The Secret History

by Donna Tartt
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Last Updated on February 22, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669

In this novel by Donna Tartt, the opening line introduces the character dynamic, wherein a first-person narrator describes a dead friend and the other characters’ worry about his body being discovered:

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The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

Almost immediately, we know what has happened and even who committed this murder, but we don’t know why, and the characters and their tight-knit relationship are very key to why this crime was committed. Soon after this chilling opening, we are introduced to the narrator, Richard, who tells the story in the first person. Richard is somewhat similar to Nick in The Great Gatsby (another first- person narrator), in that he tells the story as a sort of outsider to an unfamiliar way of life (that of the wealthy and connected) and is enthralled by others in varying degrees, from curiosity to infatuation to near-worship.

In his first week of classes at an isolated Vermont college, Richard meets a small group of students whose studies consist of classes with only one professor of classics. He is intrigued by them and maneuvers his way into their world. They are Henry, a quiet and brilliant scholar of languages, who comes from great wealth; Camilla and Charles, fraternal twins are do not come from wealth but have an air of mystery, grace, and nobility about them; and Francis, who also comes from wealth, leads a somewhat more decadent existence than the others, and eventually develops a fairly serious drinking problem. All of them are good students of Greek and work hard on their studies. Then there is Bunny, who is brash, loud, and rather obnoxious, who comes from a middle-class background but pretends to come from a higher social class. Richard is from suburban California and constantly afraid his relative poverty and lack of sophistication will be discovered; Bunny senses this and frequently looks for opportunities to humiliate Richard in various ways. Ironically, Bunny does not have money either (his parents expected him to fend for himself at college), but unlike Richard, he is not ashamed of it and simply manipulates others into paying for things, like expensive restaurant meals that he initially offers to pay for.

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Bunny’s cruelty and opportunistic behavior eventually lead the rest of the group to dislike him intensely. When they accidentally murder a local farmer during a frenzied bacchanalian rite, they mistakenly allow Bunny to overhear them talking about it, and he uses this as leverage when he senses he is being pushed away from the group.

Richard’s association with these characters is life-altering. He is not present when the murder occurs, but the group does not hesitate to tell him about it, and they act as though they value his discretion and confidence. In reality, they (under the leadership of Henry, who turns out to be quiet narcissistic and self-centered, despite his generosity and kindness toward Richard) are hoping to use Richard as a sort of alibi or patsy in case their connection to the crime is discovered. Because Richard is so ashamed of his poverty (one winter he lives in a freezing barn exposed to the elements and becomes ill with pneumonia because he is too ashamed to ask for help), he is vulnerable to the kindness of others, and this forges a bond that allows them to use him; he is a sacrificial lamb of sorts, but he eventually understands that he is being used.

Another important character is the classics professor Julian Morrow, who is also somewhat mysterious. He insists that his students drop all of their classes and work only with him, which suggests he is also a bit narcissistic and manipulative, like Henry, with whom he shares an especially close relationship. When Julian discovers that the students were involved in two murders, possibly catalyzed by an activity he suggested they engage in, he cuts all ties and will not talk to them.

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