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Literature / The Secret History

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

The Secret History was Donna Tartt's immensely successful first novel, released in 1992.

"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:

  1. Henry Winter, the linguistic genius who declares that six men could capture the town of Hampden
  2. Charles and Camilla Macaulay, the friendly, enigmatic twins
  3. Francis Abernathy, who looks like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper
  4. Bunny Corcoran, genteel, cheerful and bigoted
  5. 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.

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:

  • Absurdly Youthful Mother: Mrs. Abernathy had Francis in her teens, and has kept her youthful looks. According to Bunny, Henry's mother is also very young.
  • Accidental Murder: Henry, the twins, and Francis accidentally kill a farmer during their Dionysian rite.
  • All Take and No Give:
    • Bunny is like this with his friends.
    • 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: There is a not-baseless stereotype that Classics students are disproportionately gay. Richard has suspicions about Francis (which are confirmed), Charles (which are partially confirmed), Bunny and Julian (which are not). Richard himself is Ambiguously Bi.
    ‘You want to know what Classics are?’ said a drunk Dean of Admissions to me at a faculty party a couple of years ago. I’ll tell you what Classics are. Wars and homos.’ A sententious and vulgar statement, certainly, but like many such gnomic vulgarities, it also contains a tiny splinter of truth.
  • Anxiety Dreams: Discussed when Richard wonders why he doesn't have more of them after finding out about the farmer's death. Played more straight after he participates in killing Bunny.
  • 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.
    • The first time Richard talks to Francis, Francis propositions him saying, "Cubitum eamus?" which in Latin means, roughly, "Shall we go to bed together?" Richard, who has only studied Greek, doesn't get it.
    • In Greek, "méli" means "honey".
      Charles: Milly, my girl. Where are you, honey?
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: While some characters are definitely worse than others, no one, not even the minor characters, is a genuinely good person.
  • Blackmail Backfire: Bunny's tacit leveraging of his knowledge of the murder to wring large sums of money out of Henry and Francis and otherwise manipulate his friends serves as a significant motivator for the gang to turn against him.
  • 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 and his inability to leave a ringing phone unanswered. 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 aka Oscar Wilde's boyfriend!) 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.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Charles is described by Francis as being extremely possessive of his sister Camilla (due to their incestuous relationship), going as far as to assault Francis when he attempted to give her a playful kiss. According to Francis, Charles watches his sister like a hawk, and forbids her from having relationships. It's implied to be the reason why she keeps her relationship with Henry a secret. After Bunny's murder drives Camilla and Henry closer together and Camilla is forced to reveal some things such as her secret phone code with Henry, Charles becomes violent and begins torturing Camilla.
  • Culturally Religious: Henry, Francis, and the twins. These days they're not particularly religious, but it still pisses them off when Bunny shit-talks Catholics.
  • 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.
  • Ditzy Genius: Outside of Richard, the classics clique are pretty impractical people outside of their studies (as shown by Henry's bizarre and convoluted plans to cover up the murder). Despite putting on a show of being worldly and well-traveled, all of them are also confused by the technology and values of the modern world to an almost unbelievable extent.
  • 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.
  • The '80s: When most of the novel is set excepting the epilogue, though a throwaway reference to Saddam Hussein suggests it may be set in the early part of The '90s when the novel was published. Somewhat subverted in that Richard's friends dress and behave in ways decades behind the times, giving the book a timeless quality.
  • 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 this or being Ambiguously Bi.
  • Everybody Smokes / Smoking Is Glamorous: All of the six but Richard smoke like chimneys, and even he smokes at parties. Well, it is a liberal arts college in the 80s.
  • Fatal Flaw: Everyone.
  • Fair-Weather Mentor: Julian. Heartbreakingly so.
  • Figure It Out Yourself
    Henry: You tell me.
  • 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.
  • For Want of a Nail: The only reason Richard ends up embroiled in the plot is that the Ancient Greek class at his community college fit his schedule.
  • Foreshadowing: Richard romanticizes the northeast before actually living there, and is almost killed by the local inclement weather when he does. This foreshadows the reversal of his apotheosis of Henry Winter, when Henry comes very close to killing him later in the story.
  • Four Seasons: The rest of the clique as observed by Richard. Notably, each character has an establishing or significant moment in the novel that is set during their corresponding season.
