‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt

Chloe Boulton | Content Writer

In September 1992, Alfred A. Knopf published the debut novel of a then 28-year-old Donna Tartt, called The Secret History. The novel is set in a small college in Vermont, inspired quite heavily by Tartt’s own alma mater: the exclusive Bennington College. The Secret History is about a group of Classics students, and the events that occur when the group’s studies lead to the murder of a classmate. 

The Secret History is the tale of how six students’ love of the ancient world leads to them recreating a Bacchanal, during which Charles and Camilla, secretive, fraternal twins; Francis, whose country house becomes a haven for the group; and Henry, an intellectual whose passion for his studies borders on being obsessive, all partake in the murder of a farmer. In order to cover their tracks the students then collude to kill their sixth classmate, Bunny Corcoran; a bigot and jokester, and the events unfold from there. 

By revealing what readers would initially assume to be the climax of the story in the first line of the novel, Tartt skilfully captures the reader’s interest. From there she is able to create a rare intimacy between Richard and the reader, with the novel written almost like a confessional diary. Using the second person furthers this allowing Tartt to blur the lines between reader, on-looker, and even participant. At some points in the novel this goes as far as to engender a feeling of guilt in the reader over Bunny’s death as, by bearing witness to the murder, you feel partly responsible. 

Californian Richard Papen, one of the students in the tightly knit class, narrates. Richard, in all aspects of his being, is imperfect. Through his narration he is humanised, and his flaws are made quite obvious both through his own admissions and actions. Arguably, one could call Richard an unreliable narrator, due to his shifting presentation of the other characters, whether motivated by unseen desires, or to simply convince the reader that he, in comparison to everyone else, is to be admired in his morals. Nonetheless, Tartt manipulates the situation so that no one of her characters could be singled out as either the protagonist or antagonist. For example, while it is easy to be drawn in by Richard initially, it is difficult to forget his role in Bunny’s murder.

Undeniably there is something quite pretentious about The Secret History: a number of untranslated quotations leave readers in search of a deeper meaning to the novel. However Tartt weaves them into the story in such a way that it is not only enjoyable but thrilling. Impressively, she is able to litter the novel with academic references without alienating her readers in the process. 

Though Tartt was, and still is, disinterested with the fame and attention both she and her novel were given after publication, The Secret History became an instant classic and continues to challenge how thrillers should be both received and written. 

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