A Lovely Greek Tragedy of a Novel – A Review of The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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One of the most fun, most entertaining things about reading is the intertextuality game. It’s something that happens when one’s reading habits become deep enough and broad enough that one begins to see threads made of themes, tropes, images, and concepts linking certain books together. The best thing about the intertextuality game is that the more one reads, the broader and deeper the potential links between books become—enough that one can reread a book, and connect it to other books one has read before in ways that one didn’t when one first read said book. Even with books one has never read before, the intertextuality game provides a web upon which one may hang one’s own expectations and draw one’s own connections, to be reaffirmed or broken according to the author’s intent and/or talent.

It’s especially rewarding when one comes across (or is recommended, in this case–and again, by Hope) a book that one recognises from another, previous read. Last year, at more or less this same time, I was reading Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, a beautiful (and long) ode to the college life I wish I’d gotten to lead. Inspired by the Scottish ballad of the same title, Tam Lin is about Janet Carter and her life as a college student studying English literature at Blackstock College. Surrounded by her friends and cute Classics boys, Janet works her way through her life at Blackstock, followed at all times by a light touch of magic and mystery. The book is weighty, to be sure, and not just because it’s a long read: Dean deals with some interesting questions about what it means to be an intelligent, well-read young woman studying in the somewhat-isolated environment of a private college, surrounded by interesting distractions both physical and mental.

But for all that, Tam Lin is actually a light, rather cheerful read. There’s a certain sparkling quality about it, like the flash of sunlight on water, that means it could never be truly dark, even when it deals with some rather difficult subjects. The same cannot be said of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which, as Hope and I have agreed, is Tam Lin’s dark mirror reflection.

The Secret History begins with a murder. Richard Papen, the novel’s narrator, recalls the moment when he and his college friends murdered another one of their number, one Bunny Corcoran, whereupon he delves into the whys and wherefores of that murder: what led up to it, and what came after. At the same time, he describes his life as a student at Hampden College: the people he met there and the things he did, but more importantly, the people who would become key to the murder mentioned in the very first part of the novel, who were all a part of the exclusive environment of the Classics classes taught by their professor and lone Classics specialist at Hampden, Julian Morrow.

As I mentioned earlier, The Secret History is Tam Lin’s darker twin, mostly because they share a great many traits, but at their core, are not the same at all. Both Tam Lin and The Secret History deal with the closed, hothouse environments of liberal arts colleges nestled in the countryside: Blackstock is located in Minnesota, while Hampden is located in Vermont. Charismatic and somewhat-mysterious Classics teachers are prominently featured in both novels: Melinda Wolfe in Tam Lin, and Julian Morrow in The Secret History. Literary references—to Classical as well as English literature—are everywhere in both novels, and are the key to understanding what happens in the story.

However, that is where the similarities end. Tam Lin is a celebration of college life, a shared appreciation for beauty and art in all its forms (though primarily in literature), and what it means to be young and in love with the world. The Secret History is the shadow cast by all that light: where love turns into obsession, camaraderie into hatred, and the Latin saying “amor vincit omnia” is stated, not with triumph, but with a hurt and weary heart.

One of the first things the reader may have noticed is that, though it’s often touted as a “mystery”, The Secret History opens with the criminals already known to the reader. There’s no need to figure out “whodunit”, because the reader already knows that. What is offered, instead, is an explanation as to why the murder was committed in the first place: discovering motive instead of a criminal. I personally find this interesting, and in a way far more engaging than the usual pattern of mystery novels that involve figuring out who was behind the crime. “Why?” tends to be a more interesting question, to me, than “Who?”, especially in mysteries, because I find it pointless knowing who was behind a particular crime if I don’t know why they did it in the first place. It was, therefore, a pleasure to read The Secret History, because I already knew who had committed the crime, but knowing why they did it in the first place was an exceptionally engaging journey. It makes me wish that more crime and mystery writers would actually consider focusing on motive instead of just the criminal, especially when the potential for exploring the darker side of the human mind is very high.

Equally pleasurable was reading all the literary references, particularly to the Iliad and the Odyssey (especially the latter, as I have an enormous soft spot for it). I have absolutely no Latin or Greek, but a working knowledge of Greek tragedy is all that’s really needed to understand the novel, which is structured along those lines in the first place. Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex and Medea put a heavy emphasis on the characters playing out their fate, of being unable to break away from it in the first place. There is also a heavy emphasis on the concept of justice—not the justice of the law, but a moral justice, embodied by the Furies of Greek myth.

