The Secret History Book Summary

What is The Secret History About?

The Secret History is American author Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut novel. The book has become a modern classic that continues to enthrall readers with its intriguing characters, dark themes, and unique setting. This comprehensive summary delves deep into the storyline, characters, and themes, offering a detailed analysis that will help you appreciate the novel on a whole new level.

An Overview of the Plot

The Secret History follows the story of Richard Papen, a young man from Plano, California, who enrolls at an elite New England College to escape his mundane life. Richard tries to study medicine but is drawn to ancient Greek. Upon his arrival at the college, he becomes determined to join a small, enigmatic group of students who study the classics under Julian Morrow, a charismatic classics professor.

The group, consisting of Henry Winter, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, Francis Abernathy, and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, is exclusive and secretive. After some persistence, Richard is admitted into the group. becomes a full-time classics student, and quickly becomes entwined in their lives.

As Richard becomes more involved with the group, he and they come to share a terrible secret: they kill one of their classmates, Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran. The killing was premeditated, as Bunny had become a liability to the group, threatening to reveal their involvement in a Dionysian ritual and the subsequent accidental death of a local farmer. In an attempt to cover up their crime, the group buries Bunny’s body in the woods, which is not found for a few days due to the snowfall. This leads to an investigation by the police.

The group’s dynamic becomes increasingly strained as the members struggle with guilt, paranoia, and the pressure of keeping their darkest secret. Richard, who was involved in the planning and execution of Bunny’s murder, is also haunted by his actions and the group’s collective betrayal of their friend.

As the novel progresses, the police investigation into Bunny’s death intensifies, and the group members become increasingly paranoid and isolated. The police ultimately fail to uncover the truth, but the group’s lives are irreparably damaged by the consequences of their actions.

In the novel’s final act, Henry commits suicide, leaving a void in the group’s dynamic. Richard, now estranged from the remaining members, is left to reflect on the events that transpired and the role he played in the group’s tragic downfall.

Ultimately, The Secret History is a haunting tale of morality, betrayal, and the consequences of one’s actions. The novel’s intricate plot, combined with Tartt’s vivid prose and complex characters, creates a gripping and unforgettable reading experience.

Characters: A Complex Ensemble

A portrait of Bunny Corcoran made in Midjourney. Bunny is a young blonde man with horn-rimmed glasses.
A portrait of Bunny Corcoran made in Midjourney.

The Secret History features a cast of complex, multi-dimensional characters who contribute to the novel’s rich tapestry. Each character is deeply flawed, grappling with their demons and the consequences of their actions. The novel is a masterclass in character development, as Tartt skillfully reveals the motivations, fears, and desires that drive the characters’ actions and shape the story’s outcome.

Richard Papen

The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Richard is a young man from Plano, California, who transfers to Hampden College in Vermont to study ancient Greek. He narrates the novel.

Henry Winter

A highly intelligent and wealthy student, Henry is the de facto leader of the group of Classics students. He is intensely private, with a deep knowledge of ancient Greek culture and philosophy. Henry is the primary planner and instigator of Bunny’s murder.

Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran

A charming, outgoing, and manipulative member of the Classics group, Bunny discovers the group’s secret involvement in the Dionysian ritual and the subsequent accidental death of a local farmer. His blackmailing behavior leads to his murder at the hands of his friends.

Charles Macaulay

A handsome and somewhat reserved member of the group, Charles is Bunny’s closest friend before the events of the novel. He has a close relationship with his twin sister, Camilla, and struggles with alcoholism.

Camilla Macaulay

Charles’s twin sister and a member of the Classics group, Camilla is quiet and enigmatic. She becomes romantically involved with Henry and later with Richard.

Francis Abernathy

A wealthy and fashionable member of the group, Francis is openly gay and struggles with his family’s disapproval. He is a close friend of both Charles and Camilla and is also involved in Bunny’s murder.

Julian Morrow

The charismatic and mysterious professor of ancient Greek at Hampden College, Julian is a significant influence on the lives of the Classics students. He promotes the idea of living life according to ancient Greek principles and encourages his students to immerse themselves in the study of the subject.

Marion (Cloke) Slade

The wife of Dr. Roland Slade, Marion is an older woman who becomes a confidante and lover to Richard. She helps him cope with the aftermath of Bunny’s death.

