The Secret History

by Donna Tartt
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The Secret History Summary

The Secret History is a novel about a group of classics students at an elite New England college who commit or are witness to murder.

  • Narrator Richard Papen moves from a small Northern California town to Vermont to attend Hampden College, where he plans to study ancient Greek.
  • Though initially unable to find a place in the secretive classics department presided over by Professor Julian Morrow, Richard is eventually accepted.
  • After some of Richard’s fellow students accidentally kill a farmer in a bacchanalian frenzy, the group murders their friend Bunny before he can reveal their crime.

Summary

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Last Updated on February 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1816

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.

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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, working-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, who is gay, 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 “Bunny” 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 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 Bunny 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 1980s. 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 scholars take frequent time out from their studies for these pursuits. Specializing in problem students, the college does little to change them, providing little encouragement for discipline and dedication. Isolated and remote, Hampden is the perfect environment to foster the type of decadence that leads to murder.

Richard is drawn to the students of ancient Greek because they stand out as eccentric anachronisms. They dress like beings from an earlier era, listen to Josephine Baker records, argue about how far apart the soldiers in a Roman legion stood, and seem out of touch with the modern world. Because of such characteristics, Richard romanticizes them as “magnificent creatures,” envies their “coolness” and “cruel, mannered charm,” and longs to acquire these qualities. He is realistic enough, however, to perceive certain moral deficiencies, such as how well they lie as a group, and to recognize how they are all too lazy or erratic to achieve academic distinction. Because Richard considers Camilla an aloof goddess, “a living reverie,” he is undone by the romantic triangle she forms with her brother and Henry.

Because he is the most enigmatic, Henry is also the most dangerous. The others admire him because, as a youthful pedant, he seems so mature, so understanding. Yet he is also ruthless and violent, almost pagan. He not only takes part in the bacchanal but ritualistically kills a piglet. When he hopes to kill Bunny with poisoned mushrooms, he tests them on dogs. He describes killing Bunny as “redistribution of matter.” Henry eventually admits to being excited by murder: “That surge of power and delight, of confidence, of control. That sudden sense of the richness of the world. Its infinite possibility.” Tartt can be faulted for presenting her characters as collections of conceits rather than credible creations, but Henry at least is intriguingly evil.

In a sense, the real villain in The Secret History is Julian. A wealthy man who donates his salary to the college, he has been a friend of the famous, everyone from Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot to Vivien Leigh and Marilyn Monroe. Affecting an air of mystery, he is considered “a divinity in our midst” by Henry. A snob who does not consider his students interesting “because I always know exactly what they’re going to do,” he reduces the complexities of life to epigrams. In the same way, he allows himself to see only his students’ best points and, in doing so, negates their humanity. His advice, such as telling Henry, “You should only, ever, do what is necessary,” proves unrealistically reckless. His stimulating his students to unleash “the old, animal self” leads to chaos. When Julian stumbles upon the truth about Bunny’s death, he runs away. Tartt uses him to condemn intellectuals comfortable with the abstract but unable to deal with the complexities of the real world.

One of Richard’s favorite books is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), and he closely resembles Nick Carraway, that novel’s narrator. Tartt presents Richard as an idealistic innocent much like Nick, who romanticizes everything that happens to him, deciding his “character is fixed forever” by the events of his first term at Hampden. Like Fitzgerald’s narrator, Richard is constantly analyzing himself, finding “a strong Puritan streak in my nature.” In reading the novel, however, the romantic Richard identifies with the title character, construing “certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.”

Richard’s sin is the typical American desire for perpetual adolescence, wishing for “everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant.” His innocence makes him a perfect foil for Henry in the events leading up to Bunny’s murder. Only once does he hesitate in accepting totally the others’ dire view of their dilemma. Later, he attempts to convince himself that he is not an evil person. Even later, he admits that murder is a “basically selfish, evil act.” The self-knowledge he gains in the course of his experience allows him to identify with Julian’s moral weakness and to see himself as “the bystander which I so essentially am.”

These students genuinely love each other, love even the annoying Bunny while planning to kill him. Yet they have not been prepared to understand the moral consequences of love, having intellectualized their emotions: “For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless.” This narrowness lets them shut out the human side of their endeavors, makes them sneer at the merely emotional: “Love doesn’t conquer everything,” according to Richard. “And whoever thinks it does is a fool.”

The novel’s title comes from a work by the Greek historian Procopius, written around 550 BCE, describing scandals in the lives of his contemporaries the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora. The direct influences on Tartt seem more recent. The Secret History resembles a concoction drawn from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1886), William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920), and psychological thrillers by Ruth Rendell or P. D. James. Despite all the classical references in the novel, it is also in the clearly American tradition of depicting the forest as a magical, mystical place capable of great evil, as in works by James Fennimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Perhaps because it is a first novel, The Secret History is weakened by numerous flaws. Tartt is unable to make her protagonists easily distinguishable until more than halfway through the novel, and she so overdoes Bunny’s irritating habits that he seems to deserve killing. Except for Julian, all the adults are caricatures, especially Bunny’s pathetic parents, cartoonish variations on something out of John Cheever. Too often, characters are defined by the brand names of their clothing. The horror of one character being shot is undercut by his worrying about the blood ruining his Paul Smith shirt. Although Tartt’s style is admirably economical and lucid, the novel itself is not; it could easily have been tightened by a hundred pages or so.

Despite such deficiencies, The Secret History is a remarkable debut, full of evocative passages, as when Richard, unable to sleep for thoughts of Bunny, sees “in the small, cold light of dawn, that the flagstones outside were covered with earthworms: delicate, nasty, hundreds of them, twisting blind and helpless on the rain-dark sheets of slate.” At such moments, when Richard’s world erupts in guilt, evil, and despair, The Secret History is at its best.

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