This is precisely how the plot of The Secret History plays out. Bunny’s murder was an attempt to avert fate, since killing him was a cover-up for a previous murder committed by Henry, Francis, and the twins during a Bacchanal gone horrifically awry. This drives them, and Richard (who was not included in the Bacchanal, but came along during Bunny’s murder) deep into the throes of guilt. From there they are tormented by the Furies (who are, anyway, supposed to represent guilt) in their own unique way: Francis’ paranoia and hypochondria become worse; Charles spirals deeper into alcoholism and starts abusing his own twin sister, Camilla; and Richard has strange and terrible nightmares. Only Henry appears to be unaffected, but it’s made clear in the novel that he, too, is deep in the clutches of the Furies. And just like a tragedy, Greek or otherwise, it ends with suicide, while the rest are left to drift away and figure out the rest of their lives the best way they can.

As with Tam Lin, it was these literary references, both in terms of the novel’s structure and the quotes used throughout, that annoyed a great many readers, with many reviews calling the novel and the main characters “pretentious”, and Richard “dull” and “flat”. I agree with these assessments: the novel and the characters do feel pretentious, and Richard does indeed read as a bit more milquetoast than one might like for the protagonist of a murder mystery. But I think those readers who point these out as bad things are approaching the novel the wrong way. Of course the novel would feel pretentious: that’s rather the point of the whole thing, given the setup and the characters involved. It helps to remember that the novel is structured around the framework of a Greek tragedy, and anyone who’s at least briefly studied the script for Oedipus Rex knows that pretension and pretence is part and parcel of the genre: one can easily draw parallels between Oedipus and Henry, for instance, not least because they both suffer from the gravest flaw the ancient Greeks could think of: hubris.

Neither are any of the characters meant to be truly sympathetic: if one can connect with them, that’s well and good, but one need not do so in order to enjoy the novel. They are meant to be held up as examples of what can go wrong when one tries to escape from one’s fate, when one tries to elude moral justice. Also, I assume that any reader is capable of knowing the difference between liking a character as a person, and liking a character because they’re an interesting character, and therefore knows to appreciate the characters in The Secret History despite knowing that they are, in fact, really terrible people.

I’m also partly certain that the “pretentious” descriptor is made largely by people who don’t understand exactly what Tartt is trying to do with this novel because of their own lack of experience with the genre she’s playing with and the texts she’s referencing. This is forgivable; after all, one may not have an interest in Greek tragedy, nor even encountered it in the course of one’s education. However, to dismiss a novel as “pretentious” simply because one doesn’t quite understand what the writer is referencing or trying to do is, to my mind, rather indicative of laziness and impatience on the reviewer’s part.

As for Richard, I do agree that he seems rather plain, but then again, he’s meant to be, once one understands that Tartt is recreating a Greek tragedy in novel format. Richard is, in my opinion, meant to act in the same way as a Greek chorus: as witness, and as narrator, not really a true actor in the sense of his actions doing much to affect the action of the other characters. There are many characters cast in his mould throughout literature, unremarkable folk who stand witness to the greater deeds—and foibles—of others: Sancho Panza from Don Quixote for instance, or John Watson from the Sherlock Holmes stories. Like those characters, Richard is a stand-in for the reader: a stand-in with some very interesting thoughts of his own, to be sure, but a stand-in regardless, a camera through which the reader sees what happened to him, and what happened to those around him.

However, the things perceived by other readers to be flaws are the reasons why I loved reading this novel in the first place. I love it for the reasons I loved Tam Lin, albeit my love for The Secret History is limned with shadow and involves a great deal more head-shaking at the foibles and errors of the characters—it is, after all, a Greek tragedy. But I love it, for all that: love it because it is dark, because it is tragic. One cannot understand the light, after all, without knowing what darkness looks like.

Overall, The Secret History is a beautiful, darker reflection of the story I read in Tam Lin—a parallel made even more interesting when one realises that the latter was published just one year ahead of the former. Though much about the two novels is similar, there’s no denying that The Secret History is a Greek tragedy built around a murder mystery, and therefore does not have any of that sparkling light to it that Tam Lin appears to have. Despite that—or rather, precisely because of that—it makes for an excellent read.

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2 thoughts on “A Lovely Greek Tragedy of a Novel – A Review of The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. The “pretentiousness” is one of the many reasons that The Secret History is one of my favorites. Something about the setting and the language makes it seem completely otherworldly. I’ll have to check out Tam Lin!

    1. Yes, I completely agree with you on that “pretentiousness”! I don’t understand at all why some people take such a set against it; it’s handled quite well, in my opinion, and Tartt is not condescending to her readers in the least.

      I also thoroughly encourage you to read Tam Lin. It was an unexpected joy to read :).

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