    • Henry Winter, with his cold, stern demeanor corresponds to... winter (obviously).
    • Camilla and Charles—who are from a warm area, have a (deceptively) breezy attitude, and enjoy picturesque nature treks—are associated with the idea of Spring.
    • Bunny's carelessly glib temperament and gauche character correspond to Summer.
    • Francis' hair color, wardrobe, and general attitude (including work ethic and hobbies) are a clear match for Autumn.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Bunny. At first the other five do genuinely care for him despite being annoyed by his unrepentant jerkass, bigoted behavior and tendency to sponge off everyone for as much money as possible. After the murder, however, all good feelings vanish because he won't stop needling them about it and becomes terribly cruel, (especially to Camilla, Francis and Richard for being female, gay and poor, respectively). But they can't get rid of him because he might tell. So they get rid of him a different way.
  • 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 (Henry has never heard of the moon landing!), and to have trouble comprehending contemporary attitudes towards a variety of subjects (Camilla ends up Comically Missing the Point of an anti-war film). Mostly Played for Laughs given their assumed intellectual prowess.
  • Gossipy Hens: A few outside of the main group (many of whom are skeptical and puzzled by their presence), but within the group the main example has got to be Bunny. He frequently uses his conversations with Richard as an example to share gossip about the other Classics majors, often casting aspersions and saying blatantly strange and untrue things about them in the process.
    • Even the faculty aren't immune. Richard's meetings with his faculty advisor Georges Laforgue usually involve lots and lots of gossip on Laforgue's end, with instructor Julian Morrow's past and lifestyle being a favorite subject.
  • Government in Exile: The Isrami Royal Family. The rumor mill has it that Julian has a mission (possibly at Uncle Sam's behest) that involves them.
  • 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.
  • Hated Hometown: Richard's hatred of Plano, California is what ultimately motivates him to come to Hampden. He dislikes the place so much that he won't even go back for winter break, although the alternative is living in an unsafe rented room in which he nearly freezes to death.
  • 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.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Bunny mocks Henry for possibly being Nouveau Riche and takes several verbal elbow jabs at Richard for putting on a fraudulent show of being from a higher-status background than he actually is. In reality Bunny spends a lot of the story broke and sponging money off of his wealthier peers, and comes from a very tastelessly modern, new-rich family that defines itself on Conspicuous Consumption.
  • Inspired by…: Hampden is based off of Bennington College, the author's school. 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.
    Francis: 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.
  • Lost Pet Grievance: The twins adopt an elderly greyhound, which only lives a few months. Camilla really loved that dog.
  • Love Dodecahedron: The friend group is variously into each other, which generally is a destabilizing force. Richard, Henry, and Charles all want Camilla. Charles sleeps with Francis repeatedly but refuses to acknowledge it afterwards. Francis makes a couple passes at Richard. 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.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Did the rite work? It's left ambiguous.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Charles and Camilla, though this may not have been intentional.
    • Camilla was also the sister of the Horatii, who killed her fiance.
    • Henry Winter maintains a chilly disposition throughout the story.
    • Julian Morrow is named for the Roman emperor Julian, known for his heterodox views on religion.
  • Mood Whiplash: The story flips between comedy and tragedy surprisingly often. Played up for irony at several points.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution:
  • 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.
    • The Isrami royal family, a Fantasy Counterpart Culture version of Iran's Pahlavi Dynasty.
    • Georges Laforgue, Richard's first academic advisor, is a dead ringer for Michel Foucault, with similar views on academia.
  • Not Helping Your Case: Cloke's testimony to the police.
  • Nouveau Riche: The Corcorans come from a background comparable to that of new-rich families like the Trumps, rather than older and more established families; this is often suggested to be at the root of Bunny's boorish expressions of insecurity.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Georges Laforgue is a stuffy academic administrator who is hesitant to let Richard pursue his goals.
  • 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.
      • Sexuality in general is not an open topic amongst the group. While there is some of that going on, no one ever discusses it openly. Semi-regular hooks ups between Charles and Camilla, and also Charles and Francis; Francis's homosexuality in general—even Bunny and his perfectly sanctioned girlfriend Marion, of whom Richard says, "I was pretty sure he slept with her, but at the same time he was incredibly prudish."
