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The Secret History

The Secret History is a unique mystery novel in which the mystery is solved in the prologue (‘Bunny had been dead for several weeks’, ‘we hadn’t intended to hide the body’). It exudes confessional qualities, whereby our narrator Richard appears to be searching for closure; for him, its function is to cleanse and provide a catharsis (‘this is the only story I will ever be able to tell’). For Donna Tartt herself, it is evident that her sources and influences (e.g. The Great Gatsby) are a vehicle for a display of her own literacy. As a result, it can be suggested that The Secret History is a showpiece; that is, an outlet for Donna Tartt to showcase her talents in order to create a commercial blockbuster. The enigmatic, elusive nature of the novel allows for a range of different ideas to be explored, including obvious Greek sources [‘Dim shrieks, and joy, and triumph-cries of death. And here was borne a severed arm, and there a hunter’s hooted foot’ – Euripides, 485-406 BC The Bacchae: lines 1381-1383, The Harvard Classics (1909-1914)].Primarily, Donna Tartt’s narrative methods are reinforced through her own personality: she presents herself as similarly enigmatic and elusive [‘porcelain exterior and sardonic asides’ – Mick Brown]. Moreover, her writing appears to be influenced by her background to a great extent; for example, her upbringing resembles that of her student characters (she grew up in an old family mansion in Grenada, Mississippi) and at university, she studied alongside an elite group of bright, literary talents with ‘picturesque and fictive qualities’ (‘outlandish clique’ – Independent, May 2002).Tartt’s main Greek influence is The Bacchae: in Richard’s narration, Henry is the one who outlines the bacchanal, and the language used mirrors that of ‘Euripides’. The principles are extremely similar, and the language is a combination of joy and horror (‘all the air was loud with groans’/ ‘carnal element to the proceedings’). The impression is given that Henry killed the farmer because of an apparent superhuman strength (‘I do not know how that happened’). Yet, we are still well aware that Henry is capable of great strength because he was strong enough to break the rough Spike Romney’s collar bone (‘broke Spike’s collarbone and two of his ribs’). Arguably, then, the ritual exaggerates normality, but it does not alter it.The prologue is a strong example exhibiting Tartt’s narrative methods. Uniquely, drama is imposed upon the reader in the first instant (‘He’d been dead for 10 days’), and mystery is created at the same time as a mystery appears to be solved (‘Henry’s modest plan’). As a consequence, we find out tantalising details that there has been a murder; information is provided, whilst creating suspense at the same time. Furthermore, Richard’s repetitions (‘It is difficult to believe’, ‘though I remember’) provide a chanting rhythm – an incantation – whereby patterns become inescapable, adding notably to his guilt. He also uses the lexis of fiction (‘now there is no other’), so that we question, from the start, the reliability of our narrator: how truthful is he?In a similar fashion, the epilogue portrays narrative methods that serve the purpose of pulling together strands of the plot (‘Henry died, of course’). Its second function is to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality once again (‘a dream I had a couple of weeks ago’), thereby disrupting the reader’s expectations; the narrative really opens up imaginative play for a reader because it is deliberately open-ended. Henry is the main character within the dream, and he seems to be given the air of a mythical, sacrificial martyr (‘gaze was steady and impassive’). While Richard watches Henry’s back, ‘he remains isolated and luminal, somewhere between a secret, private, subterranean ancient world and the modern world, which is in the process of being rebuilt, and where his status as outsider is confirmed’ (Tracey Hargreaves). It is therefore an ideal end to the narrative.Charles too ends up hiding in alcohol (‘working at the bar’), attempting to distance himself from reality and effectively create an artificial world. Even our own [‘oikish parvenu’ – Tracy Hargreaves] of a narrator – Richard – cannot resist placing himself within yet another fiction (using a mythical simile: ‘like poor Orpheus turning for a last backwards glance’), as if he wants to adopt another persona all the time. From this theme, it is clear that Tartt admires Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium Eater), which focuses on a bizarre combination of stark reality and drug-induced hallucinations (i.e. a dream world).A connection can also be made between Donna Tartt exploring this concept, and her mentor, Willie Morris [‘I wish I could escape forever’]. In addition, it is frustrating for the reader when we learn of the other characters’ views (‘do you mind if we could change the subject?’); here, Camilla’s abrupt response is tantalising, because her words are masked by what could be numerous hidden meanings. Supremely, Richard is not in control as a narrator (quite unlike an omniscient narrator): he only has one perspective to offer. Even within his dream, he has his limitations because it is restricted by Henry: ‘that information is classified, I’m afraid’.The Great Gatsby provides a significant influence on Donna Tartt’s writing and her narrative methods: even Richard mentions it (‘I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favourite books’). The Great Gatsby is a “novel of selective incident”. This approach to structure was first seen in Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and later developed by Joseph Conrad and Henry James amongst others. Conrad believed that there should be no word or phrase used unless it contributes to the overall meaning of the work. This careful arranging of the structure of a novel included both intricate patterning of language and of narrative events. The narrator Nick Carraway is as unreliable as Richard in The Secret History: Nick reinforces through his language a contrast between how Jay Gatsby wants to present himself, and how he really is (‘quality of eternal reassurance’) much like Richard’s portrayal of his classmates ‘like figures from an allegory’ and the way in which he puts Henry