Literature / The Secret History

"Death is the mother of beauty," said Henry.
"And what is beauty?"
"Terror."

"I hope we're all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?"

So says Julian Morrow, the charismatic and eccentric Classics professor at Hampden College. The six students whom he accepts into his classes receive an education apart from any other at the college: in studying Latin and Greek, they mimic an ancient Athenian way of thinking and living. They are Henry Winter, the linguistic genius who declares that six men could capture the town of Hampden; Charles and Camilla Macaulay, the friendly, enigmatic twins; Francis Abernathy, who looks like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper; Bunny Corcoran, genteel, cheerful and bigoted, and Richard Papen, the story's First-Person Peripheral Narrator, a transfer student who, through a series of chance encounters, finds himself in the midst of this strange, mesmerizing group.

Their search for the sublime leads them, inevitably, to a collision with the real world. Left to deal with the consequences of an accidental murder, the group slowly starts to plan a deliberate one.

The Secret History was Donna Tartt's immensely successful first novel, released in 1992. Donna Tartt years later followed it up with an unrelated second novel, The Little Friend, which is very different in terms of setting, style, and characters. Her more recent book, The Goldfinch, is a return to some of the themes (such as differences between social classes and the nature of guilt) explored by The Secret History. As an interesting piece of trivia, if you want to know where the film rights to The Secret History are, they have apparently been in Development Hell for about two decades. Not related to Secret Histories by Simon R. Green, The Secret History, a French comic book by Jean-Pierre Pécau, or the Secret History by Procopiusnote (after which all of these are directly or indirectly named).

This work provides examples of:

