The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s highly publicized first novel, is a most unusual murder mystery, since the primary murder and its perpetrators are identified on the first page. The mystery element remains strong, however, with hints that this killing may not be all that is at stake for the protagonists. Tartt explores love, sex, guilt, and romanticism in depicting a generation of young Americans addicted to sloth and chaos.
Richard Papen, the narrator, transfers from a small college in his hometown of Plano in Northern California to Hampden College, a second-rate school in Vermont. Richard longs to get as far away as possible from his angry, uncaring, middle-class parents. Hoping to continue his study of classical Greek, he finds himself enthralled by Julian Morrow, an eccentric professor of languages who limits himself to a small group of students who must take all or most of their courses with him. Julian explains that “having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing to a young mind.” This comment, like many of Julian’s, is heavily ironic since his system helps destroy many of his students.
Richard’s fellow scholars, all from wealthy backgrounds, include Henry Winter, a precocious linguist who publishes a translation of Anacreon with commentary when he is eighteen and translates John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) into Latin for fun. Although he dresses in expensive English suits and carries an umbrella, Henry is no dandy. Well over six feet tall, he beats up a member of a motorcycle gang when provoked. Francis Abernathy, a homosexual, dresses and acts like a self-conscious fop. The twins Camilla and Charles Macaulay also cultivate an esoteric, romantic façade, appearing “like figures from an allegory, or long-dead celebrants from some forgotten garden party.” All are solemn and humorless compared to the extroverted Edmund Corcoran. Less of a serious student than the others, the frivolous Bunny kids his friends about their shortcomings and sponges off them, always refusing to pay for anything. To fit in with this crowd, Richard lies about his background, claiming to have well-to-do parents in show business.
The first half of The Secret History builds up to Bunny’s death, as Richard gradually notices suspicious behavior by the others, with the manipulative Henry letting him discover that they have purchased four one-way tickets to Buenos Aires. (They do not leave the country because they cannot raise enough money to live abroad.) Henry maneuvers Richard into convincing him to tell his naïve friend about the bacchanal in which Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla have engaged in the woods several miles from the campus. Henry claims they have been motivated by intellectual curiosity, by the need to “escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one’s moment of being.”
The four enter into the true spirit of the bacchanal by losing complete control of their emotions. During the ensuing events, which include a sexual act never explained, Henry accidentally kills a farmer who happens upon them, slitting his abdomen.
He leaves the body where it lies, but Bunny discovers Henry soaked in blood. The revelers fabricate a lie about killing a deer, but the suspicious Bunny, whom Henry tries to buy off by paying for a trip to Rome, later reads Henry’s account of the bacchanal in his Latin diary.
They wait anxiously, knowing that the impulsive Bunny will eventually tell someone what they have done. He delights in taunting them with his knowledge, singing “The Farmer in the Dell.” When he chooses Richard as his confidant, they track him down in the woods and push him over a precipice. Bunny’s body is soon covered by an unexpected snowfall, and the conspirators, now five, must wait again, enduring days of police examinations, before Bunny is discovered and is ruled to have died accidentally.
The rest of The Secret History examines the psychological toll of their act on the Greek scholars. Staying at the home of Bunny’s appreciative parents for the funeral almost breaks them. Then a series of lies, suspicions, jealousies, and betrayals divides them, leading to drunkenness, anxiety attacks, revelations of incest between Camilla and Charles, and, finally, attempts at murder and suicide.
Tartt offers a vivid picture of college life in the 1980’s. The students at Hampden spend their time smoking, drinking, taking drugs, listening to music, dancing, engaging in casual sex, and eating junk food. Even the Greek...
(The entire section is 1876 words.)