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“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt – Lethal Academia

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt (Header image)

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Short Summary

Donna Tartt may not be the most prolific author out there, but her works have always carried profound meaning, and for many, The Secret History served as an introduction to a criminally-underrated writer. The story following Richard Papen, a young man who ends up in a liberal arts college and drawn to an exclusive group of classics students, eventually thrusting him dead-center into a murderous scheme.

Donna Tartt Creates a Society of Evil

Acceptance is something anyone living in any sort of society will struggle with at one point or another, and many are those who long to become part of circles which seem inaccessible to them. Some are seeking to elevate their so-called position in society by ingratiating themselves with its self-appointed intellectual elite, while others, like Richard Papen in The Secret History by Donna Tartt, end up diving into the rotten core of Man.

To kick things off with a brief summary of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, it begins with a prologue giving us a glimpse of future events, detailing the search for the body of a missing student, murdered by his classmates. We are then introduced to the afore-mentioned Richard, dreadfully keen on getting out of his small town to put as much distance between himself and his working-class background as possible.

Eventually, his efforts bear fruit, and he ends up at a small liberal arts college in Vermont, where life is unlike anything he has ever known before. The students there are of a different intellectual calibre than what he has grown accustomed to, and he can’t help himself but be drawn to a small and exclusive group of elite students focused on Greek translation.

They run an invitation-only class, but with time Richard manages to earn their trust, becoming one of the fold, and learning in the process their interests go far deeper than Greek literature. Under the guide of their rather charismatic classics professor, these eccentric students are discovering a new way of living and thinking, one which puts them dangerously at odds with conventional ideas of morality.

Eventually, the murder we are given the glimpse of in the prologue does occur, and Richard is left to struggle over the incongruity between his own world-views and everything he has been taught up until this point. Even though the little club is intent on treating the murder as more of an annoyance than anything else, none of them will be left unchanged by the macabre depths of the human soul they’ve plunged into.

Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.

― Donna Tartt, The Secret History

A Treatise on Self-Deception in The Secret History

To begin my analysis of The Secret History, I’ll start by saying is a fairly long book with plenty of themes and ideas to explore, more than I could ever hope to fit into a review of this size. Thus, the logical course of action is to highlight the elements which stood out in my eyes, and the very first would be Donna Tartt‘s profound dissection on the subject of self-deception.

There are likely many more parallels to be drawn between this book and The Great Gatsby than I’m aware of, but they do share a main common theme: the story is about terrible people who think themselves above all the fools surrounding them. Naturally, such people are more often than not blind to their own ignorance, justifying their own way of thinking to themselves through long series of self-deceiving mental gymnastics. What’s more, the question as to when does The Secret History takes place even becomes superfluous, touching on characteristics which have plagued the human spirit since time immemorial.

Despite their snobbish, arrogant and egotistical nature, it almost feels like the author wants us to pity this small group of students, caught so deep in the web of their own pseudo-intellectualism they fail to even see the horrifying nature of murder. Even their personalities are ultimately fairly thin and shallow, a stark contrast with how they think of themselves.

Perhaps a psychologist could give a more accurate appraisal on the accuracy of the students’ thought patterns, but as a layman in the matter, I found it fascinating with how much ease they grotesquely managed to twist falsehoods into truths to suit their own needs. We’ve all been guilty of it at one point or another, and in my opinion their ideas seem like a logical extension of a mental superiority complex taken to its absolute extreme.

Naturally, with the characters lying to themselves most of the time, we don’t really have anyone to cheer for, but rather, people to root against, and this includes our protagonist, Richard. We see him discarding bit by bit his sense of morality, disfiguring his perception of the world, convincing himself of things he knows aren’t true, all for a bit of acceptance. As far as storytelling goes, it certainly makes for an interesting ride.

Forgive me, for all the things I did but mostly for the ones that I did not.

― Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Yearning for Kinship

Despite the story being fairly long, I’d say there are three main events, and in-between them a certain lull where we simply follow Richard and witness how his student life unfolds. In the first part of the book, we get to know him and his desire to not only fit in, but to find the sorts of peers he would feel successful around.

I think herein lies another one of the book’s strongest points: Donna Tartt‘s accurate and relatable portrayal of a lost student searching for not only meaning, but elevation in life. Though the majority of us wouldn’t come within ten meters of the students Richard wants to befriend, I never wondered why he was doing it, always having the impression it was the logical course of action considering his thoughts and ambitions.

After the murder takes place begins the second half of The Secret History, where we once again simply follow Richard on his academic life, witnessing how the murder has changed him, his peers, and faculty as a whole. It is fascinating to see the different perspectives which can arise under such circumstances, and Donna Tartt does her best to explore them in as much depth as she could muster in The Secret History.

As I mentioned it at the end of the previous segment, Richard isn’t someone we can really cheer for, especially since once all is said and done, he is thrusting himself into the muck of his own free will. Nevertheless, I found that as long as I could understand him, his ignorance and the low degree of self-awareness he has, I never really had a problem having him as a protagonist. I didn’t like him, but I did find him interesting and worthy of study.

Ultimately, I’d say Richard ends up being a relatable character due to what he truly yearns for from the very start: true kinship. It’s a universal type of need which transcends not only nations and cultures, but also species in many cases, and In my case, the author did succeed in making my pity the young man, despite the immoral and morbid path he chose to walk.

576Alfred A KnopfSept. 11 1992978-1400031702

The Final Verdict

The Secret History by Donna Tartt is a first-rate coming-of-age and suspense novel, taking us into the darker recesses of the human mind while exploring the main character’s misguided yet relatable search for meaning, all of it set in a world of obscure academia.

If you’re looking for a relatively long and compelling novel diving into profound and far-reaching topics with a murder thrown in for good measure, then I strongly urge you to give this modern classic of a novel a chance.

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is an American author and essayist whose works have received their fair share of critical acclaim. Most notably, her novel The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was adapted into a movie. She has written two other novels, The Secret History and The Little Friend, as well as a number of short stories and nonfiction books.

David Ben Efraim (Reviewer)

David Ben Efraim is a book reviewer living in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and co-owner of Bookwormex, as well as the Quick Book Reviews blog, along with Yakov Ben Efraim. With a love for literature reaching across all genres (except romance), he has embarked on the quest to share its wonders with the world by helping people find their way to books which truly speak to them, whether they be modern sensations or relics from a bygone era.

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