on a pedestal (‘deliberate and distinct’). Even Julian can be seen as a Gatsby-type figure in both Richard and Henry’s eyes (‘saying something of the gravest importance’). At the same time, he ‘fail[s] to see anything except…certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and [him]self’.Furthermore, the character of Judy Poovey parallels Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby (‘every one knew her name’). Judy is used to provide another narrative perspective from outside the Greek elite (‘he was scarier than the other one’). However, the major flaw is that she is so often on drugs (‘really drunk, and sort of slam-dancing’), therefore a distorted perspective is given and we never really get to the truth.The first person narrative form has certain qualities and constraints which an author must successfully balance in order to achieve a convincing narration that fulfils all the writer’s aims. Firstly, the need for the novel to be convincing means that the narrator must be both credible and trustworthy; without both of these qualities every aspect of the text could be doubted. The character of Richard as a narrator is therefore vital to Tartt’s narrative approach. The method through which Richard establishes his narrative voice is interesting; he admits he has a fault, ‘a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs’, but it is as though he wants to transfer this quality onto somebody else throughout the novel. He attempts to distance himself and separate both reality and illusion – a trait also found in Henry (‘I’m only having a bit of trouble with my passport’). Moreover, upon being introduced to Richard, he establishes himself as a tragic hero (‘fatal flaw’): this admission places him alongside figures such as Macbeth, and Satan. A reader is immediately made aware that Richard is a self-indulgent and somewhat mechanical narrator, desperate to strike a deliberate pose.In addition, Richard makes numerous references to his childhood (‘disposable as a plastic cup’), giving the impression that he never cared much for it. Significantly, the description of ‘the floodlit castles of Disneyland’ again provides a fake, alternative way of living. By comparing his childhood to those of his Hampden counterparts (‘was said to be wealthy’) – and only stressing the positive elements of theirs – Richard attempts to evoke sympathy from the reader by using this cheap narrative trick.The way in which Richard presents Camilla, in particular, can be questioned: he insists on likening her to a beautiful, tragic heroine (‘one hand shading her light-dazzled eyes’), but she could also be seen as a grand manipulator (‘Camilla caught my arm and hastily pulled me back’). Another interesting point to consider is that Henry isn’t mentioned at all: except for the fact that ‘he was a linguistic genius’. As a result, it can be inferred that Henry was not allowed the innocence of childhood, thereby adding to the unreal (‘I watched his back receding down the long, gleaming hall’) and mythical feeling evoked by his presence throughout the novel.Richard’s descriptions of the murder provide an interesting insight into his thoughts through the style of his narrative. For example, as his narrative progresses in a usual fashion, he interrupts it with a commentary (‘I would like to say I was driven to what I did by some overwhelming, tragic motive’), almost in an attempt to justify the murder. Although the reader hasn’t reached the murder in the novel yet, Richard still feels the need to take time out from the narrative, suggesting that what he has done is constantly playing on his mind. Furthermore, the word ‘elusive’ is used to describe reasons for killing Bunny, which is interesting considering both the novel itself and Donna Tartt can be described as elusive. It is this passage in particular where we get the closest to the truth from Richard; for example, it is here we find out that trivial things led to the killing of Bunny (‘little things. Insults, innuendos, petty cruelties.’) Ironically, the moment where Richard tells the truth, he is also highly unpleasant – we lose our connection with him, thereby contradicting his desired effect. More profoundly, he then slips back into fictive mode when describing Bunny’s death (‘silent-movie comedian slipping on a banana peel’); however, choosing such an image is cruel because it makes Bunny a farce.The scene directly preceding the murder reads like a screen-play (‘there was a long pause’), as though Tartt is imagining it happening in a scene from a film: regular dialogue is often interrupted by surroundings, described in gothic and dramatic language (‘there was a rustle’, ‘there was a gloomy silence’). Henry appears to be unreal: he is presented as a stereotypical villain in a horror movie (‘step out of the shadows’), and the effect of the last line in Book I is extremely clich�d (‘took a step towards him’.) As a result, the narrative again distances us from Richard, because his descriptions make the murder seem unreal. After the murder, the idea of fiction is stressed because the group is forced to adopt different characters, which they are constantly in danger of revealing. Additionally, the murder happens in the blank pages between the books, leaving the event itself to the imagination of the reader.To conclude, Tartt’s narrative method is unique in that we never really get to the truth as far as Richard is concerned. Moreover, he is restricted to having purely one story to tell, which adds to the concept that he is searching for an end. Tartt also glorifies her enigmatic and elusive nature through adding such elements to the narrative; she uses The Secret History in order to investigate different ideas by means of a range of sources. Interestingly, Richard’s narrative is sometimes flawed (‘I am unable to recall’; ‘Even today I do not fully understand’). Owing to the fact that the failures are iterated frequently in the novel, an authenticity is added to the narrative because it exposes his imperfection. However, it also highlights human limitation, and the inability (discussed by Julian) to ever really know ourselves. The Secret History is therefore a useful tool in terms of revealing, through its narrative, what self-awareness is really about; that we are truly alone in our suffering.

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