A Review But not really
The secret history
by donna tartt
“Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.”―
donna tartt, The secret history
Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.
The reason I am not calling this a review of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, is because I am not rating this book, but I desperately wish to discuss it since it very nearly blew my mind. Hell, it’s been months and I still can’t look at a rose bush and not think of this novel. So before I get into my meanderings, some context.
Oh academia, you wonderful and complex creature how I love you so. Consequently, I find myself quite fond of what is known as Dark Academia. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Dark Academia would be best characterized as an aesthetic, or subculture even, that focuses on classic literature (most often Classic lit specifically, as in Ancient Greek and Latin/Roman), a general passion for knowledge and learning, as well as ultimately self-discovery. I could go on for days – scratch that- *weeks*, about its many facets, its sometimes myopic focus on a Eurocentric context, and all that is in between.
As with anything in fact, you’ll find two extremes of a scale battling it out in discussing whether it is problematic or not, whether it promotes classism and elitism or the actual opposite etc. While I am not exactly here for this debate though, I will touch on all that, to an extent in this let’s call it essay. For the record I lean toward the side that considers it a representation of what academia should be, i.e. an environment that encourages learning, following one’s passions, and, most importantly, champions an open-mindedness and acceptance that all cultures/literatures etc. are equal and none is superior to another.
Donna Tartt is a multi-awarded author, among which a Pulitzer for her third novel The Goldfinch, but her first novel The Secret History came out in 1992 and has been discussed, dissected, and debated in all that time. I have seen nearly all kinds of commentary under the sun about the story and its themes. Hence my disinterest in thinking up a specific rating. But in general terms it is considered the quintessential read for anyone with an interest in dark academia. So you see, I had to check it out. In short: this book had both things I loved and things I hated. It was both truly brilliant and it had moments that I couldn’t believe belonged to the same novel or author.
Let’s get a little technical first, shall we? Plot wise this novel is a reverse murder mystery or inverted detective story, in other words, we know who the perpetrators are, and we know who the victim was right from the start. In this case the narrator is one of the killers, Richard, recounting sequentially what happened, years after the fact. The story is about him joining a close-knit group of college students in a Vermont liberal arts university when he transfers there. The reader is given to understand that there is more that meets the eye when it comes to this eccentric group lead by a charismatic professor, and the mystery unfolds tantalizingly slow as Richard enters more into the confidence of each character at different stages.
My favorite thing about this structure is that first and foremost, Richard is one of the most unreliable narrators I have ever had the pleasure of reading. 80% of the time in fact he literally sees but he does not observe/comprehend so much going on around him! It is both bewildering and such an amazing plot device – you are literally telling me of something happening right before your eyes and yet you are not connecting anything! I just had so much fun with it honestly and think that it was one of several moments of brilliance by Tartt.
Not to mention that with the story being told some time after the fact by one of the participants, there is so much foreshadowing through Richard’s hindsight and/or meandering comments, that keeps you hooked so inexorably throughout the vast majority of the novel. Take these lines for example: “[…] some of those casual remarks and private jokes assumed a horrific significance much later […] I found it merely annoying and could not understand the violent agitation to which it provoked the rest of them: not knowing then, as I do now, that it must have chilled them all to the bone”.
Another reason I thoroughly loved this novel was the level of understanding and connection I could have with the main characters, and the reason is fairly self-explanatory. They all were in and around my age, with interests and passions that were almost identical to mine. I even joked with a friend while reading that a few wrong turns here and there and it would’ve easily been my life if I’d let myself go to the same extremes.
With the exception that I’m not a student at an American college in the 80s, so overt substance abuse for one, is not a factor to be considered. That aside though, the student experience fresh in my mind, I was having a great time reading about one severely sleep deprived character discuss with another hyper caffeinated fellow student, the fine details of linguistic inflection for translations or cultural context necessity for the understanding of specific literature. I’ve done it – still am doing it- and it is *fun*. But I digress.
At the same time I was somewhat disappointed both by the presence of something that has (to my chagrin) become almost a cliché in fiction by now, which I will not elaborate on as it is a major spoiler, and by the last section of the book. Indeed, up to circa 200 pages from the end I could not put this novel down, I needed to find out how everything happened, I needed to piece the mystery together, understand exactly why these five characters were pushed to the extreme of murdering the sixth; after all as I said I could connect with these characters (some more than others obviously) but that still doesn’t mean I’m contemplating murder, so I needed to find out how something like that was even possible!
