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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 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 New 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 got pregnant with Francis at 17, and has kept her youthful looks. According to Bunny, Henry's mother is also very young.
  • Abusive Parents: All over the place.
    • Richard's father used to beat both him and his mother.
    • Francis's mother is an alcoholic who dates men almost his own age and propositions his friends for threesomes.
    • Bunny's parents abandon him at schools they can barely afford the fees for and don't give him a penny to live on while he's there.
    • Implied Trope with Henry, who is mostly estranged from his father for no reason that we ever learn. Henry suffered a serious injury that gave him permanent facial scarring as a child, and Bunny gets very uncomfortable talking about it.
  • Accidental Murder: Henry, the twins, and Francis accidentally kill a farmer during their Dionysian rite.
  • Alcohol-Induced Bisexuality: Charles occasionally hooks up with Francis when he's drunk, and then refuses to acknowledge it afterwards.
    Francis: As for Charles—well, basically, he likes girls. If he's drunk, I'll do.
  • All Take and No Give:
    • Bunny is like this with his friends: he frequently asks for money without ever intending to pay it back and doesn't really give anything in return.
    • 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 thinks about at least the possibility of homoerotic behavior from every single one of the clique boys at some point — although that might say more about Richard's own Ambiguously Bi proclivities than those of his friends.
    "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.
  • Ambiguous Situation: What went down during the bacchanal? How did the farmer die? The clique's memories of the night are very patchy since they were high off their asses. Many theories center around some variation of animal involvement.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: The Classics clique cultivate around themselves a microcosm reminiscent of The '40s. Outside of their claustrophobic little world, it generally seems like the novel is set in the The '80s. Donna Tartt attended Bennington College between 1982 and 1986 and that's very overtly the inspiration behind the story and particularly the setting. That said, there's also a couple throwaway references suggesting it's set the late 80s or early The '90s. She began writing the book in 1983 and it was published in 1992, and it seems to have picked up things from that whole span.
    • References from after Donna's own college years:
      • There's a TV show, Tonight in Vermont, which is described as "in imitation of Oprah and Phil." The Oprah Winfrey Show began in 1986.
      • The Dean of Studies says: "I can't for the life of me imagine what the Isramis would want with Julian. Hampden's own Salman Rushdie." The fatwa calling for Rushdie's assassination was issued in February 1989.
      • An offhanded mention of Saddam Hussein.
      • Dr Roland (admittedly an Unreliable Expositor) drives a "98 Regency Brougham, ten years old." The Non-Indicatively Named 98 Regency Brougham was introduced for 1982, so (unless there's Exactly Exty Years Ago rounding going on) a 10-year-old car would bring us to 1992.
    • There's also a handful of references (always in the mouths of an Unreliable Expositor) which are incorrect:
      • US President Jimmy Carter's first term began in 1977. He was not president in 1975.
      • Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, not 1982.
      • Karen Carpenter had anorexia, not bulimia.
  • 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).
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Discussed Trope by Francis, who talks about how its not true. He talking about Charles in this instance.
    Francis: We don't run much to looks in my family, you know, all knuckles and cheekbones and beaky noses. Maybe that's why I tend to equate physical beauty with qualities with which it has absolutely nothing to do. I see a pretty mouth or a moody pair of eyes and imagine all sorts of deep affinities, private kinships. Never mind that half a dozen jerks are clustered round the same person, just because they've been duped by the same pair of eyes.
  • 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.
    • Henry pulls a piece of glass out of Camilla's foot and declares, "Consummatum est" — Latin for "It is done."
    • They use "cuniculus molestus" — Latin for "annoying rabbit" — as a code name for Bunny.
    • In Greek, "méli" means "honey".
      Charles: Milly, my girl. Where are you, honey?
    • This conversation with Henry.
      Henry: Salve, amice. Valesne? Quid est rei?Latin 
      Richard: You look well.
      Henry: Benigne diets.Latin  I feel much better.
