The Secret History by Donna Tartt Analysis

Topics: Novels

When it was published in 1992 The Secret History was acclaimed as the most hyped novel of all time. It sold in vast numbers and despite being marketed as ‘The Thinking Person’s Thriller’ it included elements of many other genres. It has been stated by some critics that much of its success comes from the depth provided by the first person narrative along with the autobiographical detail from Tartt herself. The narrative in The Secret History is provided by Richard Papen, who fulfils the role of an outsider; looking in upon the classics group and gradually becoming assimilated within them.

Through the use of the first person narrative the reader only sees Richard’s perception of events, along with the inaccuracy of his observations; an example of this is his reference to “the heavy sweet smell of apples rotting on the ground” being both the thing he hated about Plano and one of the things that made Hampden so appealing to him.

Richard also states that one of his skills is “lying on my feet”, something which hardly lends reliability to the narration. This effect is furthered by the separation of Richard the narrator and Richard the leading character.

The narrative switches between the recall of events in the past tense and his feelings about these events in the present tense; through this use of a first person retrospective narrative the progression from the focaliser and past self to the narrator represented by the present self can be seen: “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other.

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This is the only story I will ever be able to tell” (Prologue) This creates a drama in which the protagonist attempts to make sense of his own self and place within society as the novel progresses.

The narration is intra-diegetic and the expression of thought and feeling that this entails draws the reader into the plot very effectively; it has been said by some that it almost implicates the reader in the action themselves. Richard as a narrator drew a mixed response from the critical press; Lee Lescaze in the Wall Street Journal review accused Tartt of using this first person narration as a way of masking her substandard abilities of characterisation, whilst James Wood in the London Review of Books found Richard a fascinating invention and colluded to the fact that he drew the reader into the action.

When Bunny is murdered the reader is sympathetic to the actions of the group because they see it only from the perspective of Richard, who by this stage perceives himself to be an integral member of the group. Later in the text he acknowledges his less important position in the whole thing: “And it made me feel better in some obscure way: imagining myself a hero, rushing for the gun, instead of merely loitering in its path like the bystander I so essentially am. ” (Epilogue)

In a similar vein, as the group begins to fall apart, and the realisation of the full implications of their actions sinks in, then the reader shares to a certain extent the revulsion and the shame experienced by Richard. As a result of the narration coming from an outsider, who himself is drawn into a group; the sense of involvement felt by the reader is heightened. As Richard’s is the only perspective provided on events the reader shares his surprise and dismay as initial preconceptions about other characters – such as Charles and Camilla’s incestuous relationship – are removed.

Through the use of the first person narrative Tartt gains the ability to legitimately provide a biased view on events, as well as to give a much deeper insight into the workings of Richard as a character. His influences become clearer; his cultural reference points are revealed to be very different to those of the group whilst his suburban, west-coast, childhood is evident in his phrasing and language. This difference is one of the things picked on by Bunny; he chastises Richard for his use of the phrase “totally weird”.

Richard’s thought process is that of the modern mind – it bears many similarities with that of Judy Poovey – and his tendency to digress at the critical moment leads him to remain an outsider and not fully comprehend the magnitude of events. An example of this is when he fails to understand that it was more than mere coincidence finding the flight details in Henry’s flat; his ability to “live without thinking” – something which Henry later admits to be jealous of – means that he takes the most logical course of action and does not attempt to understand the background to events.

His lack of understanding of the motives and actions of the group is undoubtedly a result of his inability to think in Greek and it is this separation that he never overcomes, something that adds intrigue and suspense to the narrative. These elements combine to create a more thrilling plot which it can be argued led to the commercial success of the novel. The narrative technique also gives Tartt scope to purge her own emotions through the feelings expressed by Richard himself in the novel; the potential for exploring autobiographical detail is vastly increased.

This adds intrigue to the plot and is also of direct benefit to Tartt herself. It has been suggested – by the critic Amanda Vaill of the Washington Post in particular – that Tartt uses the novel to avenge her beloved T. S. Eliot; a critic of Eliot (Edmund Wilson) also went by the name of Bunny and it was implied that her vilification of Bunny was in a way a vengeful lash against him. The use of intra-diegetic narration does however limit Tartt in her exploration of other characters, something that has led to criticism of the novel for weak characterisation.

