Analysis

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Last Updated on February 22, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 241

The Secret History is the critically acclaimed debut novel by author Donna Tartt. The novel centers on Richard Papen, a college freshman from California who, wanting to distance himself from his unloving working-class parents, moves to Vermont to attend the elite Hampden College.

At the beginning of the novel, the...

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The Secret History is the critically acclaimed debut novel by author Donna Tartt. The novel centers on Richard Papen, a college freshman from California who, wanting to distance himself from his unloving working-class parents, moves to Vermont to attend the elite Hampden College.

At the beginning of the novel, the murder which is central to the plot is revealed to the reader in full, including the identities of those responsible. This allows Tartt to focus on exploring how the act of murder affects her characters psychologically. In this regard, The Secret History is reminiscent of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which explores the human psyche and attempts to dissect the complex effects of committing a violent crime.

The Secret History is also a critique of modern youth culture—particularly the youth culture of the 1980s—with depictions of drug use, drinking, love, and sex. Tartt depicts her young upper-class and upper-middle-class characters as hedonistic people who have lost their values in a culture of apathy.

The novel also depicts the duality or contradictory nature of people. Richard wants to study the Greek classics, loves The Great Gatsby, and has an escapist mentality; yet his desire for an ideal life and his grandiose self-image contradict his actions.

The Secret History, like the works of novelist Bret Easton Ellis and poet Jim Carroll, depicts modern American young people’s gluttonous consumption of drugs, alcohol, and experiences—including experiences that lead to murder.

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