Dr. Roland Slade

A professor of English at Hampden College, Dr. Slade is Marion’s husband. He is aware of the tension within the Classics group but does not directly involve himself in the events of the novel.

Judy Poovey

A student at Hampden College and friend of Richard’s, Judy is outside the inner circle of the Classics group. She is concerned about Bunny’s disappearance and provides some comic relief in the novel.

Jake Teitelbaum

A student at Hampden College and friend of Richard’s, Jake is also outside the inner circle of the Classics group. He is present at a party where Bunny’s murder is discussed, though he is unaware of the truth behind the conversation.

Major Themes: Morality, Aesthetics, and Isolation

Morality is a central theme of The Secret History. Throughout the novel, Tartt challenges conventional ideas about right and wrong, as the characters justify their actions based on their passion for ancient Greek philosophy and aesthetics. The novel explores the implications of adopting a morally relativistic stance, demonstrating the potential for corruption and self-destruction when personal desires are placed above a greater moral code.

Aesthetics also play a vital role in the novel, with the characters’ love for beauty and the classics driving their actions. The novel raises questions about the role of art and aesthetics in society, and whether the pursuit of beauty can ever justify morally questionable actions. Tartt also uses vivid descriptions of the college’s beautiful surroundings to heighten the contrast between the novel’s dark events and the idyllic world the characters inhabit.

Isolation is another key theme in The Secret History. Richard’s sense of isolation from his family and previous life is mirrored in the isolation of the other characters, who are bound together by their shared secrets. The novel explores the dangers of creating insular communities that operate outside of normal morality, as well as the impact of loneliness and estrangement on the human psyche.

Literary Style: Tartt’s Artful Prose

Donna Tartt’s writing style in The Secret History is characterized by its artful prose, intricate storytelling, and vivid imagery. The novel’s first-person narrative creates a sense of intimacy with the protagonist, Richard, and allows the reader to experience events from his perspective. Tartt’s skillful use of foreshadowing and suspense keeps the reader engaged throughout the novel, while her evocative descriptions bring the story’s settings and characters to life.

Impact and Legacy

Since its publication, The Secret History has garnered both critical acclaim and a loyal following of readers. The novel’s exploration of dark themes, combined with its richly drawn characters and compelling narrative, has secured its place as a contemporary literary classic. In the years since its release, the novel has influenced a new generation of writers and inspired countless adaptations, including stage plays and film projects.

Dark Academia and Donna Tartt

The Secret History has become part of the canon for dark academia, an aesthetic popularized on Tumblr and TikTok. Since the book is so beautifully written, contains many classical references, and focuses on eccentric misfits, many young and not-so-young people have seen themselves in the characters or discovered a world they like to escape to.

Connection to Bennington College

The setting of Hampden College, a small, elite liberal arts institution, was based on Tartt’s alma mater, Bennington College in Vermont. The novel explores a close-knit group of students who come together over a shared love of the classics under the tutelage of an eccentric professor. This can draw comparisons to the 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society. Both The Secret History and Dead Poet’s Society portray the intense bonds formed among students at elite academic institutions, as well as the consequences of pushing the boundaries of societal norms. However, The Secret History is considerably darker.

Donna Tartt’s Subsequent Works

The Secret History set the stage for Tartt’s career as an accomplished writer of psychological thrillers. Her second novel, The Little Friend, was published in 2002 and delved into the story of a young girl seeking to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder. Though not as chilling as The Secret History, The Little Friend continued to demonstrate Tartt’s talent for creating suspenseful narratives and complex characters. Her third novel, The Goldfinch, was published in 2013 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. With each novel, Tartt has continued to captivate readers with her unique blend of literary skill and suspenseful storytelling.

Conclusion: The Enduring Appeal of The Secret History

In conclusion, The Secret History is a remarkably powerful novel that continues to captivate readers with its complex characters, thought-provoking themes, and gripping plot.

The novel’s enduring appeal lies in its ability to challenge conventional ideas about morality and aesthetics while offering a thrilling, suspenseful story that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. It’s a murder mystery in reverse: we know who did it from the very start. Most murder mysteries see all the characters get some kind of justice; even the murder victim is often a terrible heel of some kind.

As a modern classic and an accomplished psychological thriller, The Secret History will undoubtedly continue to intrigue and inspire readers for years to come.