“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.”
So begins the first chapter of Donna Tartt’s 1992 bestseller, The Secret History. The novel is told from the perspective of Richard Papen, a twenty-eight-year-old man looking back on his time at the prestigious Hampden College in Vermont, which defined the rest of his life. From the prologue, it is immediately clear as to why Richard is preoccupied with his time at Hampden as he admits that he, along with some others, killed a friend and got away with it.
The Secret History works as a murder mystery in reverse. By the end of the prologue you know that a group of friends killed one of their own and you are left asking why? What could possibly bring a group of perfectly sane, scholarly students to murder one of their best friends? How did they reach that point? Why were they not caught? Believe me, the book is worth a read just to find out.
Richard’s self-assigned fatal flaw of a fascination with the ‘picturesque’ is indeed what leads him down the path that changes his live so irrevocably. When Richard first arrives at Hampden, he is fascinated with the mysterious, seemingly untouchable group of students that later become his friends, from the beautiful, ethereal Camilla whom Richard fancies himself in love with to the imposing, incredibly intelligent Henry whose motives are forever impossible to discern. It is this fascination that leads him to literally change his degree and attempt to join their ranks. The group are members of an elite Greek class at Hampden taught by a charismatic and eccentric professor who picks only the worthy for the class. His influence leads the students to embrace ways of thinking and levels of morality that profoundly change their lives and personalities.
The Secret History, named in reference to the ‘secret’ story that Richard tells, as well as the semi-historical, mostly slanderous story of the life of the Byzantine Empress Theodora, is beautiful. The prose is elaborate and wonderfully florid, sometimes forcing you to simply put the book down and breathe. The Secret History is essentially a depiction of the lengths that people will go to in order to protect themselves, and the consequences of such actions. The murder takes place only halfway through the novel, leaving a substantial amount of room to explore the effect of an act of unnecessary violence (though seemingly necessary at the time) on even the most apparently stable of psyches.
Pervaded throughout by references to Greek culture, the novel itself takes on the air of a Greek tragedy as the events progress. It is as though the Gods of antiquity have their own stake in the unfolding events, as though the students did not simply choose to commit murder, they were forced. And this is indeed the view that several of them have; the idea that their friend’s death is inevitable and that they are simply doing what must be done. Of course it is an inherently Ancient Greek event that catalyzes the ensuing action, though I will leave you to find out what it is for yourself.
As the Greek professor Julian says,
“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.”
The Secret History is beautiful and terrifying. As you see the lines that people are willing to cross, you cannot help but believe that their actions are justified, despite the fact that what they are doing is inherently unjust. You are forced to look at yourself and come to terms with the lengths that you yourself would go to for your own selfish gain. What you discover may be frightening and that is perhaps the beauty of the novel.