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An impressive debut novel from a new voice in fiction, The Secret History tells of a small circle of friends at an esteemed college in New England, whose studies in Classical Greek lead them to odd rituals, shocking behavior--and murder.
“An accomplished psychological thriller. . . . Absolutely chilling. . . . Tartt has a stunning command of the lyrical.” —The Village Voice
“Beautifully written, suspenseful from start to finish.” —Vogue
“A haunting, compelling, and brilliant piece of fiction. . . . Packed with literary allusion and told with a sophistication and texture that owes much more to the nineteenth century than to the twentieth.” —The Times (London)
“Her writing bewitches us. . . . The Secret History is a wonderfully beguiling book, a journey backward to the fierce and heady friendships of our school days, when all of us believed in our power to conjure up divinity and to be forgiven any sin.” —The Philadephia Inquirer
“Enthralling. . . . A remarkably powerful novel [and] a ferociously wll-paced entertainment. . . . Forceful, cerebral, and impeccably controlled.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A huge, mesmerizing, galloping read, pleasurably devoured. . . . .Gorgeously written, relentlessly erudite.” –Vanity Fair
1. Richard states that he ended up at Hampden College by a
"trick of fate." What do you think of this statement? Do you
believe in fate?
2. When discussing Bacchae and the Dionysiac ritual with his
students Julian states, "We don't like to admit it, but the idea
of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such
as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized
people--the ancients no less than us--have civilized themselves
through the willful repression of the old, animal self"
(p. 38). What is your opinion of this theory? Are we all atracted
to that which is forbidden? Do we all secretly wish we
could let ourselves go and act on our animal instincts? Is it true
that "beauty is terror"?
3. "I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone's life
when character is fixed forever: for me, it was that first fall
term spent at Hampden" (p. 80). Did you have such a "crucial
interval" in your life? What/when was it?
4. In the idyllic beginning it is easy to see why Richard is drawn
to the group of Greek scholars. It is only after they begin to unravel
that we see the sinister side of each of the characters. Do
you think any one of the characters possesses true evil? Is there
such a thing as "true evil, " or is there something redeeming in
5. In the beginning of the novel, Bunny's behavior is at times endearing
and at others maddening. What was your initial opinion
of Bunny? Does it change as the story develops?
6. At times Bunny, with his selfish behavior, seems devoidof
a conscience, yet he is the most disturbed by the murder
of the farmer. Is he more upset because he was "left out" of the
group or because he feels what happened is wrong?
7. Henry says to Richard, ". . . my life, for the most part, has
been very stale and colorless. Dead, I mean. The world has
always been an empty place to me. I was incapable of enjoying
even the simplest things. I felt dead in everything I did. . . . But
then it changed . . . The night I killed that man" (p. 463). How
does Henry's reaction compare to that of the others involved
in the murder(s)? Do you believe he feels remorse for what he
8. Discuss the significance of the scene in which Henry wipes his
muddy hand across his shirt after throwing dirt onto Bunny's
coffin at the funeral (p. 395).
9. List some of the signs that foreshadowed the dark turn of
events. Would you have seen all the signs that Richard initially
misses? Or do you believe Richard knew all along and just refused
to see the truth?
10. Would you have stuck by the group after learning their dark
11. The author states that many people didn't sympathize with
Richard. Did you find him a sympathetic character?
12. What do you make of Richard's unrequited love for Camilla?
Do you feel that she loved him in return? Or did she use his
love for her as a tool to manipulate him?
13. Do you feel the others used Richard as a pawn? If so, how?
14. What do you feel is the significance of Julian's toast "Live forever"
15. The author mentions a quote supposedly made by George Orwell
regarding Julian: "Upon meeting Julian Morrow, one has
the impression that he is a man of extraordinary sympathy and
warmth. But what you call his 'Asiatic Serenity' is, I think,
a mask for great coldness" (p. 480). What is your opinion of
16. Do you think that Julian feels he is somewhat responsible for
the murder of Bunny? Is that why he doesn't turn the group in
when he discovers the truth from Bunny's letter?
17. What causes Julian to flee? Is it because of disappointment in
his young protegees or in himself?