  • Bitch Slap: Henry tells a story of slapping Bunny in Rome, hitting him harder than he meant to, and this escalating the situation badly.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Children Are a Waste: Bunny is the only one who mentions wanting kids — 8 at that — and his friends view this as terribly lowbrow of him.
  • 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.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: The twins are orphans, and Richard is jealous of them for this. He thinks being an orphan is a very sexy backstory, far better than his own bland parents.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: We hear it from Francis, who's an Unreliable Expositor, but he says Charles is extremely possessive of his sister Camilla due to their incestuous relationship. This jealousy did not play nice during the orgy they all had together. Charles forbids her from having other relationships. As for evidence outside of Francis's allegation, this is implied to be the reason why Camilla 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.
    Francis: They're very jealous of each other. He much more so than she. [...] Not that I think it's so terrible, either—from a moral standpoint, that is—but it's not at all the casual, good-natured sort of thing that one might hope. It runs a lot more deep and nasty. Last fall, around the time when that farmer fellow… [...] I remember hardly anything that happened that night, which isn't to say the tenor of it isn't clear enough… [paused; shook his head] I mean, after that night it was obvious to everyone. Not that it wasn't before. It's just that Charles was so much worse than anyone had expected. [...] [Camilla]'d behave a lot more like Charles if she were allowed to; he's so possessive, though, he keeps her reeled in pretty tight. Can you imagine a worse situation? He watches her like a hawk.
  • Culturally Religious: Henry, Francis, and the twins were all raised Catholic, while Bunny comes from a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant background, and Richard has no religious background at all. None of the clique are religious these days — they're irreverent college students for one, and also being tutored by a man who's trying to impress pagan sensibilities upon them. Nonetheless, the Catholics have enough allegiance to their childhood religion that Bunny's anti-Catholic tirades get under their skin. Where it really shows, though, is the aesthetics. They all have the aesthetics of their religious upbringings stamped into them. The dark academia aesthetic is very Catholic — old, decadent, dramatic — and the Catholic kids are the real core of the clique, the truly aesthetic ones. Bunny is aesthetically very Protestant, and that clashes with the group.
  • 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 Not Get the Girl: As the only girl in an insular little group, Camilla could basically have her pick of any of them. She choses their king.
  • Did They or Didn't They?: Hand in hand with the Love Dodecahedron, the details of Henry and Camilla's relationship—when it began, how far it went—are unclear.
  • 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.
  • Embarrassing Old Photo: Richard destroys the only photo of his mother that he owns, for fear that Bunny will see it and realize that Richard grew up relatively poor.
  • 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.
    • One of the first things that Richard hears about Julian before meeting him is that he was a friend of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. This disturbingly foreshadows Julian's arrogance, elitism and reactionary politics — both Modernists were openly misogynistic, racist and in Pound's case pro-Nazi.
  • Everybody Smokes: It's a liberal arts college in the 80s, and smoking is ubiquitous. Henry and Francis smoke constantly. The twins smoke as well, although theirs is narratively mentioned less often. Only Richard and Bunny don't smoke, and this is something the other clique members remark upon, one more detail to underline their outsider status. But this actually just means they don't smoke habitually, not that they don't smoke at all. Richard smokes at parties. Bunny doesn't generally smoke because he was a high-school athlete, but he nonetheless has a cigar when he goes out to lunch with Richard. The fact that neither of them begins smoking habitually to fit in with the group, though, is slightly surprising and a deviation from Smoking Is Glamorous.
  • Experimental Archeology: Henry frames the bacchanal as experimental archaeology when he tells Richard about it.
  • 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.
  • Extremely Easy Exam: The Invariant Subspaces course at Hampden has had an exam that consists of the same one yes-or-no question for as long as anyone can remember. The question is three pages long, but the answer is always 'Yes'.