  • All Take and No Give: Charles takes advantage of the fact that Francis is deeply in love with him in order to use him for sex, though refuses to acknowledge either him or their relationship.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Richard has suspicions about Francis (which are confirmed), Charles (which are partially confirmed), Bunny and Julian (which are not).
  • Awesome, but Impractical: A somewhat cynically comic point is made a few times about how the classics clique spend thousands on shiny brand-name fountain pens and sleek designer clothes. While the evident glamour of these items is attractive to both Richard and the reader, the characters' attitudes toward these expensive items (along with their alternate scorn or bewilderment at cheaper substitutes) is also subtly mocked throughout the book.
  • Batman Gambit: No one really understands Henry's many, convoluted plots. If you think you've reached the bottom, you've only scratched the surface.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Richard is fascinated with Julian and his students even before he manages to get in with them, and idealises persistently through the first part of the book.
    • It's played straight early in the book and subverted more and more as the book progresses. Near the end Richard realises that a lot of his assumptions about the group have been wrong (particularly his assumptions regarding their wealth and inherent superiority).
  • Bilingual Bonus: Untranslated passages and phrases appear in Latin, Greek, French, and German.
  • Black and Gray Morality: While some characters are definitely worse than others, no one, not even the minor characters, is a genuinely good person.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Charles, Henry, and Francis respectively.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Modern day college is not 5th century Athens, however the characters might wish it were.
    • Most of the main cast are also entrenched in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century as far as their lifestyle is concerned, though this comes across more than anything as an result of their upper-class upbringing.
  • Brick Joke: Francis' obsession with hygiene. In-Universe, teasing Richard about being a tasteless California boy for Bunny.
  • Bridal Carry: Henry gets to do one of these after Camilla steps on a piece of glass in the lake. Lovingly described.
  • Broken Pedestal: Julian, whom his students revere. After he finds out about Bunny's murder, he flees the school (and probably the country), never to be heard from again.
  • Buy Them Off: The rest of the group spends inordinate amounts of money on Bunny to try to prevent him from calling the police. When he starts to talk anyway, they resort to Plan B.
  • Camp Gay: Francis. It's played straight in terms of his appearance (heck, he's even described as looking like Alfred Lord Douglas!) but downplayed with regards to his personality.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: By the end of the book, Henry has accidentally killed a farmer, murdered Bunny, tried to kill Charles and was apparently planning something for Richard.
  • Classical Mythology and history: Extremely influential. Tartt also took the title from a classic Latin text of the same name. The book's plot parallels the standard line of a Greek tragedy in many ways, right from the first chapter's opening lines:
    "Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw', that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs."
  • Death Is Such an Odd Thing: That feeling never really goes away, and it contributes to the general Freak Out.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: The book builds up a beautiful, romanticized ideal of friendship and academia (only sometimes marred by Bunny's politically incorrect antics), then absolutely rips it to shreds.
  • Descent into Addiction: Charles into alcoholism.
  • Did They or Didn't They?: Goes hand in hand with the Love Dodecahedron, especially with Henry and Camilla.
  • Divided We Fall: Henry's last-minute Heroic Sacrifice is the only reason their infighting doesn't get them caught. Of course, Henry had no small hand in that.
  • Dysfunction Junction: All the main characters have massive flaws, personal issues, and dysfunctional families, all of which help bring the group's tensions from bad to worse.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Very carefully done. First we get Richard's first impressions of all the main characters, making sure to highlight the similarities between Henry and Bunny. We also hear about Julian before we meet him. As Richard meets everyone in person, their first scenes are often telling for the contrast between their public faces and Hidden Depths. Richard, as the narrator, consciously points out the establishing moments for his own character as he goes along.
    • Henry casually mentions that he's translating Paradise Lost into Latin, in which he thinks Milton ought to have composed it. To someone versed in literature, it's a compelling bit of shorthand that depicts in a flash Henry's mixture of powerful intellect and impoverished imagination.
    • Bunny's boorish attitudes about foreigners are exemplified by his love of the gleeful bigotry of the Fu Manchu novels.
  • Experimented in College: In spite of his common refrain of Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?, Richard is not only fascinated to an extent with same sex attraction but also occasionally becomes slightly more intimate than expected with some of his male friends in the classics group, which can be interpreted either as him having Experimented in College or being Ambiguously Bi.
  • Everybody Smokes and drinks nonstop. Well, it is a liberal arts college in the eighties.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Isrami "terrorist government" mentioned in passing as part of Julian's backstory, in a country which is implied to have a virtually parallel history to Iran.
  • Fatal Flaw: Everyone.
  • Fair Weather Mentor: Julian. Heartbreakingly so.
  • Figure It Out Yourself
    He smiled. "You tell me," he said.
  • Fish out of Water: Richard amongst the Classics group, but so are the Classics group amongst the rest of the school: a group of quite emotive, elegantly if flamboyantly dressed, and extraordinarily studious students with an anachronistic lifestyle juxtaposed against a school full of either apathetic/nihilistic or blindly idealistic and forward-looking hippies, new agers, stoners, valley girls, yuppies, and party kids - in essence, a small holdout of failed romanticists in the midst of modern and an emergent post-modern culture. This is commented on whenever Richard spends time with students outside of the story's main clique - usually in the form of someone expressing unease around the Classics majors.
  • Five-Man Band (/Five-Bad Band): Deconstructed eight ways from Sunday.
  • The Fundamentalist: Redeemed Repairs, a car mechanic business run by racist born-again Christians.
  • The Fun in Funeral: Bunny's funeral would be serious business, if it weren't for his friends and family.
  • Freak Out: Towards the end, all the characters suffer some sort of mental crisis or breakdown, as a result of their stress and guilt over Bunny's murder. Francis's hypochondriac and nervous tendencies skyrocket. Richard becomes addicted to pills. Charles becomes an abusive alcoholic, forcing Camilla to take refuge with Henry. Years after Henry's suicide, she's still in love with him, and has virtually no life outside caring for her elderly grandmother.
  • Genius Book Club: The classics cohort as described by Richard. In reality, they are shown to be bizarrely technologically illiterate, eerily unaware of any history that has taken place since about 1940, and to have trouble comprehending contemporary attitudes towards a variety of subjects. Mostly Played for Laughs given their assumed intellectual prowess.
  • Graduation for Everyone: Subverted - Richard is the only one of the group to graduate, Bunny and Henry being dead and Francis and the twins having fled back to their families.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Charles and Camilla initially appear to conform to this trope. As the plot unravels and their personality differences become more apparent they lose their united front. Near the end of the book a minor character comments that for twins they don't look much alike at all.
