Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888
This is an eminently quotable novel, written in a lush style that is descriptive, suspenseful, and often very funny, as well as horrifying. Part of why the story works so well is that it is entirely told in the first person, and the narrator, Richard, is an imaginative, intelligent, but also very self-aware character. He sets out to tell the story of his college days and the people he met there, but first we are given the central mystery of the novel, in the very first sentence:
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.
This has been called by many one of the best first lines in modern literature, including Donna Tartt’s debut novel in the company of illustrious authors like Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Indeed, this novel often conjures a comparison to The Great Gatsby, with its dreamy first-person narrator and its description of a decadent, lavish lifestyle and the deceitful people at the heart of it. This first line gives us the “who,” the “where,” the “when,” and the “what” of the crime, but not the “why,” and the answer to why these young people murdered their friend in the woods makes up the story.
It is important to find a quotation that helps describe the narrator, who is our guide for the entire story. Readers almost invariably seek to discover if a first-person narrator is reliable, and Richard’s honesty is in doubt early on when he describes his childhood and upbringing in a suburban California town before he arrived at Hampden College:
My years there created for me an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup. Which I suppose was a very great gift, in a way. On leaving home I was able to fabricate a new and far more satisfying history, full of striking, simplistic environmental influences; a colorful past, easily accessible to strangers.
This quotation allows us to see that Richard is no stranger to lying, that he creates his own “secret history” for himself, and that he is eager to invent a more interesting past for himself, especially as a way to impress his mysterious, sophisticated new friends. Generally the others are kind to him and do not judge his past or his financial situation, but Bunny, who is often cruel and manipulative, sees through Richard’s anxiety and tries to expose his petty lies about his clothes, his background, and his life before Hampden.
Richard is painfully aware of not fitting in and of wanting to be more than his upbringing suggests is possible. Herein we see the similarity of this novel to The Great Gatsby, and Nick, the first-person narrator, who is pulled into Gatsby’s world and used by Gatsby to get to Daisy. Richard eventually makes this literary connection clear for the reader, if it was in doubt:
When I could no longer concentrate on Greek . . . I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favorite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humorless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.
At one point, Richard describes his first impression of Bunny, as a blond preppy boy whose voice is “loud and honking” and who “sounded like Thurston Howell on Gilligan’s Island.” This establishes Richard’s distaste for Bunny. But, eager to penetrate the cabal of classics students outside of class, Richard is flattered when Bunny invites him for drinks and a meal at a fancy restaurant, with a scribbled note that says “my treat.” At the end of the lavish meal, Bunny casually turns to Richard to say he’s forgotten his wallet and asks him to pay. Richard thinks this must be a joke, as he has no money. He is embarrassed when Bunny calls Henry to pay the bill, and Henry immediately says to Richard, “This isn’t your fault.”
Henry goes on to tell Richard that this is something that Bunny does often, and his friends find it very annoying. This is an intriguing line because Henry telling Richard “This isn’t your fault” is a sort of eerie foreshadowing of Richard’s being used as a patsy for the crimes of the others later on. Richard realizes he is being used to help Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla avoid being implicated in the two murders, one unintentional and the other calculated and planned.
Later on, when a scuffle occurs as things begin to break down, Richard is shot by Charles, and in the ensuing drama, he has to call out and remind the others he has been injured. He says “What about me?” and the others turn to look at him as if they’d forgotten he was there. “I’ve been shot,” he says simply, and their reaction is once again very low-key. This summarizes the others’ attitude toward Richard: he is an afterthought, and he realizes that their loyalty to him is nowhere near as intense as his loyalty to them. In this moment he realizes he has been used.