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  • Jess Reed

“The Secret History of The Secret History”

Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History is considered a cornerstone of contemporary American Gothic literature. Set in a small liberal arts college in rural Vermont, narrator, and protagonist Richard documents the inner workings of his friend group, composed primarily of wealthy white Classics students. The narrative works as a murder mystery in reverse; the readers know that Richard and company have killed Bunny by the end of the first sentence. The rest of the book is to discover why.

Tartt’s famously atmospheric prose makes the 400-page-long book a surprisingly quick read with powerful phrases. She litters dialogue with sentences like, “Beauty is terror,” “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs,” “Forgive me, for all the things I did but mostly for the ones that I did not.” The characters - Richard, Bunny, Henry, Charles, Francis, and Camilla - are complex and well-written.

It’s a fantastic book.

And most people read it wrong.

Tartt’s sensory language becomes romantic, not descriptive. The dialogue’s pretentiousness is consumed as genuine philosophical depth. The students become role models of intellectual superiority instead of the incestuous murderers and alcoholics they are. Influencers claim the novel for their “dark academia” aesthetic, basing outfits on the different characters and wistfully fantasizing about attending the fictional Hampden College.

A collage of clothing and various aesthetic objects inspired by

The Secret History character Henry Winter.

Image from Pinterest.

The Secret History is a satire of elitism, of the crimes that rich kids get away with because of their privilege, and it is instead hailed as the Bible for that very same demographic.

Now the argument becomes: who is to blame?

On one hand, it’s true that an artist has some responsibility for how their art is perceived. If Tartt’s satirical writing is really so indistinguishable from genuine writing, Tartt may just be bad at satire. Her attempt at mocking elitism is a failed one. On the other hand, it should be argued that the audience has some responsibility for critically consuming a piece of media, and analyzing the implications of their perception of it. For teenagers on TikTok, this is a pretty tall order; but if they are as intellectually elite as they say they are by aligning themselves with the novel’s main characters, this should be easy for them.

So continues the argument on The Secret History’s lack of characters of color, its poorly written female characters, and its overly pretentious prose. Is Tartt commenting on racism in higher education, or is her omission of racial minorities a personal bias that slipped past the editor? Are there only two women because the novel is told through the perspective of a morally ambiguous man, or is Tartt’s internalized misogyny tainting her work? Does Tartt really think people use words like “anteroom” in daily conversation, or is she making a point about disingenuous intellectualism?

The answer… is complicated.

Tartt herself received an education in Classics from a small liberal arts college in Vermont, no doubt where she drew much of her inspiration from. Her criticism, and yet participation, in this culture speaks to the dichotomy at work in her writing at large. To consume her work “properly” (though there is another argument to be made, as there always is, on the elitism of defining a proper way to perceive art), one must get accustomed to some level of constant cognitive dissonance, and suspend their beliefs beyond the typical realist fiction suspense. Reading Tartt the way Tartt intends to be read takes work.

Instead of (accidentally) perpetuating the same problems that Tartt criticizes in The Secret History, it’s important to encourage critical thinking and consideration of larger cultural issues after reading the novel. It should not be marketed as an aesthetic (check the caption on that TikTok, by the way), a how-to on intellectualism, to teenagers on social media, but rather a mature, adult book that needs to be handled as such. Then maybe the readers would see Richard and his partners in crime for what they are - not impossibly intelligent, accomplished students with a special ability to see God, but a scared group of sheltered 19-year-olds, hurting others and hurting themselves in the name of intellectualism.


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