  • Fake-Out Make-Out: Subverted Trope. At Bunny's funeral, Cloke sees Richard and Camilla leaving the bathroom together. Camila is tugging her skirt down. Cloke assumes they were making out in there. Actually they were rummaging through the cabinets under the sink looking for drugs. At first they let him assume what he will, but then Richard tells him the truth. Cloke, a drug dealer, is happy to help out and explains where the drugs in the house are actually hidden.
  • Family of Choice: Charles at one point suggests that after graduation they could all live together in the country house (except for Bunny, who would just come up on weekends). It's an arrested development fantasy, imagining that things could continue exactly as they are now for the rest of their lives. Richard is absolutely enamored with the idea. Subverted Trope in that it doesn't work out. Also a Deconstructed Trope—no matter how much you adore your friend group right now, without the obligations of kinship to hold you together when times get tough, it won't last. Also Richard, you've known this group for all of a few months at this point, and they don't even trust you enough to invite you to their orgies. This is premature.
  • Fatal Flaw: The opening lines of the book:
    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.
  • Fair-Weather Mentor: Julian; Richard notes even early on that he only sees in the Greek students what he wants to see, and doesn't really care to know their actual personalities or problems. Heartbreakingly so later in the book.
  • Figure It Out Yourself
    Richard: Henry, what in God's name have you done?
    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.
  • Foil:
    • Richard first introduces us to the group by highlighting the physical similarities between Henry and Bunny. They both wear glasses, and the same kind of glasses at that. They're both tall and broad. They both part their hair such that it falls over one eye. Beyond that, they're opposites — Red Oni, Blue Oni, Odd Friendship.
    • Bunny and Richard are the two outsiders of the group. They're both jealous, and want to be part of the ingroup with these smart, glamourous, otherworldly friends. They go about it quite differently. Richard is shy, has resting bitch face, and feels uncomfortable about imposing himself on the group, preferring to wait for an invitation. Bunny is gregarious, extroverted, and always inviting himself to things. Neither has enough money to fit in with the group, and are trying to hide this, but again, differently. Richard does it by being self-sufficient and never asking his friends for anything, while Bunny asks for hand-outs all the time.
      Henry: Look at you. Your parents aren't particularly generous with you, are they? But you're so scrupulous about not borrowing money that it's rather silly. Heavens. I think you might have died in that warehouse rather than wire one of us for a couple of hundred dollars. That's an infinitesimal sum. I'm sure we shall have spent two or three times that on Bunny by the end of next week.
  • 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. Then he became enamored with the clique and pulled in by their magnetism.
    • Bunny only ends up embroiled in the Classics clique because Henry was his randomly-assigned roommate in his freshman year. Then he get pulled in by Henry's magnetism.
      Mr Corcoran: Why, I'll never forget, it was Bunny's first night at Hampden, he called me up on the telephone. "Dad," he said to me, "Dad, you ought to see this nut they gave me for a roommate." "Stick it out, son," I told him, "give it a chance" and before you could spit it was Henry this, Henry that, he's changing his major from whatever the hell it was to ancient Greek.
  • 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. And then there's his other shortcoming: being gauche, middlebrow, and unaesthetic.
  • 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.
    • This is subverted even as regards to their own specialist subject, as the clique regularly misunderstand classical texts too. Richard's description of Dionysus in Euripides' The Bacchae as a bloodthirsty sadist without any recognisable principles of justice will strike any reader familiar with the play as a bizarre misreading. Far from 'a triumph of barbarism over reason', as Richard claims, Dionysus simply wants to be acknowledged as the god he is, and the play's antagonist Pentheus is a hypocritical He-Man Woman Hater with a bad case of Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny who brings about his own fate through his hubris, despite Dionysus giving him multiple chances to see sense and change his mind.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Bunny's actual murder — both in the prologue and at the end of book one — goes from Henry greeting Bunny saying, "Why, looking for new ferns," to the clique leaving the scene of the crime. Actually pushing him, and the fall, are omitted. It's Lampshaded, and Richard Converses about an autobiography of a serial killer which does the same thing.