Indeed, James Kaplan (writing in Vanity Fair) went as far as to say that he found it necessary to return to Richard’s initial description of the characters to even tell them apart. The style of the narration is fixed and does not vary; this can be somewhat tiresome in a novel of such length. The final limitation comes from the appeal of the book; readers like protagonists that they can identify with on a personal level and therefore to increase the potential readership of the book Tartt was required to use an ‘everyman’ character as a narrator.

This prevented her from making the book totally autobiographical. Tartt’s success in creating an ‘everyman’ narrator is illustrated by Richard’s lack of outstanding characteristics that would vary the narrative; the two goals are irreconcilable for it is impossible to have an ‘everyman’ narrator who has enough character traits and variations to be in themselves a point of interest throughout a novel as long as this.

It is widely accepted that Tartt did succeed in creating an ‘everyman’ narrator, something illustrated by the wide variety of critics who claimed that they could identify with Richard and indeed his lack of distinguishing characteristics. Tartt’s narrative technique bears a strong resemblance to that used by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, a novel that is made explicit reference to in the text. A split narrator/focaliser is used to a great and similar effect, something that is especially apparent in the opening passages; Chapter One of The Great Gatsby and the Prologue of The Secret History.

The pervading sense is that of the experience having changed the narrator permanently; an experience that transcends all others within each of their lives. Richard says that “This is the only story I will ever be able to tell” and Nick Carraway describes the sense of hope he found within Gatsby as being something “I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again”. This flatters the reader into believing they are to be told something of great magnitude and encourages them to read on.

A feature of both novels is the jaded perception that the narrator has of other characters in the book, much of the plot being subsequently derived from watching their preconceptions fall apart. Tartt uses an interesting twist on this in relation to Richard’s perception of Charles and Camilla, his initial view of them as a couple is broken down, only to be reaffirmed much later: “I thought they were boyfriend and girlfriend, until one day I saw them up close and realized they ad to be siblings. Later I learned they were twins. ” (Chapter 1) This tendency to is true of Richard’s views on almost of all of the characters and Nick’s view of Gatsby and Jordan Baker in particular. When compared with other first person narratives, Tartt does not exploit the medium to its full potential; for example when compared to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights which employs a far more sophisticated narrative technique.

The Secret History uses a diachronic narrative structure whereas Wuthering Heights begins the narrative ‘in medias res’ and the plot is then built up in a synchronic manner. This adds a far greater level of depth, intrigue and suspense to the plot and launches the reader in the centre of the action in the opening chapter; in contrast in The Secret History the reader has to wade through a lengthy preamble that builds up the character of Richard before the action begins.

It can however be argued that without this period of characterization first then the subsequent events would lose much of their resonance and the factors that make the narrative appealing – such as the inaccuracy of the narration itself – would be far less apparent. Whilst it cannot be argued that The Secret History begins ‘in medias res’ the prologue does however provide an initial retrospective view of events and it is from this that much of the suspense in the first book is generated.

The split between the narrator and focaliser is introduced, explaining the time gap between Richard’s description of events and his subsequent commentary on them: “… through once I thought that I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure. ” (Prologue) When interviewed by Kirsty Wark for the BBC, Tartt explained that she believed she was experimenting with the technique of ‘in medias res’ by beginning her narrative after the conclusion of events and then using a diachronic narrative structure to build back up to that point once again.

Her technique could perhaps be therefore described as ‘in finis res’. One way in which Tartt varies the narrative is through the limited use of letters, something that is also evident in Wuthering Heights. In Francis’ suicide letter to Richard the cultural reference points that Francis employs are evident as being different from those of Richard and this adds depth to his character.

This is similar to the way in which Bronte uses the letter from Isabella to Ellen Dean to provide a different perspective on events. Henry is used to a limited extent in the narration as well; when Richard finds out about the events of the bacchanal it is Henry who describes them to him. Henry’s aloof manner and detachment from society is emphasized in this passage. It can be said that the losses inherent with first person narration can be excused because of the benefits that vastly outweigh them.

The commercial success of the book indeed points to that fact whilst in a literary sphere the intra-diegetic narrative technique gives the reader a much deeper insight into Richard’s emotions. The reader feels almost implicated in the actions of the group themselves as a result of this. However in contrast to this, the appeal of the book is limited by the need for readers to identify with the protagonist, Richard, and this in turn reduced Tartt’s scope for exploring in greater depth the psyche of other characters.

