence and, as the stereotype goes, students dressed in black and moody attire. The twins, preferring to dress in light colours, stand out. Compared to the “dark sophistication” of the rest of the campus, the twins appear to the narrator as “long-dead celebrants from some forgotten garden party.”
Camilla, being the only woman of this group, instantly grabs the attention and gains the affections of the narrator, more so than the others. Richard describes her as being blisteringly beautiful. So much so that, when her face was illuminated by the sunlight, the narrator says it was “a shock to look at her.”
The twins are orphans, but even this is portrayed as a fortunate upbringing. Camilla and Charles were raised by various grandparents and older relatives. Though their family life is not delved into, they are said to have grown up surrounded by “horses and rivers and sweet-gum trees.”
Francis Abernathy is “the most exotic” of this group. He’s “angular and elegant.” He has bright red hair. His wardrobe is impeccable; he wears beautiful shirts with French cuffs, expensive neckties, and a long coat that billows out behind him as he walks. Despite having perfect vision, he even wears fake pince-nez from time to time.
Francis’ mother was only seventeen when she had him. After his wealthy father ran away, Francis was brought up by his grandparents, with his mother being more of a sister to him. Despite this, his family life is described as “impressive.” He spent summers holidaying in Switzerland, he had English nannies, and attended several private schools. Francis is wealthy, with much of the story taking place at his extravagant home in the country.
To the narrator, a self confessed plain and clumsy man, this elegant and mysterious group of friends seem wholly unapproachable. Tartt is cautious to stress that the narrator, who is meant to be the reader’s equal, has nothing in common with this group of students. Yet, like the reader, Richard is burning with curiosity to know them. Part of the novel’s appeal is the appeal of these characters.
There are undeniable elements of the picturesque within the way these characters are described. Likened to angels or garden party attendees, they are written to be admired, liked, and envied. Tartt emphasises these ideas by making negative contrasts. Richard describes the students outside of this friend group in a rather unflattering fashion. Judy Poovey lives a few doors down from the narrator. He says that “she had wild clothes” and a voice “which rang through the house like the cries of some terrifying tropical bird.” Or of Judy’s friend, Beth, Richard says she had “a rubbery face and an idiotic giggle.” Richard loathes her. Tartt uses these comparisons to ensure readers understand the narrator’s attraction to the Murder Squad.
It is Richard’s longing for the picturesque that gets him in trouble. He learns too late that the decadence and pretentiousness of his friends is merely a facade; perhaps he would have been better off befriending the uncouth Judy. His desire for the picturesque, it seems, really is his fatal flaw.
This idyllic world is where readers wish to be too, though. Just like Richard, we are sucked into this too-good-to-be-true world. The way Tartt is able to make her story-world appear timeless means that, for readers in 1992 and for readers today, this Hampden world is enticing and inspires admiration.
By making the deliberate choice to have Richard as the narrator, Tartt has created an inherent intimacy about her storytelling. The narrator’s eyes, through which we see, saw these events unfold personally. Instead of choosing an all-knowing omniscient narrator, readers are positioned in close proximity to the narrative.
The reader’s feelings, then, are mirrored by Richard’s. When we first learn of the mysterious friends, we share his curiosity. Richard slowly gets to know his peers. After few failed attempts he is accepted into the inner sanctum of the Greek students. We learn of them at the same pace as Richard does. Thus, the narrator’s elation is once again matched by the reader’s when he gains their acceptance. Richard grows closer to the group, and so, too, do we as readers. Perhaps this is why readers love it. The readership feel like they have been invited into something so remarkable, something only very few are allowed to join. For this reason, the novel’s title is slightly deceiving. By seeing through Richard’s eyes, we learn of the murder plot before everyone else. Indeed this history is a secret. But, thanks to Richard’s narration, it is not a secret to us. We are amongst the fortunate few in the know.
With such a narrow margin of narrative distance, it is easy for the reader to become immersed in the fictional world. It is, indeed, this choice of narration that allows the story to slowly build in the tantalising manner that it does. However, the narrator’s introspection is potentially more important to the novel’s staying power.
An Exercise in Introspection
The story of Hampden College that we read is told by the narrator years after the event. It is set up as just that: a story. It includes all of the bias and selective memory associated with human remembering. From the prologue, the narrator acknowledges that this is a story and, in fact, the only story he can tell. The present day narrator interjects throughout the story. Not as explicit as the famous Jane Eyre line, “Reader, I married him!” But, from time to time, present day Richard will begin a sentence with “this part…is difficult for me to write” or “reading back over this, I feel that…” Narrator introspection proves key to the novel’s progression. Without it, the reader might not understand the choices made by Richard and his friends.
