The Secret History Themes

The main themes in The Secret History are reality versus illusion, isolation, and the destructiveness of secrets.

  • Reality versus illusion: Hampden’s classics students harbor a dangerous obsession with the world of ancient Greece, one that causes them to prioritize a beguiling illusion over everyday life.
  • Isolation: The classics department is isolated from the rest of the college, and Richard further isolates himself in order to conceal his financial situation.
  • The destructiveness of secrets: The pressure to keep their crimes a secret has a devastating effect on the characters, leading to alcoholism, suicide, and loneliness.


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Last Updated on February 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324

Reality versus Illusion

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For the members of Morrow’s exclusive classics classes—Bunny, Henry, Francis, and twins Camilla and Charles, and later, to some extent, Richard—life in the real world of college in the late twentieth-century United States pales against the imagined world of ancient Greece. The group studies ancient history and the Greek language obsessively. The ancient world, as they imagine it, comes to seem more alive and vibrant and vital than their everyday life. The allure becomes so great that four of them (Bunny and Richard are left out) stage a Greek bacchanal and accidentally kill a farmer. The book’s genius is in making this cold group of students and their bizarre obsession with an imagined past alluring and glamorous while at the same time showing that living in the world of illusion is dangerous and destructive.


The classics department is isolated and exclusive, and Julian Morrow deliberately keeps it that way by making it difficult to get into his classes. The six students isolate themselves from others. The coldness and destructive potential of isolation is symbolically highlighted by Richard’s winter break alone. He stays in an unheated farmhouse in Vermont during an unusually cold spell. He nearly freezes to death and almost dies of pneumonia, all to keep the secret that he is not wealthy. Few readers are likely to forget the intense, numbing cold he experiences. His isolation in order to keep a secret mirrors the group’s isolation as they keep the secret about the murder. Isolation, the novel says, is dangerous and threatens to freeze the soul as well as the body.

The Destructiveness of Secrets

Manslaughter leads to blackmail which leads to murder. Charles becomes an alcoholic, Francis attempts suicide, Henry commits suicide, Richard is shot. The group members all go their own way, and Richard ends up isolated and lonely as an academic. Secrets destroy the group rather than hold it together.


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