Literature: The Secret History

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

"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:

  • Ambiguously Gay: Richard has suspicions about Francis (which are confirmed), Charles (which are partially confirmed), Bunny and Julian (which are not).
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Bunny speculates that Henry might be, though only because Henry is refusing to front him money. However, he's canonically stated to be a Catholic.
  • 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 join 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
  • 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 it runs out, they resort to Plan B.
  • Camp Gay: Francis. It's played straight in terms of his appearance (heck, the guy'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
  • 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
  • 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.
      • Leave poor Milton alone, Henry. The man was going blind!
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Graduation for Everyone: subverted.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Charles and Camilla initially appear to conform to this trope. As the plot unravels and their personality differences emerge they lose their united front. In contrast to their earlier descriptions, a minor character remarks that for twins they don't look much alike at all.
  • He Knows Too Much
  • 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 to well. This trope could apply to Francis as well, for the exact opposite reason.
  • Inspired By: Bennington College as Hampden. (Bennington likes the notoriety.)
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • The Perfect Crime
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Charles and Camilla, who at first seem very similar. Their personality differences intensify 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, Bunny (who makes mean comments about Catholics, Jews, Italians, and the lower-income over the course of the story) really takes the cake.
  • 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. Played for comedy at first... but then, not so much.
  • Scenery Porn: It's hard not to imagine the campus and the surrounding area as being exactly like this.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot:
    • "Matters progressed."
    • "There was a certain carnal element to the proceedings."
  • Shout-Out: Camilla goes to see a film that is a fictional equivalent to Apocalypse Now, and ends up Comically Missing the Point.
  • Tragic Dream: Richard and Camilla.
  • 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.
  • "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 thought to be 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."