As such it appears that first person narration gave the book much of its success and the author indeed gained more than she lost. It has been argued by many critics that The Secret History is largely autobiographical. When the content of the novel is compared to Donna Tartt’s life then there are indeed a number of similarities, but they are spread amongst the main characters rather than being embodied entirely by one.

No one character follows the pattern of her life; therefore the novel cannot be strictly regarded as being autobiographical. Despite this, the way in which elements of her life are evident amongst most of the main characters does lend the novel certain autobiographical qualities; Tartt is relating experiences that actually happened to her, although it can be argued that by including elements of her own experiences within all the major characters she limits her scope for deeper characterization and more varied personalities.

When Tartt’s life is compared to that of Richard then a number of similarities become apparent. She moved from Mississippi University to Bennington, a move that is replicated in Richard’s own from a “small college in my home town” to Hampden College. Although strenuously denied by Tartt in interviews, there are a vast number of similarities between Bennington and Hampden and it is accepted by many critics that Bennington was in fact used as a model for the setting of The Secret History.

At Bennington Tartt was a member of a similar Classics clique around a tutor called Claude Fredericks who, in remarkable similarity to Julian, taught Greek and admitted very few students to his classes. A good friend of Tartt’s at Bennington was Paul McGloin who bears resemblance to Henry intellectually, sartorially and physically. In another similarity to Richard, Tartt used her own past as a disposable resource, creating a new existence for herself at college. Tartt makes this trait of Richard’s very clear to the reader: … My years [in Plano] created for me an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup. Which I suppose was a very great gift, in a way. ” (Chapter 1) Beyond these bare facts the similarities with Richard end and any further details emerge from analysis of the other leading characters and events. Tartt was the only female in the clique, drawing similarities with Camilla, and the eccentric and incongruous figure she cut at Mississippi is reminiscent of Richard’s impression of Henry.

In her childhood Tartt spent much of her time bed-bound through illness, a time in which she claims to have increased her literary awareness through reading, again in much the same manner as Henry does. Events that replicate themselves in the narrative are evident in her past too, the drugged experience at the funeral may be in reference to her own “long, drugged afternoons in bed” whilst her family background of abnormal relationship structures as a result of absent parents is evident in the past of Charles and Camilla.

Her sense of being left behind by her aloof mother is replicated by Henry and Francis. The use of a first person narrative does not lend credibility to the autobiographical nature of the novel because if this was the case then her life would be embodied by the experiences of Richard. Whilst there may be passing similarities it would be difficult to say that Richard is representative of her path through college, and as already discussed her experiences also manifest themselves in the other characters.

The autobiographical elements are also evident in the setting of the novel. It would have been as easy for Tartt to explore these issues using a third person narrative and it can be argued that this would have enabled her to explore aspects of her past, such as being the only female in the clique as Camilla is, with greater ease. What Tartt gains in emotional detail with relation to Richard’s character could be autobiographical but due to her secretive nature and reluctance to reveal details about her own past then this cannot be proven.

Indeed, her own ‘Secret History’ is what makes the book so interesting because of the tantalizing glimpses into her past which the reader flatters themselves into believing that they are seeing. Autobiographies are in their very essence first person narratives and Tartt’s use of this technique does lend that implication to the plot but her previously stated reticence to divulge information on how her life related to The Secret History makes further discussion on the point little more than fatuitous speculation.

In conclusion The Secret History is a modern literary classic at least in part as a result of the depth and intensity that comes as a result of the first person narrative. Tartt employs this technique to such an effect as to draw the reader into the text to such an extent that they themselves feel implicated in the crimes that occur. It is true that this intra-diegetic narrative limits the scope for characterization and leads to a lack of variety in the novel, something which drew criticism from some parties, but the losses incurred as a result of this do not outweigh the aforementioned gains.

It is difficult to say that the use of a first person narrative lends much credibility to the autobiographical argument because of the manner in which such details are distributed amongst the main characters as opposed to being embodied in Richard. Whilst certain aspects of her life that bear similarity to Richard’s could have given her a deeper insight into his emotional state, not only are the instances too diverse to represent such a trend, but the lack of information divulged by Tartt makes further investigation almost impossible.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt Analysis. (2017, Sep 05). Retrieved from

The Secret History by Donna Tartt Analysis
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