And I did, oh boy what an experience to get there, with Tartt’s mesmerizing and atmospheric writing I was borderline enthralled. And then it all sort of stopped. The murder happens and we get to the aftermath. At which point the story just trips and falls without truly getting back on its feet until the last few chapters, where it suddenly picks itself up again and races to the end in a breathless attempt to wrap things up with one final shock to the system.
I was so affected by it that I literally threw my copy to the ground and stared at the wall for several minutes trying to make sense of everything. Months later I understand it more, I get that those 100 something pages of absolute crawling through what was effectively Richard and co. going through the motions and dealing with their conscience was as conducive to seeing these characters falling apart, as it was evidence of them trying and perhaps failing to fix their lives and move on.
Then, the cliché that shall not be named was the device needed to jump start those last few chapters into life again in order to complete the story, which even though I understand from a logic standpoint, I still hate as a cliché and would’ve much preferred something else be that last push.
Now then, with that review of sorts aside, a bit of commentary on my part. As mentioned earlier this book is one of the most recommended books for those who are into dark academia, it is easy to see why. But it is also a perfect parallel to what that whole subculture entails and maybe even a cautionary tale to boot. Firstly, I saw reviews comparing it to John Green novels and I had to take one very deep, very long breath (nothing against JG, but the two are simply non comparable by virtue of both target demographic and content).
Then, I found several posts heavily romanticizing aspects of these characters, that let’s just go with – it would be best not to… Just oof… Others yet, disparaged this book for being elitist and classist because of its non-translated snippets of Greek, Latin or even French. To which I can only say, 1. Googling a couple words is a thing we all know how to do, and 2. It is a book about Humanities students, what exactly where you expecting? Another comment I came across was that it is as self-absorbed and obsessive as its characters, who are all unlikable, melodramatic, amoral, and pretentious.
Aside from the fact that we’re all entitled to our opinions, and that I disagree on everyone being amoral and unlikable, the rest is pretty much the whole point this novel was trying to make. This IS a story about characters that let themselves fall into excess of all sorts, from substance abuse, to being so far removed from current reality to not know that a man has landed on the moon. But I strongly disagree specifically with the idea that the main characters are all amoral. They might fall into immorality (which is much different) at times but that is the crux of the novel, the way morality can shift and change, be flawed and twisted by forgetting to live in the real world in favor of championing a strictly academic way of life.
More importantly though I found this novel to be one about responsibility. The responsibility mentors have towards their students, and the importance of fostering that thirst for knowledge in a way that promotes self-growth and understanding without falling into narrowmindedness bigotry and superiority complexes. Truly the back blurb presents the plot as ‘Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries.
But when they go beyond the normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever’. I argue that if anyone is the true villain of this novel, it is this professor! The reasons why are a bit long to get into properly for this already long piece, and once again quite spoilery, but my main point is that this person manipulates young individuals in search of answers, under the guise of teaching, because of his own self absorption and obsession with an elitist approach to life. And then (minor spoiler) once he’s learned of what his irresponsible grooming resulted in, he quite literally washes his hands of the mess and runs away. This mentor fails his students in that he pushes them to shun other disciplines and only search for the absolutes and excesses the ancients warned people about. Irony where?
Generally speaking in academic environments, things have mostly changed now for the best, compared to say the early 90s when this book first came out, or even earlier (another very long discussion to be made there, and I obviously don’t mean that all professors groomed students towards crime), but it is still not uncommon for people to get lost in the assumed superiority of the past compared to the future. How many times do we see a text or comment about ‘X culture was the superior one because they left a legacy of etc. etc. etc.’, or, ‘the ancients knew better’, or ‘oh to be living back then’.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a literature major, raised on schooling heavily influenced by the Classics among other things – I strongly believe that the texts of old have so much to teach us, things that we might never consider today, or things that we’d never have thought would’ve been as relevant in the distant past as they are today. As I’ve read somewhere, humans have always been and always will be human. But in our day and age, with the access to information that we have, it would be kind thoughtless to promote one current of knowledge/culture/literature/language above another. As well as thinking of oneself as superior to another for simply pursuing a specific lifestyle. High horses are a thing of the past that ought to be left there.
Don’t you all agree?
Eleni A. E.
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Eleni is a Greek student who grew up in Italy, and is currently working on getting her BA Honours degree in Literature from a Scottish university! When not typing away for her disseration, she can be found reading all the SFF she can get her hands on, and reviewing it for fun when inspiration strikes and she just needs to share her passion for reading. Alternatively, she will definitely be with a needy Westie in her arms watching series or movies. You can find her writing on her shared blog with her course mate at https://latenightbookscom.