‘The Secret History’: Aesthetic, Gruesome, and Puzzling

This review contains spoilers. 

“Dark academia” is an aesthetic and subculture associated with moody settings, higher education, and Gothic architecture. Think sipping coffee while poring over classic Greek, dressing in formal-yet-stylish attire, and holding secretive meetings by candlelight. This idea romanticizes the life of classical academia, particularly within the liberal arts, and has gained popularity through media such as outfit ideas and mood boards on various social media platforms.  

Donna Tartt, arguably the pivotal author who popularized this subgenre, published her first novel, “The Secret History,” in 1992. Revolving around six students studying classical Greek at the fictional, elite Hampden College, the story ventures from murder to idyllic retreats tinged with suspicion. The narrator is Richard Papen, a poor transfer student from California, and the other five are Francis Abernathy, Henry Winter, Edmund Corcoran, and twins Charles and Camilla MacAulay.  

A major theme of the novel is the line between repression and letting go; the group’s instructor, Julian Morrow, repeatedly brings up what he sees as the great repression of ancient Greek denizens. He theorizes that for these people, joy would have been the result of letting go of their self-control. Academically and socially isolated as they are, the group decides to hold a bacchanal without telling Papen, their newest member, or Corcoran, who does not possess their intelligence or views. 

During the bacchanal, they lose all control and brutally kill a farmer, supposedly in the spur of the moment. Corcoran witnesses the bloodied group returning and reads about the farmer’s death, eventually putting the pieces together. Although he is disgusted and horrified by what they have done, he is also nearly penniless.  

For many months, Corcoran subjects the other group members to merciless insults and blackmail, rendering them at their wits’ ends. Eventually, Papen finds out about the farmer’s death and takes the other students’ side. It is Winter who eventually concocts the plan to kill Corcoran by pushing him off a mountain on a hike.  

The five execute this plan, but media scrutiny, the police investigation, and internal guilt cause rifts in their relationship. Eventually, the tension within the group comes to a head as multiple secrets are revealed. An explosive scene details their fight, which causes another death.  

The biggest strength of “The Secret History” is Tartt’s masterful character development. The book is not a “whodunnit” but rather a “whydunnit” — on the first page of the prologue, Papen recalls the group’s murder of Corcoran. However, she retains the audience’s interest with truly memorable, if somewhat pretentious, characters.  

Her greatest accomplishment is making readers sympathize with the group’s killing of Corcoran. He is presented as an obnoxious fraternity member who does not fit their affluent, formal, and witty style. This partially comes from Papen’s narration, as it is clear that he will be replacing Corcoran, causing mutual resentment.  

Objectively, insulting words and a few loans are not a good moral justification for murder, especially for those who have killed previously. Yet Papen’s words make it seem as if the group had no other choice. The true message of this portion of the book is about the definition of beauty; Corcoran does not fit the group’s aesthetic, so he must be removed.  

When I searched for the book online, most image results were not quotes or pictures of the book’s cover, but rather mood boards, clothing inspiration, and fanart of the characters — devotion for a pack of murderers. However, the descriptions of idyllic days spent studying in cottages, feverish discussions at night, and the harmony between the students are truly enchanting. Readers can almost visualize the characters’ interactions and mannerisms.  

It is a shame that Tartt’s sparest prose is used when she describes the youthful delights of the group before its splintering. More description here would have seared the memories of the students’ happiness into the audience’s minds, so that they would have felt its loss more keenly.  

The pacing of this book is a problem; pages upon pages are devoted to events which are not very relevant, while she only hints at certain other events which would have been fascinating to read about. Overall, however, I did enjoy reading this book — more for the vibes than for the content. Would I read it again? Probably not in its entirety.  

“The Secret History” is very interesting and often moving, capturing the in-between feeling that many college students face as they transition from childhood to adulthood and independence. However, the novel is periodically dry and should have been a bit more balanced. This gets 3.5 out of five crabs from me! 

About The Author

Mrunmayi Joshi

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