The Secret History, published in 1992, is the debut novel of Donna Tartt. It’s written from the point of view of Richard Papen, the main character.
At the start of the story, Richard leaves his hometown in California to attend Hampden College, a college for wealthy, elite young adults. Having studied Ancient Greek in high school and loved it, he tries to enrol in the Ancient Greek class at Hampden but is told that it’s unlikely he’ll be accepted. This is because there’s only one Classics teacher who only accepts a limited number of students (five) for the Ancient Greek class, and the class is already full. But Richard manages to persuade the teacher, whose name is Julian Morrow, to let him join the class. Richard quickly finds that Julian is trying to breed intellectual elitism into his students.
Richard very quickly becomes fascinated by his classmates, who are each eccentric in their own unique way. They are also removed from the rest of the school population, and also have bizarre and slightly dangerous reputations, like the Greek scholars they’re trying to emulate. Richard becomes fascinated by two of the other students in particular: Henry Winter, an intelligent student who is the unofficial leader of the group; and Edward “Bunny” Corcoran, whose obnoxious and crass behaviour often causes tension. When Bunny discovers that the group (minus he and Richard) has murdered a stranger in their intellectual pursuits and strangeness gone wild, it’s Henry who proposes the they should kill him to keep him quiet.
And kill him they do.
Bunny’s murder is mentioned right at the start of the novel, so it’s not a typical whodunit story. It’s in fact an inverted detective story that delves into the reasons why Richard, Henry, and the other students kill Bunny, and how they deal the consequences.
The Secret History reminded me a lot of The Catcher in the Rye, mainly because Richard resembled, in my mind, Holden Caulfield. He’s not very trustworthy, often telling lies and creating excuses – traits that Holden possesses. But Richard does have a moral compass, shown when he experiences shock and guilt in his part of Bunny’s murder.
Richard and the other students also take drugs, drink excessive amounts of alcohol, and often don’t sleep unless they are incredibly sleep-deprived or have taken sleeping pills. Richard and Bunny are the only ones who are not rich and/or receiving trust fund payments.
You might think that I have a rather low opinion of The Secret History. But I actually have a high opinion of it. It’s really well-written. Tartt has a very conversational style, which I like. The dialogue is realistic as well, and there are good, lengthy descriptions of places, which I like. And even though most of the things Richard and the others do are questionable, they are fundamentally unique, each with their own personal history – they’re not just two-dimensional characters.
Words by Callum J. Jones
Creative, honest, and reliable, Callum J. Jones loves writing fiction and non-fiction. In his spare time, he likes to read, watch movies and TV shows, and go on walks.