The Secret History (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
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...
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