18. While the inner circle of characters (Richard, Charles, Camilla,
Henry, Francis, and the ill-fated Bunny) are the center of this
tale, those on the periphery are equally important in their own
ways (Judy Poovey, Cloke Rayburn, Marion, and so on). Discuss
the roles of these characters.
19. The rights for The Secret History were initially purchased by
director/producer/screenwriter Alan J. Paluka (All The President's
Men, The Pelican Brief), and they are currently with
director Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars). What
are your feelings about making the novel into a movie? Who
would play the main characters if you were to cast it?
20. What is the meaning of Richard's final dream?
Posted May 7, 2001
What makes 'The Secret History' such a compelling book is its daring to examine the consequences of the arrogance of intellectual superiority, something I struggled with in my youth, something which I sometimes find myself struggling with today. Those of us who were products of accelerated academic programs, who fell under the auspicious acronmym AP (for Advanced Placement) often felt removed from our peers and masked our underlying feelings of inferiority as erudite superiority. It is a defence mechanism many of us used when young,and sometimes continue to use as a means we tell ourselves of making us feel better about who we are. The students in TSH, even the sympathetic narrator Richard Papen, exemplify these ideas and the impulses these feelings cause them to act out are shown as having the direst of moral consequences to which they as a group and individually must answer for. The pleasures of intellectual stimulation coupled with the psychological underpinings of the deed done and how it is played out give TSH its literary resonance. In addition the book provides a builti in mystery of its own--namely the literary future, or if there is to be one, of its author, Donna Tartt. Upon a first reading nearly ten years ago, I embraced TSH and Donna Tartt as a voice I wanted to hear more of--a voice which has been noticeably and mysteriously silent, which has only served to build up the legend, and rumors of an impending second novel sometime next year. This remains to be seen but TSH continues to remain a book I turn to time and again for its exploration of moral arrogance and the destruction such attitudes can incur.
15 out of 16 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 8, 2008
Richard Papen grew up in Plano, CA; a small silicon village in the north. An only child, he was extremely unhappy there¿his father ran a gas station, and his mother had to join the work force to make ends meet. After high school, Richard went to a small college in his hometown¿against his parents wishes¿and studied ancient Greek on his way to a pre-med curriculum. <BR/><BR/>He excelled in Greek, not so in biology and science classes. One night during a long Thanksgiving Holiday, he finds in his room a brochure from Hampden College, Hampden, Vermont, established in 1895.<BR/><BR/>For the hell of it he applies and is accepted after getting a huge package of financial aid. <BR/><BR/>So he gets on a bus and arrives in Vermont. <BR/><BR/>As he tries to pursue his Greek studies, he encountered a roadblock¿the Greek professor: Julian Morrow, who only takes a few students.<BR/><BR/>He out of curiosity decided to find and study these particular students. Two of the boys wore glasses, curiously enough the same kind: tiny, old fashioned, with round steel rims. The larger of the two, well over six feet, was dark haired, wore English suits and carried an umbrella¿unusual for Hampden¿his name was Henry Winter. The smaller of the two, was a sloppy blond boy, rosy cheeked and gum chewing. He was Bunny Corcoran¿short for Edmund¿and he wore the same jacket everyday and had a voice that was loud and honking.<BR/><BR/>The third boy was the most exotic of them all. Angular and elegant, precariously thin, with nervous hands and a shrewd albino face with a short fiery mop reddish hair. Francis Abernathy was his name.<BR/><BR/>The last two turned to be twins¿they looked much alike, with heavy dark blond hair and epicene faces as clear, as cheerful and grave, as a couple of Flemish Angels. Their names were Charles and Camilla Macaulay.<BR/><BR/>Richard, overhearing an assignment by the group in the library, is able to solve a Greek problem, so he is invited to join the group.<BR/><BR/>As it turns out, Julian Morrow is, like Aristotle, a complete education teacher. Richard is forced to quit all his classes, except French and Julian will teach him all of his curriculum for the year.<BR/><BR/>The book is short on plot¿as a matter of fact, the plot is given away in the two page introduction. The group kills Bunny Corcoran.<BR/><BR/>But what it lacks in plot, is overwhelmed by character development. Donna Tartt is able to get inside these people¿s heads to a point where we feel we are there with them. We know what they do, what they think, why they drink; what they like and dislike about each one of them¿and how they interact as a group, which will explain why they did what they did.<BR/><BR/>These are confessions, years afterwards of a young man who found at a small Vermont college the life of privilege and intellect he¿d long coveted¿and rarely has the glorious experience of youth infatuated with knowledge and with itself so achingly realized. <BR/><BR/>Hugely ambitious and compulsive readable, this is a chronicle of deception and complicity, of Dionysian abandon, of innocence corrupted by self love and moral arrogance; and finally this is a story of guilt and responsibility.<BR/><BR/>A great read for those who love to explore the human psyche.
