It has been almost three weeks since I finished Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), slowly, dragging it out for as long as I could.
On first finishing it, I thought that I wasn’t satisfied with the ending. I quickly came to realise that, whilst maybe I don’t think it’s quite perfect, it was the fact that the novel was over that I took issue with. Now that more time has passed, I can confirm the latter as definitive truth.
The Secret History has received a lot of hype across Bookstagram, and I can wholeheartedly say:
(It is deserved.)
“[𝕹]𝖔𝖜 𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖗𝖊 𝖎𝖘 𝖓𝖔 𝖔𝖙𝖍𝖊𝖗. 𝕿𝖍𝖎𝖘 𝖎𝖘 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖔𝖓𝖑𝖞 𝖘𝖙𝖔𝖗𝖞 𝕴 𝖜𝖎𝖑𝖑 𝖊𝖛𝖊𝖗 𝖇𝖊 𝖆𝖇𝖑𝖊 𝖙𝖔 𝖙𝖊𝖑𝖑.”
I will begin with the sufficiently cryptic blurb, from the Vintage Contemporaries edition (2004):
Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.
For a novel whose ‘big reveal’ occurs in the prologue, this description is surprisingly vague. Suffice it to say the non-linear revelation is one of the many great strengths of the narrative, which manifests in an excess of background tension. Tartt creates an atmosphere dripping in aesthetics. It is dark academia to its grand and tragic core. Her characters are rich and opulent, her writing their equal match. The events are narrated from the perspective of Richard, a student new and foreign to the exclusive world of Hampden College. With a social background and personal accomplishments both accessibly average, Richard is relatable. He offers the reader a glimpse into a restricted world – a delicious and devastating secret history.
“[𝕬] 𝖙𝖍𝖗𝖎𝖛𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖇𝖑𝖆𝖈𝖐 𝖕𝖊𝖙𝖗𝖎 𝖉𝖎𝖘𝖍 𝖔𝖋 𝖒𝖊𝖑𝖔𝖉𝖗𝖆𝖒𝖆 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖉𝖎𝖘𝖙𝖔𝖗𝖙𝖎𝖔𝖓.”
The Gothic Bookworm, Books in the Belfry, and I read The Secret History together for a ‘buddy read’. It was my first time reading the novel, and their second. I imagine it will not be the last for any of us…
I have kept discussion of the novel spoiler-free on Instagram, but have been enjoying adoration-filled conversations with some of you in private. In one such conversation, The Gothic Bookworm asked me a whole list of thought-provoking questions. I have decided to share my answers to her questions with you here. Her own thoughts, and those of Books in the Belfry, are published separately; be sure to read The Gothic Bookworm’s review and Books in the Belfry’s review. The similarities and differences between our reviews should give an impression of just how much Tartt offers to her adoring readers.
*** From this point forth SPOILERS are unavoidable ***
Why did Henry kill himself? Was he trying to save the others or in a weird way, save himself?
Henry’s suicide: I think he saw it as the favourable option. He was tired, and couldn’t face the idea of prison. I think he also saw it as poetic, and honourable. Considering his character, I imagine he would have acted for himself first, but certainly with the others in mind too.
Who was your favourite character? Who was your least favourite?
Fave character: I found Francis’ character really interesting. The romantic tension between him and Richard built huge intrigue for me. All of the characters are enigmatic, but Francis is more subtlety so…
Least fave: Least favourite is tough. Henry and Bunny are both despicable to vastly varying degrees… but all the characters are so well written that I don’t actually hate anyone. I did find Charles and Camilla’s names a bit tough to get over to begin with… but in the end the connotations were fairly justified!
“[𝕬]𝖓 𝖆𝖑𝖒𝖔𝖘𝖙 𝖎𝖓𝖋𝖎𝖓𝖎𝖙𝖊 𝖗𝖆𝖓𝖌𝖊 𝖔𝖋 𝖋𝖆𝖓𝖙𝖆𝖘𝖞, 𝖋𝖗𝖔𝖒 𝕲𝖗𝖊𝖊𝖐 𝖙𝖔 𝕲𝖔𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖈, 𝖋𝖗𝖔𝖒 𝖛𝖚𝖑𝖌𝖆𝖗 𝖙𝖔 𝖉𝖎𝖛𝖎𝖓𝖊.”
Did you have a different perception of Julian by the end? Did you think it was in character for him to run off?
Julian: For a while, I had assumed that Julian was going to play a larger role. I expected a deep, under-cover sect – Julian orchestrating the rituals that the classmates practised. I don’t cross out this possibility. I still wonder whether they were carrying out a plan devised by Julian, developed by he and Henry during their many private meetings… I think the princess storyline was intentionally wild to allow room for such doubt.
I have wondered whether Henry threatened exposing their romance to encourage Julian to keep his mouth shut. It certainly makes sense in the context of the novel, and explains the older man’s decision to flee.
Why do you think Charles suffered more than the others?
Charles: I think Charles broke down more severely, and failed to recover, because so much more pressure was put upon him during the investigation. Henry was pulling the strings, and everybody had a part to play, but the police presence was handled largely by Charles. I think the reality was too much for him individually – once he was separated from the magic and intoxication of the group, justification for their actions was harder to locate, and alone he crumbled.
“[𝕬] 𝖜𝖊𝖇 𝖔𝖋 𝖘𝖞𝖒𝖇𝖔𝖑, 𝖈𝖔𝖎𝖓𝖈𝖎𝖉𝖊𝖓𝖈𝖊, 𝖕𝖗𝖊𝖒𝖔𝖓𝖎𝖙𝖎𝖔𝖓, 𝖔𝖒𝖊𝖓.”
Assigning separating tasks amongst the group was definitely part of Henry’s design, but driving a wedge between twins was not only cruel, but also foolish. Perhaps everyone would have survived had they stuck together. Or, perhaps there was no way to escape collective doom following such savage actions…
Who do you actually think killed the farmer? All of them? Or just one?
Farmer: I’m not sure who killed the farmer. The way that details bleed out, slowly and muddled, was fantastic. The group were maddened and intoxicated, so it follows that they wouldn’t have a clear grasp on events. But, given all the information, including the breakdown of Charles and Camilla’s bond, I think all the evidence points to Camilla starting the whole violent affair.
Due to Richard’s idealised perspective, the characterisation of Camilla is unreliable. All of the boys protect her, like a little sister… and an object of affection. I didn’t really like her conclusion, but I didn’t like anyone’s – their suffering was dissatisfying only because l’d idealised them too.
“𝕬𝖓𝖉 𝖆𝖑𝖜𝖆𝖞𝖘, 𝖆𝖑𝖜𝖆𝖞𝖘, 𝖙𝖍𝖆𝖙 𝖘𝖆𝖒𝖊 𝖙𝖔𝖆𝖘𝖙. 𝕷𝖎𝖛𝖊 𝖋𝖔𝖗𝖊𝖛𝖊𝖗.”
I found it interesting to see such a strong, romanticised male gaze from a female author, and enjoyed the subtly in the message of danger. I really loved Richard’s position at the fringe of the group. It was fairly unique, and allows the space for all of these queries and theories to grow.
If you’ve read The Secret History and have thoughts, theories, or questions of your own, please, share below – Lauren (of The Gothic Bookworm) and I would love to hear them. If you have not yet read the novel, do!
Until then, why not join me for a trip worthy of Henry, Bunny, Francis, Charles, Camilla, and Richard too? As Charles invites Richard: