The Secret History Essay - Critical Essays

Donna Tartt

The Secret History

After arriving at Hampden College in Vermont, Richard Papen, the naive narrator, becomes an acolyte of eccentric professor Julian Morrow and friends with Morrow’s five other followers. After one of them, Henry Winter, accidentally kills a farmer, Henry and his friends worry that Bunny Corcoran, the least stable of the group, will betray them. They end this uncertainty by killing Bunny as well, only to be torn apart by guilt, suspicions, and jealousies.

THE SECRET HISTORY is an unconventional murder mystery since Donna Tartt reveals Bunny’s murder and its perpetrators in the opening paragraphs. She is not concerned merely with diverting her readers but with exploring her characters’ attitudes toward love, loyalty, guilt, and betrayal. In doing so, she paints a vivid portrait of the aimless decadence of college students in the 1980’s.

Though Tartt fills her novel with classical references, THE SECRET HISTORY more closely resembles more recent works such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, and William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, as well as the psychological thrillers of Ruth Rendell and P. D. James.

Tartt writes in an economical, lucid style, but her scenes are somewhat repetitious, featuring too many encounters with students numbed by alcohol and recreational drugs. Except for the distinctively manipulative Henry, none of the protagonists are well developed, with Richard being perhaps too passive. Nevertheless, THE SECRET HISTORY is a promising beginning for a young novelist with considerable storytelling skills.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. September 6, 1992, XIV, p. 3.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 13, 1992, p. 1.

The New Republic. CCVII, October 19, 1992, p. 47.

New Statesman and Society. V, October 30, 1992, p. 38.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, September 13, 1992, p. 3.

Time. CXL, August 31, 1992, p. 69.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 23, 1992, p. 20.

The Wall Street Journal. September 9, 1992, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, October 19, 1992, p. 3.