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Posted October 12, 2004
THE SECRET HISTORY is that rarity published in recent years, a mainstream novel that deals with murder but not the usual ho-hum mystery formula. I was drawn into Richard Papen's slide into the small clique of classics students majoring in Greek, improbably taking no other courses but French in a small Vermont private college. Never fitting in other settings, Richard seems a perfect fit here, though his blue-collar background contrasts to the wealthy background of the other five. The coin is fluency in Greek, and the group considers themselves set apart by their intellectual superiority. Though one member is far from an intellectual, and his position becomes increasingly precarious after a mysterious killing of a local farmer prods him to blackmail and snipe at the others he is sure killed the man. Richard is the observer, who becomes an accessory to murder, under the spell of the group's leader, who is determined to conceal their crimes at all costs. Mesmerized by the leader's rationalization that the first killing was an accident--or was it?-- Richard goes along with the plan for a second murder, drifting with the others from the first in a haze of constant heavy drinking combined with drugs taken as a matter of course. While college students --at least some of them--certainly did drugs in the Eighties and probably still do, every character major or minor in the book is stoned and recklessly drunk on top of that. No one dies of this, a miracle; and such bright students in the Greek major seem to be drunk or on their way much of the time--not terribly intellectual, though bright people often drink to excess at times. Not even Richard can work up actual horror at news of the first killing, or resistance to the plan to cover up by killing the second victim, chiefly because said victim's needling gets more and more annoying. Yet this reader, usually repelled by conscienceless characters, was unable to put the book down, wanting to know if they will get away with it, wanting to know what Richard--who hasn't actually committed either murder--will do in the end or if he will end up in prison for his complicity in abetting and concealing the crimes. The alarmingly plausible leader's essential evil is slowly and skillfully revealed by the author, who turned out a literate and vivid work of prose in THE SECRET HISTORY. The end had one small flaw, hard to understand the leader's action in the climax. It didn't seem in character. But the book was haunting and involving, and I'll look for more of Donna Tartt's work.
7 out of 12 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 31, 2002
Posted December 8, 2011
I read it 3 years ago and im back looking it up hoping to find some clues to another, similar book. I have found some people seem to not like it and that baffles me. Great mystery, suspense. I was genuinely sad it was finished when it was over.
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Posted October 12, 2013
A really tense mystery; well-defined characters. You want to reach out and implore them to stop. Intelligence and narcissism and exclusivity and wealth and bored youth are a dangerous mix.
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Posted December 29, 2011
Sex, Murder, and Mystery, rich spoiled college kids take life for granted and ends up screwing it all up. Everyone has had that loathing at some point when you just wish that reality will slap someone in the face that really deserved it. Well here's your chance! Donna Tartt shows us the lives of Henry, Francis, Richard, Charles, Camilla, and Bunny and with such finesse describes the life in a Vermont college for these spoiled snobs. But wait...the characters tend to come to life thanks to Tartt's writing and we really hope that things work out for them in the end, but part of us just wants to drop an anvil on their heads! The descriptions that Tartt provides are incredible to say the least and the period of winter helplessness that Richard experiences chills you to the bone. "This was, I should say, about the third week in January. The thermometer was droping; my life, which before had been only solitary and miserable, became unbearable. Every day, in a daze, I walked to and from work, sometimes during weather that was ten or twenty below, sometimes during storms so heavy that all I could see was white, and the only way I made it home at all was by keeping close to the guard rail on the side if the road. Once home, I wrapped myself in my dirty blankets and fell on the floor like a dead man. All my moments were not consumed with efforts to escape the cold were absorbed with morbid Poe-like fancies. One night, in a dream, I saw my own corpse, hair stiff with ice and eyes wide open." I actually had to dress warmer while reading his experience in a cold dark apartment. Throughout the book you know Richard will witness some shocking discovery of what is really happening, and thanks to Tartt again this isn't just dropped on us suddenly. She rather slowly reveals each secret such subtleness that it builds to the climax in a way that you feel for these characters even though they are such selfish snobs. This is one of my favorite reads this year and will reside on my shelf for years to come.
