It is especially interesting to note that the popularity of this haunting, complex and brilliant novel has continued unabated for so long. In many small eastern universities, it is now required reading. (There is even a kind of Cliff Notes publication on Amazon that attempts to “explicate” the text.) Now, this 10th edition of the last publication (2004) indicates Tartt’s novel has become one of the most popular works in contemporary fiction, putting the author in the company of writers such as J. D. Salenger, Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer. What accounts for this book’s appeal?
Perhaps it has to do with our fascination with any tale that offers a vicarious escape from social constraints – and an opportunity to “become someone else.” Such vicarious flights may be exhilarating, but for the cast of Tartt’s novel, they are also dangerous ... especially if they progress from petty theft, lying and drug experimentation to ... murder.
In reading The Secret History, the reader may be reminded of other literary ventures which involve “breaking the rules”: Literary masterpieces such as Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or the novels and film scripts based on the Loeb and Leopold murder trial of 1924 – all resonate in Tartt’s novel, and all depict protagonists that dare to experience “the forbidden” and find themselves damned.
When Richard Papen, the narrator of The Secret History, finds himself at prestigious Hampton College in Vermont, he decides to “reinvent” himself. Instead of being an unstable, self-conscious youth of limited means from Plano, Calif., he becomes the wealthy, worldly and slightly jaded son of an oil tycoon.
Before long, he begins to suspect that many of his fellow students are also frauds. At Hampton nothing is what it appears to be.
When Richard manages to bluff his way into an honors class in Greek Studies, he immediately senses that he may be on the brink of an exhilarating adventure. Beneath the talk of verb tense and prefixes, he discovers that his fellow students are obsessed with a Greek concept that blends “beauty and terror.” Julian, their professor, calls it “the willful loss of control” through a drug-induced ritual – a kind of Dionysian rite involving chanting and a naked frenzy beneath a full moon in a Vermont forest. His classmates talk about hearing wolves howling and seeing grapevines rising from the earth. Are they serious, or is this merely an attempt to frighten the gullible new student? Richard is fatefully intrigued.
Consider this cast of characters (Richard’s classmates). Francis: male, slender, red-headed, wealthy, decadent and gay. Henry: brooding, dark, brilliant (a born leader) and compelling. Charles and Camilla (twins) brother/sister, blond, beautiful, devoted to each other. Edmond (Bunny) brash, shallow, alcoholic, parasitic and poor. (This fellow resembles Piggy in The Lord of the Flies – a doomed victim.)
From the first sentence of this novel, we know that his classmates will murder Bunny. However, the powerful energy that drives this novel is Richard’s account of the events that not only make murder inevitable; it also makes retribution certain. In the process, Richard becomes both a witness and a fellow conspirator who watches his classmates struggle with guilt, alcoholism and paranoia.
In addition to being a mesmerizing tale, The Secret History is a masterpiece of fascinating facts. Tartt’s characters are witty and appealing. As they eat, drink and argue, their conversation sparkles with classical quotes, poetry and philosophy. Tartt also manages to capture the small college environment with painful accuracy (townies, beer joints and bad food). Certainly, the pettiness (and the charm) of the slightly shabby small college is skewered with painful accuracy.
In the final analysis, however, The Secret History has acquired status as “great literature” because it is a chronicle of moral decay. Despite its deceptive charm and intellectual vitality, The Secret History has something in common with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It provides us with a glimpse into the abyss — a place where betrayal and the rejection of love and trust invariably engender evil and self-destruction.
Note: Donna Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend (2002) seems destined to equal the popularity of The Secret History.