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November 1, 2014

“The Secret History”

by Anne Paddock

It is easy to see things in retrospect. but I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees ….

While J.D. Salinger revealed the tortured soul of a teenager in an exclusive private school in Catcher in the Rye, it is Donna Tartt who opens our eyes to young adulthood when she takes the reader into the underworld of a small liberal arts college in The Secret History. Published in 1992, 41 years after Catcher in the Rye, The Secret History tells the story of six young adults at a liberal arts college (the fictional Hampden College in Vermont  – not unlike the college Tartt attended: Bennington College in Vermont):

The Secret History by Donna TarttRichard Papen, a 20-year old junior who transferred to Hampden College after studying Ancient Greek at a local college in California, where he grew up. A bright but naive young man who is able to attend Hampden because of a scholarship.

Henry Winters, an eccentric tall and secretive student who lives off a trust fund. Fascinated with what Plato calls telestic madness, Dionysus (who is also known as Bacchus in Greek history) and the lives of his friends, Henry is the leader of the group.

Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, the 24-year old son of a Clemson football player turned banker and interior decorator. One of five sons in a family who presents the image of success but is without funds. Entitled, erratic, and a tortured soul who has no qualms about getting what he wants from those who are able to provide.

Francis Abernathy, a wealthy student who was raised by his grandparents after his 17-year old mother engaged in a quick romance with a drummer from a transient rock band. There are only two things Francis is sure of: his sexuality (he is gay) and his love of the good life.

Charles and Camilla Macaulay, genetically blessed twins who were orphaned after their parents were killed in a car crash and subsequently raised by their grandmother and great aunts in Virginia. Unusually close and secretive, the twins incite awe, curiosity, and admiration in others.

Narrated by 28-year old Richard, the story begins with a brief explanation of Bunny’s death seven years prior, an act which Richard is partially responsible for. Recounting the days and months leading up to his involvement, Richard attributes his role in the murder to a number of bad decisions including his intent to study Ancient Greek with Julian Morrow, the only teacher in this field who requires students to fully commit to his curriculum by eschewing all other teachers at the school. Although Julian limits his class to five students (Henry, Bunny, Francis, Charles and Camilla), Richard does not give up. He is completely taken with these five students who ironically seem like Greek Gods walking around campus:

….different as they all were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world: they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks….I envied them, and found them attractive; moreover this strange quality, far from being natural, gave every indication of having been intensely cultivated.

Richard wants what they have, to be one of them and so he cunningly uses his knowledge of Ancient Greek to maneuver into the group.  An outsider, Richard nonetheless gains a seat but remains an outlier despite his daily interactions with the group, lamenting:

I am never able to blend myself in entirely and remain in some respects quite distinct from my surroundings, in the same way that a green chameleon remains a distinct entity from the green leaf upon which it sits, no matter how perfectly it has approximated the subtleties of the particular shade.

But looking back, he also realizes the group was fully and tightly formed before he came on the scene which naturally resulted in his exclusion from certain activities. Information was withheld and in retrospect, he realizes he was played like a fool at times which unfolds as the story progresses and the reader learns why Bunny was murdered by the group in the Spring of their junior year.

At the core of the story is the group’s unfailing curiosity, faith, and intrigue with the study of Ancient Greek. For those who have studied Greek, history or mythology, the similarities between the characters and the Greek Gods are of endless interest (is it Henry that most resembles Hades or is it Julian? And, what about Zeus and Hera/Charles and Camilla?) while providing depth to a story that would otherwise deprive the reader from thinking long and hard about the complicated characters, their strengths, weaknesses, and motivations.

The author duly notes that “all truly civilized people – the ancients no less than us – have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self.” We are no different than those who have gone before us and it is this inescapable truth that the young seek to understand and emulate. But, it is only through aging and the maturation process that we learn

The more cultivated a person is, the more intelligent, the more repressed, then the more he needs some method of channeling the primitive impulses he’s worked so hard to subdue. Otherwise those powerful old forces will mass and strengthen until they are violent enough to break free, more violent for the delay, often strong enough to sweep the will away entirely.

In young adulthood, these skills have not always been harnessed or mastered which leads to an unfortunate truth:

We are little black sheep who have gone astray……Baa baa baa.

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