Out with the New, In with the Old: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History
“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. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs” (The Secret History).
For those of you who have yet to read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, allow me to summarize the novel: the masterpiece begins with narrator Richard Papen, an all-around average character with a bland background and no particular talents nor any outstanding wit. He leaves his hometown in California for the elite Hampden College in New England, where he attempts to enroll in the classes of Julian Morrow, an allegedly famous and entirely idiosyncratic Classics professor, who hand-picks his students to form an exclusive clique of five scholars: the Macaulay twins, Camilia and Charles, with a mysterious and questionable relationship at best; Francis Abernathy, wealthy on all accounts and highly prone to sporting his iconic black greatcoat that makes “him look like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper;” Henry Winter, linguistic genius obsessed with cold perfectionism and Platonic rationality and the group’s unspoken leader; and finally, Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran rounds out the group with his gaudy, bigoted and larger-than-life personality.
Within the first few pages, Richard alludes to Bunny’s death, and the rest of the novel flows as a reverse-mystery, slowly revealing more and more of the crime. However, Donna Tartt’s novel is anything but an average murder mystery or even a typical drama. The Secret History is less of a whodunit and more of a “whydunit,” as the author herself describes. Weaving themes of wasted youth and the facade of decadence through a gruesome tragedy, readers delve into this eccentric group side-by-side with Richard and witness the pitfalls of his fatal flaw: “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”
Despite having been set in the 1980’s, The Secret History is entirely applicable to the 21st century. With the rise of social media, many tend to prioritize doing things for the “aesthetic” rather than a justified reason as simple as genuinely liking or enjoying the action in question. While there’s nothing wrong with that on its own, this does lead to things like gatekeeping, performative actions or slacktivism.
We see this in the novel, too but in a more extreme situation as Richard’s fatal flaw impairs his ability to see reality. He finds himself tangled in the romantic decadence of the Classics scholars, and despite questioning whether he can trust them several times throughout the story, Richard surrenders to his longing for the picturesque time and time again. Like all epic heroes with their respective fatal flaw, Richard’s leads to his eventual downward spiral. On a more minor scale, Henry, our Platonic perfectionist, refused to take the SATs because he disagreed with their aesthetic. Yes, you read that correctly– he just outrightly decided not to take standardized testing because the vibes were off. Additionally, like other great novelists, Donna Tartt stresses the importance of mental health, a topic that has not nearly received enough serious attention.
[SPOILERS AHEAD!] As all of the characters had fragile mental states to begin with, they ultimately begin to devolve as individuals while their group dynamic begins to dissolve after the group murders Bunny. Charles falls into alcoholism and becomes abusive to his sister, Camilla. Henry tries to interfere by arranging a hotel for Camilia to move her away from Charles, but this action only drives the twin brother further into his addiction (and leads him to be arrested in a drunk-driving accident with Henry’s car). While Henry fears Charles may reveal the group’s responsibility in Bunny’s death, Charles fears that Henry may kill him to preserve his silence, and not wanting to fall victim to Henry, Charles barges into Henry and Camilla’s hotel room with Francis’s gun.
In the struggle, Charles accidentally shoots Richard in the abdomen, and after quickly forming a solution to protect the rest of the group, Henry commits suicide. The final police report claims that in a suicidal fit, Henry accidentally shot Richard, thereby allowing the rest of the group to remain innocent. Following its leader’s death, the group disintegrates– Francis attempts suicide and his grandmother forces him to marry a rich woman, despite being gay; Camilia becomes increasingly reclusive while caring for her grandmother by herself; Charles flees from rehab in an affair with a married woman and no longer speaks to his twin sister; and Richard becomes an isolated academic with an unrequited love for Camilia.
The final scene in the novel consists of Henry appearing to Richard in a dream of a museum in a desolate city. Our narrator asks Henry’s ghost, “Are you happy here?” Henry replies, “Not particularly. But you're not very happy where you are either.” The Secret History concludes with a theme of the illusion of beauty fizzling away to the painful mess of reality. The picturesque nature of the group has vanished entirely, and Richard finds himself alone and full of guilt and regret.