The Secret History by Donna Tartt: Task one, Part one.
Richard Papen arrives at Hampden College when he is 19. Coming from Plano, California, he suffers somewhat a culture shock. He gets involved with a circle of Greek scholars, wealthy, arrogant, and utterly secretive. He joins them, after some hesitation from the teacher, Julian Morrows. Soon he learns of what bound the group together: An ancient rite, the bacchanal, brought to life, leading somewhat mysteriously to a man’s death. Curiously enough, this doesn’t scare Richard away from the group, rather the opposite I’d say. But Bunny, who was excluded from the bacchanal as well as Richard, is a lot more affected by this happening than Richard or even the others are. His personality changes from a rather pleasant one to a tactless, annoying, catholic-hating person, frankly, an ass. As it is later revealed in the book, he also starts blackmailing Henry and Francis. This, along with an increasing fear that Bunny will report them to the police, makes the group convinced that they need to kill him. The plans are carried out after Bunny tells Richard about the bacchanalia, believing that he hadn’t been informed. The group confronts Bunny while he’s hiking, and pushes him into a ravine to his death.
The second part of the novel focuses on the breakdown of the group after Bunny’s death and the devastating effect it has on the rest of the characters, both due to remorse, but also their struggle to hide the truth as the search for Bunny begins, and investigators and students start developing different theories about Bunny’s disappearance. Charles develops a drinking habit, and starts abusing his sister, Francis suffers hypochondria and panic attacks. Julian discovers the truth about Bunny’s death through a desperate letter that Bunny sent him before he was murdered. Julian, surprisingly, does not display any strong emotions. He begs the group to keep his name out of it, and basically abandons them, leaves the college and is never seen again by Richard. Especially Henry is very upset about this, seeing it as an act of cowardice and extreme hypocrisy. After Julian is gone, the members further withdraw into their shells, and isolate themselves from the outer world. Henry begins living and sleeping with Camilla, something which infuriates Charles, who has begun drinking even more. The plot reaches its climax when Charles bursts into Henry and Camilla’s hotel room and threatens to kill Henry. Instead Henry grabs the gun, kisses Camilla for the last time, and commits suicide.
After Henry’s death, the group splits. At the end of the book, Francis is forced to marry a woman although he’s homosexual, Charles runs off with a 30-year old married woman, Camilla is stuck with her dying grand-mother, and Richard is becoming increasingly isolate and lonely. The book ends with a strange dream of Richard’s, in which he sees Henry in various different places. Richard asks him if he’s happy where he is, and he answers that he isn’t, but that Richard isn’t happy either, rendering Richard speechless as usual.
The Secret History: Task one, Part two
Richard Papen: I found Richard rather dull, compared to the others. But I realize that as a narrator, he needed to be less complex and passionate or he would have talked more about himself than the essential things in the plot. But it’s sometimes too obvious that Richard is only a tool in the hands of the author, practically every individual characteristic of his is adapted to suit the aim of the author; his perceptiveness, his lack of initiative, and incapability to act are all necessary for him to be the “perfect” narrator. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded a more “flesh-and-blood narrator, I thought that it was somewhat hard to get to know Richard. I felt that he wasn’t telling us everything, which was rather annoying. But without Richard, who would have been there to tell us the Secret History? Having said all that, I must admit that I liked Richard anyway, he was loyal, and perhaps the least selfish of the group.
Camilla Macaulay: I really didn’t like Camilla. Richard considered her sweet and bewitching, because of his love for her, but when he lets us see the uglier side of her personality it’s rather terrifying; she is manipulative, detached, and cruel. She watched the murder happen as calm as a Madonna, and walked away without any obvious remorse. She was almost as bad as Henry. She truly scared me. But her character was fascinating even with or perhaps because of that “fatal flaw”. She was like a Greek goddess.