Richard is not foolish. He doesn’t just blindly follow, though on the outside it would certainly seem that way. The reader gains insight into the way Richard thinks. Just after he learns that his friends killed the farmer, he reflects:
“I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment…Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them?”
This becomes a major point in the narrator’s life as he further reflects that this was “the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did.” Statements such as this, and the fact that they are remembered years later, highlight how deeply affected Richard is by what he did. The novel is much deeper than a flippant crime story where the assailants escape happily.
However, the narrator’s reflections upon his mixed feelings for Bunny are the are most poignant. Of all the friends, Bunny is the one whom Richard gets to know first. Richard admits to loving him. After the group make the decision to kill Bunny, just looking at him could spark a “strong pang of affection mixed with regret” in the narrator. But, as a hot-headed and insecure twenty year old, Bunny’s increasingly frequent insults about Richard’s lack of money hurt. No matter how much love was felt, this hurt fuelled the anger that allowed the narrator to feel comfortable with killing him.
The wiser present day Richard recognises that this was wrong. He makes the heartbreaking confession that “I can’t think of much I’d like better than for [Bunny] to step into the room right now.” Even sadder still, the broken man realises that “love doesn’t conquer everything.”
The deeply sad introspection afforded by Tartt’s chosen narrative style is touching. It speaks to feelings of loss, hurt, regret. Feelings that are universal. Each and every reader will resonate with some aspect of Richard’s reflections — though likely not to the same extremes. This is a part of why the novel inspires such devotion, even years later.
Youth: A Snapshot
What Tartt has created by combining each of these factors is an accurate, albeit heavily dramatised, snapshot of what it is like to be on the cusp of both youth and adulthood. Murder and Dionysiac rituals aside, The Secret History captures the essence of what this period of life is like.
Whether you are looking forward to it, currently experiencing it, or looking back upon it nostalgically — this time of life is often pivotal. Tartt, having been at university when writing this novel, was likely very aware of this. This is, perhaps, why it is such an effectual age bracket to write about and, consequently, why The Secret History resonates with so many.
Selecting Richard as the narrator is important, as he demonstrates a desire that many feel when they first reach adulthood: the desire to be someone. He wants to transform from the suburban boy into the scholarly man. As he reaches adulthood he is finally able to reinvent himself. He’s dissatisfied with his reality of being a plain boy from Plano. For this reason, he admits to lying about his home life:
“On leaving home I was able to fabricate a new and far more satisfying history, full of striking, simplistic environmental influences; a colorful past, easily accessible to strangers.”
So enthusiastically embarrassed by his upbringing, it makes sense that Richard would go searching for a picturesque location and exciting people, in the hopes of blending in with them. But it also suggests why he would do anything to keep up appearances. It offers insight into why he acted the way he did, including covering up for his friends’ murder of the farmer.
Henry notices this desperate and insecure behaviour in Richard, and panders to his sense of pride. In a conversation, Henry nudges the narrator closer to the truth about the murder of the farmer. When Richard finally guesses correctly that the group had killed a man, Henry retorts:
“Good for you…you’re just as smart as I thought you were. I knew you’d figure it out, sooner or later, that’s what I’ve told the others all along.”
To the reader, this is received as a disingenuous statement. However, Richard takes this as a kind of approval from his new and exciting friends. His desperation to fit in with these people is complete with this confession, he is forever bound to them. This suggests that it was Richard’s youthful insecurities that influenced his decision to implicate himself in a crime that he had nothing to do with. His lack of life experience clouds his judgement to believe that this friendship is worth more than the preservation of his own innocence.
Another element of youth that Tartt manages to depict aptly is the complexity of relationships, and the weight they are perceived to carry. Again, the text explores the idea that friendship is more important than anything. However, various romantic relationships are also hinted at throughout, before being addressed later on.
Instead of the traditional love triangle, Tartt opts for a significantly messier tangle of relationships. Richard loves Camilla, but Camilla loves Henry who ends up dead. Charles has an incestuous relationship with his sister Camilla and is subsequently jealous of every man she speaks to — this leads to a severe falling out between Henry and Charles. Francis has feelings for Charles, who also may have feelings for Francis, but denies them profusely.
Tartt is clever, though, in that these relationships are not ever the novel’s sole focus. Like in life, they are set in the background. The naivety of the Murder Squad, then, is evident in this dynamic. It is made to seem ridiculous that they have just caused the death of two innocent people, but are still preoccupied with unrequited love and jealousy. But this proves accurate of life, though again rather dramatised. At a young age, these issues can sometimes seem most important.