    I am sorry, as well, to present such a sketchy and disappointing exegesis of what is in fact the central part of my story. I have noticed that even the most garrulous and shameless of murderers are shy about recounting their crimes. A few months ago, in an airport bookstore, I picked up the autobiography of a notorious thrill killer and was disheartened to find it entirely bereft of lurid detail. At the points of greatest suspense (rainy night; deserted street; fingers closing around the lovely neck of Victim Number Four) it would suddenly, and not without some coyness, switch to some entirely unrelated matter.
    • A few details leak through at other moments, though. When Bunny is bullying Camilla and their conviction to do this building, Richard thinks about how dramatically, how Slow-Motion Fall, Bunny's fall looked. At Bunny's funeral when Henry is a pallbearer, Richard thinks about how Henry went down to check Bunny's neck really was broken. At the funeral when Camilla is fighting with her umbrella, he thinks about how she'd climbed down with Henry to check.
  • Gossipy Hens:
    • 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.
    • A few outside of the main group want to gossip about the clique, many of whom are skeptical and puzzled by their presence.
    • 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 (see Twin Desynch).
    Side by side, they were very much alike, in similarity less of lineament than of manner and bearing, a correspondence of gesture which bounced and echoed between them so that a blink seemed to reverberate, moments later, in a twitch of the other's eyelid.
  • 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.
  • Hero of Another Story: It's easy to imagine the FBI investigators, Davenport and Sciola, as the mismatched heroes of a case-of-the-week cop show with one episode about the seedy underbelly of a placid liberal-arts campus.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: In a thematic sense, learning a living language is expansive, it allows you to talk to more people, while learning a dead language allows you to be insular with a small group of people.
    • The whole clique has studied Latin with Julian, except for Richard, who only knows Greek. When Richard looks back at the time when his friends were planning the bacchanal and excluding him from it, he remembers them sometimes making "asides in Greek or even Latin which I was well aware were meant to go over my head."
    • In the aftermath of Bunny's death, Richard takes to hanging out with Judy and her friends. Francis comes by and tries to gossip with Richard about the investigation and the Corcoran family in front of them in Ancient Greek. Since it's a dead language, Ancient Greek class is mostly concerned with formal literature. (In contrast, Spanish class is much more interested in teaching you how to converse casually about day-to-day things.) Constrained by the Ancient Greek vocabulary they know, their conversation has an odd poetic slant.
      Francis: [in Ancient Greek] There has been much rumor. The mother grieves. Not for her son, for she is a wicked woman. Rather she grieves for the shame which has fallen on her house. […]
      Richard: And why, pray tell, does she care?
      Francis: Because there is talk among the citizens. It is shameful for a young man to die while drunk.
  • 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.
  • Hookers and Blow: Favoured pastimes of the Hampden student body.
    • Possibly also the Bacchanal itself, depending on the reader's interpretation. The classics clique are all convinced that they corporeally encountered, and were possessed by the god Dionysus. But it might just have been a hallucination by a group of college students who got high and had sex while trespassing on someone else's land.
  • Hypocrite: Richard somewhat grifts Dr. Roland. He asks for an advance on his work-study payment — not exactly asking for a hand-out — but upon being handed the check, his first thought is, "Maybe he would even forget he had given it to me." When Bunny pulls his "forgotten wallet" shtick with Richard, Richard judges him.
  • 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.
    • Bunny — the least brainy and academically minded of the whole group — tries to bully Camilla about not being smart enough for serious scholarship.
    • Richard and Judy do cocaine together and then he calls her a "senseless cokehead" all within the same (run-on) sentence!
      I wanted to take some clothes to the cleaners and Judy, who was going into town, offered to drive me; we'd done our errands, not to mention an awful lot of cocaine in the parking lot of Burger King, and we were stopped in the Corvette at a red light, listening to terrible music ("Free Bird") on the Manchester radio station, and Judy rattling on, like the senseless cokehead she was, about these two guys she knew who'd had sex in the Food King ("Right in the store! In the frozen food aisle!"), when she glanced out her window and laughed.