Charles Macaulay: I liked him a lot better than I liked his twin. Sadly, he wasn’t much of an important character before the second half of the book, i.e. before he became a half-wit drunk... I found it hard not to feel pity for him, even if his abuse of Camilla and his incest is rather disturbing.
Julian Morrows: Like I wrote in the first essay about The Secret History, I found Julian a most repellent and horrible person. Not only because of the way he abandoned the group, but also because I found some the principles he taught them extremely strange, and I just hated the way he disposed or ignored flaws in his students’ personalities. He also thought that Camilla was inferior in terms of intelligence, because she was a girl, even though she was apparently smarter than both Richard and Bunny. Of course, those opinions aren’t very different from what you usually find in classical Greek literature…But what I found most revolting about Julian was that he refused to see his own guilt in the murder, even though the bacchanal obviously wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t approved it. I also found his reaction to the truth about Bunny’s death strange, because he did seem to care about Bunny. But instead of doing something he just abandons the group and the school. That was what I really couldn’t forgive, how could he just leave his students who adored him and looked upon him as a deity? I believe that his leaving the school was one of the most important factors to why the group collapsed; he worsened an already bad situation by depriving them of the safety that his lessons gave them, and he destroyed the image they had of him. I simply couldn’t understand why he acted the way he did. I think, just like Richard, that Bunny’s description of him was the most fitting: “He is the kind of person who would pick out all his favorite chocolates out of a box and leave the rest”. It says all about Julian’s personality.
Francis Abernathy: I actually liked Francis a lot more than I liked any other of the main characters. I liked how he was lazy and overly dramatic until the very end of the book, when his good heart really showed in the way he cared about all of his friends, especially about Charles, and it was nice to see that he and Richard remained friends in the end. I also thought that he was by far the funniest character in the book; he was the only one who made me laugh. And in the end, he and Richard were the only characters that I found even the slightest bit sympathetic.
Henry Winter: I hated Henry. He was inhuman, cold and remorseless. He aspires to be a character of pure rationality, which is probably the reason why he’s so attracted to the Greek and their principles, all those cold ideas of beauty and flawlessness. He’s pure evil in disguise. He was the one who was the mastermind behind all the evil they did; the bacchanal, the murder of Bunny. He was awful. The only thing that I found appealing about Henry was his devotion to Julian, even if I didn’t really understand why. He was a lot like Julian, only lacking the shallow cordiality.
Bunny Corcoran: Even though he didn’t deserve to die, of course, no one does, I was still somewhat glad when he did. I was annoyed that the author made me feel like that, it made me feel like I was treating Bunny unjustly, because after all, he was the victim, right? I think that he was endlessly irritating and said some very annoying and tactless things. Somehow there was something very endearing about him in the beginning of the book, too, like the way he spoke or his habit of playing Sousa marches in the middle of the night. I believe that the book would have been rather uninteresting and perhaps even slightly boring if Bunny wasn’t in it.
Themes: A reoccurring theme in the book is longing for Beauty, for perfection. Julian and Henry were kind of obsessed with this idea; “Beauty is terror” et cetera. But even Richard describes his “fatal flaw” as being longing too much for the picturesque at any cost.
Another theme in the book is the striking resemblance to a Greek tragedy. There are many other Greek elements as well.
The first time I read the book I liked it. I thought that the plot was fascinating; the idea of “a murder in reverse” was ingenious. The author’s language was stunningly beautiful and the characters were very vividly described. But in the end I felt that I didn’t like the book half as much as I should have had, because, as I have said at least three times, I simply couldn’t find any of the characters sympathetic. I feel that it is impossible to feel anything about the characters, because every single one of them did unforgivable things I couldn’t understand. Bunny’s death scene is a good example; they were all so strangely detached from what they were doing. “And after we stood whispering in the underbrush- one last look at the body- No dropped keys, no dropped glasses- everyone got everything? I just don’t understand them.
I still think that it is a book worth reading, and I would recommend this book, I just don’t think that this book made, or ever will have made any impact on me.