Our book club tackles the first half of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
Welcome to the first Vox Book Club discussion for May! This month, we’re reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a tale of deeply pretentious yet lovable college students, murder, and the mysteries of Bacchus. In this first conversation, we’re covering everything from the prologue up to the end of Book I. I’ve read up through the end of the book, but there won’t be any spoilers in the main post. (If you would like to discuss spoilers in the comments, please make sure to label them clearly.)
The first half of The Secret History stands nearly on its own as a neat and gripping horror story, a kind of inverted murder mystery. The prologue immediately reveals who will die (Bunny), who will kill him (all of his best friends, including the narrator, Richard), and where it will happen (a ravine in the woods near campus). We spend the next 250-ish pages trying to work out the why.
And yet when we finally come to Bunny’s murder, it’s still not entirely clear why he has to die. Sure, Bunny knows too much and he’s an unstable liability, but Richard and Co. jump to killing him as the only solution awfully quickly. Richard takes pains to assure us that when he finally participates in the murder, he is not thinking about how Bunny’s death will save his friends. He’s thinking about how much Bunny annoys him.
In the end, it seems as though Bunny dies not because it’s the only way everyone can avoid life in prison, but because Bunny’s reaction to the first murder (only a farmer! who cares!) is really a little bit gauche. His sin is less moral than it is aesthetic.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about what leads up to the moment when Bunny’s best friends push him over a cliff.
These kids are pretentious as hell, but also I would really enjoy their lifestyle
For The Secret History to work, you have to buy into the glamour of the classics majors, at least a little bit. And as ridiculous and pretentious a crew as they are, I absolutely do, every time.
I know: These kids wander around in suits and ties to attend their college classes in the late ’80s/early ’90s! Henry refused to take the SATs because he objects to the aesthetics of them and he’s also translating Paradise Lost into Latin for fun. Richard appears genuinely impressed by all of the above. They are the worst. But also I would enjoy living their lives, or parts of them, at least for just a little bit.
Much of their glamour comes from the idyll of weekends at Francis’s country house, with its “dizzy little turret rooms, the high-beamed attic, an old sleigh in the cellar,” and the classics kids quoting The Waste-Land to each other as they row around a birch-lined lake before lunching on ham sandwiches and champagne they’ve smuggled past the groundskeeper in a teapot. In certain ways, this section is the emotional core of everything that follows: the lost Eden of perfect accord to which all of the classics kids find themselves struggling to return. And in my head, it’s grown to take up the entire first half of the book until the murder, even though in reality it’s only a few pages long. It’s what I immediately think of when I think of The Secret History.
The inverse of the country house interlude follows shortly after, when everyone goes home for Christmas and Richard finds himself all alone in Hampden, freezing to death in his little unheated attic sublet with the hole in the roof. That section is harrowing in a far more visceral way than Henry’s account of killing the farmer, and after Henry arrives to save Richard’s life, it helps set up the deep and unquestioning loyalty to the group that Richard assumes throughout the rest of the novel.
Richard knows what it means to be in with the classics kid in-crowd: It means warmth, comfort, beauty, and wealth, so much endless wealth, thrown about so casually. Every last one of those classics majors is wealthy, because Julian will take on no pupils who are not — except for Bunny, whose family used to be old-money wealthy and who now gets by through faking it and sponging off his friends, and Richard, whose family was never wealthy and who now gets by just through faking it. (Bunny grasps that Richard is faking his background very early on, before anyone else. Richard attributes that intuition to Bunny’s unerring sense of how to make other people uncomfortable, but perhaps it’s just that it takes a fake to spot a fake.)
After that desperate, frozen December, Richard knows what it means when the classics kids leave him behind. It means poverty and squalor and isolation and loneliness and perhaps his own death.
So when Richard learns that Henry and the others killed a man, of course, he throws in his lot with them immediately. There was never any possibility that he wouldn’t.
The big conflict here is the fight between different ideas about beauty
The first murder, the murder of the farmer, is oddly casual: No one particularly cares about him or his death. We never even learn his name. Henry concludes rapidly that he is absolutely not worth going to jail over, and that’s more or less that. This murder is impersonal, academic, and in that it’s an accident that occurs in the middle of a Dionysian rite, it is committed purely for the aesthetic.
The impetus for the bacchanal comes from the first lecture we see Julian lead, on the idea of escaping the prison of our rational selves and experiencing life as our primitive and animal selves. Julian’s argument in favor of this idea is both moral and aesthetic: Morally, he says, it is a civilized person’s duty to find a release valve for themselves so that they don’t allow violent repressed urges to well up inside them uncontrollably. And aesthetically, he says, once we leave the prison of ourselves to become completely free, we experience true beauty, which Julian argues is necessarily terrifying.
The moral argument is demonstrated to be false. When Henry creates a release valve for himself, he just ends up killing someone with his bare hands. But the aesthetic argument seems to hold. Henry describes the bacchanal as an overwhelmingly ecstatic experience, “Heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing.”
