Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Written by: Wulan Faraditha
Edited by: Ghafi Reyhan & Zania R Putri
Illustration by: Lisa Kalystari

I distinctly remember the past memories when I was a kid, being mesmerised by ancient Greek and Roman history. I always thought how beautiful yet blood-curdling it was to live in a time where life was a complexion of wars, beauty, blood, and roots of intellectualism sprouting around wildly. That became the starting point for my interest in almost all mythologies and other classics. The genuine beauty they have is profound but alarming, in a sense that once the façade is unveiled it might lead one to the destructive path one wishes to never discover. ‘The Secret History’ certainly attested to it.

‘The Secret History’ is a book which starts with a news about a murder through the perspective of the narrator, Richard Papen, who tells about his time at Hampden College with a group of six ivory-tower Classics intellectuals who study Ancient Greek under one of the most prominent Classics professors there is. These six intellectuals—Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, Richard, and Bunny—were directly and selectively chosen by the professor based on his personal, subjective considerations, thus anyone would feel very special to be a part of his class.

To help characterise them, Tartt uses the Greek (and occasionally Roman) myths, symbolism, allegory, allusions, tragedies, and other literary works mentioned in the book and Euripides’ Bacchae. The characters think they are well above everyone else, they reject what is in the mainstream—this precious contempt of everything that’s popular and modern—which can be the reason why the group excludes themselves from society and perceive themselves as elites, exclusive, and elusive. Hence, I understand the criticism of the characters’ pretentiousness and ultimately snobbish behaviour, and Tartt’s motives on shaping them that way considering their young age, as  we’ve had that phase too at some point of our life, no? 

Another thing I’d like to point out about the characters is how amazed I am by the way Tartt builds her characters and their relationships through Richard in a manner where she chooses to leave what is behind the façades, leaving the rest of it up to the interpretations of the readers that relates back to Richard’s unreliable point-of-view and shallow descriptions, as what Richard saw were dependent on what the other characters allow Richard to see.  

This is present in the portrayal of their friendship, which is much easier to be grasped when experienced firsthand and worsened by Richard’s lack of explanation. Richard, being a new member of the group, spent most of his time trying to fit in and understand the others through his longing for the group’s acceptance and attempts to please the people he admires (let’s be honest, who has not?). His insecurity of not being good enough and paranoia of being betrayed by the group—which I perceive as an imposter syndrome—was shown clearly throughout the book. 

I have to say I share the same feeling with Richard about friendship, as if I’m a fraud and not good enough for my friend group; I’ll never be sure whether it’s me who doesn’t trust them completely or them not trusting me completely to be around them. Thus, speaking from my personal experience, this leads me to my opinion on this matter, that no matter how long Richard spent his time with the group, he had always been a mere stranger; an outsider.

Tartt’s way of building a mystery around the characters then brutally deconstructing it in such a fascinating way is remarkable. And I feel the connection with them going deeper once I accept the fact that these characters are hardly redeemable, there is little to no remorse in them yet you still turn every page of the book looking for their remorse. This underlines how it takes a skillful author to bring these characters to life, to make them sound so real and feel so alive in an orderly realistic fashion. Henry is the most intelligent, aloof, and cold that he comes off as very rude to strangers, Francis is eccentric, fancy and sensitive, Charles being the charming and outgoing, Camilla the cool, sweetly beautiful, untouchable girl amongst the six, Richard the isolated, anxious, but prideful, and Bunny the jokester, nicely cheery, yet the most bigoted of all. 

Back to the beginning where Tartt attaches a quote from Nietzsche:

“1. A young man cannot possibly know what Greeks and Romans are. 2. He does not know whether he is suited for finding out about them.”

This reveals that the group itself was so deep with their vision in ancient life, they see things through the alternative lens due to—as mentioned before—their ignorance to modern life; they, both consciously and unconsciously, adapted the themes of the Greek tragedy into their lives; the knowledge, the conflicts, the sacrifices, the fates. Yet, they still cannot fully comprehend it, even if they think they can. The alternative lens, to an extent, made them perceive the modern world in an ancient way. As an illustration, when Richard is with the group, he describes the ambience around him as very monotonous, rich, composed, almost dull even. But when it comes to the moments he is interacting and surrounded with the people outside the group, it feels like he is this very impulsive, vibrant, fast-paced person. The shift reflects how Richard juggles between the worlds; ancient and modern through both primary and alternative lenses. 

Entering the first page, Tartt straight up reveals the murder of a member from the group and the aftermath that follows suit. This is interesting to me personally, in which it reminds me of a conversation in the Greek class:

“Death is the mother of beauty.”

“And what is beauty?”


From my personal interpretation, this shows how the beauty of death is followed by terror, and Tartt reflects this amazingly well in the book. I can see how this death eventually corrupts them, regardless of their self-justification made by convincing each other that it is the necessary step to take. The most visible alteration of them would be the decline in their behaviours; Henry becomes more secluded, Francis being more of a trainwreck, Charles to be more violent and hot-tempered, Camilla taciturn, and Richard as the goofball filled with guilt. In short, the group had gone beyond the boundaries of morality and their lives had profoundly changed forever.

The narration itself slowly and dramatically brings us to a series of events that involve their knowledge of Ancient Greece and the Greek god Dionysus, alongside his ancient ritual in Ancient Athens that the Greeks called euhoi bacchoi (or the Dionysian frenzy, if you will). How they attempted to remake and experience the bacchanal resulted in conflicts within the group and the eventual downfall of their friendship. This reminds me of what I read from Aristotle once upon a time, that the concept of psychological and moral framework of every Greek tragedy is hamartia (the fatal flaw that leads to the group’s downfall). Richard himself even mentioned his fatal flaw is ‘a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs’. And as he says before that;

“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.”

This follows the sacrifices each of them has to make to keep everything together and each characters’ withdrawal at the same time. Ironically, the sacrifices they made to hide their tracks, maintain their close friendship, and desperate attempts for survival—were not enough to keep everything intact. And lastly, how the ‘sealed’ fates of each one of them and their once-great friendship come to pick them up by the end of the book. 

The Secret History took a series of my emotions to a very complex, dangerous, yet joyous ride of a rollercoaster. It shows how Donna Tartt is trying to prove to everyone that she’s excellent at creating suspense by revealing the major news in the beginning. In which she excelled at. Her writing was genuinely amazing at building a suspenseful, thrilling mood. The Greek tragedy as the central part was placed so smoothly as if it was icing on a cake, in which it gives this modern tale a classical twist. As it always has, there are good things and bad things in everything, and the things that I find quite unpleasant in this book would be how dense it is in the first quarter, world building was complex that I had to look up at almost everything, the characters’ intoxication is over the roof (though I am convinced this habit refers to Dionysus as the god of wine who serves as the central point of their influence), yet again these “bad things” for my liking is very much fitting to the book. 

It is safe to say that The Secret History has emotionally and intellectually wrecked me, in a painfully good way. It changes the way I think, see, and feel about my surroundings. There is no happily ever after, no real resolutions. This book with its consistency of the classical world is what most people and I find particularly fascinating since it serves as the centrality of the book. The classical world taints every page of the book and the characters are purposefully suited for it, which makes this piece of modern classic very hypnotic and brilliant.

Forgive me for all the things I did but mostly for the ones I did not.

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