Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 181
The Secret History is a thriller at its best. It starts with main character and narrator Richard Papen describing the murder of Bunny, his former friend. Richard captures our attention when he says that he's partly responsible for the murder. The novel slowly reveals who Richard is and how he ended up in the situation. He transfers to Hampden College to pursue his dream of studying classical Greek but ends up getting more than what he bargained for. He meets up with Henry Winter, Francis Abernathy, Camilla Macaulay, Charles Macaulay, and Edmund Corcoran and learns the dark side of campus life. His friends engage in casual relationships, excessive alcohol drinking, and experimentation with illegal drugs. Richard slowly finds himself engaging in the same behaviors due to the peer pressure. He eventually gets caught in a web of lies and murders and has to make sure he doesn't lose sight of himself. Despite their shortcomings, Richard admires his new friends and finds it hard to part from them. As a result, Richard has to live with despair and guilt in his heart.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1876
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...
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