The Secret History

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
The Secret History
Written by: Donna Tartt
Central Theme:
First published: September 1992
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"Death is the mother of beauty," said Henry.
"And what is beauty?"


"I hope we're all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?"

So says Julian Morrow, the charismatic and eccentric Classics professor at Hampden College. The six students whom he accepts into his classes receive an education apart from any other at the college: in studying Latin and Greek, they mimic an ancient Athenian way of thinking and living. They are Henry Winter, the linguistic genius who declares that six men could capture the town of Hampden; Charles and Camilla Macaulay, the friendly, enigmatic twins; Francis Abernathy, who looks like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper; Bunny Corcoran, genteel, cheerful and bigoted, and Richard Papen, the story's narrator, a transfer student who, through a series of chance encounters, finds himself in the midst of this strange, mesmerizing group.

Their search for the sublime leads them, inevitably, to a collision with the real world. Left to deal with the consequences of an accidental murder, the group slowly starts to plan a deliberate one.

The Secret History was Donna Tartt's immensely successful first novel, released in 1992. Not related to Secret History by Procopius, Secret Histories by Simon R. Green, or The Secret History, a French comic book by Jean-Pierre Pécau.

Tropes used in The Secret History include:
  • Ambiguously Gay: Richard has suspicions about Francis (which are confirmed), Charles (which are partially confirmed), Bunny and Julian (which are not).
    • Richard himself is ambiguously bisexual.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Bunny speculates that Henry might be, though only because Henry is refusing to front him money.
  • Batman Gambit: No one really understands Henry's many, convoluted plots. If you think you've reached the bottom, you've only scratched the surface.
  • The Beautiful Elite: Richard is fascinated with Julian and his students even before he manages to join them, and idealises persistently through the first part of the book.
    • It's played straight early in the book and subverted more and more as the book progresses. Near the end Richard realises that a lot of his assumptions about the group have been wrong (particularly his assumptions regarding their wealth and inherent superiority).
  • Bilingual Bonus: Untranslated passages and phrases appear in Latin, Greek, French, and German.
  • Black and Gray Morality
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Modern day college is not 5th century Athens, however the characters might wish it were.
    • Most of the main cast are also entrenched in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century as far as their lifestyle is concerned, though this comes across more than anything as an result of their upper-class upbringing.
  • Bridal Carry: Henry gets to do one of these after Camilla steps on a piece of glass in the lake. Lovingly described.
  • Broken Pedestal: Julian, whom his students revere. After he finds out about Bunny's murder, he flees the school (and probably the country), never to be heard from again.
  • Buy Them Off: The rest of the group spends inordinate amounts of money on Bunny to try to prevent him from calling the police. When it runs out, they resort to Plan B.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: By the end of the book, Henry has accidentally killed a farmer, murdered Bunny, tried to kill Charles and was apparently planning something for Richard.
  • Classical Mythology and history: Extremely influential. Tartt also took the title from a classic Latin text of the same name. The book's plot parallels the standard line of a Greek tragedy in many ways, right from the first chapter's opening lines:

"Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw', that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs."


"Henry, what in God's name have you done?"
He smiled. "You tell me," he said.


"I prefer to think of it as a redistribution of matter."


"I knew that if he told anybody, he'd tell you first. And now that he has, I feel that we're in for an extremely rapid progression of events."