I was 17 the first time I read Donna Tartt's 1992 novel The Secret History. I do not remember who recommended it to me; likely, it was someone who felt it was the sort of book I would enjoy, consonant with all of the other things I loved. It was a book for teenagers who studied classics, who thought in Homeric epithets, who luxuriated among the fantasy of old things. It was a book for people who loved other books, who shared with its protagonist, Richard Papen, a “morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” Its plot was tailor-made for me, or for people like me: a Californian outsider is absorbed into a coterie of sexually and temporally ambiguous Classics students at a New England college, only to discover that their close-knit friendship is predicated, in part, by the frenzied, ritualistic killing of a “townie” during an inspired attempt at a bacchanal. It was the kind of book I wanted to love; instead, I hated it.
The Secret History managed, somehow, in a manner I could not articulate at the time, to both be about all the things I loved, and to miss the point of them entirely. I wanted (I thought) exactly what its youthful characters wanted: a poetic life, a mythic life, a life shot through with meaning. I loved (I thought) exactly what its characters loved: nostalgic emblems of an era imagined as significant. All these are to be found in The Secret History, to be sure: whole passages double as litanies of evocation. But actually reading the novel reminded me of a line from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” in which young Kay — whose vision has been pierced by a shard of ice from the cruel queen herself — finds that even the most beautiful landscape “looked like boiled spinach.”
I am not alone. Talking to friends — including those Greek-conjugating ex-theatre-kids who one might think are The Secret History's target audience — I found that many of them expressed similar sentiments. They loved the idea of The Secret History and yet were alienated from the text itself.
As The Secret History, and I, enter our fourth decade, I reread the book, curious whether my adolescent revulsion was a function of my own immaturity or some kind of literary envy (after all, who doesn't want to write a fabulously successful debut novel about Greek-reading teenagers?), or else of some quality of the book itself. What I found was a novel that was simultaneously better and worse than I remembered: a meticulously constructed, often exquisitely written novel that is suffused with such bleak nihilism that it borders on the diabolical.
The Secret History managed, somehow, to both be about all the things I loved, and to miss the point of them entirely.
The Secret History is a novel about beauty, but one predicated — on the level of plot, character, and language alike — on the assumption that goodness does not exist. To put it more bluntly: the world of Hampden College is fundamentally evil. It is a world in which our instinctive yearnings for beauty, love, and transcendence are revealed to be not simply misguided or perverted (love but love for the wrong thing) but rotten all the way through.
In this way, The Secret History functions as a curious dark mirror of the classic novel of the “outsider transformed by posh university friends”: Evelyn Waugh's 1945 Brideshead Revisited, among the most obvious of Tartt's influences. In that novel, solidly bourgeois Charles Ryder falls in love with, in turn: 1920s Oxford, aristocratic Oxford contemporary Sebastian Flyte, Sebastian’s sister Julia, and, finally, with the uncanny Catholicism that suffuses both siblings’ spiritual and emotional lives. Perhaps ironically, given Tartt’s own avowed Catholicism, The Secret History reads like Brideshead Revisited without God at its center: a place where the aesthetic pull of beauty collapses into, at best, the snobbery of upper-class social signifiers and, at worst, a Nietzschean disdain for the dignity of human life itself.
Take Richard Papen, our disaffected narrator, who comes to Hampden and soon falls under the spell of mysterious Classics professor Julian Morrow and his coterie of favored students, each of whom is characterized by little more than aesthetic tropes: everyone’s Homeric epithets plucked from performing sortilege on a copy of Brideshead. There is intellectual Henry, posh gay Francis, ambiguously incestuous siblings Charles and Camilla, and foppish jerk Bunny, Hampden’s counterpart to Anthony Blanche. Morrow, though repeatedly heralded by the novel’s characters as something of a charismatic cult leader, is even more thinly-drawn than the younger characters; he is rarely “onstage,” existing primarily as a plot device, getting the characters in a classroom long enough to meditate on the Dionsyian longing “to be absolutely free....to sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal,” before ceding the narrative to his students. About a third of the way of the book, we learn that the group, minus Richard and Bunny, has killed a local farmer in a vaguely described bacchanalian rite; soon thereafter, Richard is drawn into a conspiracy to murder Bunny, who has been blackmailing the others to keep quiet about what happened. Nobody feels particularly guilty. Things fall apart anyway.
It goes without saying that none of these characters are likeable, hardly a necessary trait in great literature. Yet, more troublingly, with the possible exception of Bunny — who, though odious, nevertheless has the immediately recognizable desire to belong — none of these characters even seem to be really human. Almost unanimously they lack any sense of internal conflict; these are not divided human beings but avatars of aesthetic aloofness (Richard repeatedly reminds us that Bunny's murder has had little effect on his psychology). Despite a few eleventh-hour revelations of offstage romantic pining, not one Hampden student evinces any capacity for love: whether romantic, fraternal, intellectual, or erotic. Unlike, say, their privileged contemporaries in Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan — a far more charitable treatment of college-age aesthetes — their love of the classical world bears no relationship to their desires, their hopes, their fears, or even their friendship with one another: a friendship ostensibly strong enough to occasion murder.
