The Secret History

The Secret History

by Donna Tartt


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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her most recent novel, The Goldfinch, established herself as a major talent with The Secret History, which has become a contemporary classic.

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400031702
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/13/2004
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 17,141
Product dimensions: 5.15(w) x 7.95(h) x 0.98(d)

About the Author

Donna Tartt won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her most recent Novel. The Goldfinch Her novelsl The Secret History and The Little Friend were also international bestsellers. She was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and is a graduate of Bennington College.

Date of Birth:

December 23, 1963

Place of Birth:

Greenwood, Mississippi


Attended University of Mississippi; B.A., Bennington College, 1986

Read an Excerpt


Excerpted from "The Secret History"
by .
Copyright © 2004 Donna Tartt.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

The Secret History succeeds magnificently. . . . A remarkably powerful novel [and] a ferociously well-paced entertainment. . . . Forceful, cerebral, and impeccably controlled.” —The New York Times

“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

Reading Group Guide

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 attracted 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 everyone’s character?

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 devoid of 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 has done?

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 secret?

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” (p. 86)?

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 Julian?

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?

Customer Reviews

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The Secret History 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 193 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
capiam1234 More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"The illogic of it frightened them and they did everything they could to crush it. In fact, I think the reason they took such drastic steps was because they were not only frightened but also terribly attracted to it." Donna Tartt, The Secret History This is absolutely one of the most addictive and honest works I've read. The students in this novel dance along the edge of monomania; they serve as an escape from rational life and engross attention in their idiosyncrasy. There is no room for critique of Tartt's carefully constructed novel. If you are searching for your favorite modern piece, The Secret History will not disappoint.
BrianTX More than 1 year ago
I first heard about this book from an article written by J.K. Rowling in The University of Exeter’s magazine Pegasus in which she described The Secret History as “an undeniable page-turner.” I now find myself inclined to agree with her. Sometimes later I read a free sample on my Nook and wasn’t very impressed – the university setting in which the story takes place seemed really unbelievable and kind of cheesy. After a recommendation from friend, however, I continued to read the whole thing and found that it was one of the most entertaining books I had ever read. It’s no masterwork of literature, but it’s definitely worth the read. It’s exciting; the characters are so well crafted that it’ll be very hard for any reader not to get attached to them. I purchased the Nook book and it was formatted very nicely without any problems.
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
“…people never seemed to notice at first how big Henry was. Maybe it was because of his clothes, which were like one of those lame but curiously impenetrable disguises from a comic book (why does no one ever see that ‘bookish’ Clark Kent, without his glasses, is Superman?). Or maybe it was a question of his making people see. He had the far more remarkable talent of making himself invisible – in a room, in a car, a virtual ability to dematerialise at will – and perhaps this gift was only the converse of that one: the sudden concentration of his wandering molecules rendering his shadowy form solid, all at once, a metamorphosis startling the viewer.” The Secret History is the first novel by American author, Donna Tartt. At the age of nineteen, Richard Papen goes to Hampden College in Vermont, primarily to get away from his parents and his depressingly boring hometown of Plano, CA. Having done two years of study in Ancient Greek, he jumps at the opportunity to join an exclusive class of five students studying The Classics under the very selective Julian Morrow. Richard is somewhat dazzled by his fellow students: Henry Winter, dark-suited, stiff, aloof and extremely intelligent; Francis Abernathy, angular and elegant; the beautiful twins, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, and Bunny Corcoran, loud and cheery. Never does he dream that within a few months, one of their number will be dead. At the centre of this book, both figuratively and literally, is a murder. The narrative is split into two: what led up to the murder, and the aftermath. The story is told by Richard some nine years after he went to Vermont. Tartt advances her story at a slow and careful pace; her characters, flawed and not necessarily appealing, develop as Richard gets to know them; her descriptive prose expertly evokes the atmosphere of the New England college. So naturally do events lead into one another that the reader occasionally needs to step back and think: this is murder they are so matter-of-factly discussing. Black humour relieves the tension: the twins, upbraided for their failure to plan a meal, retort “Well, if you wake up intending to murder someone at two o’clock, you hardly think what you’re going to feed the corpse for dinner”. As well as giving the reader plenty to think about (the value of life, self-preservation, friendship any loyalty), there is a plot with a few interesting turns and a quite unexpected climax. Tartt combines the story-telling talent of Stephen King with prose worthy of Wallace Stegner: the result is a compelling read that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.
RedNib More than 1 year ago