    • One time at the country house they found a gun and did a little target shooting in the yard. Henry "Murder Is the Best Solution" Winter "was quite shaken by it" when he accidently shot a duck, to the point they put the pistol away after that.
  • If Only You Knew:
    • Julian has a poor opinion of young people taking drugs. It's a good thing he's so good at selective perception, or he'd think less well of his students.
      Julian: [The detectives] said that Edmund was on drugs. Do you think that odd? I think it very odd. I said certainly not. I may be flattering myself, but I do think I know Edmund rather well. He's really quite timid, puritanical, almost... I can't imagine him doing anything of the sort and besides, young people who take drugs are always so bovine and prosaic. But do you know what this man said to me? He said that with young people, you can never tell. I don't think that's right, do you?
    • Bunny's dad gives a speech about how Henry was Bunny's best friend, and how everyone should have a friend like that.
      Mr Corcoran: You kids, better hope you've got friends like this one. [...] Just goes to show, never judge a book by its cover. Old Henry here may look like he's got a stick up his butt but there never breathed a finer fella.
  • Inspired by…: Hampden is based off of Bennington College, the author's school — many of the characters and minor incidents described in the book are based directly on Donna Tartt's observations about her classmates. The town, though not the college, of Bennington itself makes a couple Creator Cameos — Richard mentions taking day trips with Charles to Bennington, Manchester, and Pownal. There's a mention of one time, in a prior year, when the clique went out to dinner at the Lobster Pagoda, "a ridiculous Chinese restaurant in Bennington," that certainly gives the impression that it's a real place.
  • 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: Bunny always claimed he walked in on them once. He told Henry, not me. I'm afraid I don't know the details. Apparently he had the key and you remember how he used to barge in without knocking.
    • In the epilogue, Francis tells the following story:
      Francis: I was seeing someone. A lawyer. He's a bit of a drunk but that's all right. He went to Harvard. You'd like him. His name is Kim. [...] And my grandfather found out. In the most melodramatic way you can possibly imagine.
  • I Owe You My Life: Downplayed Trope. Richard never exactly says he owes Henry his life, but Henry does show up and save Richard when he's on the brink of death. He stays beside him in the hospital, nurses him back to health, brings him to his house to recuperate, gives him his own bed. After this, Richard is far more inclined to side with Henry than Bunny.
  • 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 by the law, none of them live particularly happy lives afterwards.
    • The one exception is Julian, at least for those who read him as an Evil Mentor. His influence on Henry is responsible for nearly the entire plot, but as far as we know, he escapes to do the exact same thing to more students somewhere else.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Francis is not at all a physical badass — he's an effete, nervous hypochondriac — but when Charles shows up with a gun and tries to shoot Henry at the end of the novel, his quick thinking (throwing a glass of wine at Charles to distract him) enables Henry to get the gun off Charles without taking a bullet. Sadly, it's not enough to prevent Richard from getting shot, albeit non-lethally.
  • 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. And even when it's not overly romantic, there's a Pseudo-Romantic Friendship edge to most of the relationships. Richard describes all of them (save Bunny) in the romanticized manner of a crush.
  • Madness Mantra: To control his mounting dread after becoming an accessory to Bunny's murder, Richard repeats 'Nihil sub sole novum' (Latin for 'Nothing under the sun is new'). The phrase shows up whenever his paranoia at being arrested sets in.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Henry deliberately plans Bunny's death to look like this.
    This was a tale that told itself simply and well: the loose rocks, the body at the bottom of the ravine with a clean break in the neck, and the muddy skidmarks of dug-in heels pointing the way down; a hiking accident, no more, no less,
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Did the rite work? It's left ambiguous.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Charles and Camilla of The British Royal Family, who were widely speculated to be having an affair before it was finally confirmed.
    • Word of God is that Camilla is named after Camilla the warrior maiden in The Aeneid.
    • 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.