The idea of beauty as terror is roughly speaking the aesthetic of the sublime: beauty that is overwhelming and awe-inducing and maybe a little sad or scary, like a mountain or a desert. (It perhaps will not shock you to learn, The Secret History being the book that it is, that the first known study of the sublime came from a Latin philosopher in the first century AD.)
But that’s not the kind of aesthetic Richard is interested in. He tells us in chapter one that his tragic flaw is “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs,” and the picturesque, like the novel as an art form, was developed in the 18th century and came into its own in the 19th century. It’s what lies between the sublime and the serenely, harmoniously beautiful: the beauty of lovely, unspoiled nature, beauty that delights without effort or fear. If the sublime is a craggy mountaintop, the picturesque is a meadow full of wildflowers.
Richard only wants the picturesque. That’s why he guiltily prefers the easy delights of English literature over the alien world of classical literature. He wants to spend his whole life lolling around in that rowboat, drinking champagne out of teacups, and listening to his friends play the piano, but unfortunately the leader of his friend group is only interested in the sublime. Henry wants to live in the austere splendor of his books and in the inhuman glory of the bacchanal. And so Richard is a man caught between aesthetics.
But at least he has an aesthetic. Poor Bunny is too hopelessly middlebrow to develop a decent sense of beauty at all. That’s why he has to go.
Let’s talk: stray observations and questions for discussion
In this section, I’ve collected stray thoughts and questions I have about Book I of The Secret History. You can use them as a guide for your own conversation below in our comments section, or in your own community. Or start off with your own questions! Whatever brings you joy. Just mark your spoilers and be nice to each other.
- The title of The Secret History comes from Procopius’s 6th-century history of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. I do not know anywhere near enough about Byzantine history to make anything of this allusion, so I will leave that to wiser heads than mine to discuss in the comments.
- Donna Tartt wrote The Secret History while she was a student at Bennington, at the same time that both Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem were attending. For background, I highly recommend Esquire’s oral history of that era of Bennington’s history, which appears to have been … quite something. Here is what the unfortunate young man who apparently inspired Bunny has to say: “I called my mother and said, ‘I’ve been caricatured in a book, and my character gets killed.’ And she said, ‘No, no. No one would ever kill you, not even in print, no.’ Then she read the book and said, ‘That’s you all right.’”
- In general, The Secret History’s backstory is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
- Richard keeps comparing Henry to Sherlock Holmes, and there are a few subtextual parallels as well (e.g. Henry’s shock that a man walked on the moon is pretty close to Sherlock not knowing that the Earth orbits the sun). Is Henry an inverted Sherlock Holmes for this inverted detective novel? How does that work?
- Is this the least sexy orgy ever written?
“But these are fundamentally sex rituals, aren’t they?”
It came out not as a question but as a statement. He didn’t blink, but sat waiting for me to continue.
“Well? Aren’t they?”
He leaned over to rest his cigarette in the ashtray. “Of course,” he said agreeably, cool as a priest in his dark suit and ascetic spectacles. “You know that as well as I do.”
We sat looking at each other for a moment.
“What exactly did you do?” I said.
“Well, really, I think we needn’t get into that now,” he said smoothly. “There was a certain carnal element to the proceedings but the phenomenon was basically spiritual in nature.”
- How do we feel about Henry’s argument that there’s no point in going to the cops about killing the farmer because they’d never get a fair trial and would just end up going to jail? Seems like … they maybe should have just gone to jail? Like, they did kill a guy! And sure, it was unintentional, but they killed him because they were practicing dark religious rites that historically tended to end in death. We’ve got to assign them some responsibility here, no?
- The Secret History is the most prominent example of a weird subgenre best described by what I believe kids these days are calling dark academia. You know the subgenre I’m talking about, right? A group of friends is all in college or grad school together and they have a beautiful old house and they form this tight insular group and talk about art and literature together all the time, and it’s all incredibly enticing and utopian and dark and intense until someone dies. (Other entries include Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Tana French’s The Likeness.) How do you feel about this genre, and what are your favorite examples?
- People have been trying to turn The Secret History into a movie since it was first published, but that endeavor has had a bit of a cursed history. Joan Didion was signed on to do the screenplay at one point, and at another point, Gwyneth Paltrow was going to produce the movie and play Camilla. All of these plans fell through, however, and Tartt seems reluctant to try for another movie deal. But while it’s unlikely a Secret History movie will ever see the light of day, we can still dream. Who would be part of your ideal cast and producing team? The cast can include actors at any age between however old they are now and however old they were in 1991, a rule I have added to this game solely because I think late ’90s Michael Pitt would have been a really good Bunny.
Sound off in the comments below, or wherever you’d like to talk, and meet us back here next week to discuss chapters 6 and 7.
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