The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

This is a fascinating novel that begins with what purports to be an accidental death—of a college student named Bunny. But it has happened because five other students at Hampden, an obscure Vermont college, believe Bunny intends to reveal their involvement in the death of a Vermont farmer during a strange ritual. One of the five students is the narrator, Richard, who has fallen in with the other four shortly after the farmer’s death. The other students are Henry, the group’s manipulative leader; Frances, wealthy and seductive; and the twins, beautiful but aloof, Charles and Camille.

The novel is immediately fascinating because of how deeply the author understands these students and how well she communicates their bravado and their uncertainties. And yet, even as both their talk and their actions are convincing, the students themselves do not come alive on the page as separate individuals. Not even Richard, the narrator of their tale, a poor California youth who pretends to come from wealth. This may well be because all five are under the spell of eccentric Greek professor, Julian Morrow, whose favorite saying is “beauty is terror,” and whose cultural frame of reference they have all absorbed.

The academic atmosphere, yes, comes alive, but not the characters. If these six youths seem more types than vividly individual students, it may also be because little dramatic happens after the opening pages. They are more interested in themselves than in each other. Early on, these students talk a lot, often about the Greek classics they study. And the author certainly knows those classics. But such discussions contribute more to the college atmosphere than to any dramatic developments.

Yet this rich atmosphere and the author’s fluid style sustain one’s interest.           What drives the novel early on is the fear among the four students that, angry he was not included in the ritual that resulted in the farmers death, a blackmailing Bunny will betray them. And half-way into this novel, after discussing what to do about Bunny, they quickly plan the “accident,” the murder that begins the novel. Narrator Richard is present, but more as a witness than a participant. Yet he is conscience-stricken and filled with guilt.

The students’ desperate reactions are interesting, but overall I am turned off by what is happening in this book—even as I read on to find out why this interesting author has written this novel. Where is she going with it? Certainly, identifying with these characters—with their defense of and justification of their actions—becomes difficult.

For example, the five students at first stand around and talk, often drinking or indulging in drugs, as they wait for various search parties to discover Bunny’s body and the apparent accidental circumstances. Then, after a brief campus-wide mourning, the five students attend Bunny’s funeral in Connecticut. All the while talking and drinking, talking about what they should do next. It is a well-drawn portrait of guilt, denial, and desperation, but nothing is really happening externally, certainly nothing dramatic.

In the final pages, the students try to come to terms with a situation in which their mutual guilt is compounded by a distrust of each other. Will one of them betray the others? Henry grows elusive. Charles gets drunk and becomes desperate. Francis panics. While narrator Richard follows them around—ineffectual, but indispensible for telling the story.

Two plot developments bring the story to a head—a melodramatic head. First, Professor Morrow, who has guided these privileged students into a world of dark conspiracies, makes a discovery that changes his view of them and the reader’s view of him. It is not a convincing shift, but seems to occur because it leaves these students without their cultural base, without the professor’s intellectual and emotional support they have long relied on.

And so they are on their own. And become desperate. One fearing death and finding a gun. One hiding from responsibility. One feeling helpless, and out of the loop. And then there is a melodramatic confrontation, followed by a death. Is there meant to be a moral here, that the victimizer becomes the victim?

The novel ends with a brief epilogue that describes the future of the various characters. But there are no revelations that further explain their actions during this melodrama of their student lives. Nor do those events have any impact on their future lives. It is simply a round-up chapter, like those that once concluded old-fashioned novels. But for me, it is a cop-out. It carries no significance. The significance of this novel is in their student experience—an experience that has turned this novel into a college novel like no other. It is as if the author has been guided into reverting to tradition. But the content of this novel is far from traditional.

And so, one asks where was the author trying to go with this novel? She began it while in college, and so one can easily conclude that she chose the college setting. That is, she decided to write from experience. But obviously, she was inspired to write something that was different. She wished to probe the psychology of students reacting to two deaths they are responsible for. There are no love stories here, nor tales of academic woes. No, this is about guilt and its repercussions.

In fact, Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, after praising this novel for its controlled pace and its entertainment value, comes to a conclusion similar to mine: “Because Ms. Tartt’s characters are all such silly customers, they do not so much lose their innocence as make a series of pragmatic, amoral decisions. As a result, real guilt and suffering doe not occur in this novel; neither does redemption. The reader is simply left with a group portrait of the banality of evil.”

My first caveat is that guilt and suffering do occur. But are simply not recognized. For what else drives the inexplicable, melodramatic climax?

Nor do I find evil present in this novel. Especially a Dionysian evil out of the Greek classics. That is too much weight for these studious but callow youths to carry. They simply do not know as much as they think they know. And are unprepared for their own fateful decisions. (November, 2018)

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