  • Mythical Motifs: Downplayed Trope. The twins have a slight Apollo-and-Artemis/Diana thing. Being twins, for one. Bunny says Camilla looks like the statue of Diana at his father's club. Their blondness and paleness, for gods of luminous things. Apollo is generally characterized as friendly, while Artemis is more aloof.
  • 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:
    • Julian, Henry, and Bunny were all based on people Donna knew at Bennington College. (See Trivia page for more on that.)
    • 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.
  • Nominal Importance: Played with. The farmer's name is Harry Ray McRee, as seen in a newspaper article reporting on his death. The clique never use this name. They continue to refer to him as "the farmer" because they don't care about him much.
  • Not Helping Your Case: Cloke's testimony to the police brings him under a lot of suspicion.
  • 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.
  • One-Steve Limit: Two of Bunny's brothers — Teddy and Hugh — are married to women named Lisa.
  • Open Secret:
    • Sexuality in general is not an open topic amongst the group. While there is some sex going on, no one ever discusses it openly. Everyone know Francis is gay, but they don't address it directly. Richard is kept in the dark about Charles and Camilla's incestuous relationship for most of the book, but the others in the group are all more or less aware. This even extends to 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 working 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.
  • Operation: Jealousy: Implied Trope with Camilla and Francis, although it's very unclear. They're a weird pairing, neither of whom is interested in each other — but Francis has been known to kiss Camilla on occasion. This happens once when Francis arrives at the very first dinner party Richard attends, and again in an anecdote Francis tells about a prior year when the group went to a restaurant called the Lobster Pagoda.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: The book is best known for its dark academia genre — a sort of Evelyn Waugh, Oxonian vibe. But that's not strictly speaking the book's genre — it's the clique's. The Classics clique create their own little world around themselves with a very distinctive genre to it. But every time Richard steps outside that world, the contrast is sharp. After a weekend spent at the country house, Richard mentioning "asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture" can be startling. Spend some time with Judy, and he's doing cocaine in the parking lot of Burger King. Walk away from the campus part of town, and there's a seedy bar with a padded-vinyl door full of Vermont working men in flannel shirts.
  • 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.
  • Police Psychic: The police bring in a psychic to investigate Bunny's murder. She's a young woman who got a shock from jumper cables, was in a 3-week coma, and awoke with the power to know things. She's helped the police with a few prior cases. Skeptic Richard thinks nothing of it, but superstitious Henry is nervous she'll figure it out — but also intrigued and really wishes he could meet and talk to her.
  • 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. Julian argues that everyone is classist and that it's better to be openly classist than hypocritically so.
    Julian: I think we're much more hypocritical about illness, and poverty, than were people in former ages. In America, the rich man tries to pretend that the poor man is his equal in every respect but money, which is simply not true. Does anyone remember Plato's definition of Justice in The Republic? Justice, in a society, is when each level of a hierarchy works within its place and is content with it. A poor man who wishes to rise above his station is only making himself needlessly miserable. And the wise poor have always known this, the same as do the wise rich.
  • 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 anti-elitism in homophobia (made all the more ironic by his similarity in appearance and mannerisms to Foucault).
  • Product Placement: The rich clique mention a lot of brands by name.
    • Julian has Montblanc Meisterstück pens.
    • Francis gives hand-me-down suits to Charles and Richard—Sulka, Aquascutum, Gieves & Hawkes.
    • Henry smokes Lucky Strikes.
    • Francis and Henry have this much-memed conversation about Gucci:
      Francis: I hate Gucci
      Henry: Do you? Really? I think it's rather grand.
      Francis: Come on, Henry.
      Henry: Well, it's so expensive, but it's so ugly too, isn't it? I think they make it ugly on purpose. And yet people buy it out of sheer perversity.
      Francis: I don't see what you think is grand about that.
      Henry: Anything is grand if it's done on a large enough scale.
  • 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 is quite old and refers to 'Arabs' disparagingly.
    • 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. Much later he learns they have an incestuous relationship.