  • He Knows Too Much: The reason for Bunny's murder.
  • Honor Before Reason: Rather than maintain a sense of loyalty to his peers, Bunny stupidly threatens to reveal the group's secret. It doesn't go too well.
    • This trope could apply to Francis as well, for the exact opposite reason - he stays quiet even when things have gotten ridiculously bad.
  • Inspired By: Bennington College as Hampden. (Bennington likes the notoriety.)
  • Interrupted Intimacy: Charles very nearly walks in on Richard and Francis, and then proceeds to go home with Francis that night; Bunny claims to have once walked in on Charles and Camilla together; Francis's grandfather finds out about his male lover "in the most melodramatic way you can possibly imagine".
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Lampshaded and subverted when Bunny asks if Richard's parents were "Ivy League material".
  • Karma Houdini: Inverted. Although none of the characters are punished or even caught, none of them live particularly happy lives afterwards.
  • Kill 'em All: Francis invokes this in his suicide note.
    "I wonder if I will see Henry on the other side. If I do, I am looking forward to asking him why the hell he didn't just shoot us all and get it over with."
  • Love Dodecahedron: Henry, Richard, and Charles all want Camilla. Francis wants Charles and makes several passes at Richard. Charles sleeps with Francis repeatedly but refuses to acknowledge it afterwards. Camilla implies that she refused to sleep with Bunny.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Henry deliberately plans Bunny's death to look like this.
  • Meaningful Name: Charles and Camilla, though this may not have been intentional.
  • Mood Whiplash: The story flips between comedy and tragedy surprisingly often. Played up for irony at several points.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution:
    "I prefer to think of it as a redistribution of matter."
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Richard at Bunny's funeral. Charles also shows signs of this during the early stages of his Freak Out.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: One strongly gets the impression that either Francis or Bunny was heavily modeled on the personality traits of Bret Easton Ellis. Not to mention the Isrami royal family, a Fantasy Counterpart Culture version of Iran's Pahlavi Dynasty.
  • Not Helping Your Case: Cloke's testimony to the police.
  • Open Secret: Francis' homosexuality.
    • To a lesser extent, Charles and Camilla's incestuous relationship. Richard is kept in the dark about it for most of the book, but the others in the group are all more or less aware. Even Richard eventually reveals that he picked up the vibe between them but chalked it up to his own perversion.
    • Closer to the beginning of the story, Richard's lower-middle class background: while he does bluff his way for a time he's also given away by the fact that, unlike his Classics peers, he isn't discriminating about what brands or labels of commercial products he purchases, but instead has bought (from everyday clothing to writing utensils) whatever is most necessary to get the job done on an affordable budget.
  • The Perfect Crime: Henry attempts this with Bunny's murder. It just barely succeeds, as the plan hinged on Bunny's body being found much sooner than it actually was.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Charles and Camilla, who at first seem very similar. They grow apart over the course of the book, and at the end, years after the resolution of the main plot, they barely speak to each other anymore.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: While most of the characters are implicitly classist (heck, the book is even assigned in college sociology classes because of it), Bunny (who makes mean comments about homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, Italians, and the lower-income over the course of the story) really takes the cake.
  • The Proud Elite: A few of the characters, but most notably Julian - although he downplays it and is thus the subject of much rumor and speculation.
  • Qurac: The Isrami government, a fictional political entity in the background of the story's world vaguely based on countries and events in the real life middle east.
  • Racist Grandpa: The owner of Redeemed Repairs.
    • Bunny's pompous attitude and absurd Victorian-style social conservatism make his asinine racist comments more than a little hilarious as well. Typically Played for Laughs in both cases.
  • Relative Error: Before he knows they are twins, Richard first assumes that Charles and Camilla are boyfriend and girlfriend. He has no idea how right he was until much later.
  • Religion Is Wrong: Modern religion, according to Julian. Bunny just hates Catholics and Jews.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Most of the main cast.
  • Scenery Porn: It's hard not to imagine the campus and the surrounding area as being exactly like this.
  • Sex for Solace: Charles uses Francis for this reason.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot:
  • Shout-Out: Camilla goes to see a film that is a fictional equivalent to Apocalypse Now or Platoon, and ends up Comically Missing the Point.
  • Smart People Know Latin: Other than Bunny, most of the clique and their instructor are fairly brainy and are obsessive about keeping up with their classical languages.
  • Smoking Is Glamorous: All of the six but Richard smoke like chimneys, and even he smokes at parties.
  • Snow Means Death: There's an unseasonable April snow just after Bunny's death.
  • Stealth Insult: "Good for you. You're just as smart as I thought you were." In light of what happens afterwards, this isn't saying much...
  • That Didn't Happen: Charles and Francis. Also Richard and Francis. Oh man, what a night.
  • This Is My Story: Richard provides this in the prologue.
    This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.
  • Tragic Dream: Richard and Camilla.
  • Tragic Dropout: Francis, Charles and Camilla all leave Hampton after Henry's death. Francis is bullied into marriage by his family, Charles collapses further into alcoholism and Camilla becomes a recluse.
  • Trope Overdosed: And then deconstructed.
  • True Companions: Falls apart under the weight of the Blackmail, murder, various plots, general backstabbing and Love Dodecahedron.
    • "And if love is a thing held in common, I suppose we had that in common, too, though I realize that might sound odd in light of the story I am about to tell."
  • Twincest: Charles and Camilla.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Richard's admiration and affection for the murder clique (though mostly Henry and Camilla) results in a picture of each of them that may not be entirely representative of who they truly are.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The epilogue accounts for all the major and minor characters, right down to a feral cat mentioned once, about eight years later, which is when Richard is writing it all down. It also includes Francis, Camilla, and Richard's bittersweet meeting, after Francis's attempted suicide, about three years after the main events of the story.
  • With Friends Like These...: Henry and Bunny were freshman roommates and best friends. It didn't end well for either of them. After Bunny's murder, Henry tries to kill Charles and may have been about to give Richard's name to the FBI. Charles, in turn, attempts to kill Henry, and ends up shooting Richard.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: The entire clique want their lives to be wild and epic, taking inspiration from the classics. It doesn't go over too well.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Organized by Henry, of course.
    "I knew that if he told anybody, he'd tell you first. And now that he has, I feel that we're in for an extremely rapid progression of events."

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