Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications

The coming of age tale has long held an important and cherished place in American literature, and the college novel has taken this genre to complex heights in the past several decades. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is arguably one of the best examples in recent memory, as it examines both the seductive and alienating aspects of the modern campus. Richard Papen, the main character and narrator, flees an unfulfilling existence in California for the small and exclusive environs of Hampden College in Vermont. There, he soon falls in with a small group of Classics students: stoic and brilliant Henry; the enigmatic twins Charles and Camilla; neurotic Francis; and oafish Bunny. Their elitist instructor, Julian, leads them in the search of beauty and knowledge, creating a bubble that exists on the edges of the school. On the surface, it appears to be a dream existence for all of them; however, a series of tragedies shows that dreams never last, and the real world always brings a harsh reckoning.

Richard remains an outsider through much of the book, despite becoming part of the group and forming close relationships with the others; he shows shame concerning his background, creating fabrications or withholding details about his past in California. Bunny, in particular, tends to needle him for being different from the rest of them, constantly cracking jokes about things concerning Richard’s past that do not add up. Bunny, in his interactions with the rest of the group, is unable to realize that things which are just a game to him are of the utmost seriousness to the others, causing constant mental strain that eventually forces a disastrous break.

The social dynamics of the group create both a unique sense of comradery and constant tensions that build up over time. The members largely come from some form of affluent background, save Richard, and already have a skewed idea of how the world works. Julian, their teacher and talisman of sorts, is independently wealthy and thus separated from the world around him in many ways. Richard even observes that the rest of the group seem disdainful of what is going on in the larger world in regards to politics and other current events. The group is also barely aware of their community beyond the Classics courses, which is already a tight nit and exclusive liberal arts college attached to a small New England community. All of this creates a sense of elitism, especially in Henry. He is content with becoming lost within the Greek translations Julian assigns, or some other literary or artistic pursuit that he alone understands or has interest in. He cuts himself off in numerous ways from everyone, including his closest friends, though we do get glimpses of humanity from him, especially when it concerns Julian.

The class and the group become their entire world. Some take it more seriously than others. It is arguable that Bunny takes nothing seriously, that life is a series of games and jokes and the only thing of importance to him is the fulfillment of base desire. Charles, Camilla, and Francis often seem along for the ride, in search of some form of comradery in a world they do not feel connected to. However, Henry, like Julian, is a true believer, though they are possibly searching for different things to believe in. Julian is clearly drawn to beauty, whatever that may mean; he finds most things in the larger world ugly and vulgar. Henry, with his youthful obsessions, seems to be searching for some form of truth that he cannot find, and most likely does not exist. The others often fall in lockstep with him, which leads them down a road of destruction and madness. And then there is Richard, who just wants to find something that matters, and clings to that idea for as long as possible until it shatters like everything else. Perhaps that is why he moves forward slightly better than the others. Despite his deceptions of who he truly is, to the others and to himself, perhaps being that type of nobody, the type of person that can shift identities as a situation necessitates, allows him to drift through the world without being consumed by its many tribulations.

Ultimately, Richard and the rest of the group are just kids, college students trying to find their way in the world. It is possible that Julian does them a disservice by cutting them off from the rest of the college’s community; he sees this as a positive and the best way for them to learn, but the subsequent isolation and loneliness eventually accelerates their deterioration. Bunny and Richard do a moderately better job in remaining connected to other people. However, Henry, Charles, Camilla, and Francis become trapped in a kind of echo chamber, stranded with each other and, often, inside their own heads. They are the ones that were in the forest the night of the local farmer’s death, which begins the group’s cataclysmic fall; they are the ones that act as the driving force for the climactic event of the novel; and they are the ones that ultimately suffer the most in the end. Richard does as well, of course, but in a different way. He always seems to be the one that is completely afloat, never fully becoming part of the tight band of friends. The others are completely aware of what came before Richard and their fateful Bacchanal. After that ideal falls apart, they are unable to find anything to hold on to and cannot deal properly with the guilt of what they have done.

I did not read this book when I was college student. I read it several years after finishing graduate school, and reread it recently, which prompted this blog post. I cannot say for sure if it would have been a positive or negative force for me at that point in life. It is easy to become lost in the Romantic aspects of the plot: the closeness of the main characters; their experiences with good books and good food; and being young and beautiful in a place that allows escape into a world of deceptively few consequences. However, this can blind the reader to all the negative aspects of that world that Tartt skillfully uncovers: the strange solitude and self-isolation, even when surrounded by so many potentially likeminded people, and the odd unreality of being stuck between youth and adulthood. One of the driving forces of the novel is that when young, one is often shocked into realizing life and its many decisions have actual consequences. Tartt’s characters, including Julian, the primary example of ‘adulthood,’ become trapped in a dreamlike revelry, and, when yanked out of it, must deal with this fact. As they discover, you rarely come out of the other side of these situations the same person, and sometimes, you do not come out of the other side at all.

Library promotion time! The 3rd and 4th floor stacks are back open for the fall semester. However, if you have reservations about browsing these areas or getting a book from upstairs, McWherter Library is still offering an Item Pickup Request service; you can find the online form here. Our workers in the Circulation Department will pull the book and notify you once it is ready for checkout. Remember: please be wearing your mask and have your University of Memphis ID card ready in order to get into the library. And most importantly: stay safe and healthy!

If you want to read The Secret History by Donna Tartt, it is currently available for checkout at McWherter Library and can be checked out using the Pickup Request service.

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