  • Religion Is Wrong: Modern religion, according to Julian. Bunny just hates Catholics and Jews.
  • Reverse Whodunnit: Bunny's murder is laid out in the prologue, and then we spend the first half of the book coming to understand why.
    Donna Tartt 1992 interview: One of the reasons why I wanted to do that was partly because I'd been studying Greek. There's tremendous suspense in The Iliad and you know everything that's going to happen — they tell you everything that's going to happen in the first six lines. This was just a very interesting question to me: How do you create suspense from knowing what we already know? I love Alfred Hitchcock and I read something that Alfred Hitchcock said: Suspense doesn't come from having a bomb thrown from nowhere at the hero. Suspense comes from having two people sitting, talking at a table. There's a bomb ticking underneath the table. The audience sees it but the characters don't. And that's what suspense is. In a funny way, that was what made me want to write this sort of novel.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Most of the main cast are very well-off financially, not needing to work, but have little to no idea of what's going on in the world around them.
  • Riddle for the Ages: In the final lines, Henry kisses Camilla between the eyes, whispers something in her ear ("what, I've always wondered", Richard says of it), kisses her again, says, "I love you" — then commits suicide.
  • Scenery Porn: Richard is as in love with the physical campus as he is with his friend group, and he describes it lavishly. It's hard not to imagine the campus and the surrounding area as being exactly like this.
  • Secret Relationship:
    • Camilla has one is with her own brother Charles, and another (hinted out throughout the novel) with Henry.
    • Charles is hooking up with both Camilla and Francis on the down-low.
  • Self-Poisoning Gambit: Henry's Murder Bunny Plan 1.0 involves poisonous amanita phalloides mushrooms which they'll both eat. Henry is slightly bigger than Bunny, and he's hoping to find an amount of poison which will kill Bunny but only make him very sick. Henry asks Richard for help, hoping that Richard's one year of pre-med will allow him to calculate the dosage, and is disappointed when Richard says he can't help and this is a dumb and dangerous plan besides. Plus Henry is getting all this from 15th-century Persian texts, which he's working through with a dictionary, since that's not among the many languages he knows. So there's room for something to get lost in translation as well.
    Henry: I'm heavier than Bun, you know. By twenty-five pounds. That should count for something, shouldn't it?
    Richard: Yes, but the difference of size isn't large enough to bank on, not with a margin of error potentially this wide. Now, if you were fifty pounds heavier, maybe…
    Henry: The poison doesn't take effect for at least twelve hours. So even if I overdose I'll have a certain advantage, a grace period. With an antidote on hand for myself, just in case…
  • Sex for Solace: Charles uses Francis for this reason.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot:
    • Richard is baffled to learn his friends had an orgy with each other. Henry is unflappable and calmly acknowledges and dismisses it.
      Richard: But these are fundamentally sex rituals, aren't they? [beat] Well? Aren't they?
      Henry: Of course. You know that as well as I do.
      Richard: [beat] What exactly did you do?
      Henry: [smoothly] Well, really, I think we needn't go into that now. There was a certain carnal element to the proceedings but the phenomenon was basically spiritual in nature.
    • Richard "Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?" Papen speaks of his gay hookup evasively, saying only, "Matters progressed."
  • Shopping Montage: Parodied. After his first encounter with the classics clique at the library, but before he goes to his audition with Julian, Richard goes on a shopping spree. It's clear that his goal is The Makeover, turning himself into one of them. The way it actually occurs is less glamorous and more silly. First he lies to his employer to get money. Then he goes shopping at a thrift store. Then he's so thrilled and overwhelmed by it all that he goes directly home.
  • Shout-Out:
    • They use the Liddell & Scott lexicon in Greek class. The editions of the book are between 1843 and 1940. They're not just studying Greek, they're studying it in an old-fashioned way.
    • 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.
    • The omen of a pregnant dog:
      The Secret History: On the way to Francis's, a pregnant dog ran across the road in front of us. "That," said Henry, "is a very bad omen."