Thus, part of the novel’s staying power can be attributed to this snapshot of youth offered by Tartt. She is able to present many of the insecurities that early adulthood harbours. The desire to fit in, the desire to make something of yourself, the desire to fill your life with interesting people. Even the smallest elements of this are likely to resonate with more readers than a novel focusing on a different life stage. Perhaps going hand in hand with the campus novel — this coming-of-age element to The Secret History is important to the novel’s popularity.
Tone: A Juxtaposition
Within her novel, Tartt has mixed a distinct sense of melancholy with subtle levity to create a tone that readers enjoy. This juxtaposition, sadness with humour, leaves a lasting emotional impression.
The Secret History is unmistakably sad. The novel does not conclude with the characters living happily-ever-after because they got away with the perfect crime. Instead, each member of the Murder Squad is left irreparably damaged by their actions. Richard’s narration gives readers a sense of the inner thoughts plaguing these students. After Bunny is murdered, and Richard returns to his dorm room, he reflects:
“It seemed as if I was waiting for something, I wasn’t sure what, something that would lift the tension and make me feel better, though I could imagine no possible event, in past, present, or future, that would have either effect.”
He is deeply haunted by his actions. Perhaps readers should not sympathise with a murderer. However, comments like this suggest that maybe these were good people who made a genuine mistake.
The narrator who did everything in his power to be accepted by the mysterious group that he admires realises too late that he should not have. He had what he wanted, he was in the group. But, after everything that happened, Richard angrily remarks, “I was stuck with them, with all of them, for good.” There is no happy ending for Richard — he got what he thought he wanted, but he was still deeply unhappy. It is with the inclusion of these small details that Tartt has created a tone that has an impact on readers.
However, sprinkled throughout the melancholic novel is the author’s subtle and irreverent sense of humour. Not least is Tartt’s frequent use of witty one-line jokes. She uses these passing jokes to diffuse tense situations. Just after Henry and Francis finish telling Richard about the murder of the farmer, Richard realises, “music from a neighbor’s stereo was filtering through the walls. The Grateful Dead. Good Lord.” Despite the horrible news that readers just learned, they cannot help but be amused by this coincidence.
Tartt’s frequent use of irony is also effectual. One example being when Richard explains what he dislikes about true crime novels. He says that “at the points of greatest suspense…it would suddenly…switch to some unrelated matter.” The irony in this, however, is that this reflection is placed in the middle of the narrator’s explanation of Bunny’s death. Right when the novel is most suspenseful, it cuts away.
Arguably, the most disconcertingly humorous event in the book occurs during Bunny’s funeral. This event combines deep sadness with Tartt’s subtle humour. The five people who are responsible for the death of Bunny are morally obligated to attend his funeral. They are also compelled to help out and bolster Bunny’s family in their time of need. The narrator describes this as a cruel and unusual punishment:
“It was one of the worst nights of my life…the hours passed in a dreadful streaky blur of relatives, neighbors, crying children, covered dishes, blocked driveways, ringing telephones, bright lights, strange faces, awkward conversations. Some swinish, hard-faced man trapped me in a corner for hours, boasting about bass tournaments.”
The hyperbolic way that the narrator describes the evening conveys a distinct sense of the uncomfortable. It seems that the Murder Squad are being punished for their actions. Wracked with guilt and the paranoia of potentially being caught, this socially awkward situation seems infinitely worse for them (and infinitely more amusing for readers). Instances such as this pop up throughout the narrative.
Readers should be sad about the events transpiring, but they are laughing — this is part of The Secret History‘s appeal. Mixing deeply troubling topics with a flippant sense of humour is a significant part of why readers are so drawn to this novel. The story itself is humbling; the students don’t get to live happily. Their youthful transgressions have severe consequences. But Tartt refuses to be a downer. Her humour adds the lightness needed in this dark tale. The Secret History holds significant staying power, and its playfully melancholic tone can be attributed to this.
After twenty-eight years since initial publication, The Secret History is still devoured and adored by readers. Young, old, academics, non-academics. It is almost a rite-of-passage to read Tartt’s novel at least once. Whether for the reasons listed above, or the product of other factors, Tartt’s novel has an undeniable staying power. A dark and funny campus novel, both beautiful and tragic, this mystery has found a place in the hearts, and on the bookshelves, of many.
Despite its positive reception overall, a point in which the novel has been criticised is its alleged glorification of beauty over substance and praising of the superficial. As one of Tartt’s characters rightfully expresses:
“There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty — unless she is wed to something more meaningful — is always superficial.”
However, The Secret History demonstrates that despite its spotlight on the picturesque and beautiful, superficial, it is not. Tartt has filled her narrative with ample emotional complexity. For this debut novel of a then-unknown author to find instant and long-lasting fame suggests that it remains a valuable addition to the literary scene.
- Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. Melbourne: Penguin Group (Australia). 2008. Print. ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.