Few months ago I have come across a book by the same author titled "The Goldfinch". I couldn't put it down and was left with a thirst to experience that kind of immersion once more. I researched the author and out of the two remaining books decided to read this one. My thirst was certainly quenched. I couldn't put the book down; I tried to slow down and absorb the beautiful language and vivid descriptions but the plot kept on sweeping me away. The characters, their unexpected development, naked honesty of the central character, the path the story weaved through my mind-all were unforgettable. I am still mulling over the thoughts this book provoked, the emotions it aroused in me, the ideas about human nature I was forced to explore. All the while the book was set in such a bucolic scene that I longed for the quite unhurried world of literary academia; wished for the kind of inspirational stimulus that the teacher/mentor provided these characters. Only to discover in the end that how we see people and our interactions with them and each other is simply a hall of mirrors with reflections seen influenced by what we want and not want to see; and not at all by the true nature of whatever is standing in front of that mirror. This would be a great book to explore at the book club.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
500 pages of mixed up writing and characters that I could not connect with and didn't care about. Don't listen to good reviews. Worst book I ever read. Writing is just awful!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book because "The Finch" was so very good. The "Secret History" goes no where. I read 150 pages and the characters were dull and the story went nowhere. A waste of time and money. I can't even force myself to spend anymore time on it. A total waste.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Aiea More than 1 year ago
Slow going, almost gave up on it. Read it because of a review of the sequel that interested me but now not sure about trying to read that.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I resented spending time with these insufferable self absorbed miscreants
emily_reads More than 1 year ago
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!
abirdman on LibraryThing 2 days ago
This was, deservedly, a best seller. It's kind of a mystery thriller, with interesting characters. Amazingly successful for a first novel. I was impressed when I realized the author still remembered her Classics homework assignments from college. Much better than the author's later work.
OhSnap on LibraryThing 2 days ago
"Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever."I heard about this book when it was listed in one my favourite magazine's top books of all time; so I had big expectations of it before I even managed to get hold of a copy!It was completely involving. At over 600 pages long, you really do get to know the characters all intimately and I could picture every aspect of the story vividly in my mind. The plot was gripping and the characters fascinating. Every time I picked the book up I would become fully immersed in the story - even if I only meant to read it for five minutes or so.Having said that, there were one or two points in the middle of the story where I did find it slightly tedious and wished the author had just 'hurried up' a bit but the rest of the story more than makes up for this.I would recommend this but only to people who are serious about their reading. You need commitment as this isn't just a book you can drift in and out of occasionally. However, If you DO have the time then definately get yourself a copy of this. You won't regret it.
feralchicken on LibraryThing 2 days ago
I found this book difficult to read; I could not empathise with the characters and it was a real struggle to get through the story.
ishtahar on LibraryThing 2 days ago
Probably my favourite book in the world. I have lost count of how many times I have read it, but the first time was back in 1992 when it first came out when I fell in love with it on first read. It is the story of five Classics students at an east coast American college, all five of them rather eccentric in their own ways, studying ancient Greek with a teacher they all but worship and thinking themselves rather better than anyone else. They experiment to create the atmosphere of an ancient Bacchanall or Dionysian frenzy and when successful, disaster strikes (I won't go into the plot anymore for anyone who hasn't read it and should and those who have already know).When I first read this I was one of six Classics students at an East Anglian college, all of us rather eccentric in our own ways, studying ancient Greek with a teacher we all but worshipped and thought ourselves (naively and unpleasantly) rather better than anyone else (although quite what David Boyle was doing in that group is beyond me). We never went as far as to have a frenzy it has to be said, Dionysian or otherwise, but that's the reason it hit home first time round.Each read has been completely different. It was years before I read it a second time, slightly wary that, once older and wiser it wouldn't mean as much to me, but it always has. It is partly the subject matter, and my own (many) years as a Classics scholar, but mostly the electrifying writing, the style of which I have never come across before or since (and certainly not in Tartt's good but not that good second novel The Little Friend) and the way you never know, even when you are sure you are aware of all the minutiae of the plot, where the story is going to take you, or where, this time round, your sympathies will lie.And no matter how many times I read it I'm always surprised by the way it ends.My only criticism (and in my mind this isn't a criticism anyway) is that a basic knowledge of Greek myth and philosophy, although not required, does help, especially in the first two chapters. But don't give up after two chapters thinking "Pah, this is all Greek to me". Keep going, you will never regret it!
gerrymcdonald on LibraryThing 2 days ago
One of my very favourite novels in any genre. Quite stunning in any case, but the fact that it is a debut novel makes it's brilliance even more remarkable. I have read it three times, and I know I will read it again at some future date.
moosechutney on LibraryThing 2 days ago
This is one of the most compelling books I've read for years. Everyone in my book group loved it. The writing is lyrical and the story is excellent. It's so visual. I was completely engrossed from the get go. I didn't want it to end.
LibraryLou on LibraryThing 2 days ago
I read this at university, it was recommended by a friend. It is a strange book, compelling yet horrifying at times.
ehines on LibraryThing 2 days ago
Depiction of prestigious-liberal-arts-college life is laughable, characters are generally pretty thin, just not so very good.