Tartt’s characters are, rather, moral aliens: less sociopaths than exemplars of a worldview that treats human life as simultaneously tragic and meaningless. Everything every character loves, cares about, or wants, however couched in the language of Homer, boils down to either a pathological obsession with aristocratic class markers (Richard, who seems profoundly uninterested in any of the group beyond their collective aesthetic effect), or an equally cartoonish sense of ennui (the übermensch Henry, describing his murder of the farmer late in the book, describes the act as his sole source of “surge of power and delight, of confidence, or control. That sudden sense of the richness of the world.”) Charles, Camilla, and Francis’s motivations — beyond a hint of an incestuous bisexual love triangle — are even more opaque.
There is nothing on the other side of what we yearn for, no moral or metaphysical reality that lies beyond our grasp. All longing is longing for a reprieve from the boredom that is all the world can give. If beauty is our only hope, it is not because it can save us, but rather because it can distract us. Worse, beauty itself is revealed as a pseudonym for power. The strong — those who like Henry perceive the world’s emptiness, and attempt to overcome it through the sheer exercise of will — inherit, if not the earth, then nevertheless the narrator’s respect. Better to be a Henry, after all, than a Judy Poovey: one of the many denigrated “normie” side characters who appear exclusively to be insulted.
Tartt’s characters are moral aliens: less sociopaths than exemplars of a worldview that treats human life as simultaneously tragic and meaningless.
In the book's most convincing passages — the conversations the characters have in Morrow's Greek classes — Tartt suggests that this moral nihilism might be a natural hazard of studying the classics. Haunting The Secret History, though never explicitly named, is the figure of Silenus, the companion to Dionysus, whose experiences alongside the god lead him to conclude that it is best for human beings not to have been born at all; barring that, it is better to die as soon as possible. (It’s telling that Silenus’s most notable recent interlocutor is Nietzsche himself).
The Secret History is, after all, a campus novel, a genre that is at its best when it explores the moral effect of ideas on the people most likely to take them seriously. The absence of parents or other external influence — as vital in the academic novel as in the fairy-tale — the impressionable age of the characters involved, the inherent Gothic remoteness of the stereotypical college campus: all these allow the campus novel to treat ideas, and the texts that embody them, as serious influences on human life. Teenagers can fall under the spell of Dionysius in a quote-heavy classroom scene rather more plausibly than can, say, middle-aged New Yorkers in the middle of a dinner party. And The Secret History, in turn, is at its most compelling when it suggests that its bleakness is a function of distinctly classical influence.
But the problem with such a reading is that we never actually see anyone transformed. The bulk of the characters’ radicalization happen, like the bacchanalian murder that sets the plot into motion,“off-stage.” It's a useful device for Greek tragedy; less useful for a Bildungsroman of ideas (meanwhile, Richard himself is as alienated at the novel’s opening as he is at its close, however many plays of Euripides he reads in the meanwhile). The Secret History, ultimately, reads less like a campus novel per se than like an extended thought-experiment: what would the world look like if Silenus were right?
In so doing, The Secret History too neatly answers its opening question: What does it mean to love beauty? In reducing the vast and diverse corpus of Greek thought to a distinctly ahistoric cynicism, the book treats its characters and readers alike with the same chilling contempt. It denies the possibility that our hunger for transcendence might open up any of our other capacities, that it might in any sense reflect our love for the true, the beautiful, or the good. One wonders how deeply Morrow’s favored students have read Plato — who would have a thing or two to say about moral realism.
Ultimately, The Secret History excels at what it sets out to do: displays with lapidary specificity what the wisdom of Silenus looks like, played out over time. But, at 31 no less than at 17, I am enough of an idealist to think that the only proper response to that world remains the same revulsion I felt then.
At 17, less confident in my convictions, it was easy to assent to Richard’s praise of the Greek language — and, implicitly, its culture — as “strange,” “harsh,” and “alien,” “obsessed with action,” contrasted with the prosaic English language: “language of the intricate, the peculiar, home of pumpkins and ragamuffins and bodkins and beer, the tongue of Ahab and Falstaff.” Yet, if I have learned anything from a love of too many books and too much poetry since then, it is that real beauty lies precisely in the intricacies of particularity — the human specificity so lacking in any of The Secret History’s characters. It lies, if the world is to have any meaning at all, in what is real.
To love beauty, I believed then, and still believe now, is to believe that beauty speaks, however imperfectly, to something real in us; some capacity to apprehend a world that is, or at least once was, or at least could one day be, a good one. As Tartt herself writes, in an excellent 1999 essay on her vocation as a Catholic novelist, “Something in the spirit longs for meaning — longs to believe in a world order where nothing is purposeless, where character is more than chemistry, and people are something more than a random chaos of molecules.” To take Tartt the essayist seriously is to wager on that meaning. Even if that means leaving Hampden behind.
Tara Isabella Burton is the author of the novels The World Cannot Give (S&S, out March 8) and Social Creature (Doubleday, 2018), as well as the non-fiction Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (Public Affairs, 2020), out this month in paperback.