Books: The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

the secret history donna tartt

The Secret History, written by Donna Tartt, was published in 1992, so while this is not a new book, it is certainly worth reviewing now.

The Secret History was Donna Tartt’s first novel and it soon became a bestseller. The author has gone on to write other successful novels including The Little Friend (2002) and The Goldfinch (2013) which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, among other awards.

The story is set in New England, USA, and follows a group of rich, intelligent and charismatic Classics students at an elite Vermont college, Hampden College. The fictional college is said to be inspired by Bennington College in Vermont, where Tartt herself studied.

As the novel begins, we are introduced to the narrator, Richard Papen, who reflects on his time at Hampden College and the events that led up to the murder of student and friend Edmund “Bunny” Corcorcan. This is not a spoiler, by the way, this is revealed at the outset, though minimal details are revealed as to who kills Bunny or why.

The book in its whole focuses on the consequences of the murder, and the destructive way in which the secluded and isolated Classics students deal with their lives academically and personally after the death of their friend.

As the main characters are Classics students, this book heavily features the subjects of Greek history and philosophy. This makes The Secret History much, much more than your average mystery/thriller novel as it deals with themes such as beauty, death, sex, the self, social class and most importantly – guilt.

The novel also looks at philosophical and literary concepts, such as Nietzsche’s model of Dionysian and Apollonian expression. In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are brothers, both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of ration and reason, and is based on logical thinking. In stark contrast, Dionysus is the god of the irrational and chaos, and appeals to emotions and instincts. They are natural enemies, and it is said that all great works of tragedy are based on the tensions between the two.

At 629 pages, this book is pretty long, but every page is worth it. The characters are written so well that they really come to life, and I genuinely felt remorse as I read the final page and had to say goodbye to Richard, Bunny, and the rest.

The novel is obsessed with Ancient Greece, and it includes many quotations and allusions to the study of Classics throughout. While reading this book you feel as though you are part of the exclusive, privileged student body, discussing Homer and Plato; though outside of the pages there may be TVs blaring and teenagers playing music on their phones, inside of the pages you are introduced to the literary world, a world of the sublime. It’s a world I didn’t want to leave.