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Posted August 3, 2012
The Secret History is an enigmatic blend of psychological thrills, an astoundingly complex, but realistic plot, and a rich vocabulary not often found in this day and age, wrapped in the wonder of Greek poetry and language. Upon my arrival of Julian's study room, I was instantly transported into a world shrouded in mystery. One characterized by dimly-lit lamps and persian rugs. By whispered betrayals behind callous-free hands and the eloquent discussions of one well-versed in the philosophies of the ancient world. Reading Tartt's work of literature was a quite enjoyable experience as she merged a world long gone with the one presently existing. She showed us beauty by kissing death. Showed us horror through fascination. She took all the elements of loathing, passion, revenge, morality, enlightenment, and unthinkable acts and mixed them around and around until you can no longer discern one from the other. Until you see that beauty and terror are one and the same. Not only does Tartt expertley portray this, but she does so with her uncanny ability to bring her characters to life, so that they might walk off the page at any given moment. If I was to summarize the plot right at this very moment, you would wonder at the sanity of the characters. However, should you read this literature in its entirety, you should find yourself just as confused and scared as the murderers themselves. I should like to reiterate one last time the beauty of the language used. I feel that much of our language today has been greatly reduced and watered down from, say, Shakespeare's age. A time when the crafting of words was regarded as an art form. With this novel, I believe Tartt was able to recapture some of that beauty that so many of our more recent novels have been missing. I truly loved this novel and find it completley worthy of the accolades it has recieved. This is not a light read, but if you're willing to endure a few late nights and a few hours lost sleep, I promise this is a book you won't want to put down.
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Posted April 25, 2012
This book had such buzz, frankly I thought it was just awful.
Not one character did I like, the story was dull, the writing was stifling.
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Posted November 9, 2011
Donna Tartt is a very gifted story teller. This book will amuse you, shock you, stimey you, and anger you. A real page turner. I highly reccommend it.
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Posted March 1, 2014
It is true that youve been ignored for like ever but ive always been fond of you and i think that you shouldnt be ignored i promise that i wont ignore you again and im sorry if you feel ignored by other cats its their loss
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Posted April 4, 2014
Another--and her first--thrilling story you cannot put down! And yes, a lot of ingredients are similar: an immature young man with incompetent parents, interesting bad friends, a distinguished older mentor, lots of drugs, love, betrayal, suspense, tragedy, unthinkable actions...
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Posted September 12, 2009
This complex novel is slow-moving at times, but it is very rewarding. If you like this book, check out Carol Goodman's Lake of Dead Languages. Follow me on twitter!
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Posted July 18, 2014
I had high hopes for this book going into it, and wasn't disappointed. The storytelling was lush (I didn't even mind it being 800 pages), the descriptive passages stellar. Some of my friends were not happy with the book: there wasn't enough character growth to warrant the commitment. However, for me, I kept expecting it to get darker and bleaker at every turn, and was relieved to find it wasn't worse than what it was. Very absorbing read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 16, 2014
This is a stunning work of a literary novel. I devoured this book in just two days. The characters in the book a rightfully endearing, very entertaining, that will have you swept away in the pages in no time. The professor is a delightful secretive person, who shares little with his students he seems to harbor for his own accord and doing. Donna Tartt, writes with such charisma and grace, she should be on every bookshelf in the world.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 9, 2014
A work that is the slowest moving piece of literature, that I have slogged through. Others may relish the relish the overly descriptive passages, but I found that it covered up the poor plot development. The author created a confused sense of time and place. Quite frankly, it is a disgusting story about disgusting people. About 75 pages into this drivel, I wished every character ceased to exist.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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