      Odes by Horace: Let the wicked be led by omens of screeching from owls, by pregnant dogs, or a grey-she wolf, hurrying down from Lanuvian meadows, or a fox with young."
  • 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.
  • Single Sex Offspring: The Corcoran family has 5 sons — Teddy, Hugh, Patrick, Brady, and Bunny.
  • Smart People Know Latin: They're all Classics students studying Ancient Greek. Within that, though, it's an Exaggerated Trope with Henry. He writes his diary in Latin. He converses (apparently fluently) with Julian in Greek.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Camilla is the only girl is a group with 5 boys. Logistically speaking this needn't mean anything — the boys are all Ambiguously Bi, and at least 3 of the 5 have been known to get with each other after some fashion. But symbolically she is the central love interest for most of them.
  • Snow Means Death: There's an unseasonable April snow just after Bunny's death.
  • Spit Take: A weird cigarette variation.
    Though I had thought of various ways to phrase this question, it seemed, in the interests of clarity, most expedient to come to the point. "Do you think Charles and Camilla ever sleep together?" I said.
    He had just drawn in a big lungful of smoke. At my question it spurted out his nose the wrong way.
  • 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.
  • The Tease: The night Camilla comes home from a date with Cloke Rayburn she gives Richard a light kiss, even though she isn't interested in him. Discussed Trope when, in a conversation with Richard, Francis accuses the twins both of enjoying leading people on.
    Francis: Certainly they take a perverse pleasure in leading one on—
    Richard: [tries to interrupt]
    Francis: —yes, she does lead you on, I've seen her do it. And the same with Henry. He used to be crazy about her, I'm sure you know that; for all I know he still is. As for Charles—well, basically, he likes girls. If he's drunk, I'll do. But—just when I've managed to harden my heart, he'll turn around and be so sweet. I always fall for it. I don't know why.
  • That Didn't Happen: Charles and Francis. Also Richard and Francis. Oh man, what a night.
  • There Are No Therapists: The clique think there's nothing wrong with them, and, culturally, would have no interest in therapy even if they did. Still, in his very first session of Greek class, though, Richard remarks that an average contemporary person would quickly conclude that these people all need therapy. He does not interpret this as a red flag.
    To modern tastes they were somewhat chilling. I imagine any other teacher would've been on the phone to Psychological Counseling in about five minutes had he heard what Henry said about arming the Greek class and marching into Hampden town.
  • 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 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.
  • True Companions: At the emotional high point of the book, Richard may believe his and his new friends are this. It 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. It is, as Bunny calls it, "kinda classical", an allusion to the Divine Incest of Classical Mythology. This is one of multiple instances (the others being the bacchanal and the rumor of Lover and Beloved with Julian) where the Classics students engage in ancient-inspire sex that's not approved of in the modern day. It's never clear just how consensual it is on Camilla's part.
    Francis: It's not at all the casual, good-natured sort of thing that one might hope. It runs a lot more deep and nasty.
  • Twin Desynch: Richard initially introduces Charles and Camilla as Half-Identical Twins. At the about 2/3 mark in book, one of the detectives comments that they don't look that alike.
    Sciola: Did you look more alike when you were little kids? I mean, there's a family resemblance, but your hair's not even quite the same color.
  • 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.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Henry is an anti-hero at best, but it still hits hard when Charles points out that basically everything the group suffers is his fault.
  • "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.
  • Worthy Opponent: Played for Laughs. Julian doesn't like anything Judeo-Christian, but makes an offhand mention that he considers the Catholic Church a worthy opponent.
    Julian: Well, whatever one thinks of the Roman Church, it is a worthy and powerful foe. I could accept that sort of conversion with grace. But I shall be very disappointed indeed if we lose him to the Presbyterians.
  • 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.
  • You Remind Me of X: Richard is "puzzled and a bit offended" to hear that he reminded Bunny of Cloke.
    Camilla: That sounds like Cloke. He's really pretty decent, isn't he? Bun always said he reminded him of you.