    • 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.
  • Overt Operative: Rumored and discussed—some of the hearsay about Julian has him away from the country on government business, with varying degrees of clarity about the purpose of it.
  • 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.
  • Perfectly Cromulent Word: "Metahemeralism," a concept based on a malapropistic conflation of Metaphysicism and bucolic hexameter poetry, which Bunny insists exists but is at great pains to define. He nonetheless manages to base an entire essay around it.
    Bunny: Got to do with art or pastoralism or something. […] Has to do with irony and the pastoral. […] Painting or sculpture or something, maybe.
  • 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, females, Catholics, Jews, Italians, and the lower-income over the course of the story) really takes the cake.
  • Politically Motivated Teacher: Laforgue is loosely implied to be this—he tries to get Richard into his class rather than Julian's, largely because he believes his more modern, liberal views are better; although he coats his radical anti-elitism in homophobia (made all the more ironic by his similarity in appearance and mannerisms to Foucault).
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis:
    • There is an entire story arc in Riverdale that is a Whole Plot Reference to this novel, with one of the main antagonists explicitly named after its author.
    • The novel has become one of the flagship media references for a visual style known as "Dark Academia", which glamorizes traditional academic pursuits in the Humanities—particularly at American and European universities with a gothic, old-world flair (and, in some cases, an implicitly high price tag on tuition). Dark Academia has occasionally been criticized (The Secret History in particular) on the grounds that fans might internalize some of the elitist biases the concept implies.
  • 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 Middle Eastern country that is known to have a 'terrorist government" that overthrew the former monarchy, paralleling the history of Iran.
  • 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.
  • Secret Relationship: Camilla has two. One is with her own brother Charles (it's never clear just how consensual on her part it is, but she has to keep it hidden because of the societal taboo involved), the other (hinted out throughout the novel) with Henry.
  • Sex for Solace: Charles uses Francis for this reason.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot:
  • Shout-Out:
    • Richard goes to see some movies so he can explain the plots to the rest of the murder clique in order to help with their alibi. One is a fictional equivalent to Apocalypse Now or Platoon, and Camilla ends up Comically Missing the Point.
    • Much like the literary critic Edmund Wilson, who went by the nickname "Bunny", Bunny's real name is Edmund.
    • Henry's middle name is also the pseudonym and more outspoken alter ego of 20th-century Canadian literary star Robertson Davies.
    • Julian Morrow is said to have been acquainted with literary figures including T.S. Eliot and George Orwell
  • Shrouded in Myth: Throughout the story, no one is able to guess Julian's age, whether he is old money or new money (or penniless but keeping up a front), and rumors about his involvement in political and artistic life run rampant. The only one of the rumors that comes close to being addressed any further is his connection to the princess of a deposed foreign dynasty.
  • 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.
  • 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...
  • Suspicious Spending: A moocher at the best of times, Bunny realizes there's no limit on what Henry and Francis will spend on him once they start to fear he could tip off the police. This does not go unnoticed by the wealthy parents who finance them; Francis's mother, with a history of addiction herself, thinks that he's on drugs. After Bunny's murder, reports of his Conspicuous Consumption in the months prior reinforce the theory that he was involved in Cloke Rayburn's drug trade.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: Most characters end the story believing Julian had an inappropriate romance with his royal middle eastern tutee. Earlier into the story, Georges Laforgue openly suspects him of pederasty when sharing gossip about him with Richard.
  • That Didn't Happen: Charles and Francis. Also Richard and Francis. Oh man, what a night.
  • There Is Only One Bed: Camilla and Marion at Bunny's funeral, in case things weren't awkward enough.
  • This Is My Story: Richard provides this in the prologue.
    This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Richard, almost literally. To be fair, he's from California, so it's not like he has much experience with cold, but he really should have known better than to try to spend a New England winter living in a loft with a hole in the roof.
  • 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 a 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. By the end of the novel, Richard has realised - much too late - that the clique's story isn't that of an epic... it's a Greek tragedy.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Organized by